An interview with Jeff Bridges, SLO film festival honoree

Actor Jeff Bridges, star of cult and mainstream films, will receive the King Vidor Career Achievement Award in SLO tonight

slinn@thetribunenews.comMarch 7, 2014 

Winning an Academy Award for his turn as boozy, broken-down country singer Otis “Bad” Blake in 2009’s “Crazy Heart” meant a lot to Jeff Bridges: praise, publicity, validation from his peers.

But he also saw the award as recognition for his hard-working Hollywood family.

“It was like winning one for the team, like (being in) a relay race and your dad’s passing the baton,” recalled Bridges, son of actors Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges and younger brother of actor Beau Bridges. “That felt really wonderful for Team Bridges.”

Jeff Bridges, 64, will appear Saturday night at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival to receive the King Vidor Career Achievement Award, which honors excellence in filmmaking.

Oscar nominee James Cromwell, himself a past King Vidor honoree, will present the award and lead a question-and-answer session, followed by a screening of the cult comedy “The Big Lebowski.”

A life in show biz

Bridges, who divides his time between Santa Barbara and Montana, made his screen debut as a 6-month-old in the 1951 film “The Company She Keeps,” directed by Cromwell’s father, John Cromwell.

“As I grew older, there was a certain pressure about going into the family biz,” said Bridges, who appeared alongside his father and brother on the TV show “Sea Hunt” as a child. “My parents were very gung-ho to turn their kids on to show business.”

Bridges credits his father with teaching him “all the basics” of acting. His brother Beau, eight years his senior, served as his mentor.

Early on, the two would practice on what Bridges called the “supermarket circuit.”

“We would rent a flatbed truck and pull into a supermarket (parking lot) and … do a fake fight,” said Bridges, who was 15 or 16 at the time. “When we got a big enough crowd, we’d say, ‘Just kidding. We’re rehearsing a scene.’ ”

Although Bridges never had trouble finding work — “My father would simply say, ‘My son will play that part,’ ” the actor recalled — he worried about getting gigs because of his ancestry, not his abilities.

Those doubts were put to rest somewhat when he was nominated for his first Oscar at age 21, for the 1971 coming-of-age drama “The Last Picture Show.” But the biggest turning point for Bridges came when he appeared in 1973’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

“I said to myself, ‘You’re still thinking about doing other things in your life,’” he recalled, such as music and painting. “ ‘Here’s a chance where you can find out if you want to do movies.’ ”

After working with screen icons Lee Marvin and Frederic March, Bridges decided, “This is something I could do for the rest of my life.”

Memorable characters

Over the years, Bridges has held true to that vision — playing a string of charming yet reckless rascals, rebels and iconoclasts. His lengthy résumé includes memorable turns as an ex-convict father in “American Heart,” a beach-boy gigolo in “Cutter’s Way,” a radio shock-jock in “The Fisher King” and a gentle alien in “Starman.”

Bridges has earned six Oscar nominations so far, including nods for his roles in 1974’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” 2000’s “The Contender” and 2010’s “True Grit.” In the last film, he played ornery, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn — the same role that won John Wayne an Academy Award.

While discussing career high points, Bridges mentioned two films: “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” in which he and his brother play a pair of musical siblings, and “The Big Lebowski,” which stars Bridges as pot-smoking slacker Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski.

“Occasionally, I’ll be watching the TV, and I’ll see one of my movies,” said Bridges, who typically watches a scene or two before changing the channel. “With ‘Lebowski’ … I’ll say, ‘I’ll just watch until (John) Turturro licks the bowling ball.’ I’ll get sucked right in and end up watching the whole thing.”

Asked how he selects projects, Bridge said he looks for “the kind of movies I’d like to see.”

“My mode of operation is to try my best … not to work because I know what that entails,” he said. “The (projects) that are just too cool to resist, those are the ones I end up choosing.”

Bridges, whose recent credits include “Iron Man,” “Tron: Legacy” and “R.I.P.D.,” will next appear as the title character in “The Giver,” based on Lois Lowry’s futuristic children’s novel. (Years ago, when the actor was considering directing the movie, he envisioned his father playing that role. Lloyd Bridges died in 1998.)

Off the screen

In addition to acting, Bridges devotes his attention to charity work — he’s the founder of the nonprofit End Hunger Network, dedicated to feeding children around the world — and creative outlets including ceramics, photography and music.

Aided by “Crazy Heart” music producer T. Bone Burnett, he’s built a burgeoning side career as a singer-songwriter. He released his second album, “Jeff Bridges,” in 2011.

Bridges sees clear parallels between movies and music.

“Working on movies, and on stage as well, is a team art,” said Bridges, who last performed in San Luis Obispo with his band, the Abiders, in February. “Some kind of magic happens when you have a whole lot of creative people aiming for the same thing.”

When he’s not picking up a guitar, he’s grabbing a camera. Bridges has been sharing the photos he snaps on set with cast and crew members since 1984; he compiled some of his favorite shots in the 2003 book “Pictures.”

“A lot of actors will read books or knit sweaters or take naps. … Between takes, I take photographs,” explained Bridges, who was honored last April by the International Center of Photography.

According to Bridges, all those endeavors contribute to his craft.

“The great thing about acting is you’re able to use all your talents,” he said.

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