ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
Film critic Pauline Kael once wrote that Jeff Bridges “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.” That would certainly explain why Bridges has earned seven Oscar nominations over the last five decades (winning once, in 2010, for the alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart), and it turns out that Kael’s description fits the 68-year-old actor offscreen, as well. He’s an amiable storyteller who often punctuates his thoughts by laughing or uttering a very chill “man,” and he takes an open-minded approach to the world that befits his most famous character: the laconic, reluctant bowling shamus The Dude in the 1998 cult smash The Big Lebowski. (Bridges doesn’t mind the Lebowski comparison, by the way; he dropped his first Dude reference six minutes into our conversation.)
This month sees the release of two very different Bridges projects. There’s Bad Times at the El Royale, a highly anticipated neo-noir thriller set in a hotel that straddles the Nevada-California border, and there’s Living in the Future’s Past, a documentary on which he serves as narrator and producer that discusses climate change and energy conservation with figures such as the late astronaut and NASA scientist Piers Sellers and retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark.
Calling from Santa Barbara, where he was watching surfers ride waves outside his office before a shoddy cell phone connection chased him into a conference room, Bridges opined on these new films, the future of the planet, the joy of acting, and, of course, The Dude.
What made you want to do an environmental documentary?
I think of my dad, Lloyd Bridges, who was very much into the ocean, with his series Sea Hunt. As a kid, I remember him doing all sorts of things to protect the ocean’s health, and he was also very much involved in ecology and the health of the planet. So that’s where my interest first started. And then I was asked if I was interested in narrating a documentary, and I said, Yeah, I did want to do something toward the health of our planet. But there are already so many documentaries out there that are pointing fingers at who’s doing wrong. I said, Let’s take another angle on this thing. And the director, Susan Kucera, was very much into that. We wanted to take a look at the reason why we are facing these ecological problems and environmental problems—why we don’t take action quicker.
What did you learn while making the movie?
This idea of emergent behavior was one of the things I learned about. A good example might be a school of fish or a flock of birds. They’re making a certain shape, and they’re moving around totally unpredictably, and the movie points out these are super-
organisms. The human species is also a superorganism, and it’s moving like a flock of birds. Just one little gesture you make, you think, Oh, what’s that gonna do? But you never know what your action is gonna cause. If enough people make an action in response to loving our planet, something different can emerge. I’m an actor; this is what I’m doing because I’m concerned about our planet. A guy who owns an oil company, he may look at this and say, What can I do?
Were you worried about any sort of backlash from people who might not want a celebrity telling them how they should live?
[Laughs.] Shoot, what can I say? You know, I’m not really telling. As The Dude might say, it’s just my opinion.
Ha! What do you think The Dude would say if you showed him the film?
Hmm. He might say, “Oh, that’s an interesting opinion, I’m kinda digging that, man. Let me hear some more about it, get into it.” [Laughs.]
The Dude is not necessarily spurred to action quickly.
But The Dude is into whales, right? And he’s into weird things, so you don’t know what The Dude is gonna do. He could get you completely turned around. When I see Julianne Moore occasionally, we’ll laugh about the sequel. We say, Hey, well, they have a baby, Maude and The Dude. There’s a little Dude on the way—what’s that gonna do to The Dude?
I have to say, it seems as if you’re always having fun. Even your documentary about the unsustainability of the human race seems as though it was fun to make.
People often say, Is it fun making movies? It’s such a part of my life that it’s the gamut of emotions. There’s struggle and a certain amount of mental suffering that goes along with it all, but also tremendous happiness and joy and love and all of those things. So it’s all in there. It’s not all a piece of cake. You’ve gotta wash the dishes.
Your dad got you and your brother, Beau, into the entertainment business when you were kids. What did you learn from him?
Probably what I learned most from my dad was the joy with which he approached his work. Whenever he came on the set, he was just this kind of joyful cat, and that joy was contagious. It kind of ripples through: Oh yeah, this is kinda fun what we’re doing. We can have a good time. And when you’re feeling like that, you tend to relax. And when you’re relaxed, your best work tends to come out.
