Michelle Pfeiffer thinks he's wonderful, no one got a bad word to say about him, and his latest film, 'American Heart', is a return to Hollywood's glory days. Yep, Jeff Bridges is an all‑round good guy, a great actor ‑ and he given up vomiting over journalists' shoes.
13 November 1993
By RICHARD RAYNER
INFERNO, said that morning's headline in the Los Angeles Times. THE CITY IS GOING UP IN FLAMES. In Santa Monica Bay, the waves, whipped by the hot Santa Ana winds, were being blown in the direction from which they'd come, back to sea, and LA was braced to encounter imminent devastation, yet again. PARADISE LOST. IT'S A TIME FOR PRAYER.
At 9 am on Sound Stage 7 of the Warner lot, on the 49th day of shooting on Blown Away, a big‑budget action movie scheduled for summer release next year, it's time, of course, for no such thing.
Off to one side stands Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the villain. Jones, magna cum laude in literature from Harvard and a close friend of Vice‑President Al Gore, a fellow Texan, tends none the less to play blue-collar guys, laconic detectives, cowboys, and psychopaths of the top‑of‑the‑world‑ma variety. On this movie, his technical adviser is Paul Hill, an Irishman, one of the Guildford Four, wrongfully imprisoned for 13 years for an IRA pub bombing in 1974. Hill is now married to Courtney Kennedy, daughter of RFK, and the advice he's giving concerns Jones's character, Ryan Gaerity, "who can make a bomb out of Bisquik". In The White Devil, John Webster wrote of life's "strange geometric hinges". Here in LA they call them neat segues.
The assistant director, a tyrant, as assistant directors think they have to be, is about to fire the schmo whose beeper went off, wrecking the last take. Now there's a crisis. "Bill Greenburg to the camera," he calls out with venom. "Bill Greenburg."
The director of photography, a prima donna as DPs tend to be, pointedly studies the Hollywood Reporter while the star calls time out to rehearse the scene. "Doesn't he realise?" the DP says, tapping an impatient Timberland. "It's the lighting that's important, not the performance."
En famille: Jeff and his father, Lloyd, on the set of 'Blown Away'.
The man in charge of this, the director, the captain of this $28 million ship, Stephen Hopkins, looks on and smiles, neither answering nor not answering. Hopkins, despite the inexplicable absence of a ponytail, is perfect casting for the successful young Hollywood helmsman in the Nineties. He has an earring and a background in rock video. Born in Jamaica, educated in England and Australia, personable, witty, he's easily the most relaxed fellow about the place. If his star wants to rehearse, well, that's dandy by him. This is Hopkins's fifth picture. It is the star's 34th. Hopkins's credits are Judgment Night and some genre pictures with numbers after them. The star, meanwhile, has previously worked with directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston, Sidney Lumet, Alan J Pakula, Terry Gilliam, Michael Cimino and Peter Weir. The star is Jeff Bridges, and Hopkins has the air of a man who knows he's lucked into ownership of a thoroughbred.
Bridges, who plays Boston bomb squad officer Jimmy Dove, walks off the set. Standing nearby, in military boots and a green uniform, is his technical adviser from the Ventura County bomb squad. But Bridges approaches his dialogue coach, a willowy, grey‑haired woman with a huge script book. "More anger or less?" asks Bridges. "And if he gets angry, will his accent go away or get stronger?"
The two of them have dialogues, she says, that are almost Socratic. I'm afraid she means it. But then Jeff Bridges has made his career proving it's the performance, not the lighting, that counts. The long, wheat‑coloured hair has been dyed reddish for this part. His eyes are his most striking feature, a piercing grey‑blue. He goes back on to the set, and, after two more takes, gets it. He consults again with the dialogue coach, talks with yet another adviser, a police officer this time, about how he might be expected to rush into the bad guy's apartment. "Finger on the trigger, right? But remember he's a guy who doesn't usually handle a gun." As Nabokov said, caress the details. Then he chats with a couple of crew members and shares a plate of cheese nachos with a six-year‑old girl who came on set for an autograph and can't quite believe this is a real-life movie star she's talking to.
