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NPR Arts & Life

Jeff Bridges Abides By His Actor Dad's Example: Bring Joy To The Set

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, we continue our series of interviews with Oscar contenders with Jeff Bridges, who's earned a nomination for best supporting actor for his performance in the modern Western "Hell Or High Water." Bridges and his brother, Beau, grew up in show business. They sometimes appeared in the TV series "Sea Hunt," which starred their father, Lloyd Bridges.

Jeff Bridges got his first Oscar nomination at the age of 22 for his role in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show." He's earned five more since and finally won the best actor Oscar for the 2010 film "Crazy Heart." Among his other films are "Heaven's Gate," "Starman," "Jagged Edge," "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "True Grit," and "The Big Lebowski."

I spoke to Bridges last month. And we began with "Hell or High Water." It stars Ben Foster and Chris Pine as two brothers who are robbing small-town branches of a bank in West Texas. Bridges plays an aging Texas Ranger investigating the crimes. In this scene, he's speaking with a witness, then other investigators, after one of the robberies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HELL OR HIGH WATER")

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) I know their faces was covered, but could you tell their race - black, white?

DALE DICKEY: (As Elsie) Their skin or their souls?

BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) Let's leave their souls out of this for now.

DICKEY: (As Elsie) White. From around here somewhere is my guess, you know, from their voices.

GIL BIRMINGHAM: (As Alberto Parker) Young County says the same deal with the branch in Olney.

BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) Excuse me. Do they have video?

BIRMINGHAM: (As Alberto Parker) Same deal all the way around.

BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) Doesn't Wal-Mart sell all sorts of electronic equipment? My word, get your hands off that. Now, these boys - they aren't done yet, I'll tell you that.

BIRMINGHAM: (As Alberto Parker) How come?

BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) Well, they're patient, just sticking to the drawers, not taking the hundreds. That's the bank's money. We can trace that. They're trying to raise a certain amount. That's my guess. It's going to take a few banks to get there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Jeff Bridges, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BRIDGES: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Tell me about this character Marcus, this Texas Ranger, and how you got him.

BRIDGES: Well, this fellow, this Texas Ranger I'm playing, Marcus, in this movie - he's going through the pain of retirement, something that actors, you know - we're - we can act on our deathbed.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIDGES: You know, so it's something that I had to do a little research about that and find out what that was all about. And, also, we were fortunate to have on the set for many days Joaquin Jackson, who was a very notable Texas Ranger. You know, he's written several books. He's - you know, he was just, you know - just so, so wonderful to have him on set not only to tell us, you know, how - you know, what our uniform should look like, how Texas Rangers behave and all that, but just to have him in the room and pick up the, you know - his vibes. And to have his support and his blessing was really important.

DAVIES: One of the fun things about the film is your relationship with your partner, Alberto, who is played by Gil Birmingham. This character is half Mexican-American, half Comanche. You want to just talk a little bit about that? It's a friendship with an edge, isn't it?

BRIDGES: Yeah. They're dear friends (laughter), but Marcus teases him terribly throughout the film with, you know, racial slurs and so forth. One of the first things I do when I'm preparing for a part is I kind of look inside myself and see what - are there any aspects of myself that might be handy in portraying this character? And my grandfather, Fred Simpson, was a terrible teaser. And my brother, Beau - he inherited that (laughter) teasing gene - used to really tease me, you know, in an awful way and, you know, get me crying and stuff. And my mom would say, oh, that's just because he loves you so much, you know?

DAVIES: (Laughter) Yeah.

BRIDGES: And I, you know - I realized that that was probably true - you know, that it was an expression of intimacy. You know, I know exactly what buttons to push to get a, you know - a rise out of you. That's how much I love you or that's how well I know you. So that was something I could kind of tap into playing the role.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, a lot of us tease our friends about them being clumsy or bad drivers or whatever. It's a little touchier when you're talking about their ethnicity. And...

BRIDGES: Yeah, well - yeah, yeah. Yeah, I agree with that. I think a lot of that has to do with how you were raised, what part of the country you were brought up in. Another touchstone for me in this film and in other times I'm playing Texans - I play quite a few Texans or, you know, Westerns - is a fellow that I met on "The Last Picture Show" called - his name is Loyd Catlett. And he had a small part in "Picture Show." And he was also hired to teach us California kids how to be Texas kids.

