Whether sipping White Russians in The Big Lebowski or conjuring musical alchemy in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges has spent six decades populating cinema with some of its most engaging characters. Born and raised in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, Total Film discovers he’s still Tinsletown’s coolest Dude…
Words Josh Winning
“You want a drink, man?” asks Jeff Bridges, ambling over to a counter in a high-end Austin hotel room. “I’ll take a water just to have by me.” At 66 years old, the Oscar-winner’s reputation came into the room ahead of him. He’s “the nicest guy in Hollywood”. He’s part cowboy, part hippie, all Buddhist. Mostly he’s “The Dude”, the character he played in The Big Lebowski who became a pin-up for pre- and post-millennials just wanting to “hang loose, man”.
Meeting him in Austin’s trendy Rainey Street district, Total Film finds he’s all and none of these things. At the start of our 40-minute chat, he shakes our hand – not too soft, not too firm – and relaxes into a sofa, his back to the Colorado River (“I’ll let you take the view, man”), nonchalant but with eyes perpetually crinkled with curiosity. Having grown up in Hollywood, he carries an undeniable aura of glamour. His attire – knitted navy cardigan over a white shirt, jeans, comfy grey loafers – is up-market Dude, and he’s uncharacteristically clean-shaven, his famous unruly mane tamed into ear-grazing silver waves for Granite Mountain, the action film he’s currently shooting in New Mexico with director Joseph Kosinski (they met on Tron: Legacy).
“I kind of consider myself a product of nepotism as far as my career goes,” he shrugs. “My dad really encouraged my brother and I to get into acting, he loved it so much. So it’s hard for me to really think of life any other way. My life seems very normal to me, but I guess I do have kind of an inside view having grown up with all that stuff.”
Given his upbringing, it’s fitting that the film Bridges is promoting today – dusty drama Hell Or High Water, from Starred Up director David Mackenzie – hinges on family. As edge-of-retirement Texas Ranger Marcus, Bridges pursues two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) across state, following a trail of dollar bills and bodies. Combustive, funny, sad, it’s about desperate people and family and life’s changing seasons, themes that have followed Bridges through a career that’s seen him lend heart to quirky dramas (Crazy Heart, The Fisher King), heft to action flicks (Tron, King Kong) and roguish charm whether playing a goodie (Starman, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot) or a baddie (The Vanishing, Iron Man).
Family, though, is the cornerstone of Bridges’ career. Married 39 years (to Susan Geston, whom he met while filming Rancho Deluxe in 1975), he worked with his veteran father Lloyd and brother Beau numerous times (The Fantastic Baker Boys, Hidden In America). When he won the Oscar for Crazy Heart in 2010, having been nominated five times over a 40-year period, he pointed his trophy to the ceiling and called, “Mom and Dad! Look!”
It’s this wholesome image that has earned him a place as one of America’s national treasures, and despite having over 80 credits to his name, he’s not looking to slow down any time soon – though he admits retirement is something he’s considered since his twenties. “I think a lot of people can relate to that idea,” he muses. “Having to leave behind the thing they’ve done all their lives…”
What did you find interesting about Marcus?
Texas Rangers are kind of the cream of the crop as far as law enforcement goes, but Marcus has reached the end of the line. As the movie begins, he’s just got a letter from the higher ups telling him it’s time to shut it down and retire. He’s spent his whole life doing this – getting the bad guys and solving crimes – and now it’s come down to this: one last hunt.
He’s a guy on the knife edge of retirement. Could you relate to that?
Yeah, I do think about that. Dependent on the day, my mind changes all the time… Making movies is funny, you use what I call a pretend muscle, you know, pretending to be somebody else, and that’s fun to do for a while, but then it gets fatigued, that muscle, and you think, I’ll kind of just lay it down. And other times, I think, “Gee what a wonderful profession, I can act as an old man on my death bed!” My dad, man [laughs]. I remember visiting him on the set of one of the Hot Shots on his 85th birthday and he’s swinging on a chandelier! He loved it and he turned all his kids onto making movies.
