Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong play down-but-not-out father and son in American Heart, director Martin Bell’s wrenching film of survival on the streets of Seattle.
by Sheila Benson and Melissa Harris
Photography Editor: Suzanne Donaldson
Jeff Bridges is impressively big, with an enveloping handshake, and, at forty-two, still tawny golden, an unruffled lion. The puppy fat that softened him in Bad Company and The Last Picture Show and obscured his tensile strength has long since burned away. The accumulated mileage from some thirty movies has left the son of Lloyd Bridges and younger brother of Beau savvy enough to know his own worth, yet it hasn't tainted his basic sweetness, or the openness that is probably part of the Bridges family DNA.
For his role as an ex-con and reluctant father to a fourteen-year-old boy (Edward Furlong) in Martin Bell's film American Heart, Bridges grew out his Fisher King ponytail from chic to skanky, added sideburns and a hard guy's mustache, and worked out to get the body of a prisoner who had more than enough time for the jail-yard weights. With Bridges, these physical transformations don't run away with the character- he's not one of those actors whose new pounds of flesh or muscles or tattoos become acting stigmata. Having sweated into shape for American Heart, he immediately added twenty pounds for his complete change of character as a darkly ambiguous chemistry professor in Dutch director George Sluizer's American remake of his 1988 thriller The Vanishing.
His wife and their three young daughters were at the family ranch in Montana when I met him over tea at their comfortable, unfussy house in Santa Monica. Books, photographs, musical instruments, the girls' artwork, and Bridges's own accomplished paintings filled the house- as did the scent of roses, cut that morning from the garden.
SHEILA BENSON: In 1952, when I was a theater arts student at UCLA, I used to hang out at a little place called the Swiss Restaurant. I was there studying a part- you never saw anyone being a "young actress" so obviously- when the nicest man came over to say, "What's that?" It was your father. He offered to coach me.
JEFF BRIDGES: I remember that restaurant. We used to eat there all the time.
SB: They had the best salad, with a really tart, garlicky dressing.
JB: I remember that salad; I can taste it.
SB: Your father was so kind. I was very naive in many ways; there was always the thought that someone might be hitting on me, but he was always a gentleman. He taught me more in those weeks, or months, than I learned anywhere.
JB: He's a good teacher, isn't he?
SB: He was great. I was studying a difficult part- and it went better than any scene I'd ever done. Please tell him for me that I never forgot it. From the outside, this very close family you have seems like an anchor. Has it functioned that way?
JB: For me personally? Oh, yeah, absolutely. Very close family. It's great having all the guys do the same stuff. We're all actors. My mother [Dorothy Simpson) is an actress, too. She played my mother in See You in the Morning. She's probably the best actor of the whole bunch of us.
SB: Where did you get your foundation in acting?
JB: It was mainly my father and my brother. The very first memories I have of being taught are from when my father was doing Sea Hunt and they gave me a small part. I remember sittin' up on his bed there and him giving me the basic lessons of acting: how listening is just as important as speaking; the importance of making it appear that it's happening for the first time.
SB: That naturalness runs through all of you.
JB: It's the kind of acting I admire. You can't see the actor hitting the spots he's supposed to hit- it just kind of [gestures a smooth, upward arc] goes. The trick is to create that; different techniques that you learn along the way help you get to that spot, to fool yourself. I find the moment just before they say "Action." If you get off on a different foot each time, you can sort of confuse yourself, and the rest of the scene goes a little fresher.
SB: I've seen American Heart twice, and the stuff between you and Edward Furlong is amazing,
JB: Isn't he something, though? He's really a natural.
SB: I don't know what he's drawing from.
JB: His own life, I'm sure.
SB: That line of Lucinda Jenney's, when she says, “I don't know whether it’s an act or not, but he seems like such a sad kid": he seems so sad, but the one or two times that he smiles he just lights up.