And we became friends and now - turns out we've done over 70 films together. He's my stand-in for all these movies. He's kind of like a constant thread through the movies. And, you know, when we first met, he like - the friends he grew up around, you know, would use racial slurs and stuff, not - he was funny - not in a necessarily mean way. It was just the - those were the terms. Those were the words that were used.

And hanging out with the California kids, you know, he kind of - we said, oh, don't say that, Loyd, you know? And he was, you know, full of love and - but that's just how he was raised.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Jeff Bridges. He stars with Chris Pine and Ben Foster in the film "Hell Or High Water." I want to play a scene here of - we'll talk about it afterwards - a scene of a kid and his dad on a scuba diving boat.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And the kid's gotten into some mischief on a dive. Let's listen.

BRIDGES: Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEA HUNT")

LLOYD BRIDGES: (As Mike Nelson) Kelly, if you've got something to say now, say it.

BRIDGES: (As Kelly Bailey) They didn't get all the dynamite out. There's still some there.

L. BRIDGES: (As Mike Nelson) Where?

BRIDGES: (As Kelly Bailey) When we were diving, there was a buoy with a sign that said A-zone on it.

L. BRIDGES: (As Mike Nelson) Why didn't you say this before?

BRIDGES: (As Kelly Bailey) I was afraid. I promised.

L. BRIDGES: (As Mike Nelson) Promised who?

BRIDGES: (As Kelly Bailey) Joey.

L. BRIDGES: (As Mike Nelson) Pete, head for that A-zone buoy.

BRIDGES: (Laughter).

DAVIES: A little taste of our guest, Jeff Bridges, and what we were you 8 or 9 then?

BRIDGES: Yeah. That's wild.

DAVIES: Acting with your dad, Lloyd Bridges, in the series "Sea Hunt," which I remember watching. Your dad played Mike Nelson, this diver who went around rescuing people and besting criminals and all. You learned a lot from your dad. I read that you'd sit on the bed and he would talk to you about - teaching you the basics of acting.

BRIDGES: Oh, yeah, yeah. He - you know, especially with "Sea Hunt," he'd get me on the bed there, you know, and teach me how to - you know, make it feel like it's happening for the first time and not to just, you know, wait for him to stop speaking and then I'd do my line. He says you got to listen to what the other guy's say and let that have some effect on what you're going to say. And now go out of the room. Now come back in and do a completely different version of - you know, all kinds of stuff like that.

Later on, I got to work with him as an adult. We did a movie called "Tucker" together and also "Blown Away." And that was a wonderful experience. And I learned probably the most important thing I ever learned from him on those movies, And that was the way he generally approached the work, which was with such joy. He enjoyed what he was doing so much. And he was, you know - he really wanted all his kids to go into acting because he loved it so much.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's interesting, you know, 'cause some kids whose parents push them into show business, you know, it doesn't always make for the happiest relationships or happiest lives.

BRIDGES: Yeah.

DAVIES: And I'm picturing you on that bed thinking, oh, dad, come on. I want to go out, play ball...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: ...You know? But you liked it.

BRIDGES: Well, yeah.

DAVIES: It was fun?

BRIDGES: Well, sort of. But, you know, like most kids that age, you don't want to do what your parents want you to do. You know, you get your own ideas. And I certainly had a pile of them. You know, I wanted to, you know, get into music and, you know, painting. And I had a lot of different interests.

And my father said, oh, Jeff, don't be ridiculous. That's the wonderful thing about acting is you get to incorporate all of your interests in your parts. And you'll get to, you know, do some music and all of that. It'll facilitate that stuff. And he was right. I'm glad I listened to him (laughter).

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, I think of all these actors we've interviewed who spent 15 years waiting tables in New York and doing plays and commercials hoping to break into it. And you had a real entree, and you weren't so sure about it. Was there a point - was there a turning point in which you said, yeah, this is it?

BRIDGES: Yeah. There was. And also, you know, the whole nepotism thing - that's, you know, something a kid wants to avoid, you know, getting a job just because of who his dad is. But that was kind of the case of my part. And the turning point was late in my career. I had done quite a few films. And I just finished a movie called "The Last American Hero." And right after I finished that movie, I got a call from my agent saying that John Frankenheimer wanted to cast me in "The Iceman Cometh" along with Fredric March and Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan, who were going to be in it. And I said, oh, well, thanks a lot, Jack, but I'm bushed.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BRIDGES: I tell him I'll pass - thank him, though. And about a minute after I hung up, Lamont Johnson, the director I just worked with, called me up. And he said, I understand that you turned down "The Iceman Cometh." And I said, yeah. I'm bushed, Lamont, you know? And he says, bushed? You're an ass. And he hung up the phone (laughter). And I thought, oh, gee. Well, maybe I'll try a little experiment on myself.

