Interview: Jeff Bridges, actor

DRESSED casually in denim, Jeff Bridges has squeezed his 6ft 2in bulk into a chair by the window of a Manhattan hotel.

• Jeff Bridges

The afternoon light suits him well. He may no longer be the handsome devil he was in 1980s potboilers such as Jagged Edge and Against All Odds, but there's something quite magnetic about him.

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Having just turned 60, he looks good. His mane of hair, tinted with silver, is thick and healthy. And while the skin is a little craggy now, those blue eyes, alight with impish enthusiasm, have the look of a curious child.

Still, Bridges comes with baggage. Back when he was making the 1994 terrorist thriller Blown Away, esteemed New York Times film critic Janet Maslin profiled him in a piece that seems to have stuck to him like glue. "Nice guy," she noted. "And a great film actor: one of the best of his generation, and certainly the most underrated. But Jeff Bridges is just terrible at being a movie star." Maybe she was thinking that he once turned down 91/2 Weeks and Big, films that sent Mickey Rourke and Tom Hanks into orbit. Whatever it was, today Bridges can afford a wry smile when the quote is mentioned. "That was a compliment from Janet, I think. I don't feel that underrated."

Even so, Maslin went on to ask: "So where is Jeff Bridges' Michael Corleone? Where is his Travis Bickle?" She had a point: 23 years after delivering his Oscar-nominated turn in 1971's The Last Picture Show, where was the defining Bridges performance? By which I mean, where was that character that we all identify with him, the one that made him a household name? The acerbic DJ in The Fisher King? The car designer in Tucker: The Man and his Dream? No, of course not. Fortunately, it has come since – though not in a way any of us, most of all Bridges, would've ever expected.

Since his arrival, the Dude, the pot-addled slacker from the Coen brothers' 1997 comedy The Big Lebowski, has become a one-man cult. Lebowski-fests, where fans gather to sup White Russians – the Dude's drink of choice – and watch the film, are now held all over the world. "That film has constantly surprised me. I was surprised that it wasn't a bigger hit in the States when it came out. And I was equally surprised that it was a bigger hit in Europe. Then it got this underground cult following to really get this success. But it has really gone beyond what I could ever have imagined."

Bridges even went to a Lebowski-fest, where he got up and jammed in front of fans, playing Bob Dylan's The Man in Me, which features in the film. "It was sort of my Beatle moment – performing to a sea of Dudes," he says, smiling at the memory. It conjures a beautiful image – though will do little to dispel the notion that Bridges and the Dude are cut from the same cloth (and not just because the character's drawstring trousers, bathrobe and Hawaiian shirts came from Bridges' own wardrobe).

While Bridges no longer smokes pot, he has been through a druggy phase. Famously, he and a Rolling Stone journalist once shared some Thai stick during a 1977 interview, while he experimented with LSD in his youth until a bad experience "quenched that particular thirst".

Back in the 1970s, Bridges even spent time with John C Lilly, the physician and psychoanalyst who, as part of his research regarding the nature of consciousness, invented the isolation tank. And, yes, Bridges did take a dip. "That was actually quite wonderful," he recalls. "The whole idea of the isolation tank is to see what happens to consciousness when you take away or eliminate the input into your senses, so you're in a box floating in salt water – with 1,000lbs of salt, so you're very buoyant. You can't see anything, your ears are under water, and you can't hear anything. And what does the mind do? It's so active, and it's constantly projecting, like a movie screen."

The trouble is, the Dude status is now impossible to shake. Recently cast in The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bridges played Bill Django, a goateed and ponytailed US army official who trains soldiers in the art of developing paranormal powers, a system he developed while high on acid. According to the film's director, Grant Heslov: "That's not far from who Jeff is. He is his character. I just think that audiences instantly fall in love with him in that kind of role."

I put this to Bridges and he emits a high-pitched whine of a laugh. "I probably have a little bit of Django in me, but I don't think the guy really represents me accurately."

So what does? Bridges loves to claim he is lazy ("I do my best to not work," he tells me), yet since 2008, which saw him star in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Iron Man (playing tycoons in both), he has added a further five films to his CV.

With a love of ceramics and painting, even when he's not working he's hardly indolent. He's also an obsessive photographer, capturing each film set he works on with a series of snaps. A tradition begun after his photographer wife Susan gave him a Widelux camera, around the time he was filming 1980 mega-flop Heaven's Gate, this need to document recalls his mother Dorothy, who died last year aged 93. She kept a journal every day of her married life – eventually giving each of her three children a hand-written biography of their lives up to the age of 21.

