Jeff Goldblum on riding motorcycles—and feeling fear

A few moments into a new episode of “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” devoted to motorcycles, Goldblum recalls something his mother used to say about the two-wheelers: “Don’t ride a motorcycle—don’t do it—it’s a magic carpet to death, and, and, uh, misery.”

“I’ve always found them kind of unnerving, to be honest,” he adds. 

The episode in question debuts on Disney Plus today, part of a series that has the actor exploring topics like fireworks, magic, and dogs. The motorcycle episode sees Goldblum skimming lightheartedly across the surface of the subject. He touches on the diversity of the riding community, speaking to Gurinder Singh Basra, the president of Sikh Riders of America. He checks out an electric motorcycle from a startup called Tarform. He hops on a dirtbike, thanks to the tutelage of two women from Babes Ride Out. It’s more about Goldblum’s feelings on motorcycles—as well as how others feel about them—than about the vehicle itself: Don’t expect a deep dive into their history, or how they work, or to see the Jurassic Park actor gunning it down the road at breakneck speeds with a computer-generated T. rex in the side-view mirror. 

Instead, the most interesting theme is a brief investigation he conducts into the idea of the danger that this form of transportation holds. He wonders, “Are motorcycles worth the risk?” He hops on a trapeze—it’s a metaphor for facing fear—talks to a rider who lost part of his leg in a motorcycle accident, and concludes, “Well, I think, everybody’s gotta find their own way of managing being scared.” 

Popular Science caught up with Goldblum to talk about motorcycles, acting, and feeling afraid. 

Fear as an ‘ingredient for the recipe of aliveness’

When it comes to living, or acting, Goldblum reflects that fear “isn’t something that you necessarily have to resist.”

Sure, it’s wise not to be “testing death at every moment,” he says. But when stepping out of your comfort zone, or doing creative work, it makes sense not to push the fear away. “This isn’t like brushing your teeth—there might be some nerves about this thing, or some fear about this thing, and it’s part of it—it can be a good ingredient for the recipe of aliveness.”

For high-stakes, important tasks—like riding on the Space Shuttle, he muses—fear is a reminder of the need to focus and be “very prepared,” Goldblum says. “It gives you some energy.” 

[Related: I rode an electric motorcycle for the first time. Here’s what I learned.]

With motorcycles specifically, Goldblum notes that he looked into their safety statistics. “It’s a riskier way of getting around than some other forms,” he says. 

It is indeed. More than 5,000 people died on motorcycles in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a figure that represents 14 percent of all traffic deaths. Roughly the same number of people died on motorcycles in 2018. A starker statistic is to compare the death rate on motorcycles per 100 million vehicle miles traveled compared to the same metric for passenger cars: it was almost 29 times as high in 2019. 

Goldblum spends very little time actually on a two-wheeler in the episode, briefly trying out a dirt bike and also catching a lift on the back of a motorcycle piloted by a rider named Porsche Taylor. And to be sure, he says he felt like he was in good hands with the production team. “They assured me I’d be personally, probably, ok,” he says. “I wasn’t too scared.” In short: don’t expect the actor to be pulling any scary stunts. That’s not the point.   

Jeff Goldblum on riding motorcycles—and feeling fear
A scene from the episode. National Geographic

Man on a wire

Goldblum steers the conversation down a more interesting road when he reflects on life beyond motorcycles. “You’re gonna be afraid, especially if you do things that are probably worthwhile—falling in love, or finally facing your mortality, or all sorts of things that have risk in them; having kids, or whatever it is,” he says. “You’ve got to go, ‘Hey, fear is part of this, and let’s see how that can be useful, how I can make it my ally, and use it as part of my energy.’”

Fear exists for a reason, says Dianne L. Chambless, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her focus has been on treating and understanding anxiety disorders, and she notes that when it comes to “classic phobias that people have, they all have a sound evolutionary basis.”

“It is really quite sensible to be afraid of heights, so that we don’t walk off a cliff,” she continues. “It’s sensible to be scared of snakes, because many of them are poisonous. It’s sensible to be scared of the rejection of your group, because humans are inherently social animals.” 

“A lot of fears are there to protect us,” she says. “They’re meant to be a warning sign, and the problem is if that warning alarm is going off a lot of the time when it needn’t be.” Scared of motorcycles? Maybe that’s because you know they’re dangerous, and perhaps a safety class would be wise. Are you so scared that you can’t leave your house? That’s different. 

In fact, there’s a type of sweet spot when it comes to feeling anxiety, she notes, saying that the concept takes the form of an inverted U-shape. “Optimum performance is really somewhere there in the middle, when anxiety is moderate,” she says. “The people who were too anxious have difficulty performing a task, and people who weren’t anxious at all aren’t motivated enough, and [are] sloppy.” 

In short, the fear shows that you’re taking something seriously: Too much fear, and a person is paralyzed. Too little, and a person does a bad job. She recalls a friend who was too relaxed about giving a lecture: “He was so casual about it that he was terrible, because he didn’t really prepare, he just rambled.” 

“We need that little spurt of anxiety of wanting to do our best,” she says. 

It’s an idea that squares with what Goldblum says he learned about his occupation. “My acting teacher, Sandy Meisner, said that he wished that acting—getting on the stage—was like tightroping walking, because then nobody who was not qualified to do it would dare to do it,” he adds. “It’s not immediately evident that it requires a kind of masterfulness, if you’re really going to do it at a high level; and you should know that like tightroping walking, you’ve got to really be prepared.” 

He says he loves the film Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit, who literally tightroped between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. “Talk about scary—I’m scared just watching that thing,” he says. “He got into a zone, and of course prepared his whole life to do that.” 

As for motorcycles and doing that episode, he looks back and says he enjoyed the community he met. “It’s a way to commune with other people from all different stripes, [and] that is a wonderful and nourishing kind of thing,” he says. “I feel like I’m part of the motorcycle family myself now, so I would happily engage in some sort of safe, and prepared, and jolly riding around.” 

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