There are few things quite as excruciating as watching a perfectly talented actor decide that what he really wants to be is a rock star. Even if they actually know how to play an instrument or can sing on key, the end result is almost always embarrassing. Every once in a while somebody like Zooey Deschanel defies our expectations, but they tend to be anomalies. As for the rest, well… anybody remember when Billy Bob Thornton and Joaquin Phoenix were making great movies instead of making public asses of themselves? Yeah, those were good times. And they have only their musical ambitions to blame.
So I was understandably distraught to hear that Adam Goldberg, one of my favorite indie actors, was releasing an album this summer. My first reaction was somewhere in the ballpark of “No, no, no, no, please, please, please, Adam, don’t do this! Oh god, oh god, I can’t look! Is he seriously—? Aw no, no, no, no, no, no!” It didn’t help that he gave himself the cringingly pretentious moniker LANDy (dig that funky capitalization, man!), or that he called his debut album Eros and Omissions, which is only punny if you think Freud was the king of zingers. It seemed like the man who once stole our hearts with movies like Dazed and Confused, Saving Private Ryan and The Hebrew Hammer was all but daring us to roll our collective eyes at him. But then the album came out and the music was… well, not terrible. It had a certain lush, moody John Lennon vibe to it. Not for everybody, sure, but also not the sort of musical exercise that makes it impossible to enjoy his films ever again without muttering, “Hey, remember when Adam Goldberg didn’t suck?”
I called Goldberg to talk about his latest film, (Untitled)—opening almost everywhere next weekend—in which he plays… wait for it… an unappreciated musician. Although my inner journalist was compelled to force a deeper connection, the ironic similarities between Goldberg’s life and his fictional counterpart ends there. As it turns out, the character he plays in (Untitled) is unappreciated for a reason, mostly having to do with his fondness for atonal clattering. Goldberg’s musical tastes aren’t quite so abrasive or indignantly anti-mainstream. Also, he tends to overuse the phrase “quote, unquote” during interviews, which for some reason I found endlessly charming.
Eric Spitznagel: (Untitled) is essentially about the outsider art scene in New York. Given that one of the biggest blockbusters of the year was based on a Hasbro toy, is your little art-house movie in trouble?
Adam Goldberg: (Laughs.) Probably, yeah. But when you do small movies like this, you do it with the understanding that it’s unlikely they’ll ever be released. I’m just thrilled that it was picked up at all. I don’t care where it plays or in how many theaters. I just think it’s miraculous that it’s going to come out in an actual movie theater. That just seems so novel to me.
It probably won’t play in South Carolina, unless it’s re-titled something like Bunch of New York Faggots Doin’ Faggoty Things.
(Laughs.) Right, right, right. Exactly. All I care about is that the people who are supposed to see it, the people who will really respond to this kind of material, get a chance to see it. That’s the main thing. You just want to make sure that the right audience gets to it.
You rarely see an artist, particularly an underground artist, portrayed in the movies as level-headed or emotionally mature. They’re usually batshit crazy and haunted by personal demons. Is that because this is one of those cultural clichés that just so happens to be true?
Well, it’s a cliché for a reason. People who identify themselves as artists, or aspire to be artists, are usually at the very least needy and at the most quite troubled. I think you can make that generalization. There is that prerequisite tortured soul which seems to be somewhat necessary in order to create “real art.”
Does that apply to you as well? Would you describe your soul as tortured?
My girlfriend and I talk about this all the time. She’s a graphic designer and she’s amazingly talented, but she’s not in any way tortured. On the other hand, I’m far less intrinsically adept in the various things that I attempt to do, and I’m totally tortured. (Laughs.) Many years ago, my shrink used to think that I was holding on to my pathos so that I could draw on it as an actor. But as time went on, I began to realize that I’m far less pretentious than either one of us thought. I have this pathos, sure, and it does provide me with a wealth of emotions to draw on. But I would happily exorcise it all if I could.
In what ways are you tortured?
Oh, you know, the usual. (Laughs.) I can remember as a kid, grappling with the big issues, at least in my limited three-year-old or five-year-old capacity to do so.
What sort of big issues?
Mortality and that sort of thing.
Really? (Laughs.) There aren’t a lot of five-year-old boys brooding about the grim inevitability of death.
(Laughs.) I guess not, no. It reminds me of that great line from Hannah and Her Sisters, after Woody Allen finds out that he might have a brain tumor. He’s talking to Julie Kavner about how happy he was before he got the bad news, and she says, “You weren’t happy, you were miserable.” And he says, “No, no, I was happy, I just didn’t realize I was happy.” That’s kinda how it was for me.
So you were basically a prepubescent, pre-brain tumor Woody Allen?
Pretty much, yeah. And as I got older, there were periods in my twenties when I was just miserable. But I had this feeling that it was all a big phase. I thought that I would get to 30 and everything would just magically sort itself out. Of course you eventually realize that’s not the case, and you just are who you are. As much as you think you’re really confronting your shit when you’re in your teens or twenties, you’re really not.
