Jeff Bridges: The Last American Hero


Jeff Bridges: The Last American Hero


Peerless actor, passionate musician, national treasure, and the preeminent icon of slacker sophistication, Jeff Bridges lives his life to the fullest, soaking in every laid-back moment along the way. The six-time Oscar nominee’s new role as an undead cop in this summer’s R.I.P.D. has him considering his mortality, but he’s handling it with expected ease. As always, the Dude abides.

Life’s a trip, man, all of it. Wild stuff. Everybody floating down the bowling alley of experience. Jeff Bridges is just tripping on a higher plane than most of us. A man of simple pleasure, he’s grateful for the opportunities that have led him to this sunny cafe on New York’s Bowery, where he tucks a napkin into the neck of his T-shirt before laying into a plate of “well-cooked” scrambled eggs he’s doused  in an entire bottle of ketchup. Normally, he’d have woken up at 6 a.m. to look out over the Pacific Ocean from the 19-acre mountaintop property in Montecito, California, he shares with Sue, his wife of 36 years and the mother of his three grown daughters. “I’m more of a morning guy. I feel energy in the morning.” Bridges says, sitting up straight and rubbing his spine against the back of his chair with the languid contentment of a mountain lion who’s found himself a nice tree trunk. “My rountine is to get up and make a big pot of coffee, then I go to this room where I have a sit and read some books, do some stretching.”

Bridges is 63 years old now. He got the first of his six Oscar nominations at 22 for The Last Picture Show; inspired a roving festival robe-wearing fanatics with his iconic stoner-philosopher, The Dude, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult phenomenon The Big Lebowski; and has been called “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived” by film critic Pauline Kael. He’s accomplished enough to step back and let the thrills seek him out. “My life is pretty tame,” he says without regret. “I’m not as wild or reckless as I was. I’m not in the mood for it, really.”

This particular trip to New York has been “a hit and run for me” says Bridges. He’s flying out in a few hours and is still coming down from the “good time” he had the night before, wining and dining at the International Center of Photography’s annual gala where he accepted an Infinity Award for the panoramic, black-and-white photographs he’s been snapping on his movie sets for the past few decades. The photos reflect Bridges’ deep love of cinema; his down-to-earth, insider’s view into the mechanics of moviemaking; and his goofy sensibility—exemplified by shots like the selfie he took as a one-eyed U.S. Marshal with a hanged man high in the trees behind him on the set of the Coens’ 2010 western True Grit.

Before Bridges was awarded his prize, the ICP screened a short video, in which Bridges recounted the story of trying to snap photos during a dream sequence for Lebowski that had The Dude sailing through the legs of women straddling a bowling alley, “looking up at their coochies or whatever you want to call them.” Bridges asked the first woman in line if he could take a photo. “Oh, by all means, do!” she said. But as he was being pulled down the alley on a skateboard, he looked up and, “I see that this woman really needs a shave! She’s got hair coming out of her leotard, and I think, My god! I snap the shot and go through. And then I see the next girl’s got even more hair. One after another,” he said. “They pulled a fast one on me. They all went to the makeup man and got crepe hair and shoved it up there!”

During his ICP acceptance speech, he’d also raised his glass to “film”—versus digital—and “the click” of a shutter. Less Luddite than connoisseur, Bridges shoots almost exclusively on a Widelux, a quirky camera without a viewfinder that requires a two-and-a-half second exposure. On sets, Bridges loves to shoot what he calls “Tragoedia/Comoedia,” where he invites costars like Matt Damon and “the lovely, dynamite Maggie Gyllenhaal” to make a sad face, then a happy face. Because of the camera’s long exposure, he can capture both moods in the same frame. Ever since 1984’s Starman (his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, for playing an alien; he’d studied the movements of babies and birds), he’s made a book of photographs for each movie he’s worked on, annotated with hand-scrawled captions, and given them out as gifts to the cast and crew. “That Widelux has given me such joy,” he says.

