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BEING “BAD” WITH JEFF BRIDGES

BY MARJORIE LEWIS PHOTOGRAPHY GREG GORMAN GROOMING THOMAS NELLEN

Jeff Bridges turned sixty on December 4th, and he is still as gorgeous as ever. The veteran actor strides into the photo shoot looking fit and youthful; he exudes warmth and a laid back energy, and genuinely makes you feel that he is happy to be there. Most actors don’t love doing press, even if they love the movie they’ve made as much as Bridges does. Currently, Bridges is starring in the indie drama Crazy Heart from writer-director Scott Cooper. Bridges portrays Bad Blake, a broken-down, hard-living country music singer who travels the Southwest playing dive after dive. Bad is a hard-living guy who’s had a few too many marriages, far too many years on the road, and one too many drinks way too many times. His performance has already earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead and his name has been consistently tossed about in the Best Actor race for an Oscar nomination.

It’s a daunting task to interview Bridges if only because the number of his IMDB credits is an astounding 74. He began acting as a child and in 1957 appeared on “Sea Hunt,” a popular undersea adventure series starring his father, Lloyd Bridges. In fact, Jeff Bridges’s body of work is so extensive that to recite it would take up more pages than the interview itself. Suffice to say he’s worked steadily for the last four decades in diverse roles that have won critical raves as well as four Oscar nominations to date — for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, John Carpenter’s Starman, and Rod Lurie’s The Contender. The odds are good that there will be a fifth one this year.

Jeff Bridges’s first major film role was in the 1971 movie, The Last Picture Show, which was followed by a series of quality projects, beginning with John Huston’s Fat City (1972), as a struggling boxer, and Robert Benton’s directorial debut, Bad Company (1972), in which he played a likable, if untrustworthy con artist who drifts into lawlessness in the post-Civil War west. Bridges brought a three dimensional believability to his portrayal of moonshining stock-car racing legend Junior Jackson in The Last American Hero (1973). He starred in the 1976 remake of King Kong and Michael Cimino’s studio-killing epic drama turned- failure, Heaven's Gate (1980).

Bridges essayed the video game programmer in the 1982 sci-fi cult classic, TRON (1982). His ruggedly handsome looks led to leading man roles in the sexy thriller, Against All Odds (1984), and the crime drama, Jagged Edge (1985). Bridges next teamed up with brother Beau to give a complex performance as Jack Baker, a once celebrated piano prodigy reduced to a lounge lizard vying for the attentions of sexy singer Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Bridges’s work in Fearless (1993) is recognized by some critics as one of his best performances. The actor made his producing debut on American Heart (1995) and delivered a performance so stunning that film critic Janet Maslin called him “the most underappreciated great actor of his generation,” in her New York Times review of the film. Later, Bridges found commercial, if not critical, success with the bomb thriller Blown Away in 1994. A lead role in the Barbra Streisand vehicle The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) was followed by White Squall (1996) and then by an iconic turn as the hapless and perpetually stoned bowling aficionado, described by the narrator as “the laziest man in Los Angeles County,” in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). In 1999, Bridges returned to the thriller genre with Arlington Road, playing the concerned neighbor of urban terrorist Tim Robbins, and then switched gears with Albert Brooks’s comedy drama, The Muse (1999). In Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) he portrayed a radio shock-jock who seeks redemption by helping a homeless man (Robin Williams) whose life he inadvertently shattered. Other films include. The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), KPax (2001), and Seabiscuit (2003)

Bridges starred in the gymnastics-themed sports comedy, Stick It (2006), then lent his voice to his first animated project, Surf’s Up (2007), an ambitious CGI-animated feature comedy about championship penguin surfers. In Iron Man (2008), he played Robert Downey Jr.’s bald-pated nemesis, Obadiah Stane, and currently he can be seen tripping the light fantastic with George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats.