How do you choose projects?
I have a condition, according to my mother, called abulia. I said, “What’s that, Ma?” And she said, “You have a very difficult time choosing things.” When I go to a restaurant, I have a helluva time with the menu; I want to see what everybody else is ordering so I won’t be jealous of what they ate. It’s impossible.
And with choosing movies and projects, it’s really a struggle. My M.O. is I try to not work. I resist work, really, as much as I can, till it just pulls me in. I kinda gotta be dragged to the party [laughs].
So what dragged you to the other cinematic party you have this month, Bad Times at the El Royale?
Bad Times at the El Royale is exactly the opposite of everything I told you [laughs]. Every once in a while, you’ll read a script, and it will just hit you over the head. This script was one of those. I got sucked in about who these characters were and what was going to happen next. One of the things that helps me choose a movie is if it’s a movie I’d like to see, and those are movies where the filmmaker is kind of ahead of you. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. This script is certainly a good example of that, and so this was one of the times where I jumped right at it.
Speaking of scripts, I read an interview with the writer John Irving, who said that while you were working on The Door in the Floor, you called him in the middle of the night to ask about a comma in a line of dialogue.
[Laughs.] He might have exaggerated. It was 10 o’clock in the evening—I don’t know. I get pretty detail-oriented. It’s kind of a cumulative deal, almost like emergent behavior in a funny sort of way. It’s all about how all those little details execute together. And a comma—as a writer, you know a comma can be a big deal, man.
And speaking of coming together, you have a great cast in Bad Times at the El Royale: Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman…
Remarkable cast. Everybody’s cookin’. You know, most movies you don’t get long takes, and we had several 10-minute takes. It was interesting the different tracks that all the actors took. From my perspective, everything just clicked, and I’m really interested [laughs] in how it’s gonna be received.
What else sticks out in your mind about the production?
One of the things in El Royale that is so incredible is the music. The movie takes place in the ’60s. Probably every generation thinks they had the best music, but my generation had some cool music, man. One of the actors in the movie, Cynthia Erivo, is an incredible singer. She cuts loose on some of these Motown tunes—it’s just remarkable. We always had music going on.
You’re a musician yourself—did you two ever jam?
Very little. We talked about doing it later, but we never sat down and did that. I’m kind of sorry—I think she intimidated me a little bit. She won a Tony for The Color Purple.
Aside from music, you’re also into photography. Does having other creative pursuits help you as an actor?
Yeah. I used to study in my hotel room, and I’d get a song idea and I’d break away, find myself playing guitar for an hour, and then I’d get pissed at myself and say, “Aw, get back to work!” What I found later on is that it all kind of goes together. When my creative juices get stirred up, it doesn’t just stir up my movie juice; all of my creative things get activated. I remember when I was doing Fearless, I went out and got all these art supplies and ended up papering my hotel room with all these sheets of paper and then just drawing. The next morning I was having breakfast with Peter Weir, the director, and I said, “Come up to my room—look what happened last night.” And he saw that and said, “Oh, this is all going in the movie.” So it all kind of goes together.
With all your different interests, why do you think acting became your meal ticket?
I think I’m totally a product of nepotism, man. I don’t think I’d be an actor if my parents didn’t put me on that path. My father and my mom, unlike a lot of people in showbiz, really wanted all their kids to go into showbiz. They just loved everything about it: the acting, the traveling, working with other people, doing what we’re doing right now, spreading the word about what words you want to spread.
Yeah, you’re more cheerful about doing interviews than a lot of celebrities.
It’s really an opportunity to do what you do in a broader sense. I often think making a movie is a great example of how the world might work together. You’ve got all these different opinions and peoples and political leanings and all sorts of things coming together to make something that is beautiful and really kinda sings. If our governments could work that way…
We’d have a brighter future.
You know, El Royale is basically a story about redemption, about having a final chance to make a change before it’s too late. Which, in a funny way, is the same thing in Living in the Future’s Past. It’s not too late.