From hero to villain, psychopath to alien, Jeff Bridges has done it all. Paul Mungo meets Hollywood most understated and underrated star.
December 1993
Paul Mungo

103L-01X-01X Jeff Bridges takes off (Cover)

On a clammy, rapidly cooling September night in a park beside the Charles River in Boston, some hundred or so movie extras are doing their best to impersonate a crowd of half-a-million at a Fourth of July Boston Pops concert. They cluster under the raised arc lights waving American flags, jumping up and down, whooping and hollering, whistling, watching the simulated fireworks with all the simulated excitement they can feign. The remote-controlled camera, mounted on a long mechanical arm, describes a neat downward swoop over the crowd, then pans towards a little girl among the throng, one of the movie's principals. She jiggles her flag enthusiastically.

This is the eighth day of Boston location shooting on Jeff Bridges' latest movie, Blown Away or, strictly speaking, the eighth night, as so far all the filming has taken place after dark. In this, possibly his thirtieth film (he isn't sure himself), Bridges plays a police bomb squad explosives expert. It's probably not the usual sort of Jeff Bridges role, but then he's played so many different characters - a newspaper publisher (Jagged Edge), a drifter (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), a down-at-heel cocktail bar singer (The Fabulous Baker Boys), a visionary car-maker (Tucker: the Man and His Dream) - that it's difficult to work out what a Jeff Bridges role is. Mainly, he plays anything he finds appealing, as long as he doesn't have to play the same character twice.

"And CUT," commands the loudspeaker, the disembodied, unflaggingly encouraging voice of the first assistant director. "One more time, gang. Look at the fireworks... And let's tighten up the gaps in the back. React to the fireworks. You're at a July 4th concert. React like you were there... The camera is moving, people... rehearsal.., and ACTION'

Once again the camera descends through its arc. "Look everybody.., look, look, look" The extras strain to look at the fireworks. "Look higher gang, above the light Do not look at the flash. Do not look directly at the flash..."

This scene is important: it will be part of the movie's climax, in which Bridges races to rescue his wife, a violinist with the Boston Pops, and her young daughter (the little girl in the Fourth of July crowd) from a terrorist explosive primed to go off in... well, you get the idea. Blown Away is a thriller, produced for MGM by much the same team who made Backdraft, the firemen-in-a-burning-building drama. It's Bridges' first real action-thriller, and later he good-naturedly mutters about all the running around he has to do: "It's very physical for a 43-year-old." He shakes his head ruefully.

At the moment, Bridges is in make-up, getting ready for a scene that probably won't be shot until well after midnight. Behind the flagging extras, now being herded together for the ninth (or is it tenth?) attempt to look enthusiastic, the movie orchestra is assembling on the Hatch Memorial Shell, the real podium used by the Boston Pops for its annual concerts. When the crowd scene is in the can, the crew will immediately begin shooting a sequence with the orchestra. Filming will continue until first light. Night shoots are long and tiring: cast and crew work from dusk to dawn, like night-shift workers on assembly lines.

Tonight, total ennui is staved off by the revelation that the elegant, older blonde woman in the blue suit, who had joined the crowd scene on something like take five, is actually Ethel Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy's widow. "I think she's an extra;” says the unit publicist, somewhat uncertainly. Ah yes. She needs the 25 bucks and the free meal? "Her new son-in-law is here, I think, acting as a consultant on the film. She drove him up from the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod.”

It takes some time to register, but then it dawns. The amiable looking, broad shouldered guy with the long, fair hair, standing just over there smoking a cigarette, is the new son-in-law", Paul Hill.

For those who have missed the newspapers for most of the last decade or so, Paul Hill is one of the Guildford Four, released from prison in 1989 after fifteen years' wrongful imprisonment for the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings, who shortly thereafter married one of Ethel Kennedy's numerous daughters. Probably, given the circumstances, he never had a chance to learn to drive. And now he's a consultant on a film called Blown Away, about a terrorist bomber from Ireland (the part is played by Tommy Lee Jones) who plants an explosive device at a crowded venue...

No one has ever accused the movie industry of having much sense of irony.

It has just gone 10pm when Bridges appears, quite unannounced, on the lower podium of the Hatch Memorial Shell. The orchestra is rehearsing its sequence while the crew scurries around setting up the lights and cameras. He's not in this bit; indeed, his scene won't be shot for hours. He's just walking about, taking pictures with his camera.