Hollywood is very much an industry, but you came into it through family. That must feel different…
Yeah, but I don’t know how unique it is. I would imagine all kinds of families and kids put on Christmas plays and stuff. We did a lot of that. A couple of my high points in movies I’ve made have been working with my father. My brother on The Fabulous Baker Boys, and I got to work with my dad on Tucker and a movie called Blown Away…
Did working with Beau on Fabulous Baker Boys make that a particularly special experience?
Oh yeah, oh that was like a dream come true. We’d be pinching ourselves. We had lunch together every day and pinched ourselves and said, “Can you believe we get to do this? Isn’t this great, man?”
Is your main memory of the film the fight scene that landed Beau in hospital?
Well now that you’ve mentioned that one, I remember that one, but there’s so many great memories from that movie. Working with Steve Kloves, that was his first movie, I think he wrote it when he was like 24 or something, directed it when he was 26 or 27. He went on to write all the Harry Potter screenplays. He was wonderful.
Back in the ’70s, despite films like Last Picture Show and Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, you didn’t become a movie star in the vein of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Do you feel you were doing something different to them?
I don’t know, it’s kind of a mystery, I don’t know what that’s all about. I had as much fame as I wanted; I never craved any more than what I was getting. I thought I’d been really lucky to work with all those wonderful directors and actors I’ve got to work with. I look back on the movies I’ve made and I say, “Wow, those are pretty good!”
The Last Picture Show was your first big break, but you’ve talked about feeling like an imposter. Did the Oscar nomination justify your career to you?
No, not really. It’s funny, like most kids, you don’t want to do what your parents want you to do. You wanna do your own thing, and you don’t want to get a job just because of who your father is, so I had a lot of resistance to that thing. I was interested in music. My dad would say, “Oh no Jeff, don’t be ridiculous, acting is so great, one day you’ll get to /play/ a musician!”
And he was right, you played a musician in Crazy Heart and won the Oscar…
That’s right! Absolutely. I’m glad I listened to the old man!
So what convinced you to pursue acting instead of music?
I made a movie called The Last American Hero about Junior Johnson, the stock car racer, and like after ever movie, I was saying, “I’m gonna retire, I want to do something different.” I got a call from my agent who says, “I’ve got great news for you, John Frankenheimer wants you to play a part in The Iceman Cometh,” this would be with Frederick March and Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan! I thought, “Huh, well, I am bushed but… maybe I’ll use this as a little experiment and see if I’m built for this.” I had most of my scenes with Robert Ryan who’s a wonderful actor. After that experience I said, “Oh yeah, this is something I can do.”
Were you pleased with how the film turned out?
When I look back on it I didn’t particularly like my performance or anything like that, but the life experience was really very rich. I really enjoyed it. It’s a great profession. I just love it so much, but I love it and I hate it, too. It’s the gamut, it takes me through all the emotions. There are so many things that… Fear! You know. You deal with fear all the time. That’s what these old guys, you see Frederick March concerned with getting it right. [screws up face] “Uuuuuughh!’” Wanting to do the material justice, all this weird psychic pain, it’s hard to describe. I love to talk about it with other actors; they get it! You get pissed man, when you’re not quite… it’s not coming through right.
Is there a lot of pressure to deliver as an actor?
It’s a weird thing. One of the gifts of acting is that you’re not doing it alone; you’re doing it with all these different people, so every once in a while there’s this transcendence that happens. You have high expectations and the thing that you imagined as good, it is better because of all these other talents putting their fairy dust on it.
So with Crazy Heart, was it particularly rewarding winning the Oscar for two things you love: acting and music?
Yeah, and talking about fear, that’s a great example of exactly what I’m talking about. Here you get, what a blessing, getting to play a musician, and not only that, but have my dear friend T Bone Burnett do all the music. And the downside of that is, “Yeah, but what happens if I can’t do it? Maybe in the dream it’s safe because it’s just in the dream realm, but once you start to make it real, am I gonna drop the ball or be able to do it?”
You definitely caught the ball with The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Is he a character you relate to?
Ah, maybe so. That’s the starting place for all the characters I play, is myself. I guess the first thing is the script and then you get the character, but I’m always thinking about the parallels between myself and the character and what I can use and what I want to kick to the kerb, what aspects I want to magnetise and magnify a little bit. So that’s the approach I take for most of the characters I play.
