Early in Theresa Rebeck’s comic play, “Seminar,” four aspiring writers cower in an Upper West Side New York apartment as Leonard (Jeff Goldblum), their imperious creative writing teacher, scans just one page of a short story before lambasting its author. The short story’s heroine, and by extension its author, is “an overeducated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say,” he sneers. “So she sits around and thinks about Jane Austen all the time. I don’t give a s--- about that person.”
Leonard, an embittered former literary star, has equally acidic words for the rising commercial author in the class: “You’re a whore,” he snaps.
It’s not until later in the play that viewers learn Leonard has a wounded bark beneath his bite; layers emerge to reveal his painful history, resulting in a transformation that may ultimately redeem him as well as his students.
The 59-year-old Goldblum — who has appeared on Broadway in plays such as “Speed-the-Plow,” opposite Kevin Spacey, as well as playing a gay Jewish dad on “Glee” — has been a pop culture icon since his earlier roles in “The Big Chill,” “Independence Day” and “The Fly.” He has often portrayed flawed characters who nevertheless also exude a likeable vulnerability. Leonard is perhaps his nastiest protagonist to date.
“He is indeed a prick, horribly so,” Goldblum said in a recent interview about the role he took over on Broadway when Alan Rickman left the show. Goldblum will again play Leonard in the Los Angeles production at the Ahmanson Theatre, opening Oct. 10. “I’m a raging bully and abuser, but it’s because of my own underlying problems,” Goldblum said, who so fully identifies with the character that he speaks in the first person. He does so, he said as “a kind of overcompensation, in various ways, for my personal terrors, which I lay on all these other people.”
Goldblum has studiously worked on the role ever since his Broadway turn — even performing run-throughs with his own acting students in his Hollywood Hills backyard. “I’ve been experimenting, and the mystery of what makes Leonard tick has come together, like the pieces of a puzzle,” he said in his trademark staccato repartee. “The play is about the relationship of the marketplace and the creative sensibility — the so-called artist and success, and the seeming hotbed of sex and competition and power struggle that goes on in that world. But I’ve also come to believe that the play is truly about one thing, and that is fear. It’s a seminar for all of us about fear and how you can overcome it, and have it not hold you back in delivering your creative gifts and other passions.
“All the characters in the play are uniquely beset with chronic terror, and for Leonard it has to do with a hypersensitivity to criticism and failure,” he continued. “It’s a narcissistic egotism and self-loathing that’s caused me to be wildly afraid and to self-medicate with booze and drugs, ill-advised sexual adventures and unconventional and unethical treatment of my students.”
To better understand the play, Goldblum not only grilled Rebeck and the show’s director, Sam Gold, as well as prominent acting teachers, but also reminisced about his own days as an impressionable drama student. When he arrived from his hometown of Pittsburgh to New York at age 17, Goldblum lied about his age to enroll in Sanford Meisner’s legendary drama classes, which required participants to be at least 18. Like Leonard, Goldblum recalled, Meisner ultimately proved “beneficial in a sort of scary way. His attitude was that acting is not a casual endeavor; it’s very serious and very beautiful, and there ain’t no fooling around. His classes weren’t adult education; they weren’t for the dilettante or the faint of heart, and he did sometimes redline into the realm of the curiously harsh.”
During one exercise, Meisner ordered the quaking Goldblum to turn away from the class and to sprint toward the door when he heard a pencil being placed on a table. “I was super on-edge and I thought I heard something and I rushed to the door,” Goldblum said. “And Meisner slammed his hand down on the table and yelled, ‘Schmuck!’ at the top of his lungs. I was very susceptible to his humiliating yelling, but that was the point. An actor’s senses must be hyper-sensitized, and while some of his [techniques] were excruciating, he knew this stuff was not meant to be comfortable, and I’m still benefiting from his teaching even after all these years.
“I’m a craft geek,” he explained. “I’m nothing if not conscientious.”
In fact, Goldblum is renowned among film directors for his meticulous preparation for various roles, including catching a fly in a bag in order to observe it while working on “The Fly.” For his turn as a concentration camp inmate forced to behave like a dog in Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected,” he spent “months crying and crawling around on all fours,” Goldblum said in a 2008 interview with The Journal.
Goldblum, who himself teaches acting in schools throughout Los Angeles, recently used one of his own classes as a kind of laboratory for “Seminar.” “I wasn’t nasty to the students,” he said, “but I’ve been teaching recently with an eye toward how it would impact my performance in the play.”
During one recent seminar, he instructed his students that if they weren’t willing to “go the distance,” that would “disqualify” them from pursuing an acting career. “I said, “Here’s what you should be doing, or get out,” Goldblum recalled.
When one young man said, with a so-what attitude, that he hadn’t bothered to wear the proper shoes to perform a scene, Goldblum promptly took him to task. “That’s not an actorly thing to say,” he told the young man. “If you’re not excited by the delicious, specific solutions that you can potentially come up with for a character, acting may not be for you.
“It was fun to poke at the students in a way that I thought was ultimately beneficial,” he added.
Goldblum grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue and now follows Eastern religions, and he said he sees something Jewish in Rebeck’s play. “It’s a profoundly spiritual story about the source of all creativity and the gift of being alive and right living with each other,” he said. “And if that’s not Talmudic, I don’t know what is.”
He also likens his backstage relationship with his “Seminar” co-stars to martial artists preparing to engage in a sparring match. “We bow,” he said, “and then we kick the s--- out of each other.”
For tickets and information about “Seminar,” which runs Oct. 10 through Nov. 18, visit centertheatregroup.org.