In Crazy Heart, Bridges’s physical transformation to play “Bad” is impressive as the normally fit and handsome actor appears scruffy, bloated, and boozy, his handsome face covered with the grizzled road whiskers of a man whose personal grooming habits, if any, are suspect. In fact, today, months after the film has finished, Bridges is still wearing part of those whiskers, but they’ve been tamed quite a bit due to the insistence of his (female) manager and publicist. Lots of guys in Hollywood can make hirsute look hip, but it takes a movie star of Bridges caliber to make it look handsome. Yet you get the feeling that he is unconcerned with personal vanity, in front of the photographer’s camera, as an avid photo buff himself, he seems more interested in the type of cameras, lights, and equipment being used than in how he will appear in the pictures. In addition to being movie star gorgeous, he’s one of the nicest, down-to-earth men you could ever hope to meet.

Venice: You are getting great reviews for your work on Crazy Heart. How was the experience making the film?

 Jeff Bridges: It’s been great. I loved doing the movie. It was a dream come true just to work with all these wonderful actors— Bobby Duvall, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Colin Farrell. And then there is the music. My dear friend T Bone Burnett got involved as producer, music consultant and composer, and Stephen Bruton was a working musician as well, his work was so special, he died shortly after the movie was made but we sure had a good time during his last days. (A final card on the film’s closing credits salutes Bruton, who lost his fight with cancer during postproduction on the film.) Getting to play the music was so wonderful. And this director, Scott Cooper, he’s just great. He’s a first timer, you know, and he wrote and directed and he’s just terrific.

How does a first-time director get Jeff Bridges to star in his film?

When it was first sent to me I passed on the project. It was all about music and there was no music to it, no songs. I felt you could really screw it up that way and I had set the bar for my music movies very high with the Fabulous Baker Boys, which had great music and the wonderful Dave Grusin. So I felt there was a piece missing in this, but then I ran into T Bone about a year after I had read it and he brought up the script and said, “Do you want to do it?” and I said, “I’ll do it if you do it,” and that’s how it all fell into place. I mean, the script was fine, but it was about the music for me and once they got T Bone involved I knew the music was in good hands.

Although the music hadn’t been written yet, most of it was written specifically for the movie, which was kind of wonderful. I loved making this movie, but more importantly I loved the way it came together, because you can have a wonderful time making a film, but then it can not turn out so great, but this did, and we were able to get a wonderful distributor to make sure the film gets seen. To have all of those three elements, they don’t always fall into place but they did on this one, so that’s very gratifying. And the fact that it’s getting all that attention is wonderful.

 How did you prepare to play “Bad”?

 I prepared the same way as I do for most parts, where I look at aspects of myselfthat I might use. In this case, I love making music and have done so for a long time so I could use a lot of that. And then I look at aspects of myself that maybe don’t match up, and kick those aside. I did gain some weight for this part— I’d have an extra drink after work, and maybe be a bit hung-over the next day, which for this role was fine, and I could eat as much Haagen Dazs as I wanted, which is an upside and a downside, because for me, health is a big high. For the mindset, one of the aspects of myself that I did not use is that I am blessed, and have been all my life really, with a wonderful support system. My parents were very loving and encouraged me in any artistic endeavors I might have; my wife, Susan, for the last 33 years has carried on that same kind of support, so that part of me, I didn’t use, because “Bad” didn’t have any support system. He had ditched whatever he did have long ago. I use aspects of myself, and then I look at my close circle of friends, and think who of my friends are like this character. And, T Bone and Stephen Bruton were my role models for this. Particularly Bruton because he was physically there with me every day on the set, he was literally with me every step of the way. Bruton’s always been on the road and he would constantly give me little ideas, and as an actor, you’re always looking for little details that would let the audience into the world. He had lived this life of Bad’s, traveling around in a truck from gig to gig. It was his idea to say, “I’m driving from here to here and I don’t want to stop so I’ll just use the Sparkletts bottle instead of a bathroom.” That was just one example of many. I’d watch how he picked up his guitar and how he did the licks. Then the next circle is guys like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, we’d all met on Heaven’s Gate thirty years ago. Also T Bone grew up in Texas, like my character did and he knew the type of music that Bad would have listened to. He and Bruton were childhood friends and Bruton’s dad owned a music store so he turned them on to blues and jazz and all the stuff that Bad listened to. Bad had eclectic musical taste.