How did the part of The Dude come along?
I remember a couple of years before we made The Big Lebowski, the Coens said, “We’re writing something for you,” and I said, “Oh great, great!” Then I got it and I said, “What the hell is this?! This is like nothing I’ve ever done before! How did they know that side of me? Did they crash some high school party I was in and base [it on that]?” But there are quite a few aspects of The Dude that I share. I remember Mary Zophres was the costumer; she came over to my house and I said, “Well, let’s go up to my closet, there might be some stuff in there.” She’s picking out the jelly shoes, those are mine! Different T-shirts… So I guess I got a lot of Dude in me, what the hey.
Then you wrote the book about The Dude’s philosophy with Bernie Glassman…
Oh yeah, now that… When the film originally came out, it was a bigger hit in Europe and then splashed back on our shores and now there are all these festivals. My buddy who’s a zen master, Bernie Glassman, he said to me, “You don’t realise that The Dude in many Buddhist circles is considered a zen master.” I said, “What the fuck are you talking about, man?” He says, “In the movie there are all these koans.” You know what a koan is? They’re like questions, the famous one is, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” that kind of thing. So he says, “’The Dude abides’ is a very Buddhist concept!’ And ‘Shut the fuck up Donny’, that’s a kind of a koan.” Then he says, “Look at the directors! The Koan brothers!” [laughs] So anyway, he said, “Let’s write a book,” so I said, “OK,” and we wrote this book called The Dude And The Zen Master. It was a lot of fun!
Did The Dude teach you anything?
Heck! More after the movie! It’s sure given me a lot of stuff, that movie. It’s given me a lot of gifts. My band is named The Abiders! You know? We played at LebowskiFest. Not in costume, but to a sea of Dudes and bowling pins. Lebowski gave me my Beatles moment, man! “NOW, The Dude!” [laughs and makes a crowd sound] It was pretty great.
You were at Marvel in 2008 with Iron Man, which kickstarted the MCU. Did you get a special feeling on that?
First of all I think that movie came out so great; it’s my favourite superhero movie, I guess I’m partial! But the making of that movie was so fascinating. Jon Favreau, the director, he ran such a great ship. He’s such a talented guy and of course [Robert] Downey [Jr.], those two guys, they made it just a wonderful, unique kind of experience.
Is it true the script got thrown out just before shooting began?
We had a couple of weeks rehearsal and we didn’t like the script too much. We rehearsed for two weeks and we rewrote. Then about a day or so before we were gonna start shooting, the Marvel guy said, “Oh no, none of this is working,” and threw it all out. I started to really get upset because the way I work, my method is, you learn the lines. The play is the thing! So you’re kind of lost at sea, sort of.
How did you work around that?
We would literally show up… Often, all the crew would be in the sound stage waiting for us to write the scene! We’d be in my trailer there with Jon Favreau, Downey, the suits, Marvel guys, all the suits in there trying to figure out the scene… Jon calling writer friends, saying, “What do you think about this?” I mean, we would swap roles; Downey would play my side and I’d play his, trying to come up with stuff. We’d be in there a couple of hours and finally come out and do the thing!
Was it tough working that way?
I was so frustrated until I finally made a little shift in my mind that made all the difference. Which was, “Jeff, just relax, you’re making a $200m student film. Have fun! Go back to when you were making movies with your family, just play!” I was like, “Oh, of course.” And then I just kind of let it go and like I said, Jon Favreau was so suited to do this thing because he was able to not blow it, with all these suits wanting different things. He was so relaxed and that was kind of a contagious feeling around the thing. Of course you had Downey who was a great improviser and so perfect for that part. It worked out well.
Talking of comic-book movies, is it true you came close to playing Batman for Tim Burton?
I don’t think so! I don’t know anything about that. I heard that with Raiders Of The Lost Ark, too. It’s not true!
Iron Man must’ve provided an interesting gauge for how technology has changed, having been in Tron in 1982. Were they two totally different experiences?