Maybe I'll just do this movie. And maybe it'll be the final nail in the acting coffin for me. You know, I'll say, oh, this was a terrible experience. I'll do something else. And it turned to be quite a unique experience for many reasons but one being that we had eight weeks rehearsal. You know, usually if you're lucky, you've got a couple of weeks. And we shot the movie for two weeks. And I got to hang out with these old masters a lot, you know? And they were just as anxious as I was (laughter) about getting it right, you know, doing the material justice. And watching these guys dealing with their flop sweat and their anxiety and all that was kind of heartening for me. And I learned that that's not something that goes away.

I remember Robert Ryan - doing a scene with him. And, you know, we started to do the scene, and then they said, oh, no, we've got to stop the camera, fix a light or something. And he takes his hands off the table. And there are big puddles of sweat there on the table. And I say, Bob, guy, after all these years, you're nervous? What is that? And he said, oh, I'd really be scared if I wasn't scared. You know, he just had to, you know - incorporated that anxiety into his work. And, you know, parts of it is a good thing. It's what makes you learn your lines and, you know, get it right, you know?

DAVIES: You know, you come from a family of actors. And your brother Beau, of course, also had a career. You guys appeared in some films together - "Fabulous Baker Boys." What's it been like to have a brother who's a successful actor, too?

BRIDGES: Yeah. Well, right along with my dad, my brother Beau was my teacher. He taught me so much about acting. One of the challenges for, you know, actors starting out is, where do you perform? And Beau - and this is - I must've been, you know, 16 - 15, 16 years old. He came up with this great idea of renting a flatbed truck, and we would pull into a supermarket. And our father, Lloyd, taught us how to stage fight, you know, fake fight. And we would stage this fake fight. And a crowd would, you know, gather around the parking lot, watching these two guys go at each other. And then we'd say - you know, break our fight up and say, no, we're putting on a show. And we'd jump on the back of the flatbed truck and perform our scenes that we'd worked on until the police came.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BRIDGES: And then they would be very upset because we would try to do an improv with them and try to bring them into our show.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIDGES: And they were - really started to get serious. We'd say, no, we're leaving, and we'd get back into the truck, and we'd go to the next supermarket. And we played the supermarket circuit that way. But Beau, you know, helped me with, you know, all - you know, getting an agent, you know, all of that. And then working with him in "Fabulous Baker Boys" - oh, that was just a dream come true, you know? We would...

DAVIES: And you guys had a fight in that, didn't you?

BRIDGES: Oh, we had a terrible fight (laughter). Yeah, we had a fight. We were so thrilled from this story that I just told you that we were going to have this fight. And Steve Kloves - it was his first movie - director. And we asked Steve if we could gaffe this fight. And he said, sure. Yeah.

So we had it all arranged. And - but we forgot a very important element, which was a safe word, a word that would say, no, you're really hurting me. Stop doing what you're doing. And so at the climax of the fight, my character grabs my brother's hand. He's a piano player. And I proceed to bend his fingers back. And Beau's saying (shouting), ah, ah, stop. You're hurting me.

And I'm thinking in my mind, yeah, act your ass off, man.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIDGES: And I sent him to the hospital. I had hurt his fingers terribly. So you must have a safe word, people.

DAVIES: We have to talk about "The Big Lebowski," the film that you made with the Coen brothers in 1998. And let's start with a classic scene from the film. You play this - I guess what we'd call an aging stoner, Jeff Lebowski, but a guy who's known to all of his friends as The Dude. And we'll listen to a scene early in the film. And what's happened is that a couple of tough guys broke into your apartment, looking for money they said you owed. It turned out they were confusing you with another guy named Jeff Lebowski, who's a rich guy. But before these tough guys left, one of them peed on the rug in your living room. And in the scene we're going to hear, you've come to see the rich Lebowski to ask him to cover the damage.

BRIDGES: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And Mr. Lebowski, who is played by David Huddleston, speaks first. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG LEBOWSKI")

DAVID HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) What can I do for you, sir?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Ah, well, sir, it's this rug I have. It really tied the room together.

