If you’ve ever watched TV or gone to the movies, you know Adam Goldberg.
He was Chandler’s neurotic roommate on Friends and the hitman Mr. Numbers on Fargo. You’ve seen him in A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, and Zodiac. Currently he’s starring as the title character’s best friend Dave in The Jim Gaffigan Show.
But chances are you haven’s seen him like you will now. Goldberg stars in the new Netflix movie, Rebirth which debuts on Friday, July 15. Part dark comedy, part satire, part horror, Rebirth features a very different Goldberg. As the unhinged cult leader Zack, he has a unique way of getting people, like his old college buddy Kyle (Fran Kranz), to follow him. The movie will disturb you and make you laugh.
Paste recently caught up with Goldberg to talk Rebirth, his long and varied career, and what it was like working on Fargo.
Paste Magazine: Your role in Rebirth seems really different than what I’ve seen you do in the past. How did you get involved in the project?
Adam Goldberg: I actually auditioned for it and just statistically speaking most of what you’ve seen me in I didn’t audition for. And the things I do audition for I rarely get. In this case, it didn’t come as an offer, and I understood why. The filmmaker hadn’t seen me do anything quite like this, which was certainly part of the impetus for me wanting to do it. I definitely was intrigued by the idea of playing this kind of antagonistic character who is a bit of a mystery. I was really just taken by the script.
Paste: I’d read that you have always had an interest in cults?
Goldberg:The human psyche is really fragile and it’s always that fragility that I’ve been really in touch with. I’m certainly someone who’s been incredibly introspective and aware of the tenuous nature of my psychology and anybody’s psychology for that matter.
I’ve always been really really intrigued by the Jim Jones stuff. These kids who thought they were creating a utopia and it turned into the worst kind of imaginable hell. It’s a very haunting story. I like mysteries. I like film noirs. There are these elements that are kind of mysterious. Like at the ending of Rebirth, there’s almost a Russian doll element which is something appeals to me.
Paste: I also read that your in-laws were in a cult when they were younger?
Goldberg: Yes. Long before I had known Michael and Sally, I was interested in this stuff. But it was of interest to me that they lived in these commune-like environments in the late 60s and 70s. We did take [writer/director] Karl [Mueller] out to dinner after a rehearsal that we had just so he could hear their interesting experiences.
Paste: Were they able to give you any insight into the world?
Goldberg: Not really. They were never brainwashed or anything. They’re just like, ‘Oh yeah we’re pretty sure that was a cult.’ They’re super smart, self-aware, together kind of people. They were just on these quests that took them all through India, the Middle East and here. They’re spiritual seekers.
Paste: How do you approach a character like Zack?
Goldberg: I think what’s sort of tricky with a thing like this is I’m not in it from head to toe. So you kind of have to make it have this internal logic for yourself where the script doesn’t necessarily provide that for you. You’re not given the backstory on the guy. You’re not watching as he creates this cult. I’m not necessarily given all the pieces of the puzzle. To me it was less about how to play this guy, because I have aspects of my personality which can be very domineering and manipulative and conniving.
Paste: At the same time Rebirth is coming out, you’re also starring in The Jim Gaffigan Show, which is back for a second season on TV Land. These are two very different projects. But when I think about all the things you’ve been in over the years, from Friends to Fargo, your career is so eclectic. What do you think has allowed you to have so many different roles in such disparate genres?
Goldberg: There are a lot of different answers to that question. The most basic one is I don’t have that much control over my career. That’s just the most honest answer. It’s not like I’m sitting here cherry picking stuff. Along the same lines, I’m a character actor. I can think of a lot of guys like Stephen Tobolowsky for example. I’ve seen him play a horrible racist guy and I’ve seen him play a nerdy accountant guy. I’d like to think that we have a certain amount of versatility and maybe that’s born out of the fact that we’re not going to be conventional leading men so, if nothing else, you’re sort of forced to find a way to manipulate what it is that you do have. When I was a kid I used to be very serious in plays and then write these really stupid pieces that I would act in.
Paste: I want to talk to you about playing Mr. Numbers on the first season of Fargo.