In (Untitled), you play a composer who makes music with slide whistles, bubble-wrap, smashed wine glasses, metal buckets and various parts of an alto sax.
(Laughs.) It’s pretty fantastic.
What’s your take on outsider art? Are you a fan of the genre?
Not recently, no. I grew up going to a lot of galleries and museums with my dad, who was really into that scene. It provided me with a frame of reference, which I have to imagine influenced my aesthetics in a lot of ways. But as I got older, it just didn’t appeal to me anymore.
So you’re not the kind of guy who’d drop half a million on Piss Christ?
Yeah, no, probably not. I guess I’m kinda conservative when it comes to stuff like that. It’s funny how ideas of what’s considered mainstream in the art world have changed so much. I was watching the documentary My Kid Could Paint That not long ago, and that guy who worked at the gallery was saying how abstract expressionism has become the equivalent of figurative painting. It’s the new norm. The rebellion has become this sort of hyperrealistic Hopper-esque stuff.
There’s a lot of original art in (Untitled). My favorite was probably the child mannequins with erect penises on their heads.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that was some impressive work.
How would somebody go about buying a piece of art like that?
I have no idea. I think that if you wrote to the director (Jonathan Parker), he’d be more than happy to at least give you a price.
I’m not much of a collector, but I’d love to have something like that in my living room.
That’s an interesting idea. It’d be great if this movie somehow became a cult phenomenon and the art made for the film became valuable. You’d see pieces from the film popping up in Hiltons all over the country. It’d really bring up the question, What is art? It’s meta-meta-meta art or something.
And it’d be tremendously helpful to you as an actor. If you’re at a hotel next month and there are baby cock unicorns in the lobby, you can be pretty sure that your movie did O.K. at the box office.
(Laughs.) That’s true.
Let’s talk about LANDy, your music side-project.
You know how easy it is to make fun of the name LANDy, right?
I am, yes. I’ve been given a lot of grief for the strange capitalization. But there’s a practical explanation for that.
When you Google the name Landy, you realize that it’s one of the most oft-used idiomatic expressions out there. There’s a brand of Land Rovers called Landy, a Landy machine repair shop, a Landy children’s fairgrounds, a cognac named Landy. I started to realize that it was bizarrely common, and I thought it was a great name I’d thought up after years of playing the “what should this album be called?” drinking game. I didn’t know any of these other things existed until it was too late.
So you went semi-all caps to set yourself apart?
That’s right. I’m not even sure if I’m gonna keep the name. I might come up with something different for every record. They’re not going to sell anyway, so what the hell, who cares? I might as well enjoy myself.
You got a lot of help on your first album from The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd. Based on the little I know about the band, I want to believe that just hanging out with him is a psychedelic experience.
(Laughs.) No, not at all.
So you’ll never be in the middle of a conversation with him and all of a sudden he’ll throw confetti at you and roll away in a plastic bubble?
You’re thinking of Wayne Coyne. He’s the “psychedelic” frontman/mastermind guy. Steve is a big part of the Lips, but… it’s funny, despite the band’s reputation, I wouldn’t describe him as psychedelic at all. He’s just a very gregarious, affable guy. He doesn’t take drugs or anything like that. And somehow that label got attached to me as well, which was mostly my fault. I know that people need a frame of reference when a new record comes out, so I kept describing it as “psychedelic dream pop” or “psychedelic freak out” or stuff like that. But I’m like the least psychedelic person on the planet.
Is it true that you’re number two on Steven’s list of top 10 man crushes?
That is true, yes. I met him after a show at the Knitting Factory. I had a couple of friends who knew Steven and they’d told me, “Yeah, he really wants to meet you, blah blah blah.” I was already obsessed with the Lips, so that just made me more excited and nervous. I went to see the show, which was mind-blowing, and afterwards Steven told me that I was on his list of esteemed man-crushes.
Who else made the cut?
Well, I’m pretty sure his list is ever-changing, but at the time I remember that the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian was pretty high up there. He seems to have a proclivity towards wispy blonde elfin indie-rockers.
It’s got to be an honor to be the sole Jew dreamboat in a sea of blonde Aryan boys.
(Laughs.) Yes, I guess so. I was deeply flattered and disturbed all at once.
Who’s on your list?
Of man crushes? Oh god, it’s endless. I think most of them are dead. It’s guys like Brando, Monty Clift, James Dean. It’s more like a necrophiliac’s man-crush list.
I guess that makes it less awkward. What happens when you actually meet your man crush? Do you owe him an obligatory handjob?
Well, luckily Steven and I were always closely supervised and we kept the drinking to a minimum. Things were pretty much on the up-and-up. He’s married and has two kids. Maybe in a different time and a different place. I’ve got enough problems as it is. It’s best to keep these things casual.
Actors who dabble in music tend to get smacked around by the critics. Does that seem fair?
