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True Grit - Jeff Bridges interview

True Grit

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JEFF Bridges talks about reuniting with the Coen brothers for Western remake True Grit and getting to work with his talented young co-star Hailee Steinfeld.

He also talks about some of his career choices to date, what winning an Oscar has enabled him to do and which roles of his he reflects fondest upon and would maybe like to revisit some more…

Q. You’re filling the boots of John Wayne. Was that daunting?
Jeff Bridges: Not really, because one of the first things that the Coen Brothers told me was that they weren’t doing a remake of the movie True Grit, they were making a movie of the book by Charles Portis with no reference to the original movie as if there was no other movie ever made about this book. So, that was a relief to me because I didn’t want to jump into ‘The Duke’s boots. I could do it just fresh, as I would do any role, and that’s what I did.

Q. Is it disorientating acting with one eye covered?
Jeff Bridges: Not too bad [laughs]. It messes with your depth perception a bit. But then you just [clicks his mouth and mimics flipping up the eye patch].

Q. There are several mentions in the film to Rooster being a fat man, which you are clearly not…
Jeff Bridges: Well, naah… [ sticks out stomach]

Q. Did you bulk up for the part, because he’s got to be larger than life?
Jeff Bridges: Yeah, I mean, I’ve had a couple of those roles in a row now, and as you know it gets tougher to get rid of this thing [pats stomach]. But you read the script, it describes your character that way, so I’ve gotta have that extra pint of Haagen-Dazs. I don’t want to [laughs], but I do… I take the governor off when I get that kind of assignment. It’s a little tough when it comes to putting the governor back on. But I relaxed all my eating habits.

Q. You’ve worked with the Coens before, obviously, so do you find you’ve developed a short-hand? How do you know when they like something?
Jeff Bridges: Yeah, they’re gentle. Sometimes with directors it’s from what they don’t say, rather than what they say. They just guide you and aren’t too forceful with it. If they like it they’ll giggle.

Q. Can you elaborate a little more on what it’s like working with the Coen Brothers?
Jeff Bridges: They are so good, they’re real masters, and like a lot of masterful folks, they make it look so easy. They just know how to do it. They’ve created this kind of family of folks that they work with… Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, they’ve done maybe 12 films with him and that goes pretty much across the board in terms of other key players in their crew. Costume designer, the prop guys, the set guys. And again, that creates a very relaxed atmosphere. There’s not too much drama going on. Out of that everyday quality, some great stuff can come out of that.

Q. Are they the kind of guys you’re always going to have time for?
Jeff Bridges: Oh man, oh yeah. That’s terrific if you get that offer from the Coen brothers. It’s something to deeply consider.

True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld

Q. The character of Maddie is the narrator and the driving force behind the story, so going into the film how daunting did you think it was going to be for a young teenager to play the role, and how far into filming did you know you were in safe hands with Hailee?
Jeff Bridges: Yeah, I was very concerned about that going in, because, like you say, the whole story is told from her point of view and they [the Coens] wanted a fresh presence in that role. And I was concerned right up until we had our first scene, a big scene with just me and Hailee riding horses. So, I didn’t know what to think. But that first scene, I think it was when she came and woke me up, and I was so thrilled and relieved that we had somebody on board that was going to carry the whole picture. She did such a wonderful job.

Q. How strange was it going from one very virtual set [on TRON: Legacy] to this very real, old fashioned style of movie? And how arduous was the shoot physically?
Jeff Bridges: Well, juxtaposing those movies was rather bizarre. We had a re-shoot on Tron about a week after True Grit wrapped and there was a very surreal situation. I had the same make-up man from both movies, Thomas Nellen, so one moment he was putting the dust and the broken blood vessels on my nose for True Grit, and the next day he’s putting all these black dots all over my face. That was very bizarre [laughs].

Q. And physically?
Jeff Bridges: Whenever you have horseback riding on a film it’s good news for me because I love to ride. But the weather… we had a lot of wind and I think Hailee almost got blown over by it one day. You lean into it, it was very cold. But that’s kind of good, it adds a certain edge of reality to the scene and as an actor that cold helps to take your mind off trying to do anything else. It helps you get into the scene.

Q. You’ve had a pretty incredible career. How much do you look back on it and are there any roles that you missed out on that you’d wished you’d been cast in?
Jeff Bridges: Eh, I look back on all the movies with great fondness. There’s a bit of a home movie aspect to the movies I’ve done, for me, you know. I’ll look at The Big Lebowski or something, and I love the movie itself, but I’ll remember all the great times we had when we were making it and that sort of thing. As far as the missed roles go, there are a few of those. The only time I wrote to a director asking if I could be in their movie was Martin Scorsese. I wanted to play Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ. I loved that book. Nikos Kazantzakis is a great favourite of mine. And that might be the only movie I went after and didn’t get.

Q. Did your father ever give you any advice about your career that proved useful and has winning the Academy Award last year had much impact on your life?
Jeff Bridges: Well, my father, he was my teacher. Unlike a lot of folks in showbiz he encouraged all his kids to go into showbiz because he loved it so much. I remember as a kid of about eight-years-old or so, sitting on his bed and have him teach me all the basics of making it seem like it’s happening for the first time. But probably the biggest thing I realised as an adult – and I got to work with him twice, once on Tucker and also on Blown Away – and in both those instances I was very impressed by the way he generally approached the work with such joy.