JB: He's had a tough life. But he's a happy kid. The big stumbling block for me was how we were going to find a kid who was going to have to run this gamut of emotions- and not be the typical movie kid who's indicating all these feelings he’s supposed to be having. And we lucked out, because Mary Ellen (Mark) was doing a photo essay on kid actors and she said, "I think I've found him.” So we met with him and he gave a brilliant reading. We said, Whoa, better look at some more kids. Looked all over, and he was it, hands down. And that was before Terminator 2 came out.
Pregnant girl on street
SB: What draws you to a script?
JB: A lot of times I don't know what it is, and I have to make the movie to find out. I can intellectualize it and try to figure it out, but it always seems that it's not clear to me until after the fact. There's something that I enjoy when I'm watching a movie, and also when I read a script that attracts me, which is when you feel there's an apparent lack of obligation to the audience- they're not trying to manipulate you. Ultimately it's about manipulation, but to have that masked so well that you can't tell you're being manipulated is a skill. With [The Fabulous] Baker Boys and American Heart, it's like spying through a hole, watching what's going on.
SB: Early on you played picaresque roles in films like Bad Company, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and Rancho Deluxe. Why did directors come to you for those parts?
JB: I don't know. I remember going into Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. It was [Michael] Cimino's first film [as director] and I said, "You really want me for this part?" He said, "Yeah, you'd be great" I said, "I know I'm kind of shooting myself in the foot here, but I can name a couple of other guys who'd be better. I just don't feel like this guy." I was excited about doing it- it was a big part, working with Clint [Eastwood] and everything- but I was frightened because I didn't really feel that I had this guy in me. And Cimino said, "Don't you get it? It's like a game of tag -you get tagged and you're it. So the guy is nobody else but you." That took a lot of pressure off me feeling I had to be something other than what I was. I'm attracted to things that challenge me and stretch me, and it's funny, because I don't like to be challenged [laughs], but I notice that I'm in things that always stretch me. For some reason that's just the way it works out- you find out different things about yourself and that you're bigger than you thought you were. In this last thing [The Vanishing], I was a character who. . well, let's say you're not looking forward to tickling those sides of yourself.
SB: Currently you seem to own those cynical, bitter antihero roles, as in Baker Boys and The Fisher King. What is your access to that sensibility, for yourself?
JB: I think people like to cast against type. I consider myself a kind of laidback, easygoing guy, and I've had a lot of good ol' boy things. Taking that kind of guy and making him more cynical can broaden the picture. I have kind of a theory I'm not sure is absolutely true, but I think that most people who are cynics are really crushed romantics: they've been hurt, they're sensitive, and their cynicism is like a shell that's protecting this tiny, dear part in them that's still alive. And the reverse may be true: that people who are optimists have a seed, possibly, of cynicism. It all gets down to love and fear of losing love.
SB: Having played Duane In The Last Picture Show, how did you approach the character again when you played him in Texasville?
JB: I was the model, in one sense, because I had already played the character. But I'd just done Baker Boys, so I wasn't feeling much like a Texas good ol' boy. I didn't have too much rehearsal down there and I was feeling pretty insecure. First day of shooting, you always sort of have opening-night jitters, but this time I had it more than usual because I really didn't have this character down. So I was sitting there, just goin' crazy. I hear a knock at the door: "Fifteen minutes before we need you, Mr. Bridges." I'm lookin' at this closet of clothes and I don't know what I'm gonna wear. There's another little knock on the door, and I open it; there's this guy standin' there and he says [cheerful Texas accent] "Hi, how ya doin'?" I say, "Oh, I'm kinda nervous," and I'm lookin' at him and I think, God, this is exactly the look I want. He says, "My name's Rusty Lindeman. I own this land you're shootin' on and I jus' wanna say hi and welcome you aboard." And I say, "Well, come on in, Rusty! Get your butt in here. I'm really upset- I wish I looked like you." He says, "Take my shirt." And he got undressed right there on the spot.
SB: Down to what?
JB: Down to his underwear. He gave me all his clothes, his pens and things, his hat. So he dressed me. He was like an angel. He came at just the right time, and he was on the set all the time. He was kind of like Eddie Bunker [ex-felon, actor, and author of No Beast So Fierce], who was our technical adviser on American Heart.