Yes and no. On the one hand, I can cite a billion examples during the classic era of Hollywood where everybody had to be able to do everything. I haven’t read any of the blogs from back then (laughs), but when Julie London would jump back and forth between being this fantastic torch song singer and doing episodes of Emergency, I don’t think people were like, “What the hell is she thinking?” But at the same time, I can understand the skepticism. I’m as skeptical as anybody. When my album came out, I read the radio reports—which are basically notes from the station managers—and for the most part they really liked my record, but they were struggling with the cognitive dissonance. They couldn’t get past that it was me. I never thought I was famous or identifiable enough to do that, but I get where they’re coming from. Music needs to be an almost anonymous experience. You project whatever you want onto it. Somebody could be singing about a war-torn nation but for you it’s a love song about your current relationship. When you have a preconceived notion about the person singing, it brings a different frame of reference to the music, and you’re not able to have your own experience with it.
I guess so. But the real problem I have with actors trying to be rock stars is the hubris. I love Scarlett Johansson and I love Tom Waits, but does the world need a collection of Tom Waits songs covered by Scarlett Johansson?
I get that completely. It’s easy to think something like that is just motivated by vanity. But honestly, I think everything is a vanity project. When you put yourself our there in any type of public way, isn’t it always about vanity? But it’s not like I woke up one day after shooting some gigantic Hollywood movie and went to the most expensive recording studio in town and two weeks later I was auto-tuned and this record came out.
I don’t think anybody’s complaint is that it’s too easy for you. The complaint is that there’s an assumption the rest of us should care. Just because you’ve got a few acting accolades doesn’t mean you can put out an album called “Charlize Theron Presents… the Best of Neutral Milk Hotel.”
(Laughs.) Look, I get it. But it’s also frustrating to be famous and branded as a certain thing and yet have all these other parts of you that you want to express. I’ve always felt like I’m exactly as successful as an actor as I need to be to support myself but no moreso than I’d be able to handle. Because I don’t feel like acting is the thing that identifies me. But it’s still a problem. If people know me in any way, it’s usually as an actor. But acting is really just a fraction of what I am and how I live my life on a day-to-day basis.
During your audition for Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg made a note that you were “Intense, funny, Jewish.” Are those the three adjectives you’d use to describe yourself?
Probably not, no, but I guess they’re the one that are the most cosmetically apparent. I’m perceived as a typical Jewish New Yorker, even though I’m a half-Jewish guy from LA. But hey, whatever pays the rent. (Laughs.) I’ve certainly done very little to dispel that characterization.
From Hebrew Hammer to Saving Private Ryan, you’ve played a lot of Jewish badasses. Do you feel like you’ve started a trend?
I don’t know. Has that become a thing?
Well, with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, it does seem like ass-kicking Jews are more commonplace these days.
That’s right, yeah. I guess that is kinda new. It’s funny, as much as people want to say that the Jews run Hollywood, there’s always been a bit of Jewish self-loathing and WASPy aspiration. It’s the classic example of a very “Jewish” writer-director hiring some hulky, square-jawed leading man to portray him. You know what I mean?
Jewish self-loathing may be the only way to explain Charlton Heston playing Moses in The Ten Commandments.
Yeah, yeah, that’s it exactly. And it transcends Hollywood. Our whole perception of Jesus Christ, as a culture, is just absurd. It’s hilarious to me that people still believe in Jesus as a blue-eyed hippie. (Laughs.) To me, that says so much about the myth that Jews are supposedly pulling the media strings. Let’s face it, it took Tarantino to make a movie about a group of Jewish vigilantes who went on a Nazi killing spree. It wasn’t a Jew who made that movie.
When you were a guest on Jon Favreau’s Dinner for Five, you repeatedly threatened to take off your pants whenever you got angry. Your then-girlfriend Christina Ricci admitted that this was normal behavior for you. What the hell?
It’s always good for a show-stopper. (Laughs.) Okay, here’s the thing. There was a period in my life, particularly when I’d be doing a TV series, and you’re working in this bubble for like 12 to 15 hours a day, every day for weeks on end, where you’d just completely lose your mind. I think it probably started when I was doing that show Relativity, and for whatever reason there was a lot of trouser dropping. It became a thing among my little group of friends. I don’t know why. It’s just the most stupid, arbitrary thing you could do. I can’t really justify or explain it.
After the Dinner For Five episode came out, my girlfriend read something on a blog which claimed that I was totally drug-addled. (Laughs.)
And that accusation is funny because… it would be untrue?
I wish I could attribute my childish behavior to drugs, but that’s not it at all. It’s funny to me that everybody got so upset because of how I acted on Dinner For Five. I mean, we’re all there drinking and smoking, and it’s on the IFC network or something. It’s not like I took off my pants on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
Where does that instinct come from? Have you just found that the first person to take off his pants in any argument usually wins?
Pretty much, yeah. I think that should be the rule.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com