Interview - Jeff Bridges on his role in the Coen brothers’ True Grit

The Big Easy

From Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, via digital makeover in Tron, to classic western

After his Oscar for Crazy Heart and his digital makeover in Tron: Legacy, Jeff Bridges is now stepping into John Wayne’s old role for the Coen brothers’ True Grit. Alistair Harkness meets the most relaxed man in Hollywood

When Jeff Bridges was eight years old, his father, Lloyd, sat him down on his bed and taught him the basics of screen acting. At the time, the young Bridges was about to make his professional debut in his dad’s hit TV show, Sea Hunter, so Bridges Senior – who loved showbiz so much he encouraged all his kids to get involved – turned it into a game. It was a formative moment, so much so that when Bridges won the Academy Award last year for his role as a washed-up country singer in Crazy Heart, he referred to it in his acceptance speech – just before holding his Oscar aloft and thanking his father, who died in 1998, for ‘turning him on to such a groovy profession’.

Flash forward ten months and Bridges is sitting in an attic suite in Claridge’s Hotel, a few days after his 61st birthday. His groovy profession has brought him to London to talk about his new film, True Grit, but for the moment he’s reminiscing once again about his dad’s influence on his career.

‘Probably the biggest thing I learned from him, I only realised after working with him as an adult,’ he says in his thick, California burr. ‘You could just tell he really enjoyed what he was doing and that was contagious. Everybody would be like: “Oh, this is kind of fun; we’re 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.’

It’s difficult to argue with Bridges on this last point, especially considering his performance in The Big Lebowski. As the Dude, the perpetually perplexed protagonist of the Coen brothers’ most enduring film, Bridges brought a casual brilliance to their stoner riff on Raymond Chandler. Even when it came out in 1998, it felt like the apotheosis of an unhurried career, one shaped more by interesting choices than the drive of an actor craving stardom – and that was before the emergence of a sprawling cult determined to embrace the Dude’s Tao of taking it easy. How does Bridges feel about the film now? ‘It’s got kind of a home-movie feel to it,’ he says. ‘I’ll watch The Big Lebowski and I love the movie itself, but I’ll remember the great time we had making it more.’

This, it turns out, is a typical Bridges observation. It’s also one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to reunite with the Coens for True Grit. ‘They’re real masters and, like a lot of masterful folks, they make it look so easy,’ he says. ‘They just know how to do it. They’ve created this family that they always work with and, again, that creates a very relaxed atmosphere. There’s not too much drama going on.’

The lack of behind-the-scenes drama was a definite bonus for Bridges. Not so much because a good deal of the film was shot on location in harsh weather conditions (he’s old school, so stuff like that ‘adds a little edge of reality’), but because the film is an adaptation of the novel by Charles Pontis that also inspired the classic 1969 John Wayne western of the same name. In an age where movies are pre-judged from the moment they’re announced, the very idea of the Dude taking on the Duke could have been problematic had stronger filmmakers not been involved. Was it daunting? ‘Not really,’ says Bridges. ‘One of the first things the Coen brothers told me was that they were making a movie of the book and treating it as if no other movie had ever been made. That was a relief to me because I didn’t want to jump into the Duke’s boots. It meant I could approach it fresh.’

Bridges certainly makes the role of boozy, one-eyed bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn his own, bringing craggy charm, a squawking vocal style and a more whacked-out sense of humour to the central story of a disreputable US Marshall (Bridges) hired by a young girl (14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to track down her father’s killer. American audiences have embraced it in a big way, too. Steadily rising to the top of the box-office charts over the Christmas period, the movie is currently on its way to becoming the highest grossing western ever (it currently sits just behind the Oscar-garlanded Dances with Wolves).

Coming out hot on the heels of Tron: Legacy, though, it has also given Bridges his second number-one movie in the USA in the space of a few weeks. It’s not a bad way of capping off a 12-month period that began with him having – as he joked at the time – his ‘under-appreciated status’ seriously messed with by winning just about every best actor award going for Crazy Heart.

Not that he’s ever really been under-appreciated. Right out of the gate he scored an Oscar nomination with his breakout role in The Last Picture Show and, in the years since, he’s rarely received a bad notice (even if the same can’t be said for some of the films in which he’s starred). Nevertheless, in an industry fuelled by naked ambition and a pathological desperation for success, his current critical and commercial standing feels almost fable-like, the Hollywood movie career equivalent of the tortoise and the hare. Has this easy-going approach ever meant losing roles that he wanted to play? ‘Sure, there are a few of those. But the only director I ever wrote to, asking to 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. But I didn’t get it.’

Mostly, his career has been defined by a desire to avoid getting stuck in a rut. Hence why he’ll follow a small independent film such as Crazy Heart with a $200m digital effects blockbuster such as Tron: Legacy, and then jump in the saddle for a western such as True Grit. It helps too that he’s always been prepared to make mental adjustments to help him negotiate the changing nature of the film industry. ‘You can waste a lot of time making movies – and waste a lot of time in life – wishing they were playing a different song.’ He pauses to think of a good analogy. ‘You know, you came to the party to dance a cha-cha, but there’s a waltz band here, so you might as well learn to waltz.’ He laughs. ‘Sorry, that’s kind of a weird answer.’

It’s a very Bridges answer, though, a Dude-esque way of underscoring that, while he may prefer the True Grit way of working and would certainly love the opportunity to make a third film featuring the characters from The Last Picture Show (last seen in the 1990 sequel Texasville), Tron: Legacy did give him a unique opportunity to act opposite a digital version of his younger self. In that spirit, then, it seems only right to ask what advice he’d give the eight-year-old Jeff Bridges. ‘Eh, it’s gonna be OK man. Just take it easy.’ The Dude abides.

True Grit is on general release from Fri 11 Feb.

True Grit

  • 5 stars
  • 2010
  • US
  • 1h 50min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
  • Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld

The Coen brothers' version of Charles Portis' novel takes an expansive, detailed view of a corrupt, bygone society, seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld). Eliciting the help of drunken veteran Cogburn (Bridges), she seeks the gang who murdered her father.