SB: Does directing pull you at all? One actress [Lucinda Jenney] I spoke to thought you'd make a good director. She said, "He's extremely respectful of others. He has a great sense of story. He'd be a good ship's captain. And he's a confident human being."
JB: It's like I'm frightened of it. I'm drawn to it and I don't really know why, and- again- the only way I'll figure it out is if I do it. I've got different ideas in my head, but I'm sort of shy about it. The way I work as an actor is to empower the director. By turning that responsibility over to someone else, I can kind of fly around. But when you're the director, people are supposed to be doing that to you. Hopefully, there's a spiritual aspect to the way I work: there's the director and [indicates upward] there's the Director. I would suspect that if I was being the director, it would take me directly to the big guy.
SB: How does that relate to when John Huston directed you in Fat City?
JB: He kept me on my toes all the time. He never let me feel at ease. Maybe it was not so much what he was doing as what I was doing inside me, because I was in awe of this great director, and he didn't do anything to lessen that feeling. He'd direct a lot of scenes where he wouldn't look at the actors- he'd just listen. He'd say "Action," then turn away, so he could hear if it sounded phony. One moment I'll never forget: he'd been very ill during the shoot and had an oxygen tank all the time. When we were getting ready to do the last scene of the movie, there was John in his chair with his oxygen mask on, and he's got a cigar hanging out of his hand, and we didn't know whether he was asleep or dead. It was four or five in the morning and nobody had the balls to go up to him and say, "Mr. Huston, we're ready." Suddenly Huston says [voice drops to a perfect Huston timbre] "I've got it!" and everybody huddled around. And he said, "Have you ever been to a party where, apparently for no reason, everybody stops talking at the same time?" And everybody nods. "Well, that's what's going to happen now." And some a.d. had the guts to say, "John, we could just freeze the camera," and he said, "No! No! No! I want everyone to just stop." And that's what happened in the scene- Stacy [Keach] looks at the Chinese guy, and he turns around, and all these cardplayers just stop. To think that Huston was still that sharp- we were already thinking he was going to kick over, and he was in there, thinking about the scene, getting his direction! [indicates upward again].
It figures. Edward Furlong- Terminator 2's sullen boy with massive attitude, American Heart's waif seeking love from an almost terminally damaged father- is about as standoffish as bubble gum. Engulfed in a Hypercolor T-shirt, the fifteen-year-old actor, who was raised in a single-parent home and discovered at the Pasadena Boy's Club, bounds into his agent's conference room as if time spent with an adult won't necessarily be the equivalent of an interview with the principal. Three days later, he takes off for a publicity tour in Japan, where young girls reportedly weep for a glimpse of him. Jeff Bridges, his American Heart co-star, has nailed it: "A real joyous kid."
SHEILA BENSON: Tell me about American Heart.
EDWARD FURLONG: It was a really hard film to do because it was a lot of emotion to put out.
SB: You must be finding your own feelings in there.
EF: It's like having your own therapy. I'm putting forth all the anger I have stored up inside me onto the screen. It's a great feeling after you're done. I haven't been in this business long- only two years now- and there are things I don't know yet. I'm still learning, but I'm really proud of American Heart. It's classy.
SB: And it's so moving. What movies have you seen that really made you care about the characters?
EF: See, I never, ever cry when I'm seeing a movie, but I cried in The Color Purple. And when I read American Heart, I'm like, Oh, my God, this is so realistic, it's showing what real life is like.
SB: Both you and Jeff Bridges worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger at very different stages of his career, didn't you?
EF: I never even knew Jeff worked with Arnold- I never saw Stay Hungry. Arnold is totally changed, I'm sure, since then. I'm very proud of Arnold. To be the number one star and have as much money as he has- well, not so much the money [laughs]- you have to be very smart; he's a really good businessperson. Jeff does it more for the art of it, I think. He's the best actor I've worked with so far. If he's stressed out on a movie, he doesn't show he's stressed. He's always making people feel happy on the set.
