|AMONG the things you expect to see on the set of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”: interrogation rooms, firearms, shifty-eyed suspects. Among the things you probably don’t expect to see: a baby grand piano. Among the things you definitely don’t expect to see: Jeff Goldblum improvising a jazz tune on that baby grand piano.|
Yet there he was on a recent Friday afternoon at the Chelsea Piers studios, where “Criminal Intent” is produced, his sinewy, 6-foot-4 frame parked behind the keyboard of a Steinway as he tickled his way through a Gershwinesque composition. The scene that Mr. Goldblum was filming called for his character, an unconventional New York police detective recently returned to the force, to lull a witness into revealing details crucial to a murder investigation.
That his musical skills could actually have this effect on people, Mr. Goldblum later admitted, was “a little bit of poetic license, a leap and a conceit.” But, he added, “I’m supposed to be brilliant, so it’s O.K.”
Here Mr. Goldblum was referring to his role as Detective Zack Nichols, who joins the ranks of “Criminal Intent” on April 26, following the show’s return to the USA Network on Sunday. But as any time spent in his company reveals, this actor is also operating on a different plane of existence from the rest of us. Mr. Goldblum, 56, is an animated performer even when the cameras aren’t rolling. In conversation his wild, wide-armed gesticulations are as much a part of his vocabulary as the words he chooses, reconsiders and then chooses again; his sentences can have as many jams, twists and course corrections as a rush-hour ride on the Q train.
He is excitable enough when talking about his gym routine or the Ric Burns documentary “New York,” even more so when he is discussing roles that he connects to, and Mr. Goldblum evidently feels a very, very strong kinship to his “Law & Order” character.
From his dressing room suite, furnished with a Yamaha synthesizer and a fake Mark Rothko painting, Mr. Goldblum explained that he and his character “coincide because he is trying to get at the truth of what happened, and the truth of what makes human beings tick.”
Like an actor, a detective must sometimes conceal his authentic self from the people whose confidence he seeks.
“The person who really does this job,” he said, “would be going, without alerting them — without alerting them; so interesting: ‘You can trust me. I’m not going to alert you that you’re a suspect.’ ”
As Mr. Goldblum sees it, a detective, like an actor, must be perpetually inquisitive and a constant conduit of information. “You need to know,” he said methodically, “or be interested in as you watch him: What’s. He. Thinking?”
Audiences have probably asked themselves that same question about Mr. Goldblum, whose best-known film performances — a coterie of cracked geniuses in “The Fly,” “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day” — can make one wonder how much of those characters’ twitchy, cerebral detachment he truly possesses. (The answer: a lot.)
It was this essential quality that Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of the “Law & Order” franchise, wanted from the actor when he cast him to replace Chris Noth, the “Law & Order” veteran who left the series last year.
As Mr. Wolf recalled in a telephone interview, when he met with Mr. Goldblum to offer him the part, he said, “I’m hiring you to be you, because it has to be like the oldest, most comfortable leather jacket in your closet. If you walk onto a set and think, ‘What would my character do?,’ we’re not writing the right character.”
None of this has discouraged Mr. Goldblum from questioning every aspect of his performance on the show, from how he should enter a room to how he should speak a banal line like “I’m afraid we have more bad news for you, Mrs. Dunbar.” (Not for nothing does he refer to his “Law & Order” role as “my current experiment.”) Julianne Nicholson, who plays Mr. Goldblum’s partner, Detective Megan Wheeler, said, “I always see him talking to the writers, talking to the director, talking to our on-set detective, talking to the other actors in the scene.”
If good acting is the art of listening, Ms. Nicholson said, “I think I’ve got the listening down.”
A certain amount of second-guessing has always been a part of Mr. Goldblum’s life. He could easily have become a professional musician and was talking his way into piano-playing gigs at cocktail lounges in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, before he graduated from high school.
Instead, at 17 he came to New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, under the tutelage of the legendary Sanford Meisner, who instructed Mr. Goldblum to find his own voice and never copy anyone. (“Nothing revolutionary,” Mr. Goldblum said, “but I think it made an impression on me.”) Stage roles quickly led to small parts in the films “Death Wish” and “Nashville” and a feature career that’s lasted three decades and counting.
Though he starred in some of the highest-grossing movies of the 1990s, in this decade Mr. Goldblum has taken on more eclectic and obscure work, sometimes smaller roles that still allowed him to make his mark: a smug aristocrat in “Igby Goes Down,” a circus performer who survives the Holocaust in “Adam Resurrected.” In 2005 he played a police investigator in the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s “Pillowman,” and in 2007 he starred in a short-lived NBC series, “Raines,” about an eccentric police detective. (“It wasn’t all that dissimilar from aspects of this part,” Mr. Goldblum said, sotto voce.)The consistent quirkiness Mr. Goldblum exhibits in his performances, Mr. Wolf said, made him an ideal complement to Vincent D’Onofrio, the “Criminal Intent” star who will continue to play the idiosyncratic Detective Robert Goren in alternating weeks of the show. “If Goren is Wikipedia, Nichols is the DSM-IV,” Mr. Wolf said. “If Vincent is omniscient in terms of facts, Jeff is omniscient psychologically.”
Mr. Wolf added that, as the most character-driven series of the “Law & Order” franchise, “Criminal Intent” requires character actors. “I think Jeff would certainly identify himself as a character actor rather than a leading man,” he said.
But Mr. Goldblum resisted any such attempts to categorize himself. “The less labeling I can do of myself, I find, I have a better, more effective time,” he said.
If it seems a step down to go from Steven Spielberg blockbusters to a television police procedural, Mr. Goldblum said he never expects much consistency from one project to the next. In his profession, he said, it is perilous to assume that a certain size or type of role will always come along, or that a certain approach to one’s roles will always work — to find oneself thinking, as he said: “Now I’ll turn that solution into a policy. Now that’s how I’ll skin all the cats.”
Within every actor, Mr. Goldblum said, is a guiding voice that, like a child or a puppy, cannot be told what to do and must be allowed to play. “If you go: ‘Play now. Play hard. Play quick,’ ” he said, snapping his fingers frantically, “your inner actor will go, ‘No, I’m no longer interested.’ ”
The rigors of a weekly television series would seem to frustrate this philosophy. But Mr. Goldblum said he was enjoying “Law & Order” (“it’s a ducky job, just awfully peachy”) because it was forcing him to make quick decisions — quicker than he is used to — while teaching him that he can learn to live with the consequences.
“My state-of-the-art thinking about it,” he said, “is to just do as much as I can without becoming hysterical in a way that’s going to undermine the whole thing.”