 You sound very fond of “Bad” as a character. Is he your favorite out of all the characters you’ve played?

 Well, I am fond of him, but you know, it’s that corny thing that actors say, but it’s so true, they’re like your kids. You can’t really pick a favorite, but I have favorite aspects of each one and then I have certain movies that kind of stand out. But I do love all of them. However, there are some, well, The Last Picture Show, that kinds of stands alone, there’s nothing like it, and I was so young when I played Duane, and what a movie it was with such a great cast. Cloris Leachman in that last scene...it’s just wow. The fun thing about that movie was that we got to do it again twenty years later when we made Texasville (1990). Peter (Bogdanovich) and I just got together the other night and talked about doing another one, Duane’s Depressed, which is one of the other (Larry McMurtry) books. I’m looking forward to doing that. And then Tron, which was a great experience that I got to revisit recently because there’s a sequel to that coming next year. There are so many of the early ones that were great experiences— Bad Company and Stay Hungry and Cutter’s Way, I loved that, (director) Ivan Passer was great to work with. I remember a reporter asked me once, “Are you one of those guys who brings your work home with you?” and I said, “No, not really,” and my wife happened to be in the room and she rolled her eyes and said, “You don’t think you do, but you do!” What is important to me is that I don’t play myself. My father had a hit television show called “Sea Hunt” and he pulled that part off so well that people thought he was a skin diver, when in fact he was a Shakespearean actor. He was in “Man of La Mancha” on Broadway. So I saw that not only had “Sea Hunt” brought him great success, but it created a persona that was so strong that he kind of suffered from it. He was typecast. Years later, when I was doing Blown Away (1991), I suggested they use my dad to play the part of my uncle in the film and one of the producers laughed and said, “Your dad is a wonderful actor but he’s really more of a comedian.” And I said, “A comedian? What are you talking about?” And the producer said, “Well, you know, those Airplane movies,” and I just couldn’t believe it. My dad had to come in and read for the part and show them who he really was.

 How have you managed to keep from being typecast during all these years?

Well, I’ve set about to not develop a strong persona, to keep it interesting for me and also to let the filmmakers know that I can do other things, so I can get offered other types of things. Also, I want to keep the audience a little bit uncertain about who I am so they can believe the character I’m playing. You do want to be natural, but you also want to transcend yourself, and who I look to for that is the director. I really empower the directors I work with to have power over me, to take me to a place that I need to go. That kind of stretches me and it also cuts me a lot of slack. I don’t have to take the pressure of figuring it out; I give that to the director to do. As an actor I do like to rehearse, I like to work on it, it doesn’t always happen. I’m finding as I get older that you don’t really need what you think you need. But generally I do like to prepare. But the pressure of making a movie can be stifling especially for a first time director.

 Was “Sea Hunt” your first acting work?

No, actually I was a baby when I was carried on at six months, in a movie called The Company She Keeps. My parents had gone to visit actress Jane Greer on the set and they needed a baby for a scene and my mom said, “Here, take mine.” [laughs] But, they needed the baby to cry and I was a very happy baby so my mom said to Jane, “Oh, just pinch him,” and she did and I cried. Cut to forty years later, I’m doing Against All Odds which is a remake of a 1947 film Jane starred in called Out of the Past and now Jane is playing her original character’s mother. I had an emotional scene coming up and I said, “Jane, I’m having a little problem here, can you pinch me?” She did!

If there was one character that is closest to the “real” Jeff Bridges, who would that be?

 They are all aspects of parts of me; I mean, I’ve definitely got a little “Dude” in me. [laughs

Ah, yes, we should talk about “the dude.” Tell me, why do you think that one character out of so many you’ve portrayed has become such an icon?

