Jeff Goldblum Had An Interesting Perspective On His Life Aquatic Character

Back in 2004, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" was my first introduction to the wondrous filmmaking of Wes Anderson. A "Moby Dick"-style revenge tale inspired by the life of Jacques Cousteau, "The Life Aquatic" was as thrilling to me as it was poignant. It wasn't long before I watched as many Wes Anderson films as I could lay my hands on.

"The Life Aquatic" tells the story of washed-up oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who sets off on what will likely be his final voyage to find and kill the mysterious sea creature which previously ate his best friend. It's a whimsical tour de force with off-kilter visuals, some truly unique needle drops, and an almost magical use of stop motion that transforms the mundane into the magnificent. But perhaps most impressive of all are its delightfully eccentric characters.

Steve Zissou is the most obvious with his revenge obsession, "gay little earring," and obsession with red caps and speedos. But there are plenty of other weird and wonderful characters throughout the movie. Owen Wilson is superbly understated as Steve's maybe-son, Ned, while the ensemble cast is littered with little gems. Pelé the Brazilian guitarist, playing background David Bowie songs, is just the tip of the iceberg.

However, one of the most interesting has to be Alistair Hennessey.

Played by Jeff Goldblum, Hennessey is Zissou's opposite in many ways. He's successful, suave, and still holds the attention of Zissou's wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Most importantly, he may come off as a real dick, but he's not as bad as Zissou wants you to believe. And even Goldblum himself feels the character is more redeemable than you might think.

'I'm so pissed, I want to spit!'

Our first introduction to Alistair Hennessey comes after the debut of Zissou's new film, "The Life Aquatic: Adventure No. 12 – The Jaguar Shark (Part One)." The documentary, shot during Zissou's latest adventure, depicts his encounter with the Jaguar Shark – a previously unknown species that also happened to eat his best friend. Hennessey is, of course, instantly skeptical.

"Hey Steven, how's everything going with your... what are you calling it... Leopard Fish? Jaguar Shark! Exactly! I love it. Tell me something, does it actually exist?" Hennessey asks Zissou. 

The rivalry between the two researchers is obvious, not only from Hennessey's discouraging remarks but from Zissou's despondent sighs. There's history there, and in "The Life Aquatic" Anderson paints a picture of a pretentious, martini-swilling cad. Goldblum thinks he's more complicated than that. In an interview, the actor told MovieWeb:

"Well, you know, different people will have different ideas. The brilliance of Wes Anderson is that his characters are complicated."

It's true that Hennessey is often portrayed as a pompous elitist and a harsh one at that. During one particularly cringe-inducing scene, he rolls up a newspaper, hitting it in the face while telling it to be still.

"I did hit the dog," confessed Goldblum. "There's nothing friendly about that."

Most irritating of all, when Zissou is in need of rescue, Hennessey is sure to get a dig in. "I can tow you as far as Port-au-Patois. I'll need your signature on that invoice, first. It accounts for the expenses of the rescue operation as well as my time and that of my crew."

This rivalry is deeply embedded in their relationship, with a constant emotional tug of war going on behind the scenes. But it's not all Hennessey's fault...

'Don't be nice to Ali, he's my nemesis'

Since "The Life Aquatic" is very much seen through Zissou's eyes, we're inclined to side with our disheveled, self-obsessed hero more than most. But we know he's unreliable, and a martyr unto himself ... so perhaps we shouldn't be quite so quick to judge Hennessey. After all, he's more of a rival than a nemesis.

"We shouldn't be swayed too much by Bill's character, and the nasty remarks he makes to me: 'This guy's an a**hole, this guy's my nemesis' and so on," Goldblum said. "He's threatened by me. I'm doing so well and he's struggling, and I have this soulful connection with his wife and all that."

