HE'S HOLLYWOOD'S EVERYMAN, BRINGING WEIGHT, WISDOM, AND A WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE TO THE SCREEN. HERE, HE TALKS TO A FELLOW CRAFTSMAN ABOUT MAKING MOVIES THAT MATTER
By Philip Seymour Hoffman
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
After 33 years as a blue-chip leading man and an entire life as a second‑ generation Hollywood brat, Jeff Bridges still has a way with the sweet quicksilver of surprise. How else could a single actor bring to life the roach‑ smoking Dude of The Big Lebowski (1998), the Clintonian POTUS of The Contender (2000), and the avuncular auto baron of Seabiscuit, to name but a few of his recent triumphs? In his latest film, The Door in the Floor, Tod "Kip" Williams's loose adaptation of John Irving's A Widow for One Year, Bridges plays anguish and arrogance incarnate as Ted Cole, a father who's lost his teenage sons, a husband who's on the verge of losing his wife (Kim Basinger), and a children's author whose best days are behind him. Here, Bridges takes stock of his own life‑ his films, his family, and his recently released book of photographs, Jeff Bridges Pictures (PowerHouse)‑with his Big Lebowski co‑star Philip Seymour Hoffman.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: So, Jeff, in addition to being an actor, you're also a pretty accomplished musician and photographer. From my own personal experience I know that in the movie business it's easy to get a little burned out, and it helps to have other creative outlets. How important are those sidelines to you?
JEFF BRIDGES: God, they're really important. For me, they all come from the same place. It used to be very distracting when I'd get on board for a movie, and I'd be in my hotel room studying for the week ahead, and I'd start thinking of a song or a drawing; I'd find myself working on that, and I'd get pissed off at myself‑ or I used to get pissed‑ thinking, You should get back to your work! [Hoffman laughs] But I've realized that when you start to engage with your creative processes, it shakes up all your impulses and they all kind of inform one another. Like with the photo book‑ it didn't really start with any purpose. When I first got married 27 years ago, I started taking pictures. My photos kept piling up, and finally a book materialized. I've often used painting or music in roles, too. When I'm working on a part, I see the whole world through the filter of that character. I'll find all sorts of things that will apply to the job at hand‑ observing people, reading books, anything really. Working on The Big Lebowski with you and the Coen brothers that was a special movie. It was such a gas because of the environment that the Coens set. Play is such an important part of the whole thing for me. I enjoy playing with guys like you who experiment and throw different things around.
PSH: Well, the Coens were a great audience. You could almost hear them chuckling during the take. [both laugh] So, I was watching Seabiscuit recently, and I think I cried five times. I wanted to mention that because I had a baby last year well, I didn't have it, my girlfriend did.
JB: [both laugh] Ah, great! Congrats, man!
PSH: Thanks. He's a year old now. But in Seabiscuit, your character loses his son, and it just ruined me. I walked through the doorway of our apartment, and my boy was there; I just looked at him and said to my girlfriend, "We can't lose our boy!" I know you have three children. As an actor, how do you approach a role like that?
JB: It's a pretty easy emotion to access when you just think about losing your kid. You are instantly there. It's not too difficult to imagine. The hard part is that it's not a pleasant place to go.
PSH: But it's a place you go new film, The Door in the Floor.
JB: It's based on John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year, but it only covers the first third of the book. I play a writer and an illustrator of children's books. That was fun for me because I got to do a lot of drawing in the movie. And I got to work with Kim Basinger again. The last time we worked together was in the late '80s, on a film called Nadine . I don't want to give too much away [about The Door in the Floor], but something tragic happens in our lives.
PSH: What attracted you to the project?
JB: I'm friends with John Irving, and he's a dear friend of Martin Bell, who is a director I worked with on both of the movies I produced, AmericanHeart  and Hidden in America . John is also friends with Mary Ellen Mark, the photographer, and John and I had been talking about doing a script based on one of his other books, A Son of the Circus, which is based on some photographs that Mary Ellen took of the circuses in India‑ so we'd been talking about doing that film when The Door in the Floor came up. So I met with the film's writer and director, Kip Williams, and got a good feeling about him. The fact that John was very much behind Kip's adaptation was a big plus for me as well. And since John's novel is so rich, the idea was, rather than do a surface version of the whole book, to take a portion and really develop it.
PSH: You mentioned that you get to draw in the film. Are you a big drawer?
JB: I love to draw. As a matter of fact, I did the drawings for two of the children's books that my character writes and illustrates in the movie, so those may be coming out in some form as well.
"Over my career, I've had really great experiences working with first‑ time directors or directors who haven't done that much. They come at filmmaking with fresh ideas."
PSH: There are a couple of young actors in The Door in the Floor. You started acting at an extremely young age yourself and came from an acting family. Do you feel a special kinship with these kids?
JB: Oh, yeah. The kids in this film are great. There's a wonderful actress, Elle Fanning, who plays my daughter. She's Dakota Fanning's sister. She celebrated her fifth birthday on the set, and she's just spectacular. And another actor, this kid Jon Foster who plays my assistant, is also fantastic. I get to live vicariously off that freshness in their eyes. They keep you on your toes, too, because often, you know, they haven't worked too much. Or even if they have, they've worked with good directors and haven't developed a lot of bad acting habits.
PSH: [laughs] Those come once they hit puberty, right? This is Kip Williams's first major film. How was it working with him?
JB: Kip was relatively new to the game as well. He directed a movie, [The Adventures of] Sebastian Cole , which I think might have been his only credit before this. Over my career, I've had really great experiences working with first time directors or directors who haven't done that much. They come at filmmaking with fresh ideas. I mean, sometimes you have people who are insecure, and they panic and feel that they have to De over controlling. But I've been very lucky that way. I worked with directors like Steve Kloves, on The Fabulous Baker Boys , and that was his first film‑ I think he was about 27 when he directed it, even younger when he wrote it. He was wonderful to collaborate with and share ideas with. But he didn't just roll over and do what everyone else said. He certainly had opinions, and he was the leader. He was our captain. Kip was very much like that too.
PSH: When I was growing up, the actors I admired did a film a year, but they didn't put themselves out there as public figures the way it seems like we're required to now. How do you feel about that aspect of moviemaking? These days if you want to stay a little more private about who you are, it's more frowned upon than it was then.
JB: Some actors do that very well, like Jack Nicholson. He's not on any TV shows. Nowadays, in the contract that actors sign, you have to agree that you're going to do a certain amount of publicity the hard part they don't pay you for. [both laugh] The acting, I could do that free. But I'm a team player. I don't want to sabotage the work we've done. The people who are funding the film think, We have got to get out there and sell! There's so much competition out there, we have to get a higher profile. It is frustrating when you put all that hard work into a movie and it's not seen.
PSH: Just to end it off, some people might look at working with their family as a difficult thing, but for you it was a very positive experience.
JB: Working with my dad [actor Lloyd Bridges], who was my teacher, was such a gas. We approached the work in a similar way. We only made two films together when I was an adult, Tucker  and Blown Away , but it was so much fun to play with your parent like that. And my brother Beau and I did The Fabulous Baker Boys together. It was like a dream come true. Now, being my older brother, he teased me often. Mercilessly. And that wasn't all a bed of roses. [both laugh] But he's my best friend.
PSH: All right, Jeff.
JB: All right. Great talking with you, Phil. I hope we get to play together again soon.
PSH: I'd love that.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Philip Seymour Hoffman is currently preparing for the title role in Capote. Styling: MONICA WILLIS. Grooming: HELENE MACAULAY/artistsbytimothypriano.com.