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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.