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Living the Dream

Jeff Bridges’ Oscar win for Crazy Heart in 2010 led to the fulfillment of a teenage fantasy to be a Rock star

“I’m living my teenage dream,” Jeff Bridges says gleefully, hoisting a Gibson acoustic guitar over his head in a one-armed victory salute as a Las Vegas crowd cheers.
Bridges and his band, the Abiders, have just closed out an alternately bright, bluesy and energetic 90-minute set with a blistering version of The Byrds’ 1967 hit “So You Wanna Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.” The show has included everything from the country twang of Bridges’ Otis “Bad” Blake character in Crazy Heart to a Bob Dylan song (“The Man in Me”) associated with The Big Lebowski, to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.”
As the crowd stands and applauds, Bridges utters a thank you and smiles. Living the dream, indeed. Earlier this day, Bridges stood on the triangular stage, which was wedged into a corner of the Chrome Room at Santa Fe Station Casino, part of the sprawl on the northwest outskirts of Las Vegas. Sipping a hot tea after taking time for his vocal exercises, his silvery hair pulled back in a bun, jeans, brown T-shirt, glasses on his nose, he looked like a dad (or, in Bridges’ case, granddad) wandering the aisles at Home Depot.
It was the sound check before the show and Bridges was squeezing for all the time he could get to balance the sound in an unfamiliar venue. He and his band quickly got down to work, starting most of the songs from that night’s show and playing them long enough to make sure the sound levels were balanced in the monitors for Bridges and guitarist-bandleader Chris Pelonis. They took the opportunity to rehearse their phrasing and timing on a refrain of “She Lay Her Whip Down,” one of several songs written by Bridges’ childhood friend John Goodwin.
That night, his hair a shoulder-length silver mane, Bridges obviously enjoys himself as a singer and bandleader. The show is the first of two by Bridges and the Abiders in Vegas this particular weekend, toward the end of a month-long spring tour that has taken the band from Seattle to Portland to Tucson and Phoenix before hitting Vegas. After almost a dozen shows in just three weeks, the talented band has an obvious polish, along with the enthusiasm of musicians who enjoy playing together. And they’re led by a guy who looks like he can’t quite believe he’s having this much fun, fronting a band, headlining a pair of sold-out rooms in Las Vegas.
The crowd at the Chrome Room is primed; Bridges doesn’t disappoint, playing a friendly set that includes a dozen and a half songs, most of them either from the film Crazy Heart (in which Bridges played country singer “Bad” Blake) or one of Bridges’ two albums. A plurality of the songs was written by Bridges’ pals Goodwin and the late Stephen Bruton. He even sings a witty tune, “Van Gogh in Hollywood,” from the little-seen Terry Gilliam film, Tideland: “Anybody see that?” Bridges asks the crowd, his smile turning skeptical when someone applauds. “Really? I played a carcass for most of that movie.”
Afterward, Bridges unwinds in the backstage dressing room with a glass of wine. He has always played music, he notes, joining in weekly jam sessions for years after high school with his high-school friends: “One rule—no songs allowed. But singing was encouraged. They were these fucking wild jams.”
He wavered early on in his acting career between acting and music. Movie success had come quickly—an Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show, his first major film role at 21. But Bridges confided to his father, actor Lloyd Bridges, that he was thinking of putting acting aside to pursue playing music for a living instead. His father’s advice: Stay an actor—and make movies where you play musicians.
Which he has—in the Oscar-nominated The Fabulous Baker Boys and again in Crazy Heart, for which Bridges won his own long-deserved Oscar, as an aging singer whose self-destructive spiral is approaching a crisis point. Bridges has recorded two albums and has a studio in his Santa Barbara home.
In fact, Bridges found the Abiders through Pelonis, who Bridges initially hired to design his home recording studio. When he met Pelonis, they began talking about music—and then playing music together.
“I played Chris some of my songs and he said, ‘You know, my friend Michael McDonald might like some of these,’ and we ended up producing my first album, ‘Be Here Soon,’ with Michael,” Bridges says. “Then when Crazy Heart took off, I figured that, if I’m ever going to do the music thing and fulfill that teenage dream, now was the time or forever hold your peace. When I talked about putting together a band, Chris brought me the cream of Santa Barbara.”