Bridges seems to find joy in pretty much everything he does: acting, photography, music, painting, and sculpture. (His website, filled with doodles and links to things he digs, like profane Irish Olympic sailing commentary, is a paean to artistic self-expression, and a ne plus ultra example of how to go digital without succumbing to celebrity confessionalism.) He’s also a wonderful ceramicist, according to musician and producer T Bone Burnett, who met him 33 years ago while filming Heaven’s Gate, and calls him, alternately, Jeff, Jeffrey, Jefferson, Bridges, and, of course, Dude. “He’s an incredibly lovable goof of a guy,” says Burnett. “He’s doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

“He’s a Zen actor, man,” says Ethan Coen of why he and his brother Joel keep hiring Bridges. “There’s no angst. He’s as easy to work with as you’d imagine. It’s just something he’s good at and doesn’t fuss over. He’s just kind of great.” The Coens actually wrote the part of The Dude for Bridges—not knowing him personally.

According to lore, the character cut so closely to Bridges’ actual persona that he almost turned it down, suspicious that they’d been spying on him at home. “The brothers will tell you [they had to] drag me to the party,” Bridges said in an American Masters documentary on PBS, “but I’m sure glad I went to that party, man.” The magical melding of actor and character has inspired Lebowski specialty stores; the Lebowski Fest bowling parties; a “religion” called Dudeism; Bridges’ 2013 printed dialogue about Buddhism with spiritual guru Bernie Glassman, The Dude and the Zen Master; and even the name of Bridges’ country band, the Abiders.

Bridges is now on a break after spending a month on the road with the Abiders and his singer-songwriter daughter Jessica, who opened some of their shows. Playing in the band—as well as on his 2011 self-titled, country-tinged solo album produced by Burnett—is an extension of the musical chops he showed off while bringing to life the alcoholic, washed-up country singer Bad Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart, a performance that earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. Touring allows Bridges to live out his “teenage dream of being in a rock- ’n’-roll band,” and brings him back to the Wednesday night jam sessions he started in high school and continued weekly for 15 years with his good friends Steve Baim and John Goodwin. “We never knew what was going to happen,” Bridges says, “but every Wednesday you could count on having a great party, and we just jammed and danced and had a wonderful time.”

Both Of Bridges’ parents—Dorothy, who passed away in 2009, and Lloyd, who passed in 1998—were actors who loved showbiz. “I feel them very much with me,” he says. “Their spirit, who they were, lives on in me and my kids. They’re the foundations of my life.” Lloyd starred in Sea Hunt, a popular syndicated TV show about a scuba diver in the late ’50s and ’60s, and he’d bring Jeff along to set, often putting him on the show. If you tuned into Sea Hunt and “saw a little 8-year-old kid running around,” says Bridges, “chances are it was me.” He goes on, “My father, unlike a lot of showbiz folks, really urged us kids to get into it.” (His older brother Beau is also an accomplished actor.) When it came to acting, he worried about nepotism, but fell into it anyway. “It wasn’t so much about thinking, Maybe I’ll give it a try. It was more like, I wonder if I’m going to continue doing this thing.” Even now, he feels at a crossroads when he’s between projects. “Usually, I’ll make a movie and after the movie’s over, a very common feeling for me will be, I don’t want to do that ever again. And I know that will pass and that I’ll want to do movies again, but I kind of long to put the idea of being a character aside and just be myself.”

What gets him over the hump each time is thinking back to his turn in the 1973 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, when he was 24 and surrounded by old pros like Lee Marvin, Fredric March, and Robert Ryan. Bridges was nervous, and initially hesitant to do the film. “But I saw all these old-timers as anxious as I was, and I was just a kid, and I could see them kind of working with their anxiety and their fear.” After eight weeks of hanging out with them, “I said, Oh, this is my tribe. You know? I felt that with my brother and my father, but that’s a little different. That’s your family.”

Bridges still gets scared, but he’s learned to make peace with fear. “It’s just the way it is,” he says. “It’s like hanging out with a guy who you kind of get used to,” he says. “You know people who at first kind of bother you, but then you get to know them and you’re like, Oh, yeah, I can dig his eccentricities. That’s kind of what it is.” The key is to recognize that fear can enhance your life. “He puts a little edge on it,” says Bridges of his fear, personified. “Sometimes you’re on top of it, saying, Hello fear, I’m fine. And it says, ‘Oh, you’re fine? Check this out.’ It challenges you deeper.”

