|

From pretty-boy star to grizzled veteran

Laid-back Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges turns on the charm and talks about latest movie 'Crazy Heart'

by George Hadley-Garcia

HOLLYWOOD — “My next movie is a sequel to the one I did where I play a guy trapped inside a video game,” says Jeff Bridges, veteran of over 60 films.

The film he’s referring to is “TRON: Legacy,” a sequel to “TRON,” from 1982.

“It was kind of weird doing this, because it’s some 28 years after the fact. When I did the first one, I was young. Now look what’s happened,” he snickers.

Bridges, son of TV and film star Lloyd Bridges and younger brother of actor Beau Bridges, is now 60. He is also the belated winner of an Academy Award for Best Actor, having received the prize earlier this year for his role as country and Western singer Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.” It was Bridges’ fifth nomination.

He got his first shot at an Oscar when he was age 22 for “The Last Picture Show” (1971). “I couldn’t believe I’d been nominated. I sort of asked some people, ‘What for? Why did they nominate me?’

“There were some big hitters in that movie. Some got nominated, and I think one of them won. . . . Am I right, man? Sorry.”

Bridges chuckles, explaining that although he admires his more talented peers, he’s not “real heavy into awards and keeping track of who’s won, who’s been nominated, who hasn’t been nominated, and etc.” (Cloris Leachman won a Best Supporting Actress Award for “The Last Picture Show.”)

Bridges continues, “When I made ‘TRON,’ the idea of being stuck in a video game was pretty wild. It was total fiction. But today, it seems like a lot of kids are stuck inside computers. I have one grandkid who . . . well, anyway, if I had to get trapped inside something, I’d rather it be a guitar or even a temporary marijuana haze than in a video game, and certainly not in a computer.”

There were those who felt Bridges was endangering his chances of award recognition by mentioning in press and even TV interviews that “from time to time” he likes “to smoke a joint.”

“Being honest is part of who I am, or try to be,” he says. “By the time you get to my age, you realize it’s lots simpler to just tell the truth (with) less covering up, and you need a fantastic memory to keep lying successfully.”

While the public didn’t make Bridges into a superstar — though he’s the biggest star in his family — his peers seem to love him, as do most movie critics and a very devoted chunk of the public.

“I’ve been very lucky. I got my foot in that difficult acting door via my father, who kept hiring my brother and me to play child roles on his (TV) series ‘Sea Hunt,’ and I’ve been in quite a few memorable movies. Which, it’s logical, ‘cos when you’ve done as many as I have, one batch is gonna be duds, another middle-of-the-road, and the best batch is going to turn out pretty damn good.”

Bridges was also Oscar-nominated for “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), in support of non-nominee Clint Eastwood, and as Best Actor in “Starman” (1984, playing an alien) and “The Contender” (2000, as a shady U.S. president.)

Ironically, when offered the script of “Crazy Heart” by writer-director Scott Cooper, Bridges declined the project. He is known in Hollywood for trying to work less and less often in recent years. “It’s not like I’m aiming to do 75 movies or 100 movies, or any specific number,” he explains.

“And face it, I don’t have to work for the money. I like to hang out, play the guitar, watch the moon, be with friends and family. I like to watch good movies. If I’m gonna be in a movie, it has to really grab me. . . . So I kept putting Cooper off, and he kept asking me to reconsider” the role that Cooper wrote specifically for Bridges.

A major factor in changing Bridge’s mind was that his friend, musician T Bone Burnett, decided to coproduce “Crazy Heart” and oversee the songs to be used.

“Cooper hadn’t given me any musical material,” says the actor, “and if I was gonna play a country singer, I needed to have some songs, and I expected them to be viable.”

It’s not widely known that Bridges released a CD in 2000, about which he prefers not to comment (“It’s water under the bridge, though I enjoyed the whole process and the result”).

Bridges gained 11 kg to play the broken-down ex music star in “Crazy Heart.” He also listened to country music night and day and read up about alcoholics.

“I’m not alcoholic but I’ve known a few in this business,” he says wryly. “The older you get, the more easily you can get inside other people’s heads, which is great for acting — only, you don’t want to get stuck inside anyone else’s head and have a ‘TRON’ situation!” he says, laughing.