Despite Hennessey's obvious idiosyncrasies, perhaps he really isn't all that bad. Sure, he takes every opportunity to twist the knife when it comes to Zissou, but Stevesy doesn't exactly make himself easy to like. And there might even be an element of jealousy, too. Here's what Goldblum had to say about the characters' dynamic.

"The way I look at it is, I think Hennessey's a serious student of science and exploring and adventuring, and certainly has this special sort of style now. I think that's fun and interesting and the way I think I'm passionate, like Bill's character was early on about the sea, and about discovery, and about the mystery and majesty and miracle of ocean life, and then at this point where we see me now, because Bill at this point is threatened by me and my success, he's kind of struggling."

The relationship between Zissou and Hennessey draws a nice comparison between them — they're two sides of the same coin, even if neither of them really wants to admit it. And let's face it, should we really be fighting in Zissou's corner?

'Obviously people are going to think I'm a showboat'

Throughout "The Life Aquatic" we're forced to face an awful truth — it's often best not to meet your heroes. Both Ned (Owen Wilson) and Jane (Cate Blanchett) were childhood fans of Zissou, writing to him with childlike optimism and hanging his posters on their walls. But it turns out that Steve Zissou isn't the man he once was ... or ever was.

"Maybe it's just me but I don't feel like that person," he tells Jane. "I never did."

The truth is far more complicated. He's a deeply broken man, narcissistic and shallow, with a penchant for younger women despite his marriage to Eleanor. Everything about Zissou tells a tragic tale of a man who believes his own mythology ... and can't face the fact that he's just a man. But it's more than that — he can be a complete and utter d**k, too.

"Should we really be rooting for Zissou, who doesn't even know his interns' names, and he hits them on his wounds and stuff?" asked Goldblum, continuing:

"I kind of get to be on guard around him because he can be not nice, and I can't accept that so much. At the same time, he's not really a threat to me, so I can be a little bemused. I liked that."

Essentially, Zissou is the antihero in every way. He's a washed-up has-been taking his last throw of the dice on what could possibly be the world's most expensive wild goose chase. And it's all in the name of vanity. At least, that's how it looks. Taking his crew through unprotected waters and putting their lives at risk is the last straw for some of them. But Hennessey is instrumental in his redemption.

'Steven, are you rescuing me?'

In the third act of the film, Zissou's chance encounter with the pirates of Ping Island sets him on the course to redemption. They're actually there for bond company stooge, Bill (Bud Cort), but Hennessey doesn't know that. Assuming that Zissou is there to rescue him, Hennessey is grateful, despite finding out that it was Zissou who pillaged his research base and stole all his expensive equipment. After all, he may not agree with Zissou's ways, but there's a strange sort of respect there. Goldblum said of the development:

"I think that I have nothing but nice thoughts about him. I'm no villain myself. I'm a little guarded around him because he can be a little dangerous and prickly. And I won't accept any mistreatment. But finally, I feel bad for him, and sort of encourage him to do an act of goodwill, and I say that he should get back together with Eleanor."

That's right — Hennessey is key to convincing Zissou to take one on the chin and work through his problems with his wife, Eleanor.

"We were both bad husbands, weren't we?" says Hennessey. "But I had an excuse. I'm part gay."

This running joke about Hennessey's sexuality is more than that, it's also a tender moment that encourages Zissou to be a better husband while also acknowledging that they're both the same. It comes at just the right time, too, as Zissou prepares for the final act of his revenge mission – his long-awaited confrontation with the Jaguar Shark.

"And then we have a little forgiving moment like that," explained Goldblum. "And then everyone has this magical communal moment with the unspeakably beautiful fish, the Jaguar Shark."

After finally tracking down the shark that ate his friend, Zissou is given the opportunity to exact his revenge. Instead, he chooses to marvel at the shark's beauty. It's a turning point for a man who has been so obsessed with his own legend that he's allowed hubris to destroy his life and his family. But now, he chooses to simply let it go.

It's a touching moment and one that shows how far Zissou has really come. And that's, in part, down to Hennessey.