He's slighter than you might expect, though still tallish, 5'10", 5'11", that sort of thing. He's wearing olive green trousers and a silk olive green blouson over a reddish shirt, and his hair is surprisingly reddish as well - though it transpires it was dyed for the part. He has an extraordinary, affable charm, coupled with an easy, likeable manner - a sort of "aw shucks" boyishness, despite his age. It may be an act, but it's a good one.

He approaches the prospect of an interview with all the enthusiasm of Mickey Rooney putting on a show. "Why don't we do it now?" he asks, not unreasonably, and moves his chair to the end of the lower podium, away from the hustle on the stage. Even in the half-light it's obvious that he possesses the requisite strong chin, the wide smile, and the rugged good looks of a matinee idol. Except Bridges has never limited himself to the matinee idol roles that could have made him a big star; take, for instance, American Heart, his latest film to be released in Britain and the first he has produced.

"I've been looking for a film that was dealing with subjects I was interested in,” he says by way of explanation, moving his chair closer for emphasis. "And one that shines a little light on a part of society that doesn't get too much publicity. It's kinda about the underbelly of society. My character, Jack, was raised by the state, graduated to prison, then given a hundred bucks and sent out and told to be a model citizen.

"When I first read the script, it reminded me of a Martin Bell documentary about Seattle I had seen, Streetwise, except that this was set in New Orleans and it had a lot of Mafia stuff in it. We worked on that script for a long time, but it didn't come together somehow. Then I saw the original script -they didn't want to show it to me because it was the one that had already been turned down by every studio in town - and it was a little gem. So we went 360 degrees, and went back to the original story.”

American Heart, it has to be said, is a serious film, with little of the uplift or redemption that Hollywood likes to ladle out in the final reel. Set back in Seattle, it chronicles the conflicts between Jack, a recently released convict, and his fifteen-year-old son, Nick (played by Edward Furlong, who also co-starred in Terminator 2), while they try to cope with life in the "underbelly". Jack, though, has an ambition: to save enough money to take his son and escape to Alaska where they can make a new start. It probably isn't giving too much away to add that in the American literary and cinematic tradition, the promised land is often symbolic and the new start rarely happens.

"This film isn't about answers,” Bridges says hesitantly. "I didn't want to shove a message down anyone's throat. We tell people what's going on and let them come to their own conclusions. That's one of the reasons I didn't want to give a happy ending, with all the problems solved and everyone going off into the sunset. We didn't want to sugarcoat it. It's not a quick-fix type of thing - the problems in the movie have to do with the whole family structure, and the effect that that kind of parent-child relationship has on a family. My character, Jack, was a guy who loved his kid. Maybe he didn't express himself clearly, but that's because he didn't have the skills. You can tell he loves his kid. But he could only show it in a negative way.

"To me there is optimism in the story. Human beings often move in kind of microsteps. At least by the end of the movie my character told his son he loved him. That's a kind of growth. Jack's father never told him that.”

A role further removed from Bridges' own life would be hard to find. By all accounts his childhood was sheltered and happy, protected from the sort of familial dysfunction he describes by the stability of his parents' marriage. He still spends, he says, much of his free time "hanging out" with his father, actor Lloyd Bridges, and his mother, Dorothy. Jeff's own marriage, to the photographer Susan Geston has been equally enduring. After sixteen years he still refers to his wife, unprompted, as "my true leading lady" and reels off the ages of their three daughters: "twelve, nine and seven". They live a ranch in Montana, away from the temptations of Hollywood. "I suppose it's unusual in this day and age,” he says of this old-fashioned constancy. "Speaking for myself; my parents had such a strong marriage that I look to them as an example.

"The whole kit and caboodle," he adds, will come out to Boston during the next fortnight. First, the wife and kids will join him for the weekend. And then Jeff's father will be arriving to play his part in Blown Away, as an ex-cop who is "as Irish as a four-leaf clover", according to the film's production info. Though it's only the second film Jeff has made with his father - Tucker was the first- the Bridges treat the entertainment industry rather like a family business. As a child, Jeff appeared on his father's long-running American television series Sea Hunt, and he has co-starred with his brother, Beau, in two films - most notably The Fabulous Baker Boys. He has said, perhaps not entirely seriously, that he's looking for a film that could star the whole family, including his mother, who he rates as the best actor in the family.

