Jeff Bridges is one of America's most enduring and versatile actors. Now after a bravura performance as a washed-up country star, he is being tipped to win his first Academy Award. He talks to Linda Barnard about the film, turning 60 and the love of his life. When Jeff Bridges picked up his Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a drama last month, the first person he thanked had nothing to do with Crazy Heart, the small independent film that has thrust him back into the spotlight and seemingly on his way to Oscar glory.
He gazed from the stage at Susan Geston, his wife of 33 years, who sat beaming back from a table in front of him, gorgeous in a sequinned burgundy gown. "Time for acknowledging all the folks," Bridges said, his voice husky with emotion. "I'm looking at you, sweetheart. Thirty-three years. My beautiful wife." He went on to express his gratitude to his father, the late actor Lloyd Bridges, who encouraged him to get into the family business when he was a kid sulkily reluctant to follow in his dad's footsteps. He thanked his mother, Dorothy, also an actress who died last year at age 93.
Only then did the 60-year-old actor mention first-time director Scott Cooper and others associated with Crazy Heart in which he plays a hard-living, broken-down former country star. For this Hollywood stalwart, whose first role was as an uncredited infant in The Company She Keeps with his mother in 1951 (he was held in her arms, while older brother Beau played his bratty sibling), family means everything and the trappings of Hollywood success are far down the list of what matters in his life.
It's one of those quirks of fate so common in Hollywood that the role Bridges initially turned down could finally earn the veteran actor his first Academy Award on March 7. According to critics and bookmakers, he is a favourite to win Best Actor for his role as Bad Blake. "It's all about the music and when I initially got the script there was no music," Bridges explains. "If the music wasn't the quality it turned out to be, the movie wouldn't be any good." (The music didn't disappoint. The film's theme, The Weary Kind by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett, is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Song.)
"Jeff says no to everything," Cooper says. "He's notorious for saying no, and he is the most difficult actor to attach to a movie." Still, Bridges is described by people who know him as a gracious and grounded individual. He sounds like he's kicked off his boots and put his feet up on the coffee table to chat when we connect over the phone. In reality, he's in the back of a limo, weaving through hectic Manhattan traffic, but his tone is warm, his style folksy. And unlike so many stars who sound like they're on a strict timetable (and you can be sure he is, too), Bridges acts like he's got all the time in the world.
Could that be because of the new milestone he finds himself at? "It's pretty interesting," he observes. " It's hard to believe I'm 60. I think of myself as in my mid-20s and then the body kind of starts to deteriorate and stuff, which is not too fun, but there's a kind of combination of, I wouldn't say urgency, but like if you want to do anything, do it now. There's a partner to that feeling of 'don't feel like you have to accomplish anything. Just relax and enjoy your life'."
With honours heaped upon him for his latest film, it seems the timing is right for him to clear a place on his mantel. Bridges has never taken home the golden statuette, although he has been nominated for four other Oscars, starting with The Last Picture Show in 1971 when he was just 23 (that was followed by Thunderbolt And Lightfoot in 1975; Starman in 1985 and The Contender in 2000).
Hollywood is a different world than when he was first nominated. Nobody back then took out full-page ads in trade magazines or went on the road promoting films with today's kind of gusto (as he and Cooper have been doing) in the hopes of wooing Academy voters. "The first time, doing The Last Picture Show, there was no campaigning. That part of show business these days has gotten a lot bigger and so there's a lot of competition with the studio awards," says Bridges, who recalled being "a young kid, waking up at 6am with the phone ringing" and a voice saying he had been nominated.
"But for a small movie like this, awards are very important," he adds. Studio Fox Searchlight began an aggressive rollout for the film last month, getting it into more theatres on the strength of its increasing buzz. Oscar nominations guarantee a wide release which is something that's hard to obtain for smaller films. In his portrayal of Bad, Bridges brings to mind many a hard-living country star. Once famous, he's now 57 and broke, fat and failing, stuck on the road and driving to gigs at bowling alleys and roadhouses in his creaky '73 Silverado.
It's an unselfconscious and occasionally brave performance, watching a paunchy Bridges, his belly flopping over the top of white briefs, sobbing in misery as he hunches over the toilet to vomit after a night of hard drinking. He used to be famous - but that's all slipped away and he's not doing much to hang onto what little he still has. Despite his excesses, Bad still has his talent. Some may be surprised to see how well Bridges performs onstage in a laidback country style: he has a pleasing voice and plays a mean guitar. But in reality, Bridges has been making music since he was 14 and released an album, Be Here Soon, in 2000. He is also a talented visual artist (you can see his photographs and his John Lennon-style doodles at jeffbridges.com).
Prickly and irritable, Bad still takes a stubborn pride in his work and isn't very pleased to see that his former backing singer and guitarist Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) is now the country star du jour. He has some tenderness inside him, feelings he allows to show when he grudgingly agrees to an interview with Jean, a decades-younger single mother with dreams of being a music writer (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress).
Crazy Heart was shot in about three weeks on a limited budget, which means Cooper had to ask a lot of his cast. Bridges never shied away from any of the hard work or long days and nights. He was also willing to do what it took to look the part of a country singer on his last legs. "Jeff is very tall and broad-shouldered and fit and I told him, 'This is not what these guys look like. You need to gain 25 pounds. And I am going to shoot all of those 25 pounds in all the states of disrepair,'" Cooper says he told his star. The result is, in the director's words, "a vanity-free performance".
