Entering its 25th season on PBS, American Masters has produced an exceptional library of more than 160 biographies since its inception, and has deepened public knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the arts and artists of every kind. Premiering on January 12th, Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides examines the Academy Award winner’s incredible body of work and stable of memorable characters, while telling the fascinating and surprising story of the man himself.
While at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, actor Jeff Bridges talked about his journey as an actor, his desire not to create a strong identifiable personality, his interest in expressing himself in a variety of art forms, his favorite film roles and his love of playing music. He also admitted to having no film work currently lined up. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JEFF BRIDGES: During my early years, I thought I might be a musician. Like most kids, I didn’t do what my parents wanted me to do. They were gung-ho that all their kids become actors. They loved showbiz so much. I am a product of nepotism, basically. I don’t think I would be an actor, if my father wasn’t, and he didn’t say, “My son’s going to do this part.” That was in Sea Hunt. In any TV shows or anything he was in, he always tried to get his family involved, in some way. I resisted that, but then it was a matter of the path of least resistance. I started to work when I was in high school, and shortly after that, The Last Picture Show came around, so it started to really take off around my early 20s.
You’ve rarely worked with the same director more than twice, but you reunited with the Coen brothers for True Grit. Has that been a deliberate decision, or is that a coincidence?
BRIDGES: I think it’s probably a coincidence. I’ve had great luck with first-time guys. If you look at my filmography, it’s just riddled with wonderful first-time directors, from Mike Cimino to Bob Benton to Scott Cooper to Steve Kloves, the guy who did The Fabulous Baker Boys.
How does it feel to be on American Masters, and how do you think your fans are going to feel about it?
BRIDGES: It’s a funny thing. Fame really works against actors, in a way, because our anonymity is a wonderful thing for us. We can slip into roles a little bit differently. One of the reasons I resisted developing too strong a persona is because I thought it would be harder for the audience to imagine me in different roles. But, at a certain point, I don’t want to put any more energy into messing around with that. I’m just going to let that rep take care of itself. As far as the American Masters documentary goes, I was invited to participate in it, but I really didn’t have any final say, probably rightly so. You don’t want the subject of a documentary to have cutting say, or be able to manipulate the film, in any kind of way. I didn’t choose the title. I guess they picked that, which is okay.
BRIDGES: I know what you mean. I tried to resist creating a strong persona because of my father with Sea Hunt. I saw how frustrated he was because he was a very versatile actor and he was successful as Mike Nelson. He got offered a lot of scuba diving scripts. That was about it, for quite a while. So, I went about not developing a strong persona, and now The Dude has materialized as that. Now, I’m not so stuck on not developing a persona. I figure now that my persona is going to be whatever it is, and I’ve got enough material around The Dude that the filmmakers know I can do other things, so I’m not as worried as I once was about that. And, I love The Big Lebowski. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’m partial because I’m in it, but even if I wasn’t in it, it would still be one of my favorite movies. It always hooks me. I’m one of the guys who clicks on the TV and, if The Godfather comes on, I’ll watch that. I say, “I’ll just watch a couple of scenes,” and I get hooked. Lebowski is like that with me, too. I’ll watch a couple scenes, and I’m a goner.
In addition to acting, you’re a musician, you enjoy painting and you make wine. Why so many different creative endeavors?
BRIDGES: It just pops out that way. I can’t help it. The same thing happened with the website. I opened this website a few years ago, to promote an album I was putting out at the time and, all of a sudden, I got hooked. I said, “This is like a canvas. It’s like having my own TV or radio station.” That was another outlet. I just find my creativity manifesting a bunch of different ways. I’m drawn to the path of least resistence. If I’m around, and there’s no cameras and nobody wants to make a movie, and there’s a bunch of paper on the table and a pencil, I’ll go at that. If there’s some clay, I will mess around with that. If there’s a guitar, I’ll play that. It’s my nature, I guess.
BRIDGES: I made a book for True Grit and for Tron, for the cast and crew. About 10 years ago, I put out a book called Pictures that was a compilation of all the “best of” shots from those little books, and that was available to the public. I’m thinking about doing that again and making the next batch. I may be releasing that original book for the iPad, or make some kind of digital version of it.
Can you talk about your desire to reunite with director Peter Bogdanovich for the third time, to revisit the role that kicked things off for you?
BRIDGES: I saw Peter not too long ago in Texas, with T-Bone Burnett, who has also worked with Peter. We were fantasizing about getting the rest of the Larry McMurtry books going and make movies out of them, with the same folks that were involved in The Last Picture Show. Then, 20 years ago, we made a movie called Texasville. It was based on Larry’s book by the same title. Now, he’s got three other books with my character, and all those characters, from that small Texas town, and I thought it would be great to get together with Peter. I love working with him. He’s a real master, and it’s unusual to have the same actors make a film, first 20 years ago, and now 20 years after that, so 40 years later, when you’ve got the same cast, all aging naturally, with the same director. It’s a unique experience that I’d like to be a part of. Maybe that will happen. I hope so. Larry McMurtry is such a wonderful writer.