Assembling and executing a tour with a band is as much of a production as making a movie: “You really do need that much time to figure out the material and rehearse it,” Bridges says. He decided to rehearse and tour because he spent most of 2012 in front of cameras.
“I did two movies in a row last year, which was a challenge. I was away from my wife the whole time; it was a hard movie year,” he says. “So I thought, OK, I want to take a year to do other things. I wanted to do music, but I just became a grandfather and I wanted time to do that, too. My granddaughter calls me ‘Dude-pa’. It’s been shortened to Doody—I hope like Howdy Doody, not dog doody.”
Playing music onstage, he says, is not all that different from acting in films: “Every night is like going out and doing a major scene or a play. It’s always that moment just before you do it that’s hardest. You want it to be effortless; the same thing with a movie. You expend a lot of effort to create the illusion that there was no effort.”
Comparing notes after the first Vegas show, Bridges and Pelonis agree the best moments onstage are the ones in which they’re so caught up in the music that they lose track of everything else for a moment.
“He’ll start taking off with a guitar part and I’ll get so into it that I’ll forget where I am—both physically and where I am in the song,” Bridges says.
“Yeah,” Pelonis says, “you get to a point where you suddenly think, ‘How did I get here?’ ”
“It happens in acting, too,” Bridges says. “You channel a thing and allow it to come in.”
At the urging of his longtime friend and musical mentor T-Bone Burnett, Bridges began seeing a voice specialist before he shot Crazy Heart. She gave him a set of exercises to learn vocal technique that produces a stronger, better-modulated sound.
“If I was playing a sword fighter, I’d take fencing lessons,” Bridges says. “So when I played “Bad” Blake, I had vocal lessons, and took guitar lessons from Stephen Bruton. You train for something like that, or for a tour like this. With music, you have to get up to speed, to practice and get in shape. And you have to maintain a level of practice if you want to perform. Someone asked Willie Nelson one time why he played so much. And he said, ‘I’m afraid the muscle memory will go.’ I consider myself pretty green at this. So this is quite a challenge.”
Pelonis interrupts him: “I don’t think you can say that anymore. You’re a veteran, at this point.”
Even veterans get nerves, however. But, as Bridges notes, that’s part of the process. “It’s that fear, that anxiety that powers you. I remember working with Robert Ryan on The Iceman Cometh. We had a lot of scenes and they were long takes—like 10-minute takes. We were sitting at a table on a set that’s supposed to be a bar. He’d sit there with his hands on the table until we were ready to shoot and when it was time, he’d take them off the table and put them in his lap. There’d be these puddles of sweat on the table where his hands had been. When I asked him about it, he said he was always nervous before shooting and said, ‘I’d be really scared if I wasn’t scared.’ So even the old pros get performance anxiety.
“It’s very tricky, the mind. Sometimes when you’re making a movie, you think you’ve really killed it. And then you see the dailies and there’s some asshole up there catharting all over the place, feeling his feelings, doing a lot of acting that has nothing to do with the story. And there are other days where you’re not feeling right and then you see it and it’s perfect. So you can’t take those feelings and thoughts too seriously. You’ve got to be in the moment.”
At 63, Jeff Bridges has taken that Zen approach to life for much of his career. Married since 1977 to the former Susan Geston (who he met while working on the film Rancho Deluxe), he has three adult daughters; the oldest, Isabelle, had a daughter in 2011.
“I wish I’d been able to spend more time with my kids but, thankfully, Susan is a wonderful wife and mother,” Bridges says. “I guess I was like my dad; he was always working, but he enjoyed his time at home with us, the way I did with my kids.”
At this point in his career, Bridges has a reputation for being slow to decide about projects—to the point of actively struggling against the need to choose one.
But before taking a year off to make music, Bridges chose two films, back to back, which will hit theaters in the coming months: R.I.P.D., coming in July, and The Seventh Son, opening in October. The former is a supernatural cops-and-bad-guys action-comedy, teaming Bridges with Ryan Reynolds as undead cops drafted to keep the dead from invading the world of the living. The latter is an 18th-century adventure in which Bridges plays the teacher to a young man who must learn to keep the world’s evil spirits in check.
