A strange charm surrounds Adam Goldberg, the quirky character actor from Dazed and Confused and Entourage who jumps into every role with neuroses cranked full blast. The 38-year-old part-time musician stole a few moments to chat between filming scenes for The Unusuals, the new ABC police drama that debuts April 8.. “I’m in the rain, on the phone, in a suit, and smoking. I’m multitasking. It’s one of those days,” he said.
Goldberg’s typical roles—neurotic Jew and even more neurotic Jew—suit him as well as a dangling cigarette and the purposely low profile he maintains. Sitcom fans still recognize him as Chandler’s kooky short-term roommate, Eddie, whose pet was a floating Goldfish cracker in a fishbowl, and he was most recently in the chatty indie flick 2 Days in Paris with one-time girlfriend Julie Delpy.
“Twitter is the marriage of full-tilt narcissism and full-tilt voyeurism that has finally collided in 140 words,” Goldberg said.
With a helping of NYPD Blue’s gritty atmosphere and shades of M*A*S*H’s wry sensibility, Goldberg’s his new vehicle, The Unusuals, provides some much-needed levity in an otherwise dreary TV season. That is, if a brain tumor can still double as a fluffy storyline. As gun-fumbling Eric Delahoy, Goldberg’s cop character is plagued with the illness that makes him eager to get killed in the line of duty. Good thing it’s one of those TV tumors that come equipped with a Very Important Lesson. “It sets him off on a mini-existential journey. He’s kind of closed-off and keeps to himself, and we began to see his veneer crack as the cases go along. They began to get to him in these eerily reflective ways, and bring out issues about his own mortality,” says Goldberg. It’s surprisingly heady material for a procedural show that tries to buck routine storylines and clichéd dialogue.
He shares the precinct with Amber Tamblyn, the doe-eyed ingénue best known for chatting up God in her titular role on Joan of Arcadia. It doesn’t faze Goldberg to be two degrees away from a higher power. “On the intimidation scale, Amber is below Chris Walken. When I worked with him in The Prophecy he was playing an evil angel named Gabriel, and that was probably worse—plus I was barely natal at the time.” The rest of the rag-tag group of cops are equally nutty, including his partner, played by Harold Perrineau, formerly of Lost’s time-shifting island. “It’s one of the nicest groups of people I’ve ever worked with, and probably the most laid-back. I’m the least laid-back, actually,” says Goldberg. They make a rather curious group running around the subterranean city, which, although set in the present day, looks like a grimy, ‘70s-style New York and was part of what drew him to the show. “It has dark humor and a sprawling, Altman-esque quality to it, where things can be heavy and emotional one second and completely absurd the next, in an almost Joseph Heller-esque way.”
In real life, he’s a fast-talker suited to the sprawling metropolis—even though in his eyes New York is “basically just this postcard on the other side of the river.” Because he lives and works in Brooklyn, he says, “I have this totally different experience, which is far more quiet, insulated—some might say hermetic.” Blaming his immersion on work, he says, “I rarely leave the apartment, so all my information comes to me under the door in the form of menus.”
His relatively private persona extends online, where it’s unlikely you’ll find him tweeting about running out of cigarettes or having writer’s block. Goldberg prefers to play it old school. “I’m on text. I text people.” On the subject of Twitter, which has drawn Ashton Kutcher, Rainn Wilson, and others like moths to an immediately gratifying flame, Goldberg is a skeptic. “It’s this desperate need to be heard, and this desperate need by others to live vicariously though people who desperately need to be heard. It’s the marriage of full-tilt narcissism and full-tilt voyeurism that has finally collided in 140 words.”
An aversion toward the public eye typically extends to his personal life, although he was unusually open when asked how strange it was to see headlines about ex-girlfriend and actress Christina Ricci’s recent engagement to comedian Owen Benjamin. Although he’s never commented on their relationship (they dated from 2003-2006) he said, “Everybody I know has pretty much gotten engaged, married, divorced, or pregnant in the last year. I don’t really follow these things except that somebody told me on the set [the other day], so I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ If you go out with somebody who’s a public figure, you bought your ticket, you knew what you were getting into.”
Richard Linklater’s film Dazed and Confused, the love letter to laissez-faire high-school students, launched his career in 1992. Now some say the recession-era classes of 2009 might devolve back into an “anything goes” attitude. “Everyone I know feels completely on edge and totally in flux. In a weird way, I guess the rest of the country now has to see what it’s like to be a freelance person, which is not an altogether unpleasant feeling. It’s going to eventually trickle down to Hollywood, which, in the past, has seemed relatively impervious.”
Even though he had turns on the sideline in Saving Private Ryan and A Beautiful Mind, and played the first Jewish action hero in The Hebrew Hammer, Goldberg remains slightly pessimistic and willing to jump through hoops for each of his carefully chosen projects. “Every year is like starting from scratch, and nerve-wracking and you never know what’s going to happen,” he says of the uncertainty in the business. “I prefer it to having things be ridiculously regimented, but at the same time it’s completely terrifying.”
Still, he manages to stay busy. For years he’s been toiling away on two all-consuming projects—one script, he says, is a film based on a true story, a “sort of epic thing,” but he remains mum on details. The other is his splash into the music world six years in the making, an 18-song moody labor of love called Eros and Omissions released under the name LANDy, which drops June 23. Just don’t compare his self-described “bizarre lateral career move” to Joaquin Phoenix’s head-scratching venture. “I’m assuming his is some sort of brilliant piece of conceptual art. I obviously hope he’s kidding, but in either case it’s pretty fantastic. If he’s making fun, he’s actually making fun of guys like me, who I’m sure everybody else will take a crack at, too.”
Despite being “totally absorbed in [his] own self-reflective world,” he does take occasional breaks to indulge in one unexpected guilty pleasure: America’s Next Top Model. He says, simply, “Sometimes I need to take a break from the Fellini and the Bergman.”
Multi-faceted and self-deprecating—there’s a good chance Goldberg will manage just fine in this brave new world of little privacy and constant communication. And when I joked and told him I was tweeting his every word he replied, “Twitter away, my dear.” Guess the unusual actor’s not so shy with details after all.
Kara Cutruzzula is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.