 [laughs] Well, the dude abides y’know. He’s comfortable in his skin. He works with what he is and he’s not trying to be anything else. Maybe that’s it. But again, that’s aspects of me, but I have aspects of all the other characters I’ve done too. I mean, there are also aspects of me that are like Jack Forrester from Jagged Edge. To play that I put my own stuff away, I toss the “dude” stuff aside, and my music and singing gets kicked to the curb too. Instead I look at my own sociopathic, or psychopathic traits, not that I’m a psycho, but I look at certain behaviors I can relate to and I kind of magnify them. That’s another way to explain my approach, is to magnify certain behaviors. I take that little self-serving thing that we all have, that covert quality; I’m going to show this, because I want that, and this guy, Jack, was a master at it. To me, the meaning of the movie, for my character anyhow, was what that kind of behavior costs, and it’s kind of ironic, because what it costs is love. Intimacy is the high; you want to get someone to fall in love with you. This guy’s trap was that he was the most unlovable thing that one could ever be. He could never be intimate, he could never show his real colors, that was what was so interesting to me.

Speaking of intimacy, you have great chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart, and with all your leading ladies for the most part, and yet you are so happily married in real life, how are you able to do that?

I think that this is probably a draw on the aspects of my real life. As you say, I am happily married and I’m madly in love with my wife. So I bring that aspect of myself to these different people, and one of the things I have learned in acting over the years is how accessible that kind of love and intimacy is. It doesn’t go without saying that there is a line, of course, and you don’t want to go past it, because that brings up all kinds of things, and you don’t want to do anything that would sabotage the real thing, it’s too precious. I don’t think I could do what my wife does, I am too jealous. Yet she loves me so much and wants me to realize all my dreams and that is incredible. She can let me, no, not just let me, but encourage me to act with all these beautiful women, yet she has faith, because our love is so strong, she knows in reality that I want to be with her. It’s interesting, with all the movies that have a love story in them, you are always dealing with opening your heart. With Maggie, for instance, and actually with all the actors I work with, you don’t have much time to do what we have to do. With Crazy Heart we had 24 days, so how are you going to get there in such a short time? You just go for it. I look for comrades that are willing to get up to speed pretty quick and open up and be ready to go. You have to open up and let that intimacy get out there. You need to be able to open your heart and get to know each other. It’s not that difficult when you have two people doing it at the same time, creating this reality, that’s so important that both of you are on the same page. If you are in love with the person in the movie and they are not loving you back, it doesn’t happen, so you want to encourage that kind of openness.

You have worked with some of the finest actresses of the last three decades. Do you have a favorite leading lady?

 It’s like the favorite movie or character thing, I can’t just pick one. I love them all for different reasons, but the freshest experience and the one that is still with me is Maggie. She is one of the best actors I have ever worked with, whether it be man, woman, or child, on any film ever. That game quality, the willingness to give it your all and bring all your stuff to the table and to be so present and not knowing, and open, and yet to have done all your homework and be prepared. She is just great.

 Do you turn down more parts than you accept?

I do my best not to work, not to engage, because I know what it takes and I know if I take a part that I feel pretty good about, then it might interfere with another one that’s coming down the line and I may like that better. I try my best to hold out and not do anything, unless, like that line in The Godfather, they “make me an offer that I can’t refuse” for one reason or another. I mean, how could I turn down Crazy Heart? All that music, working with my friends, there’s no way I can not do that. It’s the same with the Tron sequel. It’s great when all the pieces fall into place like with Crazy Heart but often they don’t so I try to find the joy in the actual making of the film where there is more control.I like to get my jollies in the doing. The movies that I’m attracted to making and that I like watching are movies that have a small target, like Crazy Heart. There’s a small bullseye but if you hit it, that’s the truth that people can relate to. I felt that way about The Fabulous Baker Boys also,

 What convinced you to do The Fabulous Baker Boys? 

Another first time director, and he wrote it too. Can you imagine? Steve Kloves was so young when he wrote that and it’s such a mature and brilliant movie. I love that movie and Steve is one of my most favorite directors I’ve ever worked with. It was great ’cause I got to work with my brother (Beau) and we had so much fun. We would have lunch every day and just pinch each other because we couldn’t believe how much fun it was. Beau was my teacher and my mentor growing up; he’s eight years older than I am so it wasn’t as competitive as brothers who are close in age can be. He looked after me and was as proud to see me succeed as I was of him.