The handsome Bridges put on the weight that was required. "It was bad food: eating as much ice cream and French fries and anything else I wanted," he says with a chuckle, sounding pleased with the process. To get the feel for how terrible Bad felt every morning, prying his eyes open in a crummy motel after a booze-soaked night onstage with yet another pick-up band, Bridges shot most of the film with a slight hangover. "You know, I'm playing drunk a lot in this movie," he points out. "You don't want to work drunk. I've made that mistake before.
"Instead of one drink after work, I'd have two," he adds. "I'd have a little bit more the night before." Bridges calls the experience of making Crazy Heart "a tough and wonderful time" and confesses he was "kind of a wreck" as he worked on the music, his nerves on edge because he knew the songs had to stand on their own merit. T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack adds more than atmosphere to the movie. There are some solid songs in addition to the Oscar-nominated theme that have a ring of comforting familiarity sung so well by Bridges amid the twang of guitars and pedal steel: they sound as if they could well be '70s country hits, especially the toe-tapper Fallin' & Flyin' with its lyric: "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin' for a little while."
"With The Fabulous Baker Boys, it set the bar pretty high for movies about musicians and music with all those popular and jazz standards," Bridges says of the 1989 movie he co-starred in with Beau and Michelle Pfeiffer, in which he first impressed audiences with his singing skills. Growing up in California, Bridges was exposed to all kinds of different music, but his love for country was nurtured on the set of Michael Cimino's 1980 box-office flop Heaven's Gate, where he worked not only with country legend Kris Kristofferson, but also with musicians who would play pivotal roles in the production of Crazy Heart more than 25 years later.
"That's where I met Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and I spent six months jamming with these guys every night," Bridges says. "The birth of the [Crazy Heart] music was there." Burnett, one of Hollywood's most reliable soundtrack writers (Walk The Line; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) wrote most of the music for Crazy Heart, along with Bruton and Bridges' friend from childhood, John Goodwin.
But Bridges can lay claim to one quirk: Bad's tendency to spend his offstage time with his belt flapping open and the top of his pants undone. "That was me," he says, laughing. "You want to be comfortable when you're driving." The most comfortable-looking character Bridges has played in his lengthy career is arguably The Dude in the Coen brothers' 1998 cult hit The Big Lebowski. Fans might think there's a special treat for them in Crazy Heart's opening scenes, which take place in a rundown dump of a bowling alley where Bad plays, called The Spare Room. "When we were shooting the opening of the picture some people were laughing and thinking it was a Lebowski reference, but Scott Copper hadn't seen Lebowski and still hasn't seen it."
Bridges seems genuinely thrilled with the near-mythic status The Dude has achieved, and he gets excited when he talks about Lebowskifests that have sprung up all over the world, usually held in bowling alleys. "I love that stuff!" he says. "When it first came out, it wasn't such a big hit. It was a bigger hit in Europe and then it splashed back on our shore and had this underground appreciation. I played a Lebowskifest in LA. It was my one Beatles moment. I got some guys together and we played to a sea of Dudes and people dressed up like bowling pins. It was a very surreal moment."
If The Dude was laid back by design, Bad Blake is that way out of necessity. He's been on the wrong side of fame long enough to know not to expect too much. Bridges crafted Bad based on stories from the guitarist Stephen Bruton, who had lived that kind of nomadic gig-to-gig existence playing in Kristofferson's band for 40 years. He worked closely with Bridges on the film and plays on the soundtrack. Bruton died in May after a lengthy battle with cancer, just two weeks after Crazy Heart was finished. As a nod to his friend's contribution to the film and to convey the spirit of the hard-working road musician, Bridges borrowed Bruton's elk's tooth necklace and wore it throughout the film. "It was like a kind a mojo, a juju thing."
It was tough to lose him, Bridges adds. "We had a wonderful time making the film, and he was in great spirits and in great shape." A big part of enjoying life is time spent with his wife, Bridges says, although it's been challenging lately due to his shooting schedule. Besides Crazy Heart, he was busy on The Men Who Stare At Goats, the hotly anticipated Tron sequel and a couple of smaller films. His next part is revisiting the role that John Wayne made famous - Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn in the Coen brothers' upcoming version of True Grit.
"The biggest challenge is my wife just told me over the last 14 months, we've been apart 11 months," Bridges says with a sigh. "That's a bear, that's tough." His marriage to the young hotel worker he met and fell in love with while filming Rancho Delux in Montana in 1974 remains one of Hollywood's most enduring matches and has produced three daughters: Isabelle, 28, Jessica, 26 and Haley, 24.
When asked how he and his wife have managed to endure in a time - and place - when married couples seem like an endangered species, Bridges laughs. "It's a combination of things. The biggest thing is that we haven't gotten divorced! "We've been married that long, the relationship gets tested and you can throw your hand in and find a new one, but no matter where you go, there you are. Marriage is a great opportunity to work on yourself.
"With Sue, it was love at first sight and I am still madly in love with her. I didn't think everything would get better, but every aspect of our marriage has gotten groovier, and every time I meet one of those challenges and you can grow from it and not let it crush you, your relationship becomes more precious."