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Jeff Bridges brings an ease and charisma to every role he plays—which says something, given the sheer breadth of his career. Coming from an acting family, Bridges got his start on the TV show Sea Hunt, starring his father Lloyd Bridges, then branched out on his own for The Last Picture Show, The Iceman Cometh, Jagged Edge, Against All Odds, The Fabulous Baker Boys (alongside his brother Beau), and, of course, Tron. Oh, also The Big Lebowski, Iron Man, and The Contender, in which he plays a U.S. president lauded by none other than Barack Obama. Bridges’ résumé is impressive, and it’s earned him four Oscar nominations, but not yet a win. If the buzz behind his latest, Crazy Heart is any indicator, that might change. In the film, Bridges plays Bad Blake, an alcoholic, sad-sack country singer coasting on the fleeting fame he enjoyed years ago. Bridges burrows deep into Blake’s prickly nature, lending the character an unexpected softness. Prior to the film’s wide release, The A.V. Club chatted with Bridges about country music, growing up among actors, and the film he starred in that he can’t stop watching.
The A.V. Club: In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that it’s hard to articulate what drew you to a script until you’ve finished the film. Now that you’re done with Crazy Heart, what was it that attracted you?
Jeff Bridges: Oh, well, it’s not a surprise for me on this one. It was the music, the chance to play music and to work with my dear friends Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett. And kind of after the fact—I didn’t know Scott Cooper, the director, but it was a big plus to work with him. It was a really joyful experience.
AVC: What was your relationship with country music prior to the film?
JB: I’ve been writing it myself. My old friend John Goodwin [who wrote music for the film] and I go back to the fourth grade, writing music together. I’m a big fan of country. One direction T-Bone gave us was that Bad’s taste and the music he loves covers a wide range—not only country, but the blues, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan… But my main role model was Stephen Bruton, who was giving me tips about what it’s like to be a guy on the road like that. He told me things like when you travel hundreds of miles between gigs and you don’t want to stop and take a piss, you just carry a bottle. So we heard that, and we put it in the script. Details, that’s what makes it seem real.
AVC: You’ve spoken before about substance abuse in film—that it’s hard to act drunk while you’re drunk. How did you approach the character work in this film, given Bad’s an alcoholic?
JB: I’ve made that mistake early in my career. You think it’s a shortcut: Why not get drunk and play it? But you’ve got to do the rest of the day and the day after that. I can’t do that. It’s all about illusion, so you eat salt, which puffs you up. You look at your makeup artist to make you look that way, and you take the governor off what you can eat.
AVC: There’s a lot of variety in the roles you play; it’s hard to pigeonhole your acting style. How have you maintained that chameleon-like track record?
JB: My father Lloyd Bridges was very versatile in his parts, but he had a hit in the ’60s Sea Hunt, where he played a skin diver. And he was so into that role that people actually thought he was a skin-diver. So he got sent a lot of scripts, but they were all for skin-divers. I remember later doing a movie with him called Blown Away, and before he got the part, I was mentioning to the producer that I knew a good choice to play my uncle. This wonderful actor who looks a bit like me: Lloyd Bridges. And they said “He’s really more of a comedian.” I said, “What are you talking about?” and they said, “Well, all those Airplane movies.” So I took a cue from that; I didn’t want to develop a strong persona, because I’d seen the frustration it caused my father. And also, if you mix it up a bit, it serves in showing the filmmakers that you can do all sorts of things. By not having a strong persona, it allows the audience to project the character you are playing onto you more easily—without bringing all the baggage along with you.
AVC: It sounds like that would be a tough choice to make late in a career.
JB: Yeah, but you can. Actors do that all the time. I like to think of myself as a character actor, though there’s some redundancy in that… I’m very pleased with my career, the stories I’ve told. I consider myself very lucky as to how it all came down. I don’t really care about having more fame than I have.
AVC: At what moment did you become fascinated with what your father did for a living?
JB: Unlike a lot of actors, my father encouraged all his kids to go into show business. He loved it so much. I was in The Company She Keeps at six months old. He’d encourage me to do these small parts by saying, “And you get to get out of school!” That was a big plus for me at that age. But later on, like most kids, I didn’t want to do what my parents wanted me to do. I wanted to do music, or painting, or something else. I’d done about 10 movies before I decided I wanted to make acting the main thrust of my career.
AVC: What role solidified the decision for you?
JB: It was The Iceman Cometh. It was a time where I had just finished a movie and I didn’t really want to do another one. Actually, I turned down The Iceman Cometh originally. The director I had just worked with, Lamont Johnson, called me and read me the riot act: How could I turn down this incredible opportunity? I kind of rethought the whole thing, and said, “I understand professionals have to work when they don’t feel like it, and I certainly don’t feel like it. So maybe this will put the nail in the coffin for my acting career.” So I did it, and I ended up having a wonderful time.
AVC: What do you tell your kids about the business?
JB: Unlike my dad, I wasn’t really proactive about it. I sort of related to their feelings: I remember growing up with a famous dad, and getting a job because of nepotism is kind of a turn-off. As a kid, you want to do it on your own. The toughest thing about acting is getting that break, and for me, that was handled. So for my kids, I didn’t put them through that, and I’m kind of sorry now, because they’re in their early to mid-20s, wondering what kind of career paths they should be on. I mentioned they might want to go into acting, but I think I brought up the idea a little too late.
AVC: You’re been praised for the way you effortlessly seem to get into character. What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?
JB: This one was kind of a challenge—I find I’m most challenged by things I really care about, because I really want to do them well. It causes quite a bit of anxiety. But that very thing you’re afraid of is kind of like a blessing in disguise. If you didn’t have that fear, you wouldn’t have the other side—courage and bravery, positive emotions. As an actor, you get used to those fears, and you’re almost happy when they show up. It makes you learn your lines and prepare. Then when it’s finally time to pull the trigger on the thing, you relax and let it come out. You don’t think about it too much.
AVC: How did the experience of working on this new Tron film compare to the previous one, when special effects in film were comparatively rudimentary?
JB: In a funny way, it was a lot like shooting this new one, because it was so innovative. Of course, the new one is going to make that old one look like a black-and-white TV show. The acting assignment is similar: You’re not in the environment you’re supposed to be in. Nowadays, they call it “the volume”—you’re not even in the cameras.
AVC: In another interview, you talked about watching films you’re in—that it’s like watching a home movie, because you remember the nitty-gritty. But you said that when The Big Lebowski comes on, you just have to watch it, the whole thing. What is it about that film that captures your attention?
JB: It’s kind of a masterpiece, man. It’s like The Godfather—I see it on the tube and I think I’m just going to watch a couple of scenes, but I end up watching the whole thing.