He also writes songs, having previously cut an album entitled Be Here Soon, an eclectic mix of rock, jazz and R&B, produced by former Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald, who co-founded the Ramp Records label with the actor.

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who saw The Fabulous Baker Boys, in which Bridges and his real-life brother Beau co-starred as small-time pianists who hook up with Michelle Pfeiffer's escort-turned-torch-singer. Pfeiffer's rendition of Makin' Whoopee, atop of Bridges' piano, remains one of the most iconic scenes the actor has ever been in – yet typical of this most generous of performers, he sits back and lets his co-star steal the limelight.

The actor's latest film is also a musician's story. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart sees him play on-the-slide country and western singer Bad Blake, a role so memorable it may even eclipse the Dude in our minds as the quintessential Bridges performance. With failed marriages behind him, a booze-soaked liver and a career that has seen him reduced to playing in bowling alleys and bars, his life of disappointment and disenchantment feels like one long country song. Until he meets Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jean, a single mother and journalist who arrives to interview him and begins to unearth the real man behind the crumbling faade.

With no music accompanying the script he received, Bridges initially passed on the project. But then he discovered the involvement of his "good buddy", music producer T Bone Burnett, who previously worked on the soundtrack for the Coen brothers' bluegrass-inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou? "He was doing the music supervising, and writing a lot of the tunes and recording them." Bringing in Burnett obviously had its advantages, with much of the pre-recorded material for the film being cut by musicians who previously worked on the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant bestseller Raising Sand, which Burnett had produced.

Bridges first met Burnett – along with fellow musician Stephen Bruton – on the set of Heaven's Gate. Both had been invited by Bridges' co-star Kris Kristofferson to play minor roles, and every night they would all jam together after work. Bridges notes that both Kristofferson and particularly Bruton were role models for him when playing Bad Blake. "Stephen's life paralleled Bad Blake's quite a bit. He would drive himself from gig to gig, toting his guitar, and he struggled with substance and booze and all that kind of stuff. So he was a wonderful resource for me, and a dear friend too." For a moment, Bridges looks slightly misty-eyed: Bruton – whose work features in the film – died shortly after Crazy Heart was completed.

Yet Bridges was also involved in the music, and was even offered an executive producer credit as a result. "They asked me and I said, 'Sure, put me down,'" he grins. It's only the third time of his career he has been involved as a producer. Previously, he worked on two films by director Martin Bell – TV movie Hidden in America, in which he co-starred with Beau, and 1992's American Heart, in which he gave a wrenching turn as an embittered ex-convict. On the latter, he cut his fee by a third, went to Cannes to seek financing and even managed to persuade Tom Waits to contribute to the soundtrack. "It's great to experience a film from its inception all the way to the end," he says. "There's something kind of wonderful about that."

Having just won the Best Actor Golden Globe for Crazy Heart, Bridges may well find himself up for the fifth Oscar of his career when the line-up is announced in early February. He admits he finds the whole awards season hoopla a bit overwhelming. "It scares me," he says. "It's all a little too fast. I like things a little bit slower. If you don't stop, man, the world goes by. When I have to, I get up to speed, but I don't like to do that all the time." An Oscar nod will also draw comparisons to Robert Duvall, who produced Crazy Heart and co-stars. Duvall won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an alcoholic country singer in the 1983 classic Tender Mercies, an obvious influence on Cooper's film.

While early reviews have compared the film more with The Wrestler, in truth Crazy Heart is its own beast. With his PR hat on, Bridges guides me to the internet to watch some raw footage of him as Bad Blake in concert. "If you go on YouTube and type in 'Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell', who is also in the movie with me, and then add 'Crazy Heart', you can see a scene where we're on stage. A guy named Toby Keith was kind enough in the middle of his concert to let us use the half-time to film some of our stuff. Some guy captured it on his phone. It's in a big concert hall, and you can check that out and see what Colin and I did."

It's clear from viewing the clip that, while a pony-tailed Farrell (who plays Tommy Sweet, a former protg of Bad Blake's who has suddenly hit the big time) bops around the stage with a tambourine, it's Bridges who exudes all the requisite charisma. Does he ever get nervous, performing live like that? He nods sagely. "You kind of get nervous, but the anxiety and stage fright, it really doesn't go away. You just have to make it your buddy. Like he's going to be around. It's a common thing. I thought when I was beginning that I would finally get used to that performing, but I don't think you ever completely do."