When he’d come in the room and he’d start to work, you could just tell he really enjoyed what he was doing. It was kind of contagious and just spread through the whole cast and crew. And everybody would be like: “Oh, this is kind of fun!” And we’d just playing pretend here and having a good time together. And when you’re having a good time, you tend to relax, and out of that relaxation comes your best work. So, that was probably the biggest thing, just the joyful approach to it all.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

Q. And the award?
Jeff Bridges: As far as the award, it really hasn’t brought a bunch of great scripts or anything like that. But what it has brought is that it has fired up my music. Crazy Heart was all about music and I landed a recording deal with Blue Note. My buddy T-Bone Burnett and I finished the rough tracks of an album that’s going to come out next year. Also, probably the most important thing that the award has done is that it has enabled me to bring more attention to some things that I’m really concerned about.

One thing is a campaign that I’m the national chairperson for called No Kid Hungry in America. We’re concerned with ending Childhood hunger by 2015. It’s hard to believe, but we have 17 million kids, that’s one in four, who live in households where we’re not sure they’re going to get enough nutritious food. So, we’re working with the mayors and governors to turn things around. So, different things like that, you know, that help me create the kind of world I want to live in and want my kids to live in… and grandkids.

Q. Is there something in the scripts you come across that you can identify as one of the recurring hooks in your film career that draws you in, and do you think that’s thing that other people associate you with?
Jeff Bridges: Hmmm. You know, I don’t know if maybe this is just a function of me being interested in this teaching write now, there’s this Lojon teaching in Buddhism that’s all about looking at the obstacles in your life as keys to release you from your prison. I’d never thought of that consciously… that I’m looking for a script that applies that principal or whatever, but as I’m looking back at my filmography I see many, many stories that involve that. You know, fellows who are reluctantly drawn to something that they have a lot of resistance towards, and who seize that task completely and are kind of released from their own particular prison in which they’ve imprisoned themselves. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

Q. Having reared – or been reared by – three daughters, did that help you bond with Hailee on set?
Jeff Bridges: [Laughs] Yeah. Having three daughters myself, it was very hard for me not to fall into that father kind of relationship with Hailee, doubly so because I have a Haley myself [spelt differently]. But I fell into that role. One of the terrific things about Hailee is not only that she’s a great actor, but she really appreciates being 14. She’s not one of those people who is chomping to be 35. And that, to a great degree, is due to her parents doing such a great job. They were on the set quite a bit. But we had a great time together and we played a lot of Pass the Pig. Who were you? She was BoBacon and I was The Pig Man and we had a lot of fun.

There are some actors that approach their work and only want them to call you by your character’s name and don’t want too much engagement with the other actors except on the screen. That’s a fine way of approaching the work and I have gotten some good results working with actors who work like that, but I like to get to know the other actors, even if you’re playing characters who don’t like each other on screen too much. It’s very helpful to get to know each other so you can bring some of that knowledge you have of each other up to the screen. You don’t have to so much talk about it, but I think there are some parental elements … that’s the wonderful thing about this movie, there are some great themes that are underlying the actual story that you’re not really aware of and the Coens are very smart in not talking about that stuff too much. But there are a lot of parental undercurrents that I couldn’t help but put on the screen as well, based on our relationship off screen.

True Grit

Q. Though you’ve achieved a lot, is there are role that you’re still hankering for?
Jeff Bridges: Mmmmmm. I got a couple. One thing I’d love to do is continue the saga of The Last Picture Show. Larry McMurty, one of our greatest writers in America, he’s written several books exploring the same character. We made Texasville 20 years after The Last Picture Show and it has been 20 years since Texasville and I think it’s about time to pick up some of those other books. So, that’s something I’m interested in. I think there are a few others that I want to keep the lid on. I don’t want to expose just yet [smiles].

Q. What features of the character did you enjoy playing with – the voice for example?
Jeff Bridges: Well, one of the things that I enjoyed – and this was in the book – most of the characters in Westerns like Rooster are the strong silent type, very Clint-like, and this guy was the antithesis of that. He was almost a boor, he was like “wawawawawa”… telling you all about his life and his stories, so much so that you got the feeling that he didn’t get to do that too much and here he has this captive audience of this young girl. So, that was kind of intriguing and fun to explore.

Q. One of your daughters was your assistant… that speaks volumes that a girl of her age would still want to hang out with her dad. Also, any chance you’ll do any concerts?
Jeff Bridges: That was a real highpoint to have my daughter, Jesse, right there every day and she did such a great job. But she’s also a wonderful musician, so we’ve played some concerts on that show… we had a great time on that. Maybe, we’ll tour with this album. The album with T-Bone isn’t complete. We’ve just done the rough tracks; I don’t know if Jesse will be on that album. But if we ever tour, it would be great to have her along.

Q. Is it country?
Jeff Bridges: It’s pretty eclectic. There are some country tunes, but we don’t know what the final line up will be.

Q. Which of your roles are you most proud of?
Jeff Bridges: You know that corny thing that the actors say that they’re like my children? That’s really true. The ones I’m most fond of really, I think because my memory is not the greatest, are the latest ones, so this one: True Grit. I had such a great time making it and loved the results, so I’m going to go with True Grit.

Read our review of True Grit

Read our interview with Hailee Steinfeld