Friday, 27 May 2011
"Sometimes there's a man..."
From stoner to alien to all-American hero, Jeff Bridges immerses himself in every role. Here, his friends, co-stars and directors uncover the man behind the movies
Thursday 26 May 2011 21.30
Stand-in, stunt double, assistant and/or actor in all Bridges's films since The Last Picture Show (1971)
I met Jeff on The Last Picture Show, which I had a small part in, and we hit it off really well during the rehearsal period and started hanging out together. He was trying to polish his southern accent for the film, so he was taking his cue from mine. I stayed in Los Angeles after we finished looping, and started pursuing an acting career. One day, while talking with Jeff on the phone, I mentioned that there weren't any parts coming my way; he suggested, since he was going to Europe to start a film, perhaps he could help if I was interested in being a stand-in for him. I didn't know at that time that it would turn out the way it did for the next 41 years. It just worked: the friendship, the companionship. I've seen his process develop and grow with each film we've done. In the early years, his approach seemed to be more about hoping to discover his character through the filming process, sort of like acting by prayer. Now Jeff pays far more attention to the details that build each character – the research, studying people who live in the part of the country or world his character would be from, the way they speak, their hairstyles and expressions. Jeff starts with the script. Then he reads and researches everything he can find that supports life in that region and during the scripted time frame. Once the reservoir of information is in place, next comes the look.
Costume designer: The Big Lebowski (1998), True Grit (2010)
Jeff is one of the most fun actors I've ever dressed. He's the definition of a character actor. Not all actors are helped by their costume, and he's an example of someone who is. Because the costume fitting happens so early on in the process, we're sort of the first information he gets about the character. He was doing press for Crazy Heart while he was preparing for True Grit, but I had done all this research, so I had all this information that I was sharing with him about the historical period. He took it in like a sponge. He loves the costume fitting because it helps put him in that era. On the fittings for both True Grit and The Big Lebowski, there was a distinct moment where his posture changed and he went into character right before my eyes. That is such a thrill for a costume designer – it's why I do movies, to contribute to the story by helping an actor find his character.
Cinematographer: The Big Lebowski, True Grit
It was the funniest and most unexpected thing seeing Jeff in costume for the first time on Lebowski. I'd seen him mostly as a serious actor, things like The Last Picture Show and The Fabulous Baker Boys, so to suddenly see him on set as this dishevelled, ageing ex-hippy was very funny, and quite a transformation. Jeff is so much of the film really. We held the focus on him a lot because there's a subtlety to his comedy that takes a while to hit you. It's not laugh-out-loud straight away; you've gotta keep your eye on him, the way he develops the character, and that's where the comedy comes from. You've gotta watch him pour his White Russian and spill it everywhere.
Director: American Heart (1992)
Watching Jeff in American Heart, you would not know he grew up in the rarefied world of a Hollywood family. His feeling for his character, Jack, a damaged father lacking the most basic ability to look after himself, is truly awesome. His performance is subtle, without noise and show; he makes it seem effortless. The film was really his passion. After my documentary Streetwise was nominated for an Academy Award, Warner Brothers asked the writer Peter Silverman and I to fictionalise it for the screen. We had worked on the screenplay for maybe a year when we heard that Jeff was developing a similar story based in New Orleans. Warner Brothers were cooling on the story when Jeff discovered we had a screenplay, which he read and liked. He came with a lot of ideas; the look – that ponytail, the tattoos, the sideburns – was all Jeff. He put himself into physical shape for the film. He even asked me to work out with him because it was boring doing it on his own. I said: "You gotta be kidding!" He just spent so much time over every detail. After each take, he likes to watch playback to make sure he's got what he wants, even if everyone is giving him the thumbs up. He wants to make absolutely sure he's nailed it. If you have any suggestions he will take them in. More often than not you're just looking at a beautiful performance. He constantly surprises you.
Joel and Ethan [Coen] had never used playback so they were a bit sceptical about how much time it would take on Lebowski. But Jeff was funny; as soon as they called "Cut", he'd rush over to the playback guy and watch the take . In the time it took us to put the board on for the next shot, he'd run back and be in position for the next shot. He did it on True Grit, too. I guess it's to see how he's coming across: is the performance that he's doing and feeling coming over on camera?