Success for Bridges came quickly, and seemingly without any great effort. He was once quoted as saying: "Breaking into the business was no sweat" His co-star on Bad Company, Barry Brown, noted astringently in his memoirs that Bridges was signed up to a top agent almost at the beginning of his career "simply by virtue of strings pulled and favours met". Which may be a nice way of saying that Bridges' father is said to have rung an agent and said: "You will represent my son.” Nevertheless, what must be assumed to be his natural flair shone through. He made his mark after only his second film, The Last Picture Show, in 1971; it also led to his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Though he has yet to stand on the platform clutching one of the golden baubles, he has since been nominated twice more - as best supporting actor, opposite Clint Eastwood, in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and as best actor in Starman, in which Bridges played an alien (basing his performance, he has said, on "some of my stranger-looking friends").

Since 1971, Bridges has turned up in some of the more enjoyable movies to come out of Hollywood, leading the then doyenne of America's critpack, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, to comment "Sometimes Jeff Bridges just on his own is enough to make a picture worth seeing.” Most were small-scale - the sort of quirky little films that the industry can surprise us with, like the aforementioned The Fabulous Bakers Boys, or Cutter Way, or Bad Company, or The Last American Hero, or for that matter, even Tucker, with its caustic portrait of American business. His choice of big-budget roles has been, perhaps, less inspired, particularly his part in Dino de Laurentiis' overblown 1976 remake of King Kong; or Success, notable only as Bianca Jagger's movie debut.

For the most part, in his earlier films, he seemed to play characters not entirely unlike himself: affable, laid-back country boys -albeit that he was born in Los Angeles, far from the back roads of the old South. In his most successful movie of the last decade, though, he played against type, taking on the role of the upper-class murderer in the 1987 box office hit Jagged Edge. That some of his more recent roles have also contained a rawer element has only added to his lustre.

Bridges has attracted considerable critical acclaim for his acting, along with regular bulletins about his imminent rise to stellar heights. In 1985, Newsweek predicted that Starman would make the "extraordinarily gifted and underappreciated" actor a star. In 1988, Tucker was the picture that would take Bridges into the big time "once and for all". In 1991, it was The Fisher King that was going to do it. And again this year some critics predicted The Vanishing would be the movie to make the "gifted" and "underappreciated" Bridges into a major box office draw.

That he's still not in the same category as, say, Jack Nicholson, doesn't seem to bother him a great deal. "I'm not too ambitious,” he says in his easy-going way. "I enjoy my time off, I enjoy the things I do when I'm not working. I'm pretty damned happy. I find that my life is so busy I don't have time to have ambitions.”

Whether or not he accepts a part, he says, is dependent on "the mood I'm in. I'm basically a lazy person. I know how much work it takes to get into a role. I resist taking a part unless it has a strong enough pull on me to get me through all the months of work maybe something that resonates with me. A lot of time I've gone out of my way to find roles different from the last role. I think part of what makes up the movie-going experience for the audience is the baggage they bring to the theatre. So if some guy always plays the same guy, that's what they expect. I like the kind of movie the audience doesn't know what to expect. If you play a lot of different roles, it's much easier for the audience to accept you as something else".

Despite this professed laziness, Bridges has still been extraordinarily busy of late. After American Heart, he went on to shoot another feature, Fearless, for the director Peter Weir, which he describes simply as "about a fellow who goes through a near-death experience". Immediately upon its completion, he started on Blown Away. It could be suggested that Blown Away - after American Heart, in particular - is an attempt to redress the balance, perhaps to make another run at commercial stardom after a particularly "difficult" film. "Well, it's the thing we were talking about,” he says. "It's a different kind of role. And also, I've been looking for an action picture for some time and this one seemed a notch above all the others I'd been seeing.”

He professes no particular desire to produce again. "I've got nothing on my plate right now," he says, adding diffidently: "I'd like to do a children's film sometime.” (Later, he remembers he is indeed producing something at the moment - a telefilm for the Turner Network about hunger in America, a cause he is involved in through his activities for the charity The End Hunger Network.) He enjoyed the production role on American Heart, he says, as far as the casting and script was concerned. "The downside was trying to get the damned thing on the screen.”

The problem, not uncommon recently with independent films, was that the distributor went bust just as American Heart wrapped. "It was kind of heartbreaking not being able to get the film distributed the way we liked,” he says. "I was worried about it going straight to TV or video. Eventually Alive Entertainment picked it up, but there was still no money for prints and ads. In LA, my home town, it was kind of the pick of the week in the LA Times, but you'd open the paper and there was no ad. No one knew where it was playing. It only ran for two weeks. In other places exhibitors backed it; they liked it so much they put up their own money for ads. In New York it ran for twelve weeks.”