Speaking of family, you grew up as a child of Hollywood. Were you encouraged to join “the family business?”

 My dad loved being in show business so much he encouraged all of us to become actors. I remember his urging me to do “Sea Hunt” when I was a little kid. It wasn’t like a stage mom or dad, living vicariously, he just loved it so and wanted to share it with us. I appreciated that, however, most kids, especially when you are a teenager you don’t want to do what your parents want you to do. More importantly, you definitely don’t want to be a product of nepotism, which I kind of am, well, not kind of, I definitely am. The hardest thing about show business is getting your foot in the door and that was handled for me. But as a kid, you don’t want to stand out, or to be special, and having a famous dad gets you a lot of unwanted attention. So you want to downplay that, and then, of course, getting the good job because your dad got you in, that’s another burden and that happened with me. So I always thought I’d take another path, maybe music or photography. It was at least ten movies in, before I decided that this is what I want to be my career and I’ll use the other interest as hobbies.

What was it during those years that led you to that decision?

 I remember exactly, it was right after I did Last American Hero; I had a great time playing a race-car driver and working with Gary Busey and director Lamont Johnson. Usually after a movie, and it still happens today, I feel like I don’t want to do that again, there’s a muscle that you use, an invisible muscle, that gets tired of pretending to be somebody else, and there’s a desire to just be myself and paint or play music, but to be me. Fortunately, that goes away after a month, and you start to want to act again. But at that time, I was living in Malibu and my agent called me and said I’d gotten an offer to work with (director) John Frankenheimer on The Iceman Cometh. I said, “No, I’m bushed, but thanks, I’ll pass.” About five minutes later, Lamont Johnson calls me and says, “How can you turn down The Iceman Cometh? What are you talking about? You sonofabitch, you call yourself an actor?” and I said, “Well, no, I don’t,” and he got disgusted with me and hung up. Then I thought about it and wondered if I was going to be a professional actor for the rest of my life, and I understand professionals have to do it when they don’t feel like it, and I certainly don’t feel like it, then maybe I should throw myself into this and see if it will be the nail in the coffin of my acting career and I’ll find out this isn’t for me. So I ended up doing the movie and it was the experience that changed my life. We rehearsed for eight weeks and shot for two, it was shot like a play and almost all my scenes were with the wonderful actor Robert Ryan. During those eight weeks, I was sitting around with these great actors and this great director, just shooting the breeze and, of course, going over the material. I was also getting to know how other actors of that caliber work on things like this. It was very enlightening. After that experience, I decided, “Hey, I can do this. And I can do this for the rest of my life in a professional way.” You know, most actors have performance anxiety and you think it will go away as you get more experienced. What I learned from Robert Ryan is that it doesn’t. I remember seeing his hands leave sweat marks on a table and saying, “Bob, after all these years are you really still scared?” And he said, “Oh yes. And I’d really be scared if I wasn’t scared...”

 And are you still scared?

 Oh sure. Always, and that incident made me think that it’s not about getting rid of the fear, because it’s always going to be there. I read an interesting article about Mike Tyson and it said that the reason he came outnslugging all the time was that he was scared to death he’d have an asthma attack if he went too many rounds. He was constantly afraid and he said that fear is like fire, you can warm your hands on it, cook your food with it, or it could burn your house down and kill you. So, with acting, fear is your buddy, it’s always there, every time, especially with a movie like Crazy Heart, with all the places this film takes you to and where you need to go emotionally, it’s like going out for that long ball — you’re loving it but are you going to catch it or will you drop it? So the more you love the thing the more anxiety you have about pulling it off.

 After four previous nominations, how does all the “Oscar talk” for Crazy Heart affect you?

 It’s always gratifying to get the nod from your colleagues, because that’s where the nominations come from, other actors. That’s a wonderful feeling because they know what it takes and what it involves. But with movies like Crazy Heart, which hasn’t done any festivals, these awards are instrumental in getting people out to see it. When you have a beautiful baby that you’re proud of, you want everyone to come look at it! ▼

 

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