What was it like to grow up in what seemed to be a very nourishing, well-adjusted, supportive family?
BRIDGES: We called my mother, Dorothy Bridges, “The General.” She ran the show. She kept us all in line. She was a very remarkable woman, and a great writer. I think my love of journalizing my life comes from my mom. She kept a diary, every day of her life, since she met my father, and when each of her kids became 21, we got a copy of our lives from our mother’s point of view, in her handwriting. She went and transcribed all of it. Every time I was mentioned in her diary, she would write about that. So, I have a biography of my life written by my mother, which is quite unique. I could go on and on about my mom, but she was just a phenomenal person. My dad was gone quite a bit of the time, as I was from my kids. I’m very thankful that my wife Susan is such a wonderful mother, like my mom. She holds down the fort and gives some kind of normalcy to my kids. I felt that. You never know what’s normal. You have nothing to really compare it to, when you’re growing up. As I got older, I could see what a wonderful up-bringing I had and what wonderful parents I had.
BRIDGES: I did the opposite of what my parents did because, while I’m very happy that I went into my father’s business, there was a flip side to that and a darker side of being a kid of a famous person, and the whole nepotism idea. As a kid, you want to be liked for who you are. You don’t want to be liked for who your parents are. You don’t want to get a job because of who your parents are. You want to do it on your own, with your own gifts and your own value. So, I decided to spare my kids that and not be as pro-active as my dad was. I regret that now, in a funny sort of way, because, years ago, when they were in their early teens, they were wondering what they were going to do when they grow up. I said, “Well, you might want to try acting. It’s in your blood. I’ll help you out and teach you how to do it.” And they said, “No, no.” I think it’s just that time passed for them. They’re all talented in that area, so I wouldn’t be surprised, if for some reason, they got a part, but they’re doing their own paths.
Have you ever immediately said yes to a script?
BRIDGES: Every once in a while. The one that pops in my mind is The Contender. As I say in the documentary, I try to not engage, and resist as much as I can. And then, what I can’t resist is what I end up doing. I think that’s served me pretty well. There were a couple of movies like that. The Fabulous Baker Boys was like that. That really jumped off the page for me.
Are there a couple of roles that you would like to be remembered for that aren’t always brought up?
BRIDGES: Some of the small ones turned out to be big. True Grit is doing well, and that was pretty low-budget. And, Crazy Heart was a low-budget thing. We had one movie that I did not too long ago, called The Amateurs, that got messed up in the distribution. So many things have to come together for a movie to be a success, both financially and creatively. That one made it on the creative side of things. It was a wonderful cast and a funny story with another first-time director, named Mike Traeger, but we messed up on our distributor. That guy went bankrupt and took about six movies down with him, so I think it went straight to DVD. I don’t know if it ever got a theatrical release. That’s an interesting movie that’s not too well-known. I’ve got a few of those in my bag there. People know about Jagged Edge. Bad Company was Bob Benton’s first film. That was a fun, early one.
BRIDGES: Seeing myself as this young guy rubbed my fur a little bit the wrong way. It made me feel like the first time you hear your voice on a tape recorder and how weird it sounds to you. You have to finally give it up.
What was it like to revisit the Tron world, so many years later? What was the difference between working on the two films?
BRIDGES: Gosh, well, there were similarities and differences. What got me to the second one is pretty much what got me to the first one, and that was that I wanted to mess around with all the new technology that was available to my industry. Of course, the technology in this new one makes the old one look like a black-and-white TV show. I was so curious about what it is like making movies without cameras. It’s so bizarre, but that’s what they would do. They would shoot in a space called The Volume, which is all blue, and it’s got hundreds of little tracking censors pointed at you that are not cameras, but computer tracking sensors. The actors are in leotards with little balls on them and hundreds of dots on their face. Sometimes, a helmet with four sensors is pointing at your face. Everything from costumes to make-up to sets to even the camera angles is done in post, so it’s very, very bizarre. But, I wanted to experience that. It’s great that now as an actor, I can play my character’s age, at any age that my character is. I can play my character at four years old. We have that technology now. That’s real exciting. And, it was great having Steven Lisberger on board with Tron 2 because he was the original writer and director of Tron, and he kept the consistency for the whole thing. That was great. And then, the director, Joe Kosinski, was an architect, so he brought all that sense of design to it.
BRIDGES: There is no release date. The album is going well. I have to go in and do some
vocals with T-Bone.
You are an Oscar-winning actor, but you recently had an opportunity to play some music shows with Elton John, Leon Russell, John Mellencamp and Elvis Costello. What was that experience like?
