Adam Goldberg — A chat with the actor, musician, photographer and director
It’s easy to define a person by the one thing they do well. Take Adam Goldberg, best known to the public as the actor in famous TV shows like Friends and movies like Dazed and Confused.
Yet, in his new project HOME: A Nice Place to Visit the multi-faceted creative shows he’s got much more up his sleeve: he’s not only an actor, but also a musician, photographer and director. Erin Spens went to meet Adam to unravel all these different personas.
It’s a Thursday night in the Culver City Arts District in Los Angeles. People of all sorts are spilling out of a small gallery at the tail-end of rush-hour, beanies on heads, beers in hands, expensive cameras slung cross-body like fashion accessories.
In the middle of the gallery stands a fidgety Adam Goldberg. Yes, that Adam Goldberg: Chandler’s crazy roommate Eddie on Friends and neurotic nerd Mike in Dazed and Confused.
But also not that Adam Goldberg - the one who’s here tonight evades any typecasting. Surrounded by the work he’s spent the last two-and-a-bit years of his life creating, this Adam Goldberg is an actor, a director, a photographer and a musician—all at once. And it makes him a little uncomfortable.
HOME: A Nice Place to Visit marks the first time all those Adams line up. It is his fourth album and the third he’s made under the name The Goldberg Sisters , a collaboration with his mythical twin sister and alter ego “Celeste.” On it they (Adam) sing and play every musical instrument apart from the trumpet and violin.
“I’m a dad, husband, lifelong worrier. Not necessarily in that order.”
Accompanying the 14-track album is a beautiful large-format photo book - the images of which are displayed in the gallery alongside looping videos both starring and directed by Adam. There’s a listening station in the corner where you can hear the album all the way through.
There are so many dots to connect between the work itself and Adam who says the process of putting on this “quadfurcated” exhibition nearly killed him. It’s like compartmentalization has been a form of self-preservation and now that all the Adams are lining up and bringing a complete person into focus, things are getting a little weird.
Two days earlier I arrived at Adam’s place. His four-year-old son Bud greeted me at the door, then ran laps around the house. His wife, Roxanne Daner, who designed Adam’s book while pregnant and working full-time, held their newborn – six weeks old and perfect – in her arms. Adam made tea and talked me through the quirks of the mid-century house and the stress of his exhibition. Life is full.
Adam Goldberg by his own definition is “an actor by trade but I make other stuff—take pictures, record music, make movies. I’m a dad, husband, lifelong worrier. Not necessarily in that order.”
But what’s behind all this creative energy that seems to push and tug and pull at the guy? It seems like you’ve got to get to know all the different Adams before anything actually makes sense.
Adam Goldberg grew up in Los Angeles. His parents divorced when he was young. He remembers putting on little plays for his dad when he’d come pick him up on the weekends.
He’s been obsessed with entertainment and movies for as long as he can remember, and one of those memories is watching Rocky and thinking that he wanted to make that movie, but also be a boxer. A dilemma from the start, this curiosity about everything. Although it was acting that came to him first.
He’d had a few small parts when he landed the role of Mike in Dazed and Confused, but it was Mike that put him on the map (I know you remember: “I wanna dance!”). Two decades and roles in some of the biggest movies and TV shows of our generation, Adam found himself on a TV show earlier this year in a lead role with ten pages a day of technical lines.
“I’m rarely afforded the opportunity to express myself the way I imagined I would.”
“I bought fucking highlighters. I haven't ever used a highlighter, ever. Highlighters, fucking line-reading app. I was like, I'm not going to get through this! You couldn't bluff, I can bluff a lot of shit, but this was all technical, there was no way to do it. You had to go out there, and you had to fucking know what you were saying. And then I would do it. I don’t know. It’s just a skill I possess.”
But though it’s a skillset he’s proud to have, he isn’t completely fulfilled by it anymore. The cathartic quality of acting comes less and less these days, as well as the emotional and creative expression he gets from it. What’s left is the exercise acting gives his brain to stay mentally limber.
“In other words I’m rarely afforded the opportunity to express myself the way I imagined I would. Or I simply grew out of that being the main mode by which I express myself.”
As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles watching basically every film ever made, Adam mapped out his future and it included making a movie a year. After getting a start in acting and landing the role of Mike in Dazed and Confused, it only took three years for Adam to write, direct and star in his first feature film Scotch and Milk. It’s about a man suffering from writer’s block and a broken heart, slowly losing himself in cigarettes, alcohol and Downtown Los Angeles.
“It’s this film that I think is really quite beautiful with tons of jazz in it, but we could never get the clearance for the jazz, it's the bane of my existence and has in many ways colored my experience . It took me several years to recover from that.”
After a ton more acting, Adam made the psychological drama I Love Your Work in 2005 about an actor (Giovanni Ribisi) whose life goes south and he forms an obsession with a young film student.