For R.I.P.D., Bridges was attracted by a script that offered “such a weird story. It was so unusual. Being a movie fan, I enjoy movies that are unexpected, that surprise you and don’t take you where you expect.”
Bridges also appreciated the work of R.I.P.D.’s director, Robert Schwentke: “I was impressed with his film, Red. I thought it was a genre film that he added a freshness to. I read this script and then I met him and thought, ‘This is a guy who could pull this off.’ ”
As for The Seventh Son, Bridges says, “I enjoy mythology and it’s a story that’s mythic in nature. It’s based on a wonderful children’s book and I enjoyed the source material. And I was very attracted to the director (Sergey Bodrov) and his other films.”
Still, getting him to make a decision to appear in those films was a struggle.
“I’m not someone who says, ‘Well, I’ve got to play George Washington’ or ‘I’ve got to work with a certain director’,” Bridges says. “I’m a counterpuncher. I try hard not to engage. Because once I choose a project, it means I can’t do other things. So I wait for one that grabs me enough. I resist as long as I can, until it pulls me in.”
Once he’s in, however, he’s in all the way, say two of his R.I.P.D. costars. Actress Mary-Louise Parker, who plays one of his bosses in the film, says, “He sort of comes in with the weight of a master, but the innocence of a little kid. That kind of enthusiasm has usually worn off after you’ve been doing this about five years. But Jeff seems to harbor a well of energy for discovery. There’s something very pure about him, something wise. Beyond being a brilliant actor, he’s just a very unique person. I think he’s one of those touched souls that someone waved a wand over when he was born.”
In the film, Reynolds plays a modern cop who is killed in the line of duty—then offered the chance to solve his own murder, in exchange for joining the Rest In Peace Department for the next 100 years. He’ll be replacing his on-the-job trainer, a Wild West sheriff played by Bridges.
“I was surprised to see how engaged and at play he is with everything, always,” Reynolds says in an e-mail interview. “Not just the task at hand which, in this case is a gigantic film, but he’s also a pretty inexhaustible source of mischief too. With that ever-present twinkle in his eye, he’s always got something cooking. He carries so much of the Eastern teachings—a unique brand of Zen—into not only his work but his approach to the work. It gives him a kind of messianic presence on set. People gravitate to him so that they might take a small piece away. He’s as engaged in conversation with the guy hauling cables all day as he is with the head of a studio.”
Still, almost 40 years separated Bridges’ first Oscar nomination for 1971’s Last Picture Show and his winning an Academy Award for 2009’s Crazy Heart. In the intervening four decades, he was nominated three other times as well—for Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, Starman and The Contender—but it took playing the rock-bottom story of country singer “Bad” Blake for him to claim the statue.
“For a long time, Jeff was the best-kept secret in Hollywood,” says Steve Kloves, who wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and subsequently wrote all of the Harry Potter movies. “He hid in plain sight. Jeff was always the guy playing opposite the guy with the eyepatch or the cane—and so no one really knew how good he was. But he has an eloquence and an elegance as an actor—his subtlety is amazing. And he was probably hurt by the fact that he’s not someone who stands on top of a building and says, ‘Look at me!’ ”
Scott Cooper, who wrote and directed Crazy Heart, says he wrote the film with Bridges in mind: “I wrote it for Jeff without knowing Jeff,” Cooper notes, adding with a nervous laugh, “And I wrote it knowing how difficult it is to get Jeff to say yes to anything.”
Luckily for Cooper, he knew Oscar-winner Robert Duvall, who had encouraged Cooper to write a script to direct, and Duvall passed the Crazy Heart script along to Bridges. Still, as Bridges notes during his concerts, the original script came without any music attached. It was only when Bridges spoke to T-Bone Burnett and they agreed to work the music up together that Bridges put his full focus on the Oscar-winning role.
Winning the Oscar, Bridges says, connected him in a new way to the memory of his parents: his father, actor Lloyd Bridges, who died in 1998, and his mother Dorothy, who died a year before Bridges took home his award in March 2010.
“I really felt my parents very strongly that night,” Bridges says. “It was like my dad was in a relay race and he’d passed the baton to me to carry on his work. Not just in movies but in being a socially conscious guy. It was one for our team, for our guys.”
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