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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
| By Marshall Fine | From Jeff Bridges, July/August 2013
Living the Dream
Photo/Jim Wright for Atelier

“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.”

Observes Cooper, “It’s a familiar tale of redemption, but Jeff played it with so much warmth and humor. It takes a man who’s lived with demons to convey that pain. I think Jeff allows himself to feel the emotions he’s experiencing as the character. But histrionics—that’s not in his quiver. He cares about emotional purity and emotional truth.”

Notes Bridges, “There was a charm about doing a movie about something I love so much, like playing music. It was a leap of faith—but I had faith in T-Bone and Scott. And I’ve had great luck with first-time directors.”

That’s been true since Bridges’ first hit: Peter Bogdanovich was a former film critic who had been a director-for-hire when he finally got a chance to make a first feature of his own, The Last Picture Show, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. He discovered Bridges, along with former model Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms for that film.

“When I met him, he was 19, and my first impression was that he was a sweetheart,” Bogdanovich says. “I could tell right away that he was a good actor, and I thought he would be good playing a prick, because he was a sweet guy and you could tell that about him. So there was this tension between his own personality and the character’s bad behavior. He made the character more likable than he was written. You needed to know he wasn’t a bad person and Jeff brought that to the table.”

Almost 20 years later, Bogdanovich reteamed with Bridges and the Last Picture Show cast for a film based on McMurtry’s sequel, Texasville: “He was the same sweetheart,” Bogdanovich says. “He said a very interesting thing to me one day while we were driving to the location. He said, ‘You get dealt a certain hand in life. It’s what you do with it that counts.’ I thought that was very profound.”

It’s the day after the performance at Santa Fe Station, as Bridges settles into a patio table at a restaurant at the Red Rock Casino, in another part of suburban Las Vegas. It’s a warm April morning and Bridges, who orders a crab-and-avocado omelette, keeps moving his chair so he’s not sitting in the sun. Wearing a T-shirt, jeans and laceless Converse All-Stars, he’ll play his second Vegas show that night, in the Rocks Lounge at Red Rock.

The subject turns to cigars, which causes Bridges to smile: “An interesting subject, my whole relationship to tobacco,” he says. He began with cigarettes, smoking them in high school and, eventually, on movie sets. He played smokers in some movies, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

“Preston Tucker actually died of lung cancer. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day,” Bridges says. “I remember I got nauseous from all the cigarettes I had to smoke making that movie. I was grateful that I wasn’t hooked on them. I could dabble with cigarettes and not feel that I needed more. Now I’ll occasionally take a couple of drags on a cigarette and it doesn’t taste good.”

His taste for smoking cigars, he allows, “might have come from smoking pot. I enjoy sampling different kinds of herb. There’s a certain aspect of that with cigars: all the different types and sizes and aromas, the way they’re made. Each one is individual—like rolling a joint. And unlike with cigarettes, you have a relationship with each cigar. It’s a unique thing.”

He favors Montecristo No. 2 (“I remember John Huston used to smoke those—three or four a day”) and says, “I don’t like them too strong. I appreciate the way they’re constructed. Partagás has some that are very nice. I like the shape of Padróns. And the Fuente Don Carlos—I really appreciate the long ash. I like the fact that it keeps on for a long time.

“I’m not an aficionado. I know what I like but I don’t study it. I just appreciate the subtle differences between them. I remember when I first started smoking them, I got a little book to keep track of what I smoked. I’d keep the bands in the book, too; that was a fun thing to do. I’ll go through periods where I smoke one every day, periods where it’s a kind of ritual and other times where it’s not as regular. It depends on what I’m doing and who I’m hanging out with.

“I had a ritual I used to love. I would walk up on my hill, with a cigar and a glass of wine, a book and some good music. I’d light up a nice cigar, and then I’d sit and smoke and watch the sunset.”

Mention of marijuana brings a smile to Bridges’ face as he notes, “Now that pot is practically legal, I don’t smoke anymore. I’ve been off pot for a while.”

Which comes as a shock to fans who recognize Bridges for what has become his signature role. Though he gave awards-worthy performances in films about men dealing with the rawest kind of existential crises in films such as Fearless, Wild Bill, The Fisher King and True Grit, the role that people routinely stop him to talk about is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). The Dude—a hapless and unwilling private detective caught up in a case he doesn’t quite understand—seemed to divide his time between bowling, drinking White Russians (a cocktail involving vodka, milk and coffee liqueur) and smoking what appeared to be an endless series of joints.

“People recognize me and say, ‘Hey, wanna get high?’ And the guys don’t believe me when I say I’ve stopped. In fact, when I was doing Lebowski, I didn’t smoke any weed at all. Those lines the Coens write are so beautiful that I wanted to have my wits about me. I didn’t want to add that element into it.

“I made that mistake early in my career with booze. I was playing a scene where I was supposed to be drunk, so I had a few drinks beforehand. I was fine for about a half-hour—but then you have to get through the rest of the day, and that doesn’t work.”

The Big Lebowski itself started with a cult following, which has grown to the point that many cities have annual celebrations of the film, called “Lebowski Fest.” At the annual gatherings, people dress up as the characters and watch the film (which was recently named the No. 1 bowling movie of all time by, all the while debating its deeper meaning.