Even this interview is giving him anxiety, he admits, though it’s not noticeable. “I’m having it right this second,” he says. “I can feel it while trying to come up with answers to your questions. I’m thinking, What have I already said? Is this old information?” There’s one piece of advice his mother gave him that he knows he’s shared before, but can’t help sharing again. “She would always say, ‘Have fun and don’t take it too seriously.’” Now his wife Sue tells him the same thing. “And that is such wonderful grease, you know?”

From his father, Bridges learned to accept fame. “I don’t struggle with it too much. I don’t get hounded too much,” he says. “I saw how [my father] handled it, as gracious as he could be, and that’s kind of the way I play it. Sometimes you hit a wall and you say, Sorry, guys, I can’t do it anymore, but I try to be nice. I’ve had that feeling of being a fan, and saying the inappropriate thing, or whatever.” He readily admits to being starstruck by musicians he admires. “It kind of took my breath away,” Bridges says of playing guitar with Bob Dylan on the set of 2003’s Masked and Anonymous. “It’s like being alive during Shakespeare’s time. He’s such a great, influential fella, and just a normal person. You can’t help but try to imagine what it must be like for him, having all of these opinions about who he is projected onto him. That must be wild.”

Embarrassment is nothing new to him, either. He recalls how, 20 years ago, he went up to David Byrne to tell him that the Talking Heads was the first band he’d really gotten into since the Beatles. “I was like, You guys are so great!” says Bridges. “And then I waited for a response, you know, but there was none. Nothing. It was like I was talking to a mannequin. Then I was like, Maybe I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, so I tried again. And nothing, then, One more! Maybe I’ll just try one more! Even more! And nothing. Well, okay! Hah! That’s a fair response from him, I guess. However you want, but I try to enjoy myself, you know, have fun with the folks. I mean, everybody’s human.”

When Bridges thinks about getting wild, it’s about “being crazy in a Dionysian way,” he says. “I enjoy getting wild every once in a while.” Back in the ’60s and ’70s, he says, he got wild quite a lot, “did all that ’60s stuff.” The Dude’s authentic stoner vibe came from experience. (He’d actually left home at 17 after his parents said he was wasting his life away on marijuana and alcohol; his younger sister Lucinda recalls Bridges telling them, “I don’t dig you guys anymore.”) “Oh yeah! We actors use something called sense memory,” says Bridges. “With Lebowski, I didn’t smoke any pot when we were doing the movie. But I’d smoked pot before, of course, so I knew what that was all about.”

As a younger actor, he hadn’t yet discovered sense memory. “I made the mistake early in my career, like, I’m supposed to be drunk in this scene, so I’ll just get drunk. That’ll be easy. I won’t have to make it seem very real,” he says, laughing. “And that might be fine for an hour of your scene, but then you’ve got to carry on with the rest of your day.” During production on 1982’s Kiss Me Goodbye, which costarred James Caan and Sally Field, he was supposed to play “a very sedate, uptight person who gets drunk and then dances. So I started drinking screwdrivers early in the morning.” In the end, he thinks his performance turned out fine. “I just don’t like to feel that way, you know, hungover,” he says. “I want my wits, I like them around. I don’t like to be too foggy.”

He still drinks, but he’s into red wine these days. And even then, he tries to limit his imbibing to half a bottle at a time. His current version of getting wild, he says, is “letting all of my impulses rip—dancing and movement, or it could just be ideas, you know, streaming forth.” He calls these “seasons of the day,” moods and waves of creativity that come and go like the weather. But they’re always tempered by the logistics of actually getting stuff done: “I spend most of my time in front of the computer, doing emails and shit.”

Bridges has been doing emails and shit to get the word out about A Place at the Table, a documentary he recently helped make about the “huge, solvable problem” of global hunger, a longtime passion of his. No doubt he’ll soon have to do more of the same for the upcoming release of The Seventh Son, an adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s children’s fantasy series, The Wardstone Chronicles, in which he plays a witch hunter opposite his Lebowski love interest Julianne Moore’s sorceress.

