Jeff Bridges reveals his favorite Dylan songs, why he loves ‘Big Lebowski’ and how ‘Hell or High Water’ erases his bad movies in our ‘Last Word’ Q&A. Illustration by Mark Summers
In the six years since he reunited with the Coen Brothers for a brilliant remake of the classic John Wayne western True Grit, Jeff Bridges has struggled to connect with audiences in multiplexes, releasing little-seen flicks like R.I.P.D. and Seventh Son. But right now he’s starring in one of the most critically-acclaimed movies of the year, the neo-western Hell or High Water. He plays a U.S. marshal days away from retirement that tracks a pair of bank robbers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) across Texas. We spoke to Bridges about recovering from a box office bomb, what he learned from his father and the never-ending legacy of the Dude.
You’ve worked steadily for 50 years, but you’ve never been a superstar. Do you think you’ve benefited from not having one huge period of success?
My father, Lloyd Bridges, had a big TV series in the late Fifties and early Sixties called Sea Hunt. He was so good at playing a skin diver that people thought he actually was that character. That’s as great a compliment as an actor can get, but it was also frustrating, because he kept getting offered skin-diving scripts. In my career, I really set out not to develop too strong a persona, so that you wouldn’t have a hard time imagining me in any given role. I wanted to pleasantly confuse the audience on who I was.
When you’re not making movies, you lead a band called the Abiders. What music still moves you the most?
Bob Dylan. I love all the different incarnations of his music.
What’s your favorite Dylan song?
The first thing that popped into my head is “The Man in Me,” because it was in The Big Lebowski. I do a version of that with the Abiders. We worked together on [the 2003 movie] Masked and Anonymous. He’d knock on my trailer door and go, “Hey, you wanna pick?” We would play the version of “You Belong to Me” that he did on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack.
Who is your hero?
[Architect and inventor] Bucky Fuller. He had an analogy about ocean tankers: They use tiny rudders, called trim tabs, to turn the big rudder, and the big rudder turns the ship. Bucky said, “That’s a metaphor for how the individual affects society. We’re all trim tabs, because we’re connected to so-called more powerful people, and those people can turn society in a particular direction.” As a matter of fact, that’s what Bucky has on his tombstone: “Call me trim tab.”
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
About 25 years ago, my wife and I bought Kenny Loggins’ house in Santa Barbara. It was way out of our price range, but we said, “Screw it, let’s go for it.” We’ve raised our family there. We overextended ourselves at the perfect time in our lives, and it worked out for the best.
You’ve been married to your wife for nearly 40 years. That’s longer than basically any marriage in Hollywood. What’s your secret?
I’m just crazy about the girl. If you’re married, you gotta work on it. We’ve hit some bumps, but we didn’t deal with them in a cynical way. Those bumps are great opportunities to get to know each other better. It’s all about intimacy. That’s the main high in life.
Do you have a fitness regimen?
I could be kinder to my body. As an actor, a role can be a great excuse not to be in shape. I mean, you wouldn’t want to see the Dude with a six-pack, so you eat that Häagen-Dazs. My weight goes up and down. I’m curious about this cryo thing, where they take you down to 250 degrees below zero for three minutes. It’s supposed to help with inflammation.
If you star in a big-budget movie like R.I.P.D. and it bombs, do you take it personally?
Not really. When a movie comes out, I’m working on something else and my attention is there. Also, I’ve already been paid [laughs]. This new one, Hell or High Water, is such a cool movie. That doesn’t happen all the time, so when it does, you go, “Yee-haw!”
What advice do you wish you’d received at age 20?
I got the advice — I just didn’t take it! My dad would say, “It’s all about habit, Jeff. You gotta get into good habits.” And I said, “No, Dad, you gotta live each moment. Live it as the first one and be fresh.” And he says, “That’s a wonderful thought, but that’s not what we are. We are habitual creatures. It’s about developing these grooves.” As I age, I can see his point. What you practice, that’s what you become.
What did you learn as a young actor that helped your career?
We recently lost a wonderful director, Mike Cimino. When I was doing his first movie, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I was in my early twenties and I was very insecure and anxious. I didn’t feel like the guy I was supposed to be playing; I just couldn’t relate to the character. The day before shooting started, I told Mike, “If you wanna fire me, I won’t blame you.” He looked at me and said, “You know the game of tag? Well, you’re it.” It ended up being a great vote of confidence. Now, whenever I’m in a situation I don’t think I’m up for, I think, “Tag, I’m it.” You’ve just gotta do the thing, man.
If the first sentence of your obituary refers to you as the Dude, would that bother you?
Oh, no. That would be great. I’m proud of that movie. God, it’s a wonderful film.
How many times a day are you asked about it?
Just a couple of minutes ago I signed a couple of bowling pins for some people. That’s a normal thing. Somebody will hand me something and say, “Draw a picture! Draw the Dude!” They’re probably selling them on eBay or something.
Jeff Bridges’s new film, Hell or High Water, hit theaters in August to great acclaim. The 66-year-old Oscar-winning actor shares what he’s learned from a six-decade career that began when he was just a baby.
I kinda fell into this acting thing. I’m really a product of nepotism. I guess. I don’t know really what the hell I would have been if I didn’t do the acting.
My first role was at six months, in a film called The Company She Keeps in 1951. My parents, Dorothy and Lloyd Bridges, were visiting their friend, John Cromwell, on the set. Jane Greer was in a scene, and they needed a baby. My mom, I’m told, said, “Here, take my baby,” and gave me to Jean. I was supposed to be a crying baby in the scene, but I was a pretty happy baby in general, and they were having problems getting me to look upset. So my mom said to Jane, “Just go ahead and pinch him!” Jane gave me a pinch, and of course I started crying—that was my first acting role. Many years later—33 years later—I made a movie with Jane Greer called Against All Odds. We had a scene together, and I told her, “Jane, I’m having a little trouble emoting here. Can you just give me a little pinch to get me started?”
