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Jeff Bridges Abides

The Oscar-winning actor on becoming a real-life country singer, conquering stage fright, and keeping his "give-a-shitter in kick."

MJ: Where would you be right now if your dad had been a plumber?

JB: Yeah, well that's the big question, isn't it? One of the tough things about being an actor, probably the hardest thing, is getting your foot in the door, and my father handled that for me at a very early age. It's funny, I get an image of the thing with eggs and chickens where, when the egg is getting ready to hatch, the little chicken will start to peck at the shell a little bit, and the mom will hear that and start to peck at the shell from the outside, and they're both kind of working together. It's kind of a timing thing. You know, if the mother doesn't help the chick or hear the chick, the chick's gonna die in there. And if the chick doesn't hear the mom and doesn't start to peck, it's gonna suffocate. So something must've been coming from my dad. I remember when I was a kid, with the acting thing, I resented it because, you know, you don't want to do what your parents want you to do. You got your own things. And the whole idea of getting a job because of who your father is—that didn't feel right. But after a while I guess I figured I must be doing something right, because people wouldn't keep hiring me if I didn't have something to give.

"My dad got lots of skin-diving scripts, and it was very hard for him to break that persona."

MJ: It seems more common for musicians to go into acting than vice versa, from guys like Elvis and Sinatra to Will Smith and Ice Cube and Justin Timberlake. Why do think that is?

JB: Another thing my father taught me, just watching his life, was his frustration with his success. In the early '60s he had a TV series called Sea Hunt. He played this character, Mike Nelson, who was a skin diver, and he was so successful at pulling that guy off that people thought he was a skin diver! Ha! He got lots of skin-diving scripts, and it was very hard for him to break that persona. People categorize people and put them in a little niche, you know? And so it's difficult for people to see people in all different aspects of themselves. I don't know why the mind works that way. One of my favorite artists is Tom Waits, whom most people think of as a wonderful singer-songwriter and a great poet. I certainly think of him that way, but I also know him as a terrific actor. You know, that persona that he puts on when he's doing his music comes from being an actor, figuring out a persona. And you do it for a long time and it becomes almost a part of you. And Justin [Timberlake]. You know, I worked with Justin not too long ago on a movie called Open Road. He played my son in that, and he comes from the Mickey Mouse Club! He was one of my favorite actors. Ryan Gosling was in that same crew.

MJ: Really?

JB: Oh yeah, it was Aguilera, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling, all in the Mickey Mouse Club. Can you imagine?

MJ: What a crew!

JB: God!

MJ: Tell me about the songs that you wrote for this album?

JB: One of them, "Falling Short," is a great old song, guess it goes back about 30 years.

MJ: You wrote it 30 years ago?

JB: Yeah, yeah. And "Tumbling Vine," that one was a little more recent. And then there was "Slow Boat," which is a song inspired by Crazy Heart, the novel by Thomas Cobb. One of the songs Bad Blake sang was called "Slow Boat," and it was just mentioned as a title and it didn't have any lyrics. So I took a crack at the lyrics over some chords that T Bone was messing with—so we wrote that one together.

MJ: Is this is kind of music you've wanted to make your whole life?

JB: This is the kind of music I have been making the whole time. One of the things that T Bone wanted to accomplish on the album was that we represented the kind of music that I'm interested in. So I invited him up to my house and we went over about 70 songs, and he put his two cents in. We actually recorded 17, but there's only 10 on the album. And, that's basically how the selection thing went down. Then we met with the guys, and just jammed on the tunes, you know, and saw which ones stuck.

MJ: Was there ever a point where you came close to becoming a full-time musician instead of an actor?

JB: I had success as an actor relatively early. When I was 22, I got nominated for an Academy Award for The Last Picture Show, so that road, you know, had the least resistance. I was doing my music all that time, but it's pretty hard to turn down these great movie offers. And my father counseled me; he said, "You know, one of the wonderful things about acting is that you can incorporate all of your interests into the different parts you play." I'm glad I listened to the old man, because that's the way it turned out.

MJ: I read somewhere that it took you a couple films to really start taking acting seriously. Is that true?

"I still have this experience today—there's a certain exhaustion of a kind of muscle, like, 'Oh God, I don't want to pretend to be someone else anymore.'"

JB: I think it would really be more like 10 films before I locked in and said, "Yeah, I'm really gonna do this thing."

MJ: How come?

JB: Well, it probably has to do with resisting your parents, you know? I was loving music, and loving art, painting, so I was considering those things, but I must say I dug acting as well.

MJ: So with those other things you didn't have the parental pressure?

JB: Want me to tell you the story? I was doing a movie, Last American Hero, about a stock-car racer, and I had a wonderful time. But at the end of the movie—and I still have this experience today—there's a certain exhaustion of a kind of muscle, like the pretend muscle you use in acting. Like, "Oh God, I don't want to pretend to be someone else anymore." And so right after that film my agent called me and said, "John Frankenheimer, famous director, wants you to be in The Iceman Cometh, and it's gonna be with Robert Ryan and Frederick Marks and Lee Marvin." And I said, "Tell him thanks a lot, but I'm bushed." And he said, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah," and he said, "Okay." About five minutes later the director of Last American Hero, Lamont Johnson, called me up, and he read me the riot act: "How dare you turn down this great opportunity," and all that. "You call yourself an actor!" And he hung up on me! And I said, "Whoa, that's interesting: Do I call myself an actor? Am I an actor?" And I had always been questioning that, so I thought I'd do a little experimenting and engage in this movie, because when you're a professional you gotta do it when you don't feel like it. And so I did it, and it was a wonderful experience. After that I figured, you know, I could do this.

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