"I hadn't realised until I worked with Jeff', says Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred with both Beau and Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys, "that you could actually have fun on a movie set, sit around, laugh, play cards. I thought it wasn't allowed."
He seems to have been around forever, this most natural, and least self‑conscious, of film actors. Christian Slater, Drew Barrymore and Macaulay Culkin have all played his children on screen, yet he's still only 43. He specialises, not in charismatic party turns like Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino or Robert de Niro, but complete, almost anonymous, believability; as the critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "He moves into a role and lives it ‑ so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character's soul", whether he's playing a rich boy on the skids (Cutter's Way), a billionaire psychopath (Jagged Edge), a car designer with a taste for show tunes (Tucker) or an air‑crash survivor losing his marbles on the sheer high of it (his most recent film, Peter Weir's Fearless).
To describe him as a movie star is, perhaps, a misnomer; certainly, he's not on the A‑list, that select group whose name above the title means that the picture should at least "open" ‑ that is, perform at the box office ‑ on the all‑important first weekend. Sometimes he's been close to making that crossover, taking the lead in good movies which do then become big hits, but on those occasions he's almost cheerfully let himself be upstaged: by Robin Williams, in The Fisher King, Glenn Close, in Jagged Edge, or Pfeiffer herself, making whoopee on top of a piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys.
"I've worked with great directors. I've worked with actors I respect and admire. I get paid a lot for doing what I love. Why would I want any more?" Bridges asks. "Frankly, I could handle less fame than I have now. I don't want to be mobbed. I've never been interested in that."
One from the heart: Jeff Bridges plays a bitter ex‑convict in the gritty and realistic movie 'American Heart', which he also co‑produced. 'Yeah, I'm proud of that one,' he said.
Bridges is in his trailer now, between scenes. He sits in front of the mirror while a make‑up man fixes his face. He tries to surround himself with people he's worked with before. "How many shows now, Eddie? Eight, nine? Eight I think," he says, as the make‑up man sculpts in a scar beneath his eye. He's relaxed, friendly, a little absent, pulling expressions and checking them in the mirror, thinking ahead.
"Most of my parts, I try to find a role model, a guy who's been through something similar to what my character's going through. I'm always looking for physical details, about the way a character would move. If my character's been close to a bomb then I try to find out, not just what he felt emotionally, but whether his mouth got scorched, whether the back of his throat was inflamed, was he slurring his speech afterwards. I work on the outside behaviour at the same time as the inside. One of the great things for me is wardrobe, the particular coat or shirt. Get that right on the money. Clothes that are maybe unusual, but they don't pop."
Point taken, though for the part in Blown Away, the particular shirt is a faded black T with BOSTON BOMB SQUAD on it; perhaps it's the degree of fade that's important. But convincing evidence of his ability to sink so deep into a role as to efface himself comes in Martin Bell's wonderful American Heart (which opens in London on 10 December), a movie so hardcore, so downbeat, so true, it is reminiscent of American cinema's glory days of the early Seventies. Bridges co‑produced and plays a bitter ex‑convict, forced to re‑establish a relationship with his son.
"Yeah, I'm proud of that one. But you wouldn't believe how much trouble we had getting it made, just hitting the target. I'm a lazy guy," he says, "I don't like to work too much. When I do work I engage wholeheartedly, so I resist that. I like to go up to Montana, hang out in the wilderness. You been up there? Man, it's beautiful. But then someone comes along, and it's this script, and Martin Bell, or it's Peter Weir, and I say, 'Oh come on, can't I just go fishing? I'm tired'. Then it's... 'Oh, OK'. You know you have to do it."
He was born on 4 December 1949. His father, Lloyd, is a film actor and so is elder brother Beau. It wasn't likely, he says, that he'd ever do anything else. He made his first appearance in a movie when he was four months old, cradled in the arms of Jane Greer. When he was around seven or eight, he had parts in his father's television series Sea Hunt.
"I started acting so I could buy toys," he says. "I remember my dad teaching me all the basics. He'd sit me on his bed and go over the lines. And teach me. 'Do it. Do it again and again. Now do it like you're doing it for the very first time, make it sound fresh, make it sound real. Listen to what the other people are saying, and be influenced by it, don't just bat your line back.' These rules sound pretty good even now."