Director: K-Pax (2001)
Jeff had two phrases which I remember him saying after a take: "How was the 'tood?", meaning attitude, and "Any tweaks, Captain?" He wasn't in the cast when the film was first being set up; it was going to be Will Smith as Prot, the man who's either mentally ill or from another planet, and Kevin Spacey as his psychiatrist, but that didn't work out for various reasons, and then the studio decided Kevin should be Prot. Jeff was top of my list to be the psychiatrist. Prot is the eye-catching role but I think Jeff saw the doctor was a great part because he was questing and searching in ways that I didn't realise at first were very similar to Jeff.
I thought he would be very instinctive as an actor, not necessarily prepared – more freeform, which is the impression you get from something like The Big Lebowski. In fact, he's incredibly studious. The first meeting I had with him, he had a folder where every page was annotated and colour-coded. He was very conscientious about researching the hypnosis techniques, which are a big part of the film. He asked me once if he could try them out on me in his trailer, not trying to put me under, but just to get into mindset. I had to stop him. I said: "I've got to go on set and shoot in five minutes and I can feel I'm slipping away!" It was an interesting dynamic on set because Kevin is a virtuoso actor, almost like a musician playing it by ear. They were wonderful together; sometimes in rehearsals they'd swap roles as a bit of fun, as an exercise.
I was really impressed with how generous Jeff was with everyone on set. There were so many kids in American Heart and he had time for them all, gave them all lots of attention and advice. And he was very supportive of Eddie [Furlong], who had only done one other film, Terminator 2, at that point. There was one very emotional scene that Eddie was having trouble with, and Jeff took him aside and gave him some guidance on it, suggested that maybe he shouldn't use his arms so much, and Eddie understood that and did the scene beautifully.
We've acted together a lot over the years and Jeff's really a soothing presence to share a scene with. He can have a very calming effect on his fellow actors. He has always had great insights to share with me about the acting process – to be real and not to push it.
Jeff makes acting look like no big deal, but he can only pull that off because he puts in so much preparation. On Lebowski, he had all these notes all over the script – from front to back, in the margins, everywhere. He thinks a lot about everything but at the same time he's very loose. I'm still amazed by his performance in True Grit: so much of what an actor communicates is in the eyes, and yet he brought all that nuance while wearing an eye patch. He's been good in everything he's been in. You look at all the characters he's played and you can never see the acting. Look at Starman: I love him in that. I'd never seen anybody play an alien like that before.
Actor: Starman (1984).
John Carpenter [the director] said Jeff came into the meeting with the character fully formed. He'd based it on watching birds and babies. Jeff told me he'd looked at how babies take in the world, then watched the way birds have these rather exacting and precise movements, and combined the two. I first met Jeff when we arrived at the studio to start rehearsals. We both pulled into the parking lot at the same time, got out of our cars and the moment he saw me he threw his arms wide open and hugged me. It was a great way to begin. The film is really a road movie, so we spent most of the time in cars travelling from one part of the country to another. It makes all the difference in the world if you have a partner who's enjoying it as much as Jeff was. He made the shoot so much fun. We did multiple creative things. He set up a little recording studio in his trailer and we would go in and work on songs together, singing harmonies all the time. He also had his Widelux camera, and he took such fantastic pictures. He does that all the time now, but Starman was the first time he'd documented a shoot.
We have several things we do on set to pass the time. We play music together, or we find a book and both take turns reading a chapter aloud to each other. On True Grit, we read aloud the last two volumes that Larry McMurtry had written continuing the story of The Last Picture Show.
Actor: Jagged Edge (1985).
Jeff was a lot of fun to have around. He's a fabulous musician so he always had a guitar with him on set. He's a very serious actor, but he had a great sense of humour and he knew how to use that because some of the scenes were very intense. It could actually be a very funny set at times. We did this thing for Ann Roth, the great costume designer, where we swapped costumes. Jeff put on one of my dresses that I wore in the movie, and I put on one of his suits with a tie, and we posed for a photograph and presented it to Ann.
Jeff's standing now, because of Crazy Heart and True Grit, is much higher than it was when we made K-Pax. There was a sense in Hollywood that a lot of the studios underestimated the following he had with the public, whereas K-Pax was the first thing Kevin had shot after winning his Oscar for American Beauty, so his profile was very high. There was just this sense that Jeff had been overlooked by the industry, though these things are cyclical. At one stage, Jeff had been offered the part that eventually went to Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Now, if he'd taken that role then he'd have been a megastar, but that doesn't really have anything to do with good or bad acting. It's arbitrary. At that time, Jeff was slightly bemused whenever the word "undervalued" came up in relation to him. His response was that he'd always been able to do the movies he wanted to do, so where was the problem?
Actors are players: we play. Laurence Olivier said: "Scratch an actor and you'll find an actor." Richard Eyre said: "Scratch an actor and you'll find a child." That ability to play and be completely open and to live in your imagination, that's not childish but childlike, and I always loved that quality in Jeff. He's the kind of actor you can trust instinctively; he makes you feel you can do anything. I feel he was taken for granted for a long time. Then his work, the choices he makes, started adding up in a way that became undeniable, and impossible to ignore.
I never understood why it took so long for Jeff to get an Oscar; he should have got one so much earlier. He'd already given so many wonderful performances, and he was really being overlooked by a lotta people. I don't know why. Maybe it's because he makes it look so easy, or because he has such range. He's a real chameleon.
What I like about his style is this naturalism he has, which induces a lot of empathy in the audience. As long as people are watching films they'll be watching The Big Lebowski; it's an absolute gem of an interpretation. There's generally this wisdom in Jeff – not an intellectual wisdom at all, but a sense in which he's this everyman figure we can all relate to. And yet he's complex at the same time. There's this strange mix of being accessible and complex: you're drawn in every time. That's why he's such an enduring presence, and why he'll make many, many more films. He takes risks too, like the films he did with Terry Gilliam: The Fisher King and Tideland. He made one that I particularly love with Peter Weir called Fearless, and that's the right word for him.
Five decades of greatness
Xan Brooks picks the performances that define Bridge's career
Fat City (1972)
John Huston's hardscrabble boxing saga (above) is one of the great lost classics of 70s cinema, evocatively played out in the last-chance saloons of Stockton, California. Fresh from his success in The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges is wonderfully loose and limber as Ernie Munger, the teenage contender who gets adopted by a fading old pugilist. Munger, we realise, is Stockton's idea of youthful promise: gauche, innocent, and pointed towards disaster.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Preston Tucker was an idealistic entrepreneur who designed the perfect car and found himself forced off the road by his rivals in the auto industry. Francis Coppola's paean to the American pioneer adrift in the corporate modern age, is topped off by a performance of terrific, puppy‑dog exuberance by the 39-year-old Bridges. "It's the idea and the dream that counts," Tucker insists, in what could be read as a riposte to the "greed is good" motto of Wall Street, released the year before.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Arguably Bridges's best-loved screen performance came courtesy of a Coen brothers' comedy that initially dozed at the box office only to grow in stature as the years progressed. Bridges is Jeff "the Dude" Lebowski, a stoner Baloo the bear, shuffling from bar to mansion to bowling alley in the course of a freewheeling film-noir plot-line. It is, the actor admits, his own favourite of all his films.
Crazy Heart (2009)
It was fifth-time lucky for Bridges, who finally won the best actor Oscar for his turn as Bad Blake, an alcoholic country singer who plays his shows in fleapit bars and lays his hat in cheap motels. In other hands, Scott Cooper's redemption drama could have turned gloopy and sentimental. Bridges's perfectly judged performance ensured it stayed tough, fresh and earthy.
True Grit (2010)
Bridges reunited with the Coens for his great performance of the decade so far. True Grit (left) bypasses the antique John Wayne western to reconnect with the source novel by Charles Portis, installing newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the pint-sized angel of vengeance on the trail of her father's killer. Bridges co-stars as Rooster Cogburn, the lumbering, trigger-happy cyclops who falls to his knees in the closing reel. "I am grown old," he gasps; a battle-scarred warrior preparing to bow out to the next generation.