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Jeff Bridges: Super Natural

For 30 years he's been one of America's most gifted and fascinating actors. Now Jeff Bridges takes us inside his celebrated family -- and inside his turbulent creative quest.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, Sep/Oct 01

By nature, he's a warm, very open man, and this morning, as he kicks back at a quiet Los Angeles café, the stories and anecdotes roll off his tongue like honey from a spoon. Stories about being tossed into acting at the age of eight. Stories about the zany, bumbling way he met and courted his wife, Susan. And wonderful stories about the craft of acting and how he creates indelibly etched characters such as "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski and the president in The Contender. Over the course of a long conversation, the stories spill forth in a random, spontaneous fervor, all illuminating one central fact: at the age of 51, Jeff Bridges is bringing forth his finest work, showing us over and over why movie insiders consider him to be one of the most accomplished and exciting actors in America today.

At last, too, Bridges is getting the recognition he deserves. The Big Lebowski reigns today as a cult classic among the twentysomething generation, and for many of them, the wild, wacky Dude has become a revered cult hero. In The Contender, Bridges's smooth, seamless performance again showed his ability to play the sophisticated leading man, and this year it earned him his fourth Academy Award nomination.

Still, it's a safe bet that some of his best work is yet to come. In his latest movie, K-PAX, set for release in October, Bridges costars with the great Kevin Spacey in a sci-fi fable that promises to bring out the best in both actors. Spacey plays a mental patient who insists he's an alien from the distant planet of K-Pax. Bridges plays his psychiatrist. At first, the doctor attributes his patient's claim to sheer lunacy, but as the story unfolds, he begins to wonder if the man might actually be telling the truth.

"Working with Kevin was wonderful, and that was a big reason to do it," says Bridges. "I've been a big fan of his work -- The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, L.A. Confidential. He's a really good actor and he turns out to be a wonderful guy as well. We approach acting in the same way in that we both enjoy the process. We both like rehearsals and we understand the value of them. There are some actors who don't like to engage with other actors; they just like to relate to each other between 'Action!' and 'Cut!' But I've always felt that getting to know the people you're working with can inform and enrich the work. The closer you get, even if you're playing opposites, the better the work. Some actors are afraid of leaving it all off-camera or getting the characters confused, but I don't see it that way. I often feel that the actual movie is like the skin sloughed off the snake; it's the by-product of the real valuable stuff, which is the real-life experience of doing it."

So how does he go about building a character like the shrink in K-PAX? "I start in a bunch of different areas and use them all at the same time," Bridges says. "There's a thing in acting called psychological gesturing -- how you sit, how you hold your body -- and that tells you a lot. So when you're playing a certain character, whether it's The Dude or the prez or the fella in K-PAX, they have a certain body language and way that they use their bodies. That starts from how much the guy weighs. Obviously, you have to get in real good shape if you're playing a football player. Or, if you're playing a slacker, you have to get that down very early in developing the character. In my process, I look inside myself and see what aspect of myself that I can draw on and ask myself, How would I be in this character's position?

"Then I'll look at my close circle of friends and family, at different people who might inspire me and remind me of this character. You also look at other professional people who do what you do and you rip off clothes ideas from them or how they hold their hand, little details that help tremendously in defining a character."

In this case, Bridges also went right to the source: he spent time with a psychiatrist in New York. "Whenever you can get a person who's either been through what your character has been through or somebody who has the same profession as your character, it helps so much," he says. "It's tapping into the real thing. Certain things you can learn by them answering questions for you, but it's also just being around them and kind of soaking their energies up."

As usual with Bridges, this leads into an amusing anecdote. It comes from the shooting of Texasville, the 1990 sequel to The Last Picture Show, the now-classic coming-of-age tale that launched his career in 1971. In Texasville, Bridges again plays Duane Jackson, who has grown up into a beleaguered, middle-aged oil man in a dusty little West Texas oil town. It's a marvelous performance, full of texture and nuance, and remembering it now puts a soft gleam in Bridges' eye. "I'm playing a little older than my actual age," Bridges recalls, "and I was feeling a little insecure about what this guy should look like. There was some delay in the costumes, and none of the costumes were right, and here we were going to shoot the first day and I'm not happy with any of my wardrobe. They're knocking on my door and saying, 'Fifteen minutes, Mr. Bridges.' And I'm going, 'Oh, shit! What am I going to wear?'

"Then I get another knock on the door, and there standing in front of me is this fella, Rusty Lindeman, and he looks exactly how I want to look. And he says, 'Hi. Just wanted to welcome you, you're shooting on my property here. I own these few sections of land you're shootin' on. I just want to say welcome and if there's anything I can do to help ya, just let me know.' So I said, 'Well, can I have all your clothes?' And he said, 'Why sure! What do you want?' 'Well, can I have the shirt off your back?' And he took off his clothes and I put 'em on, with all the pens in his pocket and all that stuff, and it saved my ass. It was a godsend."

Bridges also had a real-life model for his portrayal of the president in The Contender, for which he was nominated for best supporting actor. "I looked at different presidents and politicians, the Kennedys and Johnson. I looked at Mario Cuomo a little bit; I was always impressed with him as a speaker. But when I really got down to it, I found that the person I modeled him after the most was my father. He always approached his work with a lot of joy, and I think this president did the same. He really liked what he did very much. He was a very gregarious guy and he liked people to feel at ease with him." Bridges even used a particular passion of his father's to help delineate the character: food. "The president liked to use food to put people at ease -- or to put them on the edge of their seats. My father did the same thing," he says.

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