I DON’T KNOW REALLY WHAT THE HELL I WOULD HAVE BEEN IF I DIDN’T DO THE ACTING.
Unlike a lot of showbiz parents, my father really loved show business and encouraged my brother and me to get into it. He was in a popular show called Sea Hunt. There’d be a role in one of the episodes for an eight-year-old, and he’d say, “Come on, Jeff. Come do it, come on and play with Dad. You’ll get out of school, it’ll be fun.” And then he’d set me on his bed and go over the lines. He taught me all the basics of acting. How important it is to listen to the other guy. How to make it feel like it’s happening for the first time. How to do a line in many different ways. It was like being home schooled in acting.
My dad was so good in Sea Hunt, people thought he was a skin diver who took some acting lessons when in fact he studied Shakespeare. Not many people know it but he replaced Richard Tyler on Broadway in Man of La Mancha. He was a wonderful singer, great at comedy, drama, all sorts of things. But he played Sea Hunt so well, he got offered a lot of parts for skin divers. That got kind of old.
Later on, my dad went the full circle, and he was kind of typecast as a comedic actor. I did two films with my father as an adult: Tucker and Blown Away. When we were doing Blown Away, there was the part of my uncle in the movie, and I told the producers, “Have you thought about casting an actor who kinda looks like me—a wonderful actor named Lloyd Bridges?” And the producer laughed and said, “Oh yeah, your father’s a wonderful actor, but he’s really more of a comedian?” Like in Airplane and Izzy Mandelbaum on Seinfeld. And I said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” It’s amazing how people forget. They made him read for the part. My dad didn’t complain. He was the consummate professional. It was a life lesson about fame.
People come up to me all the time and tell me how they loved Sea Hunt. They tell me about strapping vacuum cleaners onto their backs and pretending they were aqualungs, or putting on their mother’s pantyhose and pretending it was a wetsuit. I meet scientists and oceanographers who come up and say, “Oh man, Sea Hunt got me started.”
When one of my movies comes on TV, and I’m surfing the channels and I land on it, I’ll usually watch one scene and then click—I turn to something else. But if it’s The Big Lebowski, I get sucked in. I can’t help it. Each scene is so great, and all the actors are terrific. Wherever I am, I’ll end up watching it till the end. The John Turturro stuff at the bowling alley. Oh, God! He’s amazing.
I was kinda surprised when Lebowski initially came out that it didn’t do better—it was mildly received, a lot of people didn’t like it at all. And then it happened to be a hit in Europe, and then splashed back on this side of the pond and became kind of a cult thing. Strange how that happens.
After Lebowski, I did have a little concern about developing baggage like my dad did with the Sea Hunt thing, being known going forward forever as The Dude. If the persona of any one character you portray is too strong, it’s hard for a viewer to project any other character on top of it—they keep unconsciously remembering his other roles. For that reason, I like to be able to mix it up. So I was happy that my next film after Lebowski was The Contender, in which I played the President of the United States. But gosh, The Dude is a wonderful character. I wouldn’t mind if I was mostly recognized for that guy. That doesn’t bother me at all.
The 2016 summer movie season has been disappointing, especially if you discount some of the more solid animated family films. The spate of sequels and reboots certainly left a lot to be desired. Suicide Squad ended up as not much more than a two-hour exercise in excessive music licensing. Ghostbusters was decent but unable to rise above toxic pre-release criticisms and stalled out at the box office. For adults though, there were few bright spots. The Nice Guys and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping provided some R-rated laughs, but, again, raise your hand if you saw either. The Shallows is a tight thriller that’s likely to become a HBO staple. There’s a takeaway from the last few months of hype: Chris Pine was in a fantastic movie and it didn’t involve Starfleet. It’s called Hell or High Water, and you should make it your business to catch it if it’s playing at a theater near you.
Set in very dusty Texas (though shot, and shot incredibly well, in New Mexico), in a series of fewer-than-one horse towns, the film stars Pine and Ben Foster as outlaw brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard, racing the clock to knock over a few banks. Their motives, and the cleverness of their scheme, become clear fairly early on, but it never gets boring, especially when things start to go horribly wrong and the shots start firing.
Pine is revelatory as Toby, and it’s great to see him leave the brash type role he’s done well in three Star Treks to Foster (one of his generation’s best character actors and arguably the most talented member to emerge from the Disney Channel pipeline) and give his interpretation of the criminal-with-a-soft-side trope while at the same time playing a rake who’s responsible for everything that goes wrong. Pine’s Toby is a man of purpose and principal, but he’s also a ball of rage as witnessed by an unspoken threat to a loan officer or an outburst at a gas station that’s played for the whoa-shit-factor and then for laughs when Foster reacts. The two have an easy, lived-in chemistry, and despite not resembling each other all too much, they’re perfectly matched as brothers. There’s an underlying sadness to their interactions and mission as a whole (an excellent family melodrama exists in a different edit), but both actors acquit themselves well, helped by great writing.
The performance most likely to stick with you, however, is Jeff Bridges as the grizzled Texas Ranger in hot pursuit of the Howard boys. Marcus Hamilton is an instantly iconic Jeff Bridges character—half True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn, half Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake—and he hasn’t been this good in years. It’s a gregarious, soulful performance, a veteran actor playing a veteran lawman and you believe every part of it—even the clichés go down as smoothly as a Shiner Bock. If you squint, the character could be Jeff Lebowski if he never tried pot and went straight back in the ’70s.