Moustached, muscle-bound and tattooed, Jeff Bridges is back with a steely new image in his forthcoming film, American Heart. Sexy… or what? Ruth Picardie comes face to flesh with the cool, charismatic actor.
Photo Editor June Stanier
There is a standard moment in Jeff Bridges profiles. My personal favourite involves two girls in a coffee shop. 'I think that's a celebrity,' says one. 'Yup, says the other. 'It's Kurt Russell.' It happened for me at the airport. 'I'm interviewing Jeff Bridges,' I announced proudly to the American immigration guy. 'Why do I know that name?' came the crushing reply.
Jeff Bridges is not, strictly speaking, a star. Yes, he's a great actor, and he 's got some of the trappings: reportedly $3 million a movie; a ranch in Montana; a Santa Monica mansion; a white BMW, a deeply serious painting hobby (see also Sylvester Stallone); rock‑star fantasies (see his appearance on Live Aid); a soft spot for liberal charities like the End Hunger Network. But he’s always on the verge of making it into Harrison Ford territory: Fearless, a drama directed by Peter Weir, is the last of many to be 'hotly tipped'. He's worked with some of the greatest‑ever directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola, but rarely on their finest films (see Tucker). His one really big hit, Jagged Edge, was a vehicle for Glenn Close. How many of the 30‑odd films he's made over the past 25 years can you name? Anyone remember Nadine, co‑starring Kim Basinger? Or 8 Million Ways To Die? Or even the 1981 cult movie Cutter's Way in which Bridges is arguably at his sleaziest best?
The real question, now that Jack Nicholson is so old and Kevin Costner is such a goody‑goody, is: 'Is Jeff Bridges the thinking woman's sex symbol?' For anyone who saw his small‑time lounge‑lizard act in The Fabulous Baker Boys, the answer has to be yes. So maybe he was carrying some extra weight under that tux; his slicked hair, supercool smoking habit and lazy charm made all of us ‑ not just Michelle Pfeiffer ‑ want to start Makin' Whoopee. But in his forthcoming film, American Heart, in which he plays an excon, he's got long, stringy hair and a big 'tache. Sure, he's got a good body, and the film's really moving. But grunge doesn't work when you're 43 years old.
In his next project, Blown Away, Bridges plays the hero of the Massachusetts bomb squad. On location in suburban Boston, he is the one with the personalised chair. But that and his trailer are the only concessions to Hollywood egocentricity. Forget Don Johnson‑style bodyguards, helicopter pilots, personal trainers, hairdressers. Bridges' 'entourage' consists of his longtime stand‑in, Loyd Catlett (an extra in The Last Picture Show, the Peter Bogdanovich film that propelled Bridges into the big time in 1971, and for which he was nominated for best supporting Oscar, aged only 22). 'It's nice to have your friends on the road,' says Catlett, a charmin' country boy from Wichita Falls, Texas. 'In this business, it's so easy for people to be self‑consumed with how important they are. With Jeff, both his feet are on the ground. He truly is one of the guys.' Forget paparazzi opportunities: in the evening, ‘the guys’ have dinner, work on lines, and play guitar.
Bridges, meanwhile, is filming a scene. The 'tache has gone and the ponytail has been lopped off, restoring his 100 per cent natural, dark blond, swept‑back thatch -great for running your hands through, which he does, it has been calculated, around four‑and‑a‑half times a movie. Running around heroically in a black boiler suit and brandishing a gun, he's clearly in shape.
The scene finished, Bridges comes over. He's tall ‑ six foot two, to be precise, a miraculous height for a film actor. His chin, sporting some in‑character light stubble, is receding, but that hasn't been a problem for Andy Garcia. He's got piggy eyes, but they're not as tiny as Richard Gere's (in fact they're orb‑like by comparison ‑and blue). He looks his age, but the wrinkles work with the tan in a cowboyish way. We all know that sexual charisma is not just about bone structure.
He's hardly recognisable as Jack, the hero of American Heart, I venture. 'After a movie,' explains Bridges in his easy Californian twang, 'I usually let everything go, let my body just fall apart. Then, when I get a role, I try to sculpture myself into the character, try to figure out what the guy's going to look like physically.'
So now you know: he was deliberately fat in The Fabulous Baker Boys, as the ageing stud in Texasville (the sequel to The Last Picture Show) and as the psycho in The Vanishing. The secret? Ice cream. Like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, physical transformation is intrinsic to Bridges' acting technique.
For American Heart, Bridges pumped iron with an ex‑con, who also designed his tattoo. It reads 'Alaskan Freedom', the dream place the hero is trying to get to with his 14‑year‑old son. 'I figured that was one of the things the guy did in prison: work out. There's nothing too much else to do.'