Totally different, totally different. The original Tron was shot in black and white, 70mm, hand-tinted by these ladies in Korea. And then the sequel, Tron: Legacy, I got literally scanned into a computer, it felt like something right out of the original film, when the computer scans me. Now I’m in there and they can do whatever they want with me. I was a little upset with the rendition of [my younger version], I looked a bit like [comedian] Bill Maher. Whenever my character came on, I said, “Hmm, Bill Maher, what’s he doing in the show?” They’ll probably get that down better and that’ll be the end of the acting profession. They’ll be able to say, “We’ll put a little Bridges, a little De Niro, get some Josh Brolin in there,” stir it up and come up with a completely different person.
With the sci-fi genre you’ve had as many hits as misses. Do you take it personally when a movie doesn’t do well?
[long pause] I don’t know if I should answer that question. It’s not so much what the public thinks as, I mentioned every once in a while you do a movie that’ll transcend all your highest expectations, but then also the reverse will happen, where you do a movie and say, “Wow, we had a great time, it’ll be good!” and then it’s much lower. They chose all the worst takes, the suits got in there and said, “Oh no,” and the director, they kick him to the kerb.
That happened with RIPD, didn’t it?
We had a great time doing that movie. The director was terrific, then they kicked him to the kerb and they cut it and just screwed up the whole thing! So that’s disappointing. Usually when the movies come out and how they do, it’s almost like a horse race, “The horses are at the gate!” There’s this kind of excitement and you’re rooting for your horse, but most often, as is the case now, I’m working on another movie, so most of my attention is on that.
Is it weird to see franchises like King Kong and Tron coming back decades after you worked on them?
That’s kinda cool in a way. Doing Last Picture Show and then 20 years later we got the same group together with Peter Bogdanovich and the story continues. Larry McMurtry, who’s one of our great writers, he’s got three more books in that series, those characters, so I’m hoping to do those again. There’s something great about being able to extend it. And it also kind of plays into the whole Hollywood thing now of the sure bet, what worked, let’s do it again. There’s two sides to that coin.
Has Hollywood changed a lot since you stepped into the industry?
Quite a bit, yeah. I remember working on Last Picture Show, it was a great outfit that financed our movie called BBS. They had that independent spirit and support of the directors giving their vision, you know… Unique vision was really more prevalent back in those days. Nowadays you got these $200m movies, but you also have almost like the reaction to that, you got a movie like Tangerine, have you seen that? Wasn’t that great? On the iPhone? That’s really cool, man! Or you know Starred Up… I remember that film Once, do you remember that movie? You gotta see that, it’s a great movie.
Small, independent, skin of its teeth filmmaking was integral to your father’s career, as well as yours. Is that something you enjoy being a part of?
Yeah, I do. The main thing that drew me to Hell Or High Water was David McKenzie and seeing Starred Up, do you know that film? What he did with that movie for that little bit of budget that he had to work with, the goods he came up with… It was pretty terrific. I loved working with him, he was great. But yeah that kind of independent movie is wonderful to make. I mean, it’s fun making both big multi-million, $200m, there’s some fun there. Try to have as much as fun always as I can! But these kinda movies… the stories are so terrific, usually. The big budget movies, there’s some kind of formula that they’re working or something like that. Smaller movies are more unique.
Do you find yourself looking back at what you’ve achieved?
Yeah I do that. A couple of things come to mind. My stand-in, Loyd Catlett, we’ve done over 60 movies together, I think that’s a record. We met on Last Picture Show in ’69-’70, whenever we shot that thing and he’s here right now. He’s like a through line through all of those experiences and, unlike me, he’s got a pretty good memory. I can say, “What was that guy’s name? Oh yeah, remember that?” So we relive a lot of the adventures that we’ve had. And also I take photographs. I got this camera called a Widelux that’s a panning still camera and I’ve been doing that since Starman, I guess, taking pictures and making books for the cast and crew. So those books, I’ve got those on my shelf. Whenever I think, “Baker Boys! Let’s relive that, let’s see…” It’s just like looking at home movies. And it’s not somebody else’s home movie, it’s right from my point of view! Where I was. It really snaps me back.
Featured in Total Film magazine.