BRIDGES: Oh, man, it was so cool. Leon Russell’s real name is Russell Bridges, and my middle name is Leon. I had to tell him that. T-Bone Burnett arranged this wonderful tour, and all the proceeds went to helping get music in schools. That was something I wanted to be involved with. We had three shows – one in Boston, one in New York, and then we played Neil Young’s Bridge School event. So, I had Neil on one side, Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam) on the other, and my buddy, Kris Kristofferson. It was a dream come true. It was just wonderful.
What’s the secret to your marital longevity?
BRIDGES: It was a love-at-first-sight thing with my wife, but I really had a hard time getting married. I really didn’t want to do that. I’m so glad that she put up with me. I pouted for years, after we were married. Thank god, I finally got with the program. I wasn’t having my arm twisted. This is something wonderful. I didn’t expect it to get richer and deeper, and it has been doing that. How do you get a good marriage? You practice. What do you practice? You practice coming home. The high in life is really intimacy. That’s really what we want, and that’s what it’s all set up to do.
It must feel pretty good to have “Oscar-winning actor” in front of your name, at long last. Do you see it as a crowning achievement, or would it not been a big deal, if you hadn’t won?
BRIDGES: It’s really interesting. I went to work, about a week after I got that award, on True Grit, so I didn’t get much time to think about it. I’m still processing it. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged by the guys who do what you do. That does feel great. But, I’ve never been motivated by the award thing. There’s a certain thing that this fame thing does that makes my job harder, in a way. I’m still working with that. I don’t think about it too much until somebody asks me a question, and then I think about it. I notice that I get stopped on the street a little bit more, and I’m more recognized.
BRIDGES: Having just worked with Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, I was so impressed with her up-bringing and her talent. It’s interesting. She’s a paradox. She comes off as quite mature and really at home in her body. I think one of the reasons is because she’s not trying to be older than she is. She was 13 when we were doing the film. I chocked that up to her parents. I’m hoping that she doesn’t try to play old because, when she dresses up and gets herself done, she could look 25. I think part of longevity is not to race to play an older person when you’re younger. If anything, go the other way as long as you can. And also, try to write and produce your own things.
Do you think your career is something that can be replicated these days?
BRIDGES: Well, my path was such an interesting one. We talked about the nepotism side of things and my resisting, but I’m so fortunate. I don’t know. It’s odd the way it happened.
What are your overall favorite roles that you’ve done?
BRIDGES: There’s certain ones that pop out. I don’t have my filmography in front of me, but True Grit and Crazy Heart were ones that I thought were really wonderful. Every once in a while, the movie will transcend your own expectations, and both of those movies did that for me. The Big Lebowski is one like that. The Fabulous Baker Boys was one like that. There’s The Fisher King and Fearless and Starman. That was one that transcended my expectations, for sure. Anytime I worked with my dad. I worked with my dad twice as an adult, in Tucker and Blown Away. I love the fact that we worked together in those two movies.
BRIDGES: Both my father and my brother were wonderful athletes and very competitive, but competitive in the most terrific way, where it didn’t bring them down. They just loved the idea. It was, “Oh, there’s a good guy there. It’s going to make my game better.” Beau was always small for his age, but he was scouted by the Dodgers and played on the UCLA basketball team with Wooden. He was an athlete. And, being eight years older than me, there was more of an uncle thing going on than a big brother, competing thing. It was always like Beau was on the same team. When people ask Beau that, he says, “No, it doesn’t bother me because I taught him everything he knows.” That’s probably true, to a certain degree. But, we don’t have that battling thing. It’s more of a supportive type deal. We’re looking for something to do again, like The Fabulous Baker Boys, but we don’t want something that just cashes in on the gimmick of the brothers. You want something as good as The Fabulous Baker Boys and that’s tough to find, but it will come around, hopefully.
What is your best memory of the True Grit experience?
BRIDGES: Having my daughter, Jessie, as my assistant. She’s 27. She’s a wonderful musician, so we did concerts in bars.
How did the transition from daughter to assistant go?
BRIDGES: Perfect. She was the best I have ever had. She knows her way around the computer very well. She is very gregarious, outgoing and charming. Her people skills are wonderful. And, she took care of dad just right. We never bumped heads once. So now, Phil Kaufman got her. I asked him if I could get her back, and he said, “Fat chance, buddy.”
Do you think you could have a repeat at the Oscars again this year?
BRIDGES: I don’t know. We’ll see.
How do you prepare for award shows?
BRIDGES: It’s like a giant improvisation. How do you prepare for an improv? My wife is my grounding. You go with it, and then you just let it rip. You try to have fun and not take it too seriously.
Do you like to dress up?
BRIDGES: My wife gets into that. I just get a penguin suit and put that on.
Do you have another film role lined up yet?
BRIDGES: No. This year, I’m concentrating so far on [my charity organization] No Kid Hungry and the album. There’s no movies that are slated.
AMERICAN MASTERS – JEFF BRIDGES: THE DUDE ABIDES premieres on PBS on January 12th