It got picked up at the Toronto Film Festival and had some excitement behind it, but there were all kinds of problems with the distribution and the ownership of the movie: double-representation and a bunch of things you’re not supposed to do. Essentially the business side was a clusterfuck and Adam’s already bruised faith in the film industry took a royal beating.
Then there was No Way Jose in 2015, about a nearly-40-year-old indie-rocker (whose main gigs are kids’ birthday parties) going through a midlife crisis.
Adam is quick to point out that making a movie is “a horribly stressful, anxiety-inducing venture” but that it’s also the most fulfilling for him. In many ways it’s about all those Adams lining up again: the writer, the director, the star (and even sometimes the musician) all at once. He’s needed in every aspect, at every turn.
“I’m more realistic about the feasibility of making and distributing movies now,” he admits, “and the ability to collaborate with so many others in a congenial and productive way, and perhaps I’m less faithful in my ability to express what I’m feeling without getting in my own way.
“Perhaps I’m less faithful in my ability to express what I’m feeling without getting in my own way.”
“I don’t watch as many films, not by a mile, as I did in my teens and twenties and thirties. I’m much more cynical about them as an audience member and as filmmaker. But it’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s just super hard and I’ve had to compartmentalize the passion.”
Adam says it’s his filmmaking that has been most influenced by becoming a dad. “Well, it influences what I’m not making. Because filmmaking is the most grueling of all the disciplines, it’s the first one to get left out. I don’t know how people temper their passions and creative desires with the need in them to be a good family person. I mean, this is not a news story, but it's a news story to me. It’s a lot,” Adam says.
“I mean, after having Bud... I don't like loving something this much. I think this was always an issue for me. And as a parent, you're put in a position where you don't have any choice in the matter.”
Adam can’t remember the exact moment he fell in love with music, but he remembers singing himself to sleep at night as a kid. Music has always kind of been there and he’s been making music for just about as long as he’s been acting.
Now 48, out of all of his artistic endeavors, he finds music to be the most viscerally pleasurable both to listen to and to make.
“I've always had a really hard time disciplining myself as a writer and a much less-hard time saying, I'm going to go spend two months in a garage,” Adam says. That’s where he writes and records his music.
“I’ve always had a really hard time disciplining myself as a writer.”
“I can express an idea, a feeling – something ineffable – by layering sounds. Many of my songs were born out of lost, unrequited, conflicted love things. But the last few years they’re more expressions of a certain reflective mood. Moody moods. The original title of Home: A Nice Place to Visit was Mood Swing.”
The album is lush and layered and complicated. An exploration, perhaps, into what home is – internally and externally – and why it’s both appealing and repulsive at the same time. Why we need it and also need to leave it.
“I can’t find a place to land all my fears/ Every time I try and purge them through a song/ They rear up and they remind me that I’m doing it wrong.” – Dear Mr. Nilsson, Track 02 off Home: A Nice Place to Visit.
Cyril Connolly once said “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Adam Goldberg’s house is full of the stuff of kids, but he seems propelled by it, not restrained. Creating because of them, not in spite of.
Looking through Adam’s book, HOME: A Nice Place to Visit, everything about it has a strong sense of home. His wife Roxanne Danner is in most of the photographs, and Bud, his first son, is in one of them too. It’s like Adam is equally inspired and fascinated by them.
The photos feel more exploring than documenting. They’re dreamy with lots of double exposures that make the most of that warm Los Angeles light. All shot on instant film, they’re soft and filtered and timeless.
“Either posed or spontaneous and voyeuristic. I like the backs of heads.”
“I like the way people interact with various landscapes, in nature or urban settings. I like to superimpose them against those landscapes or create a scene from which people can draw their own interpretations. Either posed or spontaneous and voyeuristic. I like the backs of heads.”
Adam most enjoys the focus he needs to take pictures. “Photography is the most immediate and gratifying way of making art and it’s fairly self-contained,” he says. “I can rely on myself and only myself, at least in the taking of the picture. It’s non-verbal. I really like that. I’m so goddamn verbal.”
The book and exhibition harkens back to the days when Adam would tape his Polaroid photos into journals. Like diary entries, but a little more tactile and wide-eyed. Adam says he’s always attached meaning to physical things. An entire wall of his home office is covered in cameras and lenses, most of them old, some of them rare.
Little feet thunder above us; upstairs Bud is still running laps around the house. Adam pauses to take it in and then keeps talking. Listening back to the audio of the interview I can hear his feet running through the whole thing.
Bud is in the last photo of the book, he’s in the lyrics of The Goldberg Sisters’ last song, and you can hear his voice on the track too. He’s kind of everywhere. Just the way someone you love a little too much, a little more than you’re comfortable with, would be.