He was taken to his first audition much later, by brother Beau. "He's nine years older," he says. "so there never was much in the way of sibling rivalry. He was more like an uncle." Beau is older, chubbier, with less of an edge and bushier eyebrows. Jeff’s eyebrows are pretty impressive too, but they don't seem to beetle so wildly on camera.
In fact, there's nothing wild at all about the Jeff Bridges of the Nineties, or, if there is, he keeps it well hidden. He adores, and is close to, his parents and his siblings. He's been married for 16 years and is father to three girls. He has homes in Santa Monica, Malibu, and Montana, and is never mentioned in the gossip columns, except in connection with the various good causes he supports, such as the End Hunger Network, a non‑profit‑making organisation Bridges founded in 1982. Following last year's Los Angeles riots, he and Beau, together with their father, were down on the streets of South Central, sweeping up debris.
"I grew up in this town," he says. "It makes me sad and angry ‑how couldn't it?- to see what a hard place it's become, to be such a wealthy society, and have so much, and yet have so many homeless and hungry on the streets."
He talks the sort of talk, lives the sort of life that publicists must wish they could hire out for rewrites. He's nice, normal, a family man. "I've said to Jeff that he really should do something about this image of his," says John Watson, the producer of Blown Away. "Throw a tantrum. Maybe destroy a camera or two. It's a remarkable thing, because this is a town where people love to say bad things about each other, but no one, absolutely no one, has anything but great things to say about Jeff."
It wasn't always the case. Bridges was in therapy when he was 16, enrolled in a high school drug programme when he was 17, ran away from home, joined the Coast Guard reserves, thought for a brief time about using his golden boy looks as a model, then started working seriously as an actor, rattling quickly through The Last Picture Show (1971), Bad Company (1972), The Last American Hero (1973), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and The Iceman Cometh (1975). He once did an interview for Rolling Stone, stoned, and for a while early in his career conveyed the impression that he'd really rather get high and telephone in these wonderfully easeful performances from the beach or from a hotel room on a hangover where, as once happened, he'd been entertaining a pair of women all night and had thrown up over New York magazine interviewer Rex Reed's shoes.
"Surfboards," he says. "Marijuana. Perhaps I have heard of these phenomena."
Now he paints, writes songs, and has, since starring in Dino de Laurentiis' 1976 remake of King Kong, made a photographic record of each movie. These pictures are presented in a book to crew members at the end of each shoot and were recently exhibited in LA. Taken with a hand‑held Widelux camera, they seem much like Bridges himself: friendly but watchful, attentive to action at the fringes of the scene. These days he's more likely to show off his snaps than do anything nasty to your footwear.
"Here's some of dad," he says. "Doesn't he look great? Can you believe he's 81?"
Lloyd Bridges has a part in Blown Away. "Jeff could have just asked, insisted on it," says John Watson, "but Lloyd came in and read. They're like that, this family."
In the Fifties, during Senator Joe McCarthy's anti‑Communist witch‑hunts, Bridges the elder was named before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities by Lee J Cobb, and was blacklisted for refusing to name names himself, facts which look commanding on the curriculum vitae. And, whatever problems father and son have had, he's obviously a hero to his son now.
"The greatest thing I learned from my dad was this joy for the work. Everyone's jazzed on him. He loves the process. You have to get off on that, because it's a communal art form. Be in the moment. That's hard when you're on a film set with all that stuff going on around you, but you have to be game to try, to have a sense of play about it. It's in the journey. The movie is almost a by‑product. It just kind of pops out."
Pops out pretty well too consistently to be an accident, in Bridges's case.
"You never know. I'm lucky to be working. Fingers crossed." And he does actually cross his fingers, and touch wood, just to be on the safe side: an actor. "I try to take the work very seriously and myself not too much. When you're on set, it's easy to forget everything else. Someone'll come in and say, 'Hey, we just went to war with Iraq,' and everyone else'll go, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, but what about the last take?' Or the riots. 'Shit, this really is wild. We're gonna have to stop shooting.' The movie business is big money, but a small world, the best show in town, and you have to remind yourself it's not the only show in town. You have to work hard to keep yourself in the loop. I keep myself in the loop. I think so. I hope so."