Jeff Bridges: Career Culminates in Crazy Heart
By Paul Freeman [from his 1991 and 2000 interviews]
In “Crazy Heart,” Jeff Bridges plays a self-destructive country singer who has squandered his talent. Bridges, on the other hand, has made the most of his ample creative gifts. His versatility and integrity have established him as a pop culture classic.
As a child, Bridges made his acting debut on his father Lloyd’s TV series, “Sea Hunt.” Seeing how his dad had to battle typecasting in the wake of that hit show, Bridges resolved to play a wide spectrum of roles.
“Even so-called leading man roles, I look at as character roles,” Bridges told us. “I like to stretch it.
“An important element of you in films, is what the audience brings in with them, the baggage. Sometimes it’s subconscious - the last film they saw, what they read in the newspaper. When they’re sitting there in the theater, that’s all there with them.
“So I like to confuse the audience’s perception a little bit, about what what they can expect from me on screen. I juggle it up a little bit. It they don’t have a real clear idea, in advance, of what you’re going to present, maybe it makes it a bit of a fresher experience for them.”
Bridges’ memorable performances include “The Last American Hero,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Stay Hungry,” “Hearts of the West,” “Cutter’s Way,” “The Jagged Edge,” “The Morning After,” “The Fisher King,” “Fearless,” “The Muse,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,”“Seabiscuit,” “Iron Man” and cult favorites “Tron” and “The Big Lebowski.” He earned previous Academy Award nominations for his work in “The Last Picture Show,” Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” “Starman” and “The Contender.”
But it’s with “Crazy Heart” that Bridges, at age 60, is finally receiving his just due. He conjures a charismatic mix of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt and Merle Haggard. Bridges’ finely textured portrayal of a gruff soul called Bad Blake has brought honors from the press and the motion picture industry.
So good at playing a singer-songwriter on screen, Bridges could easily have made music his main artistic focus in real life. “For a long time, I was thinking of becoming a musician, not going into the acting. But the acting took off, so I followed that path.”
But he continued to write and play music for his own edification. “Many, many years ago , Quincy Jones used a song of mine in a movie called ‘John and Mary’ with Dustin Hoffman. Actually I got that gig, because of my brother Beau.”
On movie sets, Bridges frequently found kindred spirits. “Acting and music - it’s all basically the same kind of stuff. That’s the way I look at it. Gary Busey and I did a few movies together and he’s a wonderful musician. That great Leon Russell album, ‘Will Of The Wisp’’? Well, he plays drums all over that. He is known as Teddy Jack Eddy in the music business. Of course, he had that wonderful Buddy Holly movie. It was even more exceptional, because he sang live, no overdubbing. And the band guys, too. It was live, which really made a huge difference.
“Tim Robbins and I jammed a little on ‘Arlington Road.’ MIchelle Pfeiffer and I sang a little bit together. Whenever I work with my brother, we’re always playing together. Whenever I see Keith Carradine, we play. John Goodman, from ‘Lebowski,’ he plays a great harp. I jammed with Ethan Coen. He plays guitar and writes.”
On ‘Starman,” Bridges shared music with co-star Karen Allen. “She plays a great harmonica. So we would sing a lot. As a matter of fact, we went and cut that Everly Brothers’ ‘Dream’ song. We did kind of a very funky version in the film and then, as a bit of advertisement, they had us go into the studio and really do a version of that. That was fun.”
While shooting 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” Bridges formed important friendships. “On that picture, Kristofferson brought his entire band. T Bone Burnett was up there. He’s become a really good friend. We play all the time, whenever we can. Stephen Bruton was up there. Ronnie Hawkins. That movie was like nine months of jamming.”
It was Burnett’s participation as producer on “Crazy Heart” that convinced Bridges to accept the role of Bad Blake. Bruton died of cancer in May, 2009, just after completing his collaboration with Burnett on the film’s music.
“I’ve always had some kind of music thing cooking,” Bridges said. “I knew I had to keep playing music, because I love it so much. Over the years, I’ve had little recording studios, jam spaces in my house or my garage. I’m really happy about having kept my music alive, just having jams with my high school buddies. We would do it on Wednesday nights. No songs allowed. Just improvisation. But with lyrics, singing. It was like a musical version of poker night.”
Upon moving to Santa Barbara, he connected with many top-notch musicians. “They nurtured the music and made it grow. The climate was right for the seed to sprout.”