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) You told Brandt on the phone. He told me. Where do I fit in?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Well, they were looking for you, these two guys. You know, they...

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) I'll say it again. You told Brandt on the phone. He told me. I know what happened - yes, yes?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Oh, so you know that they were trying to [expletive] on your rug?

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) Did I urinate on your rug?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) You mean did you personally come and [expletive] on my rug?

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) Hello. Do you speak English, sir? Parlez-usted ingles (ph)? I'll ask you again. Did I urinate on your rug?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) No. Like I said, Woo [expletive] on my rug.

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) I just want to understand this, sir. Every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city, I have to compensate the person?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Come on. Man, I'm not trying to scam anybody here. You know, I'm just...

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) You were just looking for a handout like every other - are you employed, Mr. Lebowski?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Wait. Let me explain something to you. I am not Mr. Lebowski. You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm The Dude. So that's what you call me, you know, that or His Dudeness or Duder (ph) or, you know, El Duderino (ph) if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) Are you employed, sir?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Employed (laughter)?

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) You don't go out looking for a job dressed like that, do you, on a weekday?

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) Is this a - what day is this?

HUDDLESTON: (As Jeff Lebowski) Well, I do work, sir. So if you don't mind...

BRIDGES: (As The Dude) No. I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand. You know, this aggression will not stand, man.

DAVIES: It's still funny.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Jeff Bridges, in "The Big Lebowski." How did you get The Dude?

BRIDGES: You know, when I first heard about "The Big Lebowski," it was maybe a year or two before the film. And Joel and Ethan - I saw them somewhere. And they said, hey, we're writing something for you. I said, oh, wonderful 'cause I was...

DAVIES: That's the Coen brothers, right? Yeah.

BRIDGES: Yeah, the Coen brothers - 'cause I was, you know, a big fan of "Blood Simple." It's one of their earlier stuff. And then I got the script, and, you know, I had no memory of any role that I'd ever played like that. It felt like they had, you know, gone to some of my high school parties or - you know, I don't know where...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BRIDGES: ...They got - you know, why they were writing it specifically for me. But I guess they were on to something 'cause it did kind of, you know, fit some of my - you know, my MO and my - you know, my characteristics, my hair, my look, you know, that sort of thing.

DAVIES: I remembered when we first see you in "The Big Lebowski," I think you're coming down a supermarket aisle, looking for milk for your White Russians.

BRIDGES: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And you're wearing these jelly shoes, some shorts that might even be boxer underwear - they're just barely shorts - and a T-shirt, sunglasses and a bathrobe. It - that kind of just tells the story of this guy almost.

BRIDGES: Yeah, that's right. Those guys - those brothers, the Coen brothers, they really know how to make movies. It's just like falling off a log or it appears to be just falling off a log for them, you know? You don't see the effort in their stuff. But that script is so well-written, and the characters are all so well-defined. It's just a joy to watch.

I still - you know, I'm one of those guys - you know, a movie of mine comes on the tube - on the TV - I'll, you know, watch a scene and then turn the channel. But when "Lebowski" comes on, I - you know, I say, well, I've got to just - I'll just wait until Maude comes, you know, flying down from the ceiling nude, you know, splatters paint all over The Dude. And then I'll say, well, no. I'll just stick to, you know, see Turturro lick the ball, you know? And I get sucked in, you know? And I end up watching the whole thing.

DAVIES: Yeah - one of those movies that never gets old. The film, of course, has this huge following. There are screenings where people show up and in character.

BRIDGES: Yeah.

DAVIES: Do you ever go to these things? Do you welcome this?

BRIDGES: I went to one - I had my Beatle moment at one. You know, I have a band, The Abiders. We once played a "Lebowski" Fest. And you know, I came out - The Dude. (Imitating crowd cheering), you know?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BRIDGES: And you look out there. And you're playing to a sea of Dudes. They're all dressed up like The Dudes or bowling pins or Maude. You know, they all have the different characters.

DAVIES: Jeff Bridges has earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his performance in the modern Western "Hell Or High Water."

Well, we have to talk about "Crazy Heart," the 2010 film based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, directed by Scott Cooper. This is the story of an aging musician. You play this musician named Bad Blake, country singer and songwriter who was once on the top whose career is now on the skids mostly due to his very serious drinking problem.

And I wanted to play a scene. Here, you're speaking to a younger country singer, Bobby Sweet, who's played by Colin Farrell. This is a singer who - your character helped start his career, but now you're struggling, and he's on top. And you're in the position of looking for help from him - you know, an album or a concert tour or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY HEART")

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Hey, how come we're not doing another album? Why won't you do it?

