Pandemic Puzzlers: Hugh Jackman, Ellen DeGeneres and More Stars Double Down on a Favorite Pastime

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From left: Sean Hayes and Robert Greenblatt

Jigsaws are selling out online to self-isolated industry fans like Bob  Greenblatt and Sean Hayes: "There's something very zen."

When Robert Greenblatt wants to decompress from his job as chairman of entertainment at AT&T’s WarnerMedia, he doesn’t turn to a screen for amusement, but instead breaks out an old-fashioned, analog pastime — the jigsaw puzzle.

"There’s something very zen about puzzles," says Greenblatt, who typically tackled them, pre-quarantine, at his weekend home in Palm Springs, sometimes with friends like Sean Hayes or Melissa Etheridge gathered around the table. Using a company called PuzzlesPrint, Greenblatt has many of his puzzles made out of personal photos he has taken on vacations to places like Machu Picchu, Venice, Antarctica and India. "We’re constantly glued to our devices these days. But doing a puzzle is a hugely different way of using the mind," he says.

In the age of social distancing, the humble jigsaw puzzle is having a moment as the perfect lo-fi, homebound hobby that can be done in solitude or with the family, resulting in an Instagram-worthy final product.

While jigsaw puzzles are undoubtedly hot right now, some in Hollywood have been relying on them for entertainment and de-stressing for years. Industry enthusiasts include Tobey Maguire, who participates in competitive puzzling tournaments, Patrick Stewart, and married couple Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, who often select kitschy puzzles with a fantasy van-art aesthetic and then share photographs of themselves mimicking their completed work on their social media feeds (e.g., holding aloft their small dog beside a puzzle image of Jesus holding a dove). Hugh Jackman has a performative streak when it comes to puzzles. In a display delivered with as much intensity as a Wolverine scene, Jackman live-streamed himself completing and then breaking up a 1,500-piece Wentworth wooden puzzle of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

A tiny, 45-year-old Vermont company called Stave caters to the wealthy and masochistic, including Stephen Sondheim and Bill and Melinda Gates, with insidiously difficult, hand-cut wooden puzzles that range from $300 to $10,000 (and more for custom work). "We’re in the business of driving people crazy," says the company’s octogenarian co-founder Steve Richardson, whose artists booby-trap their creations by designing them with, say, pieces that look like corners or edges but which fit into the inner area of the puzzle. Other companies, like NYC-based Jiggy Puzzles, which highlights the work of female artists, emphasize the decorative element of the pastime.

Demand for jigsaw puzzles has been so high since COVID-19 forced the world to stay home that in mid- March, Ravensburger, the German company that made a puzzle for DreamWorks Animation to gift to employees and industry friends last year, suspended sales on its website in order to meet demand from retailers like Target. Even with its online store closed, Ravensburger saw sales climb 370 percent over the same period last year.

Many new buyers may be in a similar position to Ellen DeGeneres, who found herself bored after shutting down production on her daytime talk show amid the pandemic and decided to attempt a 4,000-piece Tomax puzzle of an intricate 18th century painting of Rome (that’s now near impossible to purchase). "It’s going to keep me busy for at least an hour," DeGeneres mused on Instagram.

While puzzles are a boredom fix for some, for many in Hollywood they’re an antidote to busy lives. Management 360 partner Eryn Brown rediscovered puzzling last year while coping with some new pressures, including the impact of the WGA agency fight on her many writer clients. "We’re barraged with so much visual content," Brown says. "I was finding that at night and on the weekends I couldn’t come home and watch more. It was too much stimulation. So I would come home from work, sit at my desk, listen to a book on tape and work on a puzzle."

Family Guy writer and New Yorker cartoonist Maggie Mull started puzzling while going through a breakup 18 months ago and created a Spotify playlist for her jigsaw sessions, full of songs she found calming, by artists like Hank Williams and Gladys Knight. "I was doing puzzles every night," Mull says. "It was like an active meditation." She’s now working on a 4,000-piece puzzle of vintage stamps of African cats with her boyfriend, fellow Family Guy writer Chris Regan. "The puzzle is coming in handy now, just in terms of taking your mind off all the places it can possibly go," Mull says. "I’m genuinely scared for the moment we finish it."

People have different approaches to the completed puzzle, from Jackman’s theatrical deconstruction to those who save them for framing. It had been 30 years since manager Jason Priluck did a jigsaw puzzle, but recently he purchased a 1,000-piece puzzle of a seaside village in Italy to work on with his wife and children, ages 13 and 8, while sequestered at home. "At the end, we’ll have a piece of art," Priluck says. "Get it framed. It’ll be a keepsake of the time we were all locked up together."

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.