Bridges with Edward Furlong in American Heart.

He relates the story without rancour, with a sort of if-that's-the-way-it's-gotta-be nonchalance, despite the fact that as a first-time producer he undoubtedly had a lot riding on the film. Reminded that his British distribution company, First Entertainment, is planning a 70-print release, though, he looks up, smiling broadly. "That's better than the States,” he grins.

In the Hatch Shell, the orchestra playing the Boston Pops is now ready. The crew is setting up for what looks like a tracking shot, from the front of the podium to the actress Suzy Amis, playing Bridges' violinist wife. Amis, it has to be said, looks rather serious and unhappy, though as the scene progresses it transpires she is merely in character.

Bridges is wandering among the mêlée on the stage, occasionally saying a word or two to people, but mostly concentrating on taking photographs. It's an odd confluence of media: the film camera shooting the scene, while Bridges is shooting the filming, while our photographer is taking shots of Bridges shooting the... well, anyway, you know what I mean. Bridges is a serious photographer, as he is a musician. He has written more than 70 songs, one of which he sang for Quincy Jones' soundtrack to the film John and Mary, and some of his photographs will be exhibited in Los Angeles soon, with the proceeds going to The End Hunger Network.

Mostly, he takes photos of the films he's working on, and has them published in book format afterwards. "I started making these books when I was making Starman," he explains. "I gave them out afterwards as gifts for the cast and crew - it's almost like having a home movie. I have kind of a strange camera, a Widelux, that takes photos similar to the format you see in movies. Or like class photos, y'know, those wide shots... I take them on the set. If there's enough good pictures at the end of the shoot I make a book. It's a way to relax."

To be fair, Bridges has seemed pretty relaxed all evening. Indeed, he is so laid-back that at times I worried he was about to go to sleep - though I blame that on the eight straight nights of filming rather than the interview technique. Only once, when discussing his role in Heaven's Gate, a film he rates highly, did he become really animated.

"It was an amazing adventure, that one,” he says. "I don't know how many weeks we shot there, in Montana. We had hundreds of extras, all dressed like cowboys, who knew nothing about movies, who had no idea how it was going to be. When we shot this battle scene we had this sort of cavalry charge... Michael had put down something like $60,000 worth of Fuller's Earth, which is just dust, and the camera can see through it, but we can't. So we've got a hundred people or something all on horseback racing across the stuff, and we can't see shit, and all I'm doing is praying to God that I wouldn't get killed...

"It turned out to be an amazing sequence. I think that movie will be seen more clearly in years to come. It had a beautiful arc" - he describes a parabola in the air, encompassing the structure of the film - "it was about what cynicism can do. It was the birth of a cynic, who was all optimism and idealism at Harvard at the beginning of the film, who goes through that range war, and at the end is destroyed. He blamed himself for it."

Bridges, he will tell you, liked the film so much he bought the whorehouse from it and now lives there. The film's brothel was a real building, not a replica (Cimino was never accused of scrimping on Heaven's Gate). "This is the building they slaughtered my character in. It's still got squibs [pellets containing stage blood] in the walls and everything. We numbered the logs and took them away.” It now stands on his 900-acre Montana ranch.

In the background, the cast and crew are getting ready to break for a meal. The extras from the Fourth of July scene are scurrying across the bridge to the canteen - though rumour has it that Ethel Kennedy and her son-in-law have foregone the free meal after all and are now on their way back to the Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod. Bridges is talking about the movie business, how much he likes it, about how sometimes when he gets onto a new movie it feels like the first day of school after the summer break; about all the guys who have worked with him over the years. "My father, he always gave us the feeling it was a good business. Some other parents would have said stay away. He had a tougher time than me, but he still loves it. It's also good to be in the same business as your dad, so you can talk shop.

"The tough part is waiting around, like tonight, trying to hold a certain energy. One of the techniques you learn is how and when to get yourself up. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it." Why? "Well, there's a sham quality to it. You're constantly tricking your body and mind, constantly trying to find emotions for people you don't feel for.”

He laughs. "It's humiliating and embarrassing. You're constantly being challenged to do things -smile, cry, take off your clothes and pretend you're fucking someone in front of all these people watching you. And you can fail at it. It's tough that way.”