In 2000, Bridges formed Ramp Records (with Michael McDonald among the partners) and fulfilled a lifelong dream by releasing an impressive debut album, “Be Here Soon.” Nine of the well crafted rock/blues/country tunes were penned by Bridges; the other three by longtime buddy, singer-songwriter John Goodwin.
Harmonies were provided by McDonald and David Crosby. “David and I go way back. His father, Floyd Crosby, actually shot ‘High Noon,’ which my father was in. Over the years, we’ve kind of had that connection. He’s a hometown Santa Barbara guy. So he was up around here and we’ve linked over the years together and he heard the tunes and liked them and was nice enough to say, ‘Yeah, I’d love to sing on some songs.’ So I had a hell of a backup.”
Performing music can leave an artist vulnerable. “When you’re acting, you have that character to hide behind. When I’m singing another writer’s songs, I’m expressing their ideas. But with my own songs, it is revealing.”
When an actor makes music, there are always skeptics. But Bridges believes people should be open to artists exploring other areas of expression. “There’s a lot of great opportunities for crossovers like that. But people like to put things in categories. There are some great actors who can just play their asses off. And vice versa. Bob Dylan, I really dug him in ‘Billy The Kid.’ I thought he was great.”
Bridges see parallels between making films and making music. “The similarity is that you go through times when you’re very much by yourself, the solo thing, when you’re writing a tune or studying for a part. You’re opening yourself up to all sorts of ideas. Often the challenge is to just get out of your own way and just let the ideas come through you.
“Then there’s the element of working with other people. Moviemaking is a communal art form. You’ve got a director who’s molding the thing. You’ve got a writer who’s written the lines you’re saying. You’ve got other actors. When you’re making an album, it’s the same type of thing. What you’re hoping for and praying for is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that when it comes together, it’s even better than you had imagined it would be.”
In addition to acting and music, Bridges’ creativity extends to cartooning, painting and photography. You can view many of his on-set panoramic photos on his web site, jeffbridges.com. His photographic work is sold at shows and galleries. Proceeds benefit the End Hunger Network. Bridges founded the nonprofit, which feeds children around the world.
He finds that one form of artistry feeds another. “Very much so. At first, I thought it might be a distraction. When I’m acting on a movie, I’ll get all these song ideas and painting ideas. I’d think, ‘Come on, you’ve got to keep your head on the role.’ But I found that, when you start to shake up the old creative cup, all kinds of things get stirred up. You express the ideas you’re getting in many different ways.”
Bridges appreciates his many co-stars’ disparate acting processes. “Every movie that I’m in, I find that’s it really is like being dealt a poker hand. Everybody works a little different.
“It’s like pick-up-sticks. It is what it is. You do what you do. You’re there to make a movie and everybody wants to make the best movie they can. We may all be approaching it from a different angle. But the goal is the same.”
We asked Bridges to comment on some of his notable film collaborators:
“Then working with him as an actor, on ‘Winter Kill,’ he played my father, and it was just the opposite experience. He went out of his way to show us he was just one of the guys. He really opened up. Very nice. You almost got the feeling that he was setting an example for the other actors, how he wanted actors to act around directors. And it was Bill Richert’s first big movie. And John was always like, ‘Whatever you want, Bill,’” Bridges said, doing a spot-on Huston impression
“He finished shooting the film. Then they came in and stole the negative and wouldn’t let him edit the film. And it’s so painful for me to watch. We had these long, elaborate scenes. Hal works in a very gutsy way that’s different from a lot of directors. A lot of it’s improv.
“Andy Garcia,. myself, a fella named Art Fransen, who was a technical advisor, after work, we would all meet in my trailer and we would improvise, just jam on different themes that were coming up in the script. We’d put down one of these little tape recorders and have it transcribed by a secretary. Then we’d go over it in yellow pencil. Then we’d give it to Hal and he’d go at it in green pencil. And that would be our scene, two days down the road. It’s a very exciting way to work.
“The way Hal photographed it, he knew how he was going to cut it. But when you see the finished product, it’s all cut against the grain, trying to make it something that it wasn’t.
“When Hal first came to me with the script, I said, ‘Well, a lot of the themes are interesting, but part of it, the kind of ‘Rambo’ side of it, we’ve seen before. I’d be interested in going another way. He said, ‘Yeah, me, too.’
“And we did have it that way. We shot it. There was a lot in there about AA. But the way he worked, it made the bankers very nervous. And there came more and more pressure towards the end. And the producer snatched it away from him. Wouldn’t you think that Hal would know better how to cut a picture? The producer felt that it was all cut in the can, all he had to do was paste it together.
