May 1993
Elisa Leonelli interviews Jeff Bridges on his new film American Heart
Photography by Mary Ellen Mark


Elisa Leonelli interviews Jeff Bridges on his new film American Heart

Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Jeff Bridges is a tough ex-con sporting a tattoo on his muscular biceps in American Heart, the story of a father and a son attempting to survive pover­ty and personal degradation on the streets of Seattle. The first project of the actor's Asis production company, the film was inspired by a 1983 Life magazine photo essay on children consigned to life along the boulevards. That Streets of the Lost, by renowned photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, was followed by a 1984 documentary, Streetwise, directed by Mark's husband, Martin Bell.

To his credit, Bridges returned to the source material, an uncompromising first‑draft script, and reassembled the original people. "Because they already knew that world," Bridges says, they could ensure a street reality. Documentarian Bell makes his feature directing debut; screenwriter Peter Silverman (Mark's cousin) lives in Seattle, which Bridges describes as "a frontier town by the water with beautiful architecture"‑and which had been chosen for the photographic study for the study in contrast it provided, because Seattle was then touted as the "most livable city in America."

Jeff Bridges in American Heart.

Mark is aboard as associate producer and was responsible for finding the perfect actor to play the 14‑year‑old son‑Edward Furlong, who had wrapped work on the then yet‑to‑be­-released Terminator 2. Mark also photographed the actors on the set with the particular edge that characterizes her work. It's an edge that Bridges believes has been captured in the moving frames of American Heart, which came clear in my discussion with him. One of Hollywood's more bankable names, Bridges seems personally more concerned with the moral bankruptcy of American society.

Venice Magazine: As we learn in the film, American Heart is the name of a newspaper available to prisoners so they can correspond with people on the outside. But what is the deeper, symbolic meaning of the title?

Jeff Bridges: You want to leave it up to each individual what they see in that, but to my own thinking it sheds some light on the kind of life a large percentage of our population has to face. It takes a hard look at the underbrush of society, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to make this project‑it was something meaningful for me personally. I was just reading statistics that, out of the 23 developed nations, America rates 20th as far as the infant mortality rate. Can you believe it? We have a lot of growth to do in regards to how we treat our children, and the youth of this country. It's a deep problem that needs to be addressed, because conditions are getting worse.

Things do seem to be worsening‑the increase in homeless people and gang violence in American cities. Why do you think that is happening and what can be done about it?

Our administration now has been changed and there's a tremendous sense of hope. I know I'm doing everything I can to support Clinton making his changes and I'm thankful he's in the White House. We have a serious situation caused by the falling apart of [individual] family structure, but we can't forget that the family has to be supported by society as well. One of the great things about human beings is how well we adapt, but that's also part of the downside, because we get used to circumstances that are not the best they should be. Like seeing homeless people in the streets. So sometimes we have to be made aware that this condition is going on and doesn't have to, and we should do something to change it. I don't mean for American Heart to be a big morality play, because the movie is unsentimental in that way, but it might help shed some light on that segment of the population.

We haven't often seen onscreen a father like Jack, who's such a bad role model to his son. But he does try to rise up to his parental duties. What is the dynamic of each person influencing the other in that relationship?

In a way, American Heart shares a common theme with my other film, The Fisher King, which was interesting to me. So often in life each of us may feel that we have our own personal prison. In Jack's case, it's his responsibility for his kid. But sometimes the very thing we are trying to avoid, because it appears to be a trap, is in fact the key that will let us out of our particular cell. The opposite may also be true. Oftentimes, what we think is the key, the goal, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is really the prison, so it's almost like the reverse of what we expect. In Fisher King, Jack's success as a disk jockey is really a trap, and the fact that he has to help this other guy [Robin Williams, as a homeless lunatic in search of a Holy Grail), which seems to him a big hassle that he's trying to avoid, is actually his way out of his own problems. In American Heart, when this guy first gets out of prison and finds that he has to take care of a kid that he hasn't seen in five years, he doesn't want anything to do with him. He's frightened and doesn't know what to do, because he himself was raised without a father. So he really didn't have an example; he's not used to feeling love of any kind. Although he does have the desire to be a father to his son, he doesn't have the skills. It's very hard for ex‑convicts to get back into society‑they're given $100 and told they can't hang out with their old friends. So it's tough enough for Jack to get his own act together, and the last thing he wants is any more responsibility. He thinks that he's going to be trapped by this kid, when in fact, when he starts being with his son and acting like a father, that begins to almost serve as his compass on how he should live his life and puts him back on track. He's got something to live for, a reason to do the right thing. So having that responsibility is really what's going to save him in the end. The moral of the story is hopeful, because it may seem that humanity moves very slowly, but it does progress in very small steps.

Edward Furlong, Jeff Bridges and Lucinda Jenney in American Heart.

In real life, of course, you're a completely different person than Jