In his nearly lifelong career as an actor, 61-year-old Jeff Bridges has portrayed everything from POTUS (The Contender) to a surly US Marshal (True Grit). To fans of The Big Lebowski, of course, he'll forever be the Dude. The remarkable thing is that Bridges seems as natural loping up to the bowling alley bar for a White Russian as he does wooing vice presidential candidates. Born to an established Hollywood family, Bridges—son of Lloyd, brother of Beau—recently made his most surprising transition yet: walking off the set and into the recording studio. Following his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart as whiskey-soaked country singer Bad Blake, Bridges—a lifelong guitarist—teamed up with his longtime pal and Crazy Heart music director T Bone Burnett to produce his own self-titled album of sensual country tunes. I caught up with the artist/crooner/star on the eve of a Lebowski cast reunion to chat about growing up Bridges, conquering stage fright, and how to play a drunk without drinking.
Mother Jones: You're an actor, a musician, and I gather you do visual art. I suppose you write poetry and dance ballet too?
Jeff Bridges: I do both of those things! You know, ballet might be too formal of a title for the type of dance I do, but I love to dance. I love to draw and paint, I do ceramics and photography, I'm interested in a lot of creative stuff.
MJ: So is Jeff Bridges the musician the same as Jeff Bridges the actor, or are you expressing different selves in your various pursuits?
JB: They all kind of blend together. It used to kind of upset me when I'd be working on a part in my hotel room, and I'd get an idea for a song and find myself on the guitar for an hour when I should be working on my lines. But I've discovered that when I start to shake up my creativity it wants to be expressed in all kinds of different ways. They all kind of inform each other.
Slideshow: Jeff Bridges' Most Memorable Roles
MJ: Do you find you have to work hard on a song or a scene or whatever, or do these things come easy for you?
JB: There's a certain effort. But sometimes you have work on not working too hard, you know? It can kind of screw up things if you're trying to overwork something.
MJ: How do you reach that balance?
"The more nervous you get, the more worried you get about it… Maybe you just need to take a nap."
JB: Well, you kind of notice what's going on in your body, and you can kind of feel a certain tightening, or fear, which is something that, as an artist, I've kind of befriended. I can pretty much count on it for anything that I engage in—that thing like, "Am I going to be able to pull this off?" Well, what am I gonna do with this feeling? The more nervous you get, the more worried you get about it. So you pay attention to what you might need. Maybe you need to go over your lines, but maybe you just need to take a nap.
MJ: You still get nervous even now?
JB: Oh, absolutely.
MJ: We see your successes. What about your failures?
JB: Oh, I remember in one of my early films I had a drunk scene. It was Kiss Me Goodbye, with Sally Field, and I was playing this kind of nerdy guy who gets drunk and dances. And so I thought, "Oh well, I'll just get drunk and do the dance." And it was wonderful, but then I had the rest of the day, and the next day. So I learned that you don't really have to do the things that your character is doing. But us actors, we use something called sense memory. I've certainly been drunk before, and part of my job is to recall that without getting drunk.
MJ: So when Rooster Cogburn or Bad Blake or the Dude were plastered, you weren't at all?
JB: No. You know, as the Dude I was so concerned about doing justice to the great Coen brothers script that I wanted to have all my wits with me. I didn't get high in any form on that film.
MJ: So have you had to take fewer roles to do the album?
"I'm one of those guys who will drink to, uh, kind of celebrate. But you want to keep that governor on, you want to keep your give-a-shitter in kick."
JB: Yeah, I've been interested in music since I was a teenager, always writing songs. I put out an album about 10 years ago called Be Here Soon that Michael McDonald was one of the producers on, and we formed a label called Ramped Records. Chris Polonus, my current musical director, he was also one of the founders. We all had day jobs, as they say, but Ramped is still up and going. So then Crazy Heart came up. I originally turned that movie down because it didn't have any music attached to it. And that movie, if it didn't have any good tunes, it wouldn't be any good. But then my buddy T Bone Burnett asked me about Crazy Heart, and I said, "Why are you asking? Are you interested in doing it?" And he said, "Well, I'll do it if you do it." So I said, "Okay, come on, let's go." I knew if T Bone was in charge we'd be in good shape. After the success of that, I figured if there was ever a time to make an album, now would be a good time, with people having in their mind that the last time they saw me in a movie it was in a music role. So I thought, why not take a year off from making movies? I'd done two in a row, Tron: Legacy and True Grit, so I was kinda bushed.
MJ: You don't worry you might end up like Bad Blake?
JB: No, uh, no. You know, you can feel that temptation. But that's a mistake that I've learned from several times, you know? I'm one of those guys who will drink to, uh, kind of celebrate. I don't drink too much when I'm down or anything like that. But you've really got to be, I guess the word that came to mind is "creative," about the way you're celebrating. You want to keep the celebration going. I've learned that lesson over and over. Here on the road there's a lot of cause for celebration, but you just gotta get the damper out a little bit, and you want to keep that governor on. You want to keep your give-a-shitter in kick.