SB: How? Does he goof around?
EF: Yes! But when we're acting he gets pretty into it. Jeff really calmed me down for the movie. I was really nervous about doing it because I just came from T2, which was a totally different movie where I didn't really have to act. I mean, I had to act, but not like I did in American Heart. Jeff is not the kind of actor who talks to you only when the movie starts. He's a very, very nice person. He gave me a call before the movie started and we tried to get in character like father and son. We went to the Santa Monica pier and did fun stuff, and we still talk.
SB: What were you like before T2?
EF: Pretty much the same as I am now. I was shyer, but I liked hanging around with the real mature kids- not bookwise- but kids who have had tough lives, kids who come from broken homes and had a difficult life. I was sort of mature, probably, for my age.
SB: Did you like girls then?
EF: Oh, I loved girls. I looked at 'em all the time. I liked the older girls. I've always liked women.
SB: I'm sure they're not uninterested in you, either.
EF: I hope not. But I just have to be careful that I don't choose the women that throw themselves on me- there are a lot of scary diseases out there now. I've had some really good people that I know very well that have gotten the HIV virus. But it's not just that. I don't want somebody who likes me because I'm famous. I like girls that are very intelligent. I've kissed girls and- this is a very rude thing to say- sometimes I just stop and I go, "Do you like me 'cause of me?" That's just something that comes up in your mind. The kind of woman I like is Jodie Foster. I admire that she could go to college and not be afraid of losing the business, because she was taking a chance that she could.
SB: What bands do you like?
EF: I love U2. I saw Rattle and Hum; I have all their tapes. The Joshua Tree is my favorite. I also like Annie Lennox and En Vogue.
SB: Do you dance?
EF: Um, no! Like at the T2 premiere, I went with Soleil Moon Frye- she played Punky Brewster- and she dragged me out on the dance floor. They started taking pictures of me dancing, and I can't dance. Not for anything!
Inspired by Mary Ellen Mark’s photographic essay on Seattle street kids for Life magazine, Martin Bell's documentary Streetwise (1984) was one of the most trenchant studies of the American underclass in the Reaganite era. Mark, Bell (her husband), and screenwriter Peter Silverman (her cousin) have now returned to that raw terrain for American Heart, the story of an ex-con (Jeff Bridges) fearful of losing his fourteen-year-old son (Edward Furlong) to petty crime. Mark documented the movie as Bell shot it, making no concession to the gritless aesthetic that often dominates film-set photography.
MARY ELLEN MARK: I started photographing professionally in the late '60s and worked on a lot of movies-great films like The Wild Child, Fellini Satyricon, Carnal Knowledge, Alice’s Restaurant, and later Apocalypse Now. When you photographed a film in those days, one could really spend a lot of time developing personal feelings about the actors, the director and the movie. A lot of that has changed. But on American Heart, since I was an associate producer, I was again able to work with the actors in a way that would result in something more than the kind of superficial publicity photos we're so used to seeing nowadays.
INTERVIEW: Do you photograph actors in character or as themselves?
MEM: It's some kind of blend because, after all, an actor like Jeff Bridges becomes the character in American Heart. I photographed him in a situation where he was actually working with me, and spontaneously- if they trust you, actors will allow you those personal moments.
INTERVIEW: What was it like photographing the younger actors?
MEM: I tried to take photographs that had more of an edge to them, which is often what's missing in the kind of film-set work done today.
INTERVIEW: Could you compare your work on Streetwise to American Heart?
MEM: With Streetwise the kids weren't actors. They were desperate kids trying to survive. So when I photographed them, those were their real lives and they were living them.
When you're photographing on a film set, they are acting, no matter how in character they are. In reality, Jeff has a wonderful life with a wife and three kids, but I tried to make my photographs of him appear real.
I: Why is American Heart special to you?
MEM: Because it was such a heartfelt collaboration between Peter Silveman, Martin Bell, and myself. It's a story about surviving in a different world and about something that touches, or could touch, anybody.
Mary Ellen Mark's book Streetwise is available from Aperture this fall.