“I remember being surprised that it wasn’t a hit when it came out,” Bridges says. “It had to hit Europe and splash back to the U.S. Then they started having these Lebowski Fests. I went to one and I felt like the Beatles when I walked out. Here was a whole sea of Dudes in the audience. It was kind of amazing.”

Bernard Glassman, Zen Buddhist lay-teacher, cowrote the book The Dude and the Zen Master, with Bridges, published earlier this year, about how The Big Lebowski actually seems to espouse bits of Zen wisdom through the character of The Dude. (“Bernie calls them the ‘Koan’ brothers,” Bridges jokes.) Glassman, a longtime friend of Bridges’, has also been a steady cigar-smoking companion when the two of them see each other.

“There are a lot of things in the dialogue of The Big Lebowski that remind me of Zen philosophy, in the modern vernacular,” Glassman says. “In my opinion, Jeff is quite a bit like The Dude, which is one of the things that struck me about him. The character of The Dude strikes me as someone who embodies many traits of an enlightened guy.”

Still, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the Lebowski tree. Writer-director Rod Lurie, who cast Bridges as the president of the United States in The Contender (2000), remembers visiting Bridges in Santa Barbara and drinking White Russians with him while selling him on the script.

“He was in an outfit that looked like it was out of The Big Lebowski,” Lurie recalls. “And he explained that, in Lebowski, he wore his own clothes.”

After the meeting, Bridges walked Lurie to his car, hugged him and said, “The Dude as president. Who’d-a thunk it?” But, as Lurie notes, “He’s one of the greatest actors in the history of the screen. He’s able to assimilate that charisma in different ways for different characters.”

On the set, Bridges smoked cigars as that character President Jackson Evans. By the end of the production, he had Lurie and costar Joan Allen smoking cigars as well.

“He went total Mephistopheles on me,” Lurie says with a laugh. “I’m a complete teetotaler. But he was instructing me on the aroma and the taste of a good cigar. And he got me to smoke a cigar—or, to be truthful, a quarter of a cigar. But Jeff seemed obsessed with them. On the set, he spent all his downtime working on music and cigars.”

Asked how the satisfaction he gets from acting has changed, Bridges smiles and says, “Like The Dude says, it’s up and down, strikes and gutters. And you know—the fear doesn’t go away. It’s still there. But your relationship to it changes. It becomes more of your buddy. And then the work remains fresh.”

Though he does his best to stay in the moment, Bridges shakes his head when asked if he’s a practicing Buddhist.

“I’m of a Buddhist-ly bent,” he allows. “I meet guys who are into it and I resonate with their thoughts. It feels like how I view the world. I sit, I meditate.”

And, like his father, who encouraged him to become an actor by taking Jeff out of school as an 8-year-old to act on episodes of “Sea Hunt,” Bridges has a social conscience, with a particular focus on the issue of hunger in America. He helped start the End Hunger Network in 1983 and is the spokesman for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. He lent his face and voice to the recent documentary, A Place at the Table, which pointed out that, through social food programs started by President Richard Nixon, American childhood hunger was nearly eradicated in the 1970s. But since the conservative revolution that shredded the safety net for programs such as food stamps and free school meals, the figures on food insecurity among children have spiraled.

“There’s actually federal money to feed kids available to the states,” Bridges says. “Feeding kids is pretty simple. The money is there, but the states have to have the programs. My goal is to make Santa Barbara County the first no-kid-hungry county in the country.

“The reason there’s hunger is there is not sufficient political will to end it. That’s when it will be changed. The politicians represent us. So we need to figure out what we’re willing to do to help create that political will. And I’m not talking about gestures like donating $100 to scratch the guilt itch. That’s part of the problem.”

Scott Cooper says, “You can’t be a great actor if you’re not a deeply humanitarian person. Jeff is; the need to be adored is something that doesn’t factor into his life.”

Asked how old his current age—63—would have seemed to the 20-year-old Jeff, Bridges says, “Man, when I was in 6th grade, 20 looked ancient. So 60? It’s hard for me to believe I’m as old as I am and that I have a grandchild.

“I sat next to a woman on a plane recently who was 80 years old. She told me she was a great-great-grandmother and she was going off to visit some friends. And she said, ‘Last time, we all went skinny-dipping.’ ” Bridges pauses to give a throaty chuckle and shake his head in approval.

“Skinny-dipping,” he says. “That was very heartening to me. I thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s some fun left.’ ”

Including playing music. Bridges refers frequently to playing live music with a band as his teenage dream. Reminded of the choice he felt he had to make between acting and being a musician, Bridges is asked whether he wishes he’d chosen music instead.

“But I did,” he says, observing that he never stopped playing just because he was making movies. “That was back in the days when there were slogans like ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’ Music was only a teenage thing; there was no precedent for it. Now the Rolling Stones are out there at 70. So maybe it’s not just a young man’s sport.

“It would have been cool to do it when I was younger. But I was realizing other dreams. Hey, you can’t realize all your dreams at once.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.

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