The other foundation to his acting is to surround himself with real‑life role-models. 'I like to have as many experts around as possible,' he says. His 'technical adviser' on American Heart was Eddie Bunker, who spent 20 years in foster homes, young offenders' institutions and prison before becoming a writer and actor. On Blown Away, Bridges' main man works for the real-life Boston bomb squad. After each take, Bridges rushes over and asks, 'What do you think? Got any ideas?' (The day before starting Texasville, he swapped clothes with the farmer whose land they were filming on.)
This meticulous preparation results, perversely, in an incredibly natural acting style; as the tortured talk radio host in The Fisher King, he has no need to employ the fussy pyrotechnics of Dustin Hoffman. That's why he's so good at playing naively charming country boys like the young gun in Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, which won Bridges another best supporting Oscar nomination in 1974.
This persona isn't monolithic ‑ in American Heart, for example, he's playing against type ‑ but it's what comes across in the flesh. He's nice, but there's nothing seductively bad-boy about him. He's not hungry for anything (except, perhaps, ice cream). He finds it merely 'interesting' when I tell him the part of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the film that made Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese saints of modern cinema, was originally written for him. 'I'm pretty fortunate in the roles that I've been offered,' he says. 'I don't have any sour grapes, really.' He's not even sure how many films he's made: 'I haven't counted 'em recently.'
So how does he choose his roles? 'I spend a lot of time trying not to work. Something has to really draw me into it, because when I do decide to work, I get kind of obsessive about it. So to engage myself.' he sighs loudly, as if exhausted by the effort of all this introspection. 'What am I trying to say? It takes me a long time to make up my mind to want to work that hard, because I'm basically a lazy guy.'
Being this content with life has a lot to do with his family, who provided an effortless entry into the business. His father, Lloyd Bridges, was the star of a long‑running TV series, Sea Hunt, though contemporary audiences will recognise him from those fine spoofs Airplane and Hot Shots Un (and Deux). Bridges junior made his screen debut, aged four months, in a movie called The Company She Keeps. He graduated to Sea Hunt aged eight and has been working steadily ever since. He insists that Bridges senior taught him everything he knows about acting: 'Make it appear that it's happening for the first time. Listen to the people that are talking, don't just wait for their lips to stop and then say your line. Try it all different ways, so you're not stuck in one way. Relaxation is very important. Learn your lines. Rehearse a lot. Try to create a friendliness amongst everyone on the set so you're not getting strange vibes when you're working, unless you want that.' Jeff even shouts 'Dad!' (after running on the spot for a few seconds and grunting loudly) before every scene. Big brother Beau, who co‑starred in The Fabulous Baker Boys, is apparently Jeff's 'best friend'.
One senses that the female Bridges have taken a back seat to help create this picture of creative and domestic harmony. Jeff's mother, Dorothy, met Lloyd at drama classes in LA, but gave it all up to be a full‑time mom. Little sister Cindy is also a full‑time mom and guess what ‑so is his wife, Sue. They met in Montana in 1974, when he was making Rancho De Luxe, another outlaw movie. She was, in true film fantasy style, his waitress ‑and they have been blissfully together ever since, producing three neatly‑spaced girls (now aged 12, nine and seven). 'My wife, she's so terrific,' says Bridges.
Is he a New Man? I ask, a little doubtfully. 'Isn't that a line of clothing?' Bridges replies. 'I have no idea what that means.' OK, has feminism made him rethink what it is to be a man, then? 'It's slightly confusing,' he says. 'Do you open doors, call somebody babe? All these little things that might irritate people. I think it gets back down to more than a man/woman thing: it's a respect for people. Some people don't mind certain things, some people mind certain things. Everybody is individual.'
This is the Californian space cadet speaking, even though when I ask whether he's typically West Coast he says, 'I don't consider myself that.' Is he interested in New Age, then? 'Oh yeah, I'm into all kinds of...Anything like ... What am I interested in? I guess esoteric stuff.' Like what? 'Zen interests me. Zen stuff.' Maybe all those drugs he took in the 60s (his brief period of rebellion) are still swilling around inside to the toons of Jefferson Airplane. No wonder his personal favourite film is Star Man, a silly rip‑off of The Man Who Fell To Earth. In it, Bridges wanders round grinning and shouting: 'I send greetings!' (Inexplicably, it won his first and only best actor Oscar nomination.)
So, is Jeff Bridges the thinking woman's sex symbol? He's no brain surgeon, let's face it. Instead of razor cheekbones he's got what one writer described as 'the sort of friendly face men want their brothers‑in‑law to have'. And no, he's not dangerous. But then dangerous is so vain. Bridges is better: a hunky innocent with a great body (when he's not OD‑ing on Haagen Dazs). And by God he's talented. Even Pauline Kael, killer queen of film critics, agrees: 'Sometimes Jeff Bridges, just on his own, is enough to make a picture worth seeing.' And there's no aphrodisiac like talent.
American Heart is released in London on December 10.