In the early years, he admits he sometimes walked through roles. “Beau and I used to be very pretty. Sometimes — a lot, really — we got hired basically for our looks,” says Bridges. “Then Beau packed on the pounds, which is fine ‘cos he’s happy that way. My concern is his health, since extra weight doesn’t help you any.

“Then there was the phase of being hired because I was a young, attractive male lead, but one of about 20 interchangeable actors. Like when I was cast in ‘King Kong’ opposite Jessica Lange. Of course now I take the work a lot more seriously, so I try and say no to almost everything . . . but once I got into ‘Crazy Heart,’ that was a great experience all along the way.”

Bridges doesn’t mention that during much of the filming he was sick with the flu. That fact came out via his longtime stand-in and friend Loyd Catlett, who met Bridges in the early 1970s, and also caught the flu on set.

Bridges is admired by many peers for including Catlett’s name in his acceptance speeches, as he did when he won the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards this year.

Catlett notes, “Jeff is a warm and very open person. He has none of that insecure I’m-a-big-star attitude I’ve seen in some other guys. Maybe because he’s from a family of actors, he’s so down to Earth and accessible.”

Did Bridges hesitate to gain weight for the role, which is more difficult to shed when older?

“Of course I did. It’s a big undertaking — no pun intended. The older you get, the more you have to think twice on anything professional and anything health-related. But, hey, the role called for it. I had to look like a wreck. The guy’s an alcoholic and he’s gone to seed. And I knew I was semivain enough to lose the pounds after (filming). Besides, it was fun gaining that weight! Time for hot fudge sundaes!”

Another aspect of “Crazy Heart” that appealed to Bridges was the love story. It begins when Bad Blake is interviewed by reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal). They have an affair and she strives to bring him back to his former status as a nonalcoholic singing star.

“I knew with that script,” says Bridges, “that Oscar voters go for that type of story, because it’s a redemptive drama: The guy was up, now he’s down, way down, then, being in love, he’s gradually up again. It’s a formula, but within that formula, and beyond it, I think it’s a hell of a good movie.”

Another such role was The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult film “The Big Lebowski.” That character has become a cult phenomenon, and many fans today know Bridges as The Dude. “I sometimes get mail addressed to The Dude, or to Dude Bridges,” he chuckles. “That character and that movie have taken on a postrelease life — a tremendous life of their own. You simply can’t predict anything like that.

“In fact, when I agreed to do ‘Crazy Heart,’ I told Scott, ‘This movie might not make any money, you know.’ It’s Scott’s first movie behind the camera, and I didn’t want him to end up disillusioned and disappointed.”

After its completion, it looked as if “Crazy Heart” might remain on the shelf or “go direct to video,” because its distributor, Paramount Vantage, went under. But word had gotten around in the industry about Bridges’ performance and its Oscar potential, and the film was picked up by Fox Searchlight.

“I pretty much figured the suits (executives) wouldn’t allow ‘Crazy Heart’ to fade into obscurity, and for Scott’s sake, especially, I was kinda thrilled when the movie found another strong arm to lean on so that it could go out into the theaters.”

Bridges has played a wide range of characters and has now bagged that previously elusive Best Actor Oscar. Is there any role or film genre he would still like to delve into?

He laughs and says: “Good question, ‘cos it’s like, what’s left? And now, with all these awards, including the Academy’s, my problem is hoping they don’t expect me to top myself next time out.

“As to what I’d like to do in the future that’s different and satisfying, that’s really not up to me. . . . I just lay back and wait for serendipity to come to me. Maybe this is my peak year, the best I’ll ever have. In which case, isn’t it smart to enjoy the now, to live in and appreciate the moment? I feel that the future is always in the future, so enjoy the now. Now is what we’re living — now is while we’re living.”

He snickers. “That’s the end of the sermon. When it’s Zen, is it still called a sermon?” And then his voice drops to almost a whisper, and he graciously concludes, “Hey, thanks for your time, man.”

“Crazy Heart” opens June 12 in Japan.