Before The Seventh Son, he’ll star in this summer’s R.I.P.D., as a cowboy sheriff brought back from the dead and partnered with Ryan Reynolds’ equally undead S.W.A.T. team member to hunt down evil souls who’ve escaped judgment and are hiding out among the living, plotting world domination. For all his accolades, Bridges, who has starred in TRON, TRON: Legacy, and Iron Man, loves a good genre flick. “I like going to the movies myself,” Bridges says, “and this is a movie I’d like to see—full of surprises.”

(One of which is that, in their second lives, Reynolds’ character looks like an old Chinese guy and Bridges’ appears as former Victoria’s Secret Angel Marisa Miller.) Making it was just as fun as he thought it would be. “It’s a bit like when you were a kid and playing pretend,” he says. Lately, he’s been indulging that love of genre by watching his pal Kevin Bacon, who also stars in R.I.P.D., on TV. “I’ve been digging The Following,” Bridges says. “This Following thing is scary as hell, oh my god.”

All this talk of souls in R.I.P.D. has Bridges, who is “Buddhistly bent,” considering death and the afterlife—not an unusual occurrence for him. Terry Gilliam, his director on The Fisher King, has said, “He’s absolutely fearless, but there’s a darkness that broods,” recalling that the first time they met, Bridges showed him a book of the macabre photos of Joel-Peter Witkin, often featuring dismembered body parts. “I don’t know what happens!” Bridges says of death. “But the older I get, the closer mortality feels—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think about the preciousness of it all, and I’m feeling kind of grateful to be alive, after whatever things we did. Even just appreciating where I am feels good, and being connected—having a sense of community feels good.”

For Bridges, it all comes back to community and family. The most meaningful photos in his life aren’t those he takes on his Widelux, but the ones he carries in a stack of well-worn, tiny squares in his wallet. Flipping through, he shows me his three beautiful daughters—Isabelle, Jessie, and Hayley—and one very special photo with a very special story.

He’d been making a comedy western called Rancho Deluxe in Montana’s Paradise Valley with Sam Waterston, shooting a scene in an old dude ranch. “I see this beautiful girl, a waitress, cleaning rooms, working her way through school,” Bridges says. “She had two black eyes and a broken nose”—from a car crash—“and I could not take my eyes off her.” He finally worked up the courage to ask her out, but she declined. “She said, ‘It’s a small town, maybe I’ll see you around.’ And her prophecy proved true. We ran into each other, we danced, fell in love. I was knocked out the moment I saw her.” Bridges courted Sue for almost three years before she agreed to marry him. Fifteen years later, after they’d had their girls, Bridges got a letter from a makeup artist who’d worked on Rancho Deluxe, saying, “‘I was going through my files and I found a photo of you asking a local girl out.’ I look and there’s a photograph of the first words I ever uttered to my wife, of me asking her out and her saying no,” says Bridges. “There’s a picture of that, and a close-up of her face! Isn’t that wild? What are the odds?”

He pulls out a photograph of Sue today and beams. “She’s gorgeous, isn’t she? Look! She looks pretty much the same,” he says. “I lucked out.” Sue raised their daughters, says Bridges (“I was gone for most of that”), and “she just takes care of so much, all the financial stuff. She’s my partner. We kind of do it in tandem.” He was 28 when they married, but he doesn’t seem to have ever looked on his marriage as restrictive. “Oh no,” he says. “We had wild times together.” And the good times continue. “Marriage is so cool, man,” he says. “I’m digging it now, really digging it. It gets better and better and more exciting. Because the big high is intimacy, right?” That’s what this life is about for Bridges: the high of being in your moviemaking tribe; the high of camaraderie with your band; the high of feeling a part of a global initiative to stop hunger; and, above all, the high of having a family. “It’s intimacy, getting to know someone,” he says. “Like, We’re going to get into it! Marriage is wonderful.”

His manager rushes into the café. Bridges needs to be at the airport in an hour. He grins and nods at me, like we did all right on this little chat. His mind already seems to have leapt ahead to where he’s going: the 900-acre ranch he owns up against the woods in Montana where he met his wife. Half the ranch burned down last year in a forest fire, and this will be the first time they’ve gone back since. But Bridges isn’t worrying about that. “I’m going to my ranch,” he says, with the utter certainty of a happy man, “to see my girl, to see Sue.”

Photography by Kurt Iswarienko. Styling by Sophie Assa.


As seen in The Wild Issue. Out now at  The Bullet Shop!