COLIN FARRELL: (As Tommy Sweet) Hold up now. I never said I wouldn't. DMZ just doesn't think it's the right thing to do. That's all.

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) I think it is.

FARRELL: (As Tommy Sweet) And you may be right. They want a couple more solos first. Then we do a duet. You got first shot. I already told them.

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) I need money now. I'm 57 years old - career's going nowhere. I need something to get it jumpstarted. They won't give me a damn solo album. I need this, damn it. I really do.

FARRELL: (As Tommy Sweet) I swear, Bad, I can't get them to budge on this one. But there is a way you can make some money if you want to.

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Enlighten me.

FARRELL: (As Tommy Sweet) Songs - I ain't got no new material. Everything I'm hearing is straight crap. You write me five new songs - I'll give you backend. I ship 2 million albums every time I release one.

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) I haven't written a new song in three years - too many damn songs.

FARRELL: (As Tommy Sweet) You write some of the best material out there, Bad. I want some.

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Wrote, wrote - not write.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Jeff Bridges, with Colin Farrell in the film "Crazy Heart." You won a best actor Oscar for this. Do you remember how you got this guy, Bad Blake?

BRIDGES: Yeah. Well, Scott Cooper, the director - one of Scott's first bits of directions is that Bad Blake would have been the fifth Highwayman, you know that great group with, you know, Willie Nelson and Kris and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, you know? That was a big help.

DAVIES: You managed to look just terrible, I mean, physically, a guy whose body is ravaged by, you know, all that drinking and too many cigarettes and a terrible diet. And I'm just wondering if there are things that you did to get there. I don't know how you pulled off that.

BRIDGES: Yeah, well, you take off the governor. You know, you let everything just kind of - do what you want. You know, you don't shy away from your Haagen-Dazs. You know, you drink when you feel like it - you know, that kind of thing. And then, of course, makeup helps a lot, you know? You know, putting a little fine, you know, busted blood vessels in your nose and stuff - you know, subtle stuff. But in the morning, you come up to - you get in there in the makeup trailer, and you put on some country tunes. And you start to get your costume on. And when you walk out your dressing room door, there's the guy.

DAVIES: You do all the musical performances in this. And I know you're a musician. So this is not - there was no lip-syncing here. And I want to catch a little bit of one of these performances - this is very early in the film - when your character, Bad Blake, is now reduced, you know, to driving from town to town, playing small gigs with local bands as backups - you know, that you kind of just improvise it and work together. And in this scene we're going to hear, you're up on stage in a bowling alley. And one of the local musicians introduces you. Let's just listen to a bit of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY HEART")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, playing guitar).

RYAN BINGHAM: (As Tony) Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to Spare Room the wrangler of love, Mr. Bad Blake.

(APPLAUSE)

BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Go to C - now F.

(Singing) I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else. I used to be somebody. Now I am somebody else. Who I might be tomorrow is anybody's guess. I was cleared of all the charges with money, women and my health. I was cleared of all the charges with money, women and my health. But now that I'm a brand-new man, you belong to someone else.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Jeff Bridges...

BRIDGES: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...In the film "Crazy Heart." That song "Somebody Else" - written by the late Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett. You mentioned that you get anxious still with roles. Have you developed techniques over the years on how to deal with that anxiety?

BRIDGES: Well, I meditate. You know, I do that. That helps. You know, that line from "Lebowski" - that's just your opinion, man. You know, you can say that to yourself, too, because, you know, we all have these little voices in our head saying, you know, who do you think you are? You think you're going to pull this thing off? You know, my wife, you know - she often gives me the phrase that my mother used to give me when I would go off to do a job as a teenager. My mom used to say, now remember. Have fun and don't take it too seriously. Oh, thank you. So now I get my wife to say that to me, and that kind of calms me down.

DAVIES: How did your father feel about your career?

BRIDGES: Oh, man, he was so, so proud when I won the Academy Award. I wished he would - and he and my mom could've been there because they would've really loved that moment. But, oh, he just, you know, was very proud of both his guys, both his boys.

DAVIES: Well, Jeff Bridges, it's been fun. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

BRIDGES: Great hanging with you. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Jeff Bridges is up for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his role in the modern Western "High Or Hell Water." The ceremony is February 28. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.