“It happens sometimes. You make the Mona Lisa and they say, ‘Let’s cut it up and make a collage.’ Depressing.”
“I really like to be directed. I’m not one of those guys who expends a lot of energy trying to get it my way, my view of it. I really believe that that’s the director’s job. I’ll give him my ideas, but I won’t spend much energy worrying about whether those ideas are included.”
Francis Ford Coppola
“Francis is such a family-oriented fella. And it was a very family-oriented movie. You really get a sense of how important Tucker’s family was to him. Joan Allen, who plays my wife, is a terrific actress.
“One of the things that Francis did that I found really interesting, he videotaped the whole rehearsal period, actually shot the whole movie in its entirety, before we really started shooting. He edited the tape, cut it and gave it to the actors, so we could refer back to it, if we wanted. There’s a certain value in that, because, in that rehearsal time, you know it doesn’t really count, so you have a relaxed quality that you might want to go back to.”
“She’s a natural born actress. She doesn’t like to rehearse very much, so she doesn’t lose any of the spontaneity and emotional impact of the take. She likes to save it for the performance, which is a very legitimate way of going at it. But she was very cooperative.
“You get the feeling, from working with her, that it’s very hard for her to do all the stuff besides from the ‘Action’ to the ‘Cut.’ process. She enjoys that and does that very well. And all the other stuff, she finds a little difficult. She’s kind of nervous about it. But when that acting happens, it all comes together.”
“So our two weeks of rehearsal for that film, with Lamont, was a lot of acting exercises, playing with each other, creating different improvisations, loosening up. And it could have been kind of scary for her.
“I don’t know if she was producing, but it was kind of a Farrah Fawcett vehicle. So she could have it pretty much however she wanted it. Lamont said, ‘I want to do this. I want to rehearse. Brush up on all our acting skills.’ And Farrah was very game and said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ And all through that picture, she was so professional, really wanting to get down to business and work hard. I thought she gave a good performance in that.”
Bridges elaborated on working with so many appealing actresses over the years. “One of the fun things about my job is to work with these terrific ladies... and have love kind of course through your body. That’s your job. If you’re playing a love story, you’ve got to be in love with this person. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” Bridges laughed. ”But that’s like one of the big pluses, to have this special kind of relationship. You don’t have to bring it to a sexual conclusion.
“The fact that my wife can accept that part really enlarges our relationship and makes her all that more valuable.”
He met his wife, photographer Susan Geston, on the set of “Rancho deluxe in 1975. They’ve been married for 33 years and have three daughters.
Bridges also values another longtime bond, the one he shares with Loyd Catlett, his stand-in. “We met doing ‘The Last Picture Show.’ We didn’t work together for quite a while after that. Then we started to do these pictures together. And I’ve used him as a model for a lot of characters. I used him a lot in ‘The Morning After,’ especially. Basically just ripped him off,” Bridges chuckled. “He’s great. We’ve got a great relationship.”
By consistently sculpting fascinating characters, Bridges has built a great relationship with the public, as well. He doesn’t take their patronage for granted, however.
“When a movie of yours comes out, you feel like you have a horse in the race. But I don’t have much bet on that horse. My reward came in the actual process of the work. It’s exciting. But, if it doesn’t work out, you get on the next horse. By the time a picture comes out, I’m usually involved in another project. And my energy is in that, which is good.
“Sometimes you put all that energy and time and feeling into a movie and then it comes out and if it doesn’t do well opening weekend, it’s done. After a couple of weeks, it’s gone. I’ve learned over the years not to invest too much emotion and caring into how they do. But sometimes you can’t help it. ‘American Dream,’ which I produced, took four or five years to get all the elements together, shoot it and follow through with how it would be presented. And when that movie came out, the distributor went bankrupt. So it was in theaters, but there was no money for prints or ads. So it wasn’t even advertised in the newspaper in some towns.”
Bridges will soon be seen in the sequel “Tron: Legacy,” which promises to be a blockbuster. That will be followed by the Coen Brothers’ version of “True Grit,” starring Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, the character made famous by John Wayne.
But continue to expect the unexpected from Bridges, as he explores new, eclectic and challenging roles.
“There’s a lot of me in every role, but I wouldn’t say any one of them was really like me. It’s almost like magnifying different elements of yourself. Not shining the light on some elements, and shining the light on others, bringing those out.
“I dig elements of all these guys I’ve played. It’s almost like children, in a way. You can’t say which one you like best. You’re attached to all of these guys.”