As the Dude abiding in The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges bowls against the jumpsuit-clad antagonist, Jesus Quintana. When Jesus says, "We're gonna fuck you up," Bridges replies, "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man." It's a line that boils down the nonchalant brawn of Bridges's acting. As Kevin Flynn in Tron: Legacy, Bridges crystallized his Zen thing when he "knocked on the sky and listened to the sound." Flynn made the grid, a digital frontier to reshape the human condition. And you believed he made it. Bridges is always believable. Whether he's playing the good guy or the bad guy, he has the ability to meet his characters at their motivations, to understand their headspace, and to formulate his acting from there. Bridges has that aged sageness to him (a wisdom?), as seen in his Rooster Cogburn role from True Grit. But forget that, he made the motherfucking grid, where there are light-cycles—the coolest motherfucking things of all time. Bridges has been in 70 movies, winning an Academy Award for his 2009 role as country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Bridges's singing voice is a molasses-coated tenor, flashing professional levels of grit and vibrato when he wants. On September 30, Bridges and his band, the Abiders, released a live album (Bridges's third record) of country, blues, and rock. The whole time you hear him sing, you think, "I can't believe that's the guy who created the grid." Bridges spoke from his home in Santa Barbara.
Where's your music from?
A lot of the songs are from my friend John Goodwin, who I grew up with. And Stephen Bruton, and T Bone Burnett (who produced Roy Orbison, Elton John, and Elvis Costello) from Crazy Heart.
When you face music as just a musician, do you ever think, "Damn, I wish I was doing Tron right now"? Or are you just naturally synced with the different facets of being an actor versus being a musician?
It's life, man. With ups and downs. The weather of life. Sometimes it's filled with unadulterated joy, and other times it's like, "What the hell have I done? What am I in for?" But that's just emotional weather that happens wherever you are. Stuff pops up doing a movie, doing music, or sitting at my desk, you know.
What are your strengths as a musician?
I guess on a good day, I'm tapping into the art-flow that's available. Letting it come through me to the best of my ability. I've been very fortunate to hook up with some really great musicians. That always makes you sound better. All these players are so good. The drummer, Tom Lackner, is superb. The musical director, Chris Pelonis, and I made an album years ago called Be Here Soon with Michael McDonald. Since I moved to Santa Barbara about 20 years ago, Chris has been very involved with my music, and after Crazy Heart, I asked him to put musicians together so we could have a group and tour. I was a little reticent to do that because I didn't want to go through the whole audition process, and have to tell people, "Thanks, but you're not what we're looking for," after the tryout. But Chris brought the cream of the crop.
If you could play with anybody, alive or dead, who would it be? Like a Waylon Jennings, or a Johnny Cash?
I'd have to pick someone I was fortunate to play with—Bob Dylan. He's my favorite. We did a movie together called Masked and Anonymous. He knocked on my trailer one day and said, "Hey, you wanna pick?" So we picked a song. I was a big fan of his rendition of "You Belong to Me" from Natural Born Killers.
You have the ability to wipe your mind and assume the mind of a character. When you're onstage playing music, do characters ever slip out? Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski must slip out from time to time. How do you contain the Dude?
You don't [laughs]. You let it slip. Like we were talking about earlier, I try to let stuff come through me. You never know what's going to pop out.
I've gone ahead and planned your next couple movies for you. It's time to start combining things. Your next movie is a Lebowski/Tron/Against All Odds combo called The Odds of the Big Flynnowski. Everyone on the grid is wearing pajamas and doing bong rips. Phil Collins sings the theme song. It's a huge, huge hit waiting to happen.
Oh, yeah. I could get into that.
Then we've got a Starman/Iron Man/Fisher King/Fabulous Baker Boys value pack. It's a nine-part anime miniseries. Burt Bacharach and Too $hort do theme songs for each episode. It's a whole new form of audiovisual entertainment called Pole-Vault Lozenge Rock. Jeff, this is way beyond next-level stuff. You know what anime is?
I know some anime. I'm not as sharp on it as I should be on it. I think you're onto something [laughs]. Pole-Vault Lozenge Rock. Got it. Count me in. The Tron people are going to be jealous of that one. I'll study up on Too $hort.
