In the movie -- which makes its Los Angeles premiere at the AFI Film Festival and is adapted from Yoram Kaniuk's controversial 1969 novel -- Goldblum portrays a German circus clown who survives the Holocaust by entertaining his concentration camp's commandant: specifically by pretending to be a dog and even sharing a pen with the officer's German shepherd. The fictional Adam Stein also proves useful by serenading Jews on his violin as they march to the gas chambers.
After the war, the character is suave and sexually voracious (albeit with a sadistic streak), but eventually suffers a mental breakdown. He begins to heal only when he bonds with an abused boy in a rehabilitation hospital in Israel.
While the film has received mixed reviews, critics have so far praised Goldblum for what many are calling a "tour de force" performance.
Director Paul Schrader has said that Goldblum was the only actor he ever had in mind for the role, due to the performer's ability to simultaneously radiate vulnerability and a cavalier, almost glib charm. Goldblum has demonstrated these qualities in the roles that have made him iconic in the popular culture: a genius who morphs into an insect in David Cronenberg's "The Fly"; a geeky Jewish cable guy who saves the world in "Independence Day"; and a mathematician with the charisma of a rock star in "Jurassic Park."
Although he has not made a blockbuster since the 1990s, Goldblum said he has been content with his smaller film and theater roles, recently earning stellar reviews for his turn in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" in London. (He will replace Chris Noth in USA's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," starting on Nov. 8.) "What's the word from the Passover seder? Dayenu -- if nothing else happened it would be enough," he said.
Then, several years ago, the script of "Adam Resurrected" arrived at his Hollywood Hills home. "I was quickly, entirely, wildly mesmerized," he recalled of his first reading. "The character is so complicated and contradictory, full of towering grief and rage and poetry and majesty. And the story, of course, is moving and provocative and disturbing."
Goldblum read and reread Kanuik'stream-of-consciousness novel -- which was among the first to depict the Holocaust and its aftermath with biting sarcasm -- with some trepidation. "The Holocaust is delicate, hallowed ground, so, yes, I felt nervous about the subject matter and was aware of some of the pitfalls," he said, stammering and pausing in his idiosyncratic way. "A lifetime is not enough to really understand or know the events, so I spent a year immersing myself in the era."
Goldblum visited the Museum of Tolerance, spent a month in Germany to perfect his character's accent and interviewed survivors in Berlin and in Los Angeles at Café Europa, a support group at the Westside Jewish Community Center. At 6 feet 4 inches, he towered over the elderly Jews with whom he talked and danced at a Purim party. He visited the concentration camp Majdanek, where he peered into the gas chamber, and he spoke frequently to author Kaniuk, who laughed when the actor said he was taking violin lessons for the role.
"He said I had better learn to bark like a dog," Goldblum recalled. The actor promptly emitted "yips and yaps" into the receiver -- but he took the author's advice seriously, going so far as to meet with Cesar Milan, of "The Dog Whisperer," and to "spend time with German shepherds."
Lest one think this was overkill, he pointed out that his character loses virtually everything in the Holocaust -- not only his family and his circus, but also his very humanity. "Paul [Schrader] describes the film as a story about a man who was once a dog, who meets a dog who was once a boy," Goldblum said.
The 55-year-old actor is as renowned among directors for his background research as he is for his quirky, awkward but charming repartee. He spoke to The Journal from his "Law & Order" dressing room in Manhattan, where he was studying a new script on his day off. When Goldblum made "The Fly," he reportedly caught a fly in a bag in order to observe its habits.
Goldblum said he received only a "smattering" of Holocaust education while growing up the son of a physician in suburban Philadelphia. He attended an Orthodox synagogue, where he became bar mitzvah, and went on to pursue Transcendental Meditation and other Eastern pursuits. Goldblum said he lost no relatives in the Holocaust, although an uncle he closely resembles was a pilot who was shot down and killed in World War II. The actor, too, has experienced his share of losses, including the deaths of his father (in 1983) and a brother, Rick, who succumbed to a virus contracted in North Africa when Jeff was 19.
By that time, Goldberg had been performing piano professionally for five years, finagling gigs by telephoning numbers listed under "cocktail lounges" in the directory. He studied acting with the legendary Sanford Meisner and landed the role of a rapist in 1974's "Death Wish."
"The Big Chill" proved to be his big break in 1983.
But "Adam Resurrected," so far, has proved to be his biggest challenge as an actor. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum was impressed when he met with Goldblum to talk about survivors and the Nazi era. "It was quite stunning how seriously he prepared," Berenbaum said. "He wanted to get the feel and tension of the character and to enter his inner world. And he read every book I gave him, from Eli Wiesel's, "The Town Beyond the Wall," which deals with how a man used his madness to heal from existential despair, to Victor Frankel's ideas about the aftermath of the Holocaust -- that for some, liberation came much later than the physical liberation."
"I also remember him down on his hands and knees as a dog -- Jeff Goldblum in his Hollywood Hills home as a g-ddamn dog. He had lost a lot of weight for the movie, and I was struck by how tall and thin he was."
"I wanted to get as much a feel for the real thing as I could," Goldblum explained. "I just hope I was worthy enough for the role."
For information about the AFI festival, which runs Oct. 30-Nov. 9, visit www.afi.com.