Playboy: Let's clear up a few basics--such as your name and how old you really are. You've said your age is anywhere from 30 to 36. What's the truth?
Goldberg: I'm only 31. My birthday is November 13, 1955. [Shows her driver's license] I lied about my age for a long time, because nobody would hire me to act. Everyone said I was too young. So, when I was 20, I put six years on my life. I also said I'd studied with Lee Strasberg. I'd already done a lot of acting. But, for some reason, people don't give you credit for learning anything in a short amount of time. I grew up in New York and knew stuff that people growing up other places just didn't.
Playboy: Your real name was finally reported as Caryn Johnson, but why the big mystery? Why did you choose Whoopi Goldberg in the first place?
Goldberg: The name was a fluke. A joke. It started when I was doing A Christmas Carol in San Diego. We'd sit backstage and talk about names we'd never give our children, like Pork Pie or Independence. Of course, now people are walking around with those names. A woman said to me, "If I was your mother, I would have called you Whoopi, because when you're unhappy you make a sound like a whoopee cushion. It sounds like a fart." It was like "Ha-ha-ha-ha--Whoopi!" So people actually started calling me Whoopi Cushion. After about a year, my mother said, "You won't be taken seriously if you call yourself Whoopi Cushion. So try this combination: Whoopi Goldberg."
Playboy: That simple? It wasn't an encounter with a burning bush, as you've claimed? Just your mother's idea?
Goldberg: Yes. She suggested Goldberg. She just thought it flowed better. Mothers, you know, they sit and think about shit like this. But you tell people the truth and they go, "Oh, come on. It's not interesting enough." So that's why I made up the burning-bush story. All I know is that when I tried it, the name worked. People said, "What a great name! What a great fucking name!" Except critics. In a review, one said, "Whoopi Goldberg was fantastic as Mother Courage, but that name is ridiculous." I wrote him a letter and said that a rose by any other name would still be an actor.
Playboy: So why the secrecy?
Goldberg: That was only when I was on Broadway. With the influx of magazines and television, I was thinking of my kid. I had a whole life, and I did not want people invading my home, asking questions that I was not prepared to answer at the time. I just wanted a little privacy for myself, for my kid. Couldn't even go to the P.T.A. anymore. When my real name came out in the press, it pissed me off.
Playboy: How did it slip out?
Goldberg: I did an interview with People magazine at my house, because I don't like to travel. The reporter figured it out at my home. I asked the magazine not to mention where I lived and to leave my name out. They said OK but didn't put it in writing. Next thing I knew, there it was. Now, every time I'm in People, they make it a point to write my real name. Now all the magazines do. Every fucking magazine. [Sighs] It's funny, because I want to tell people stuff. I want to be able to explain myself a little bit, but not if people are going to turn around and fuck me up.
Playboy: Don't you think that after all the build-up in the press, a certain amount of tearing down is inevitable?
Goldberg: It pisses me off that people wait for you to fuck up, for something to happen to you. I like having different-color eyes, so I sometimes wear blue contact lenses. Then I get criticized for wanting to be white. It's play stuff. But it's turned into "Oh, you don't want to be black." I don't want to deal with this crap.
Playboy: The press helped make you a star, though.
Playboy: Why not?
Goldberg: Because I was doing my stage show before any press came out. HBO helped make me a star. Television. The Color Purple. People came to see me on Broadway because Mike Nichols was involved. They came to see if he had fucked up. Mike Nichols gets the same treatment as just about everybody else. [Laughs] Word of mouth is what made me famous. And then the press wanted to talk to me.
Playboy: You sound angry.
Goldberg: No, I'm just annoyed.
Playboy: Will the situation improve?
Goldberg: No. I think that it's only going to get a little bit worse.
Playboy: Did you expect better treatment?
Goldberg: I don't know what I was expecting. I didn't expect to become big. There was no time to think, no time to pack. I was in the delivery room instantly! But I think I've fared pretty well. I read movie-star biographies. Sid Caesar's autobiography prepared me for one big aspect of being popular that I hadn't anticipated. He wrote that the biggest down, the biggest crevice most people fall into is "Am I going to wake up and not be good at this anymore?" That's what scared Sid. Marilyn Monroe. John Belushi. Errol Flynn. Am I going to wake up suddenly and not be able to do this anymore? I don't have that fear.
Goldberg: No. Because acting is all I ever knew I wanted to do. I know I can do it. I know I'm good at it. This movie stuff could all fall apart tomorrow. That's OK. I have the four-letter word to fall back on.
Playboy: What word?
Goldberg: T-O-U-R. That is the saving grace. I have my theater work to fall back on. There are theaters I can work in in San Francisco, in San Diego. As soon as people see what you're doing, what the press says doesn't matter. It's all in the box office. That's obvious to me, because there wasn't a lot of great press on my show in New York.
Playboy: Could you be happy just touring after this dose of movie stardom?
Goldberg: I'm gone! I'm going back next year! Listen. I go on the road by myself, take the old man if he wants to go. And I work. And once I get on the stage, it doesn't matter what's happened before. It's like heaven, man. It's like fucking heaven. I come when I work. I fucking come when I work. That's what matters, not being some star. Stars don't get to do anything. Stars only are. They're a state of mind. I'm not a star. I'm a working character actor.
Playboy: In three years, you've gone from near anonymity to being a household word. When did you get the first clue that you'd arrived?
Goldberg: I'm not sure that I have, because arriving to me means longevity. But it's funny. The first inkling that something was happening came from Mad magazine. My kid gave it to me. She said, "Oh, look, Ma! You!" It was like, "Heeeeeyyyyy!" They did a parody ofÂ Beverly Hills Cop, and in one of the panels, you see a hotel lobby. Eddie Murphy is in the background, and in the foreground is a picture of me labeled Valley Girl, which is based on one of my characters. It was a big deal to me.
Playboy: Even Eddie Murphy, who was famous for keeping his poise when he became famous, supposedly has had difficulties handling the rush of success. How do you think you're going to manage?
Goldberg: Sometimes it's tough to keep my ego in check, but I blame it on the people around me, because, suddenly, I can't do any wrong. They tell me shit that's not true. And if enough people tell you that your shit doesn't stink, you start thinking that maybe it doesn't. Sometimes it's hard for me to get my head through the fucking door. Meanwhile, I'm actually thinking that all this star stuff is a goof, because I'm really just a kid from the projects. But no one wants to hear it. People think I'm bragging. But, shit, I see Jack Nicholson and I'm a puddle on the ground. It's hard to think of myself in those terms. This is all new for me.
But I know this ego stuff will kill you. It's very isolating. Suddenly, the way you wipe your ass is news, big fucking news! People try to take your picture in the bathroom. No kidding. Once, I'd posed for some photographers and then went to the toilet. I heard someone come in while I was in the stall. Now, I have this thing, because I saw a movie once where there was a killer in the bathroom and a guy went into the stall and the killer dropped down and strangled him. So, whenever I go in, I look through the little slit to see who's there. It was this woman with a camera, waiting just outside the stall for me to come out. I said to her, "Don't do this. It's not good and it will really fuck you up. Really fuck you up!" She left.