How are you able to play both good characters and bad characters and be believable? I've seen you play both good and bad successfully.
I start from the same place. I always look inside myself and see what aspects might line up with the character. I'll accentuate those, then kick the aspects that don't line up with the character to the curb and let it bubble up that way. One of the most evil people I've played was in your area, for a movie called The Vanishing. It was quite an adventure playing a character who was burying people alive. I had to get into the headspace of how he got to that place. The director, George Sluizer, had me write an essay on the guy, and why he was the way he was. I thought it was going to be a stupid homework assignment. But it just spilled out of me in this wonderful way, incorporating parts of my own life. It really made me arrive at the reasons how and why the guy I played became this way. It was one of the best pieces of direction I've ever had.
Are there times when you take it too far? When the character becomes too much of you?
As far as going too far, that's a place I want to go with it. My work is just material for the director and the editor to make a collage out of at the end. Knowing that's the process, I want to give them as much stuff to work with as possible. The nature of making movies is you often shoot out of sequence. You don't get that linear kind of experience. So you don't know when something played in a stronger way or a lighter way might be better. What I'll try to do if we have time is to bookend my performance, so they have a couple choices in the takes when they get to the editing process.
You ever get so deep into a character you can't get out?
I don't think so. I don't think I carry parts home with me. My wife disagrees. She says I do. I think there's a lot of subconscious meshing happening that I'm not even aware of.
You've done some music with Kris Kristofferson. Is that story about him landing the helicopter in Johnny Cash's yard true?
That's what he tells me. That's the way the story goes. But you never know.
Growing up, what song scared you?
Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" scared the shit out of me. My older brother, Beau, is eight years older than me. He played Check Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly. I think the first record I ever bought was the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie." Then I got into Dylan and Motown. I can't remember what scared me. That Bobby Gentry tune is the best, man.
What's next for you?
A couple movies are in the can, as they say. One in February called Seventh Son. And one at the end of the year based on the famous children's book The Little Prince. I play the Aviator. It's a neat adaptation of the book.
You're the national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry. You're doing good work there.
It'll be good to get up your way and support Governor Inslee on this fight to end childhood hunger in Washington. I've been involved with the hunger issue for about 30 years. There's a movie called A Place at the Table that really puts some perspective on hunger in America. T Bone and I were very involved with that.
What can be done to end hunger?
Ending hunger is a complex issue, because it basically deals with poverty. And there's all kinds of political disagreements over how to deal with poverty. But ending childhood hunger is not complex. We have a billion dollars worth of programs in place supported by the federal government right now. Programs that give kids free and price-reduced meals in school. The thing we're trying to let people know about is Breakfast After the Bell. Often in the districts where these programs are so desperately needed, they'll have free or price-reduced meals in the cafeteria, but they're 30 minutes before school starts. The kids have trouble getting there early, or they don't want the stigma of being the kid who has to come eat the free or cheaper food. With this program, it's during the first period, and all the kids eat. It's the best way to ensure all the kids have a healthy breakfast to start the day. It helps with their learning and everything. The program isn't really something that costs money, it's just awareness. Also, in summer, when school's out, there are sites where people can bring their kids and get meals with no questions asked. We developed a texting program. If you text "Food" to 877-877, you can find out where these summer sites are.
In Tacoma, only 44 percent who need breakfast at school are getting it. We're working with Governor and First Lady Inslee to turn that around. I met with him, and he's very behind all this. We're going to try to link up when I'm there.
What's the biggest obstacle?
It's not that we don't have the money or the food, or that we don't know how to end it. What we have to do is create the political will. And make the politicians look at the problem in a serious way. They're supposed to represent us, right? So if we're stimulated, we can stimulate them to do something. There's not one particular person putting up all the roadblocks. We just have to create the context that we're going to end hunger here in our wealthy country. And look at it that way, and listen to all the ideas. When you create that kind of context, and put all the ideas on the table, things can get done. It's like when Kennedy said, "In 10 years, we're going to put a man on the moon." All of a sudden, all of these scientists who were at odds with each other about the shape of the rocket and the fuel to be used and all that joined together, and teamed up. Their differences helped refine how it should be. We have to have respect for each other, and listen to each other, and keep the focus on ending hunger. A great place to start is with our kids.