Self-taught, Bridges first got into music through his brother. "Beau is nine years older than I am, and he was in there at the beginning of rock'n'roll. He had a guitar and he didn't play it much, and I took it over. The great thing about guitar is that the chords you play are literally pictures of where you put your fingers, so you can teach it to yourself. That's basically what I did."

Bridges' father Lloyd, who died aged 85 in 1998, was also an actor of note – having made his name in a series of man's-man roles, most famously the underwater TV show Sea Hunt, in which he played adventure-seeking scuba diver Mike Nelson. "He was a brilliant actor, who fell by a double-edged sword," says Bridges now. "In Sea Hunt, he played that part so well that people thought he was Mike Nelson, the good guy. That's all the parts he got offered; he was a Shakespearean actor who had done plays on Broadway. So I can see how typecasting is dangerous. That made me really conscious of switching my roles."

Both Bridges boys featured in two episodes apiece of Sea Hunt – and later both served in the Coast Guard Reserves, thanks to their father's connections on the show. However, as has been the case in their careers as a whole, the younger Bridges would soon eclipse his sibling – when, as a 22-year-old, he starred in The Last Picture Show.

He followed it with John Huston's washed-up boxing story Fat City and a second Oscar-nominated turn as Clint Eastwood's sidekick in 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (a third would come for his role as an earthbound alien in 1984's Starman, a fourth in 2000 for his president in The Contender). At the time, Bridges was still very take-it-or-leave-it about acting. He had just turned down a version of The Iceman Cometh with Lee Marvin because he felt tired. Until, that is, Lamont Johnson – who had just directed him in The Last American Hero – read him the riot act for turning down such an opportunity. Bridges relented, took the role and never looked back. Shortly afterwards, he met his future wife – while in Montana on the set of the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe. Married in June 1977, they are now in their 33rd year (though they've some way to go to eclipse Bridges' parents, whose union spanned six decades). So what's the secret to long-lasting nuptials? "The simple answer is love," he replies. "But of course understanding, communication and commitment certainly add to it."

His being a father of three daughters – Isabelle, 28; Jessica, 26; and Haley, 24 – may go some way to explaining why Bridges exudes a rather gentle quality on screen and in person. He's a family man, pure and simple – like Beau and their other sibling, Cindy, who both have five children each. And, unlike most Hollywood stars, who love to make a show of their charity work, he's a quiet philanthropist. In 1983, he founded the End Hunger Network, an organisation designed to help fight hunger internationally. In recent years, it has switched attentions to the home front and problems in the US.

Bridges says he looks forward to the day he can retire – yet shows no signs of slowing down. While he's set to reunite later this year with the Coens for a remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, this summer will see him head up Tron Legacy. The long-awaited sequel to the seminal 1982 sci-fi classic, it's set to reacquaint us with software engineer Kevin Flynn and his virtual reality avatar Clu, last seen trapped in a video game. Not his first sequel – he once reprised The Last Picture Show's Duane Jackson, albeit unsuccessfully, in 1990's Texasville – it's nevertheless keenly awaited. "The effects are going to be quite astounding," promises the actor. "I came on board the sequel for the same reasons I did the first one. Just to be a part of the groundbreaking technology."

Indeed, rarely has Bridges entered into major special-effects territory (the risible 1976 version of King Kong notwithstanding). "Primarily, I wanted to explore that technical world again. I'm used to making movies in a pretty traditional way. And to use all that new technology was amazing."

As you might expect, he's not much of a computer wizard himself, though. "I still find myself sitting in front of the damn screen for eight hours a day. I kind of have a love-hate thing going with it. It's wonderful to run across people who say, 'I don't do e-mail.' It's so refreshing. I can understand why they do that, and they seem to carry on just fine without it."

How the film will fare against the other blockbusters of the summer is anyone's guess. He hasn't always had the best of luck with commercial vehicles, and he finds the number-crunching of the industry rather distasteful. "So much of the ugly business now is getting down to big corporations in Hollywood. Back in the 1970s, you had companies like BBS, which produced The Last Picture Show and Easy Rider and great movies like that. Now a lot of it is all about box office."

As he puts it, "I would take 200 million to make five good pictures instead of one bad one." He realises what he has said, and suddenly backtracks a little. "I'm not against doing a bigger-budget movie. But I find that most of the good scripts are from smaller films."

Crazy Heart is one such example, but Bridges has built a career out of championing the smaller films. It's maybe why Maslin felt he was underrated and why he has yet to win an Oscar: lending your voice to such projects doesn't always get you heard in Hollywood. But just maybe this will be his year. This is one dude that deserves it. r

Crazy Heart opens on 19 February. See www.foxsearchlight.com/crazyheart.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010