Goldberg: That was just a straight up offer. Every once in a while there’s a guy like [creator/executive producer] Noah [Hawley] who sees something in me that maybe even I don’t necessarily see. For The Unusuals, which is the show I did with Noah in 2009, he offered me Harold Perrineau’s role as the neurotic cop. I said, ‘That’s a cool role, but I think people expect me to play that role. I like the other guy who is his partner, who’s trying to kill himself because he’s been diagnosed with a brain tumor.’ He said okay, and that was it.
Paste: And you learned sign language to play Mr. Numbers?
Goldberg: It was really tough because I was directing this film of mine [No Way Jose] and acting in nearly every scene. As soon as we wrapped on a Sunday, I had to be on a plane to Calgary on a Wednesday, and acting in Fargo on a Thursday. The first scene I filmed is where you see us for the first time and I’m doing quite a bit of sign language.
I thought, ‘Holy shit this is a lot of responsibility. This is a real serious show. This is a real serious part, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to the deaf community or anyone who is fluent in ASL.’ I had this wonderful woman Catherine MacKinnon who was my ASL coach. Noah was really cool. He said, ‘Just get through that first scene. Just learn what you need to learn for that first scene.’
Paste: When you were filming Fargo did you have any idea how well your character would be received?
Goldberg: Kind of yes, and kind of no. Not because we’re so great but I thought they were cool characters. I had never been on a show that had any cult-like kind of following. It was kind of interesting and cool to kind of see how engaged viewers can be in this Internet age. It definitely inspires people’s imagination in a way I hadn’t experienced. That’s one of my favorite roles ever, for sure.
Paste: Did you watch the second season of Fargo?
Goldberg: We watched the first episode. But we have a 19 month old and we just can’t seem to keep up with anything. We want to watch it. I’m sure we’ll get around to it eventually.
Paste: But you know that Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench make an appearance in the second season?
Goldberg: No, I didn’t know that.
Paste: Wait. I’m spoiling it for you?
Goldberg: It’s fine. Tell me, because it will be forever until I can watch it.
Paste: We see Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers as children.
Goldberg: I figured Noah would do that. It’s so painfully obvious that he would want to show those guys as little kids. That would be hilarious. I’m also glad because that actually provides some insight to our characters post facto. We sort of assumed we grew up together. I’m glad that it’s official we’ve grown up together. I’m happy to know that. I can’t believe nobody mentioned that to me.
Paste: I can’t either! What’s next for you?
Goldberg: Right before I left for the Gaffigan show I began my fourth record [under the moniker The Goldberg Sisters]. I recorded all the instrumental stuff which I do in my garage and I’m finishing up the vocal stuff. I’m kind of planning on doing it as a big kind of vinyl art project which includes some of my photography, rather than it being a sort of CD thing that gets streamed.
Paste: You, of course, also have the same name as the other Adam Goldberg, who created the ABC show The Goldbergs. Is there less confusion, now that the show is entering its fourth season?
Goldberg: People are probably a little less confused because it has been on awhile but I still get all sorts of tweets and comments on my Facebook and my Instagram, or wherever else people can freely communicate their adulation or antipathy for the show. They think that it’s based on my life because of the kid’s name.
Paste: You could do a TV show about that!
Goldberg: [Laughs] I thought about something about a guy who took 25 years to carve out a niche for himself, and the rug gets swept out from under him. I could go on, but I’d be giving away what this concept is.
Paste: I’ve had the experience of being confused with another person who has my name, and it’s odd. I can’t imagine it happening multiple times a day.
Goldberg: I’ll tell you a bit of interesting trivia. I was going to change my name right before Dazed and Confused came out, but I waited too long. I’m sure it was by design, because I couldn’t commit to changing my name. But they had already burned the titles of the film, and that was that.
But one of the names I had was “Stark,” basically because I was a huge Rebel Without a Cause fan and the character’s name is Jim Stark. So I was thinking about Adam Stark. Then, some friends told me there was an actor named Adam Storke [Mystic Pizza] and it might get confusing. I didn’t know where my career was going and I didn’t know where his career was going, so why make things more confusing that they needed to be? It’s just funny because it would be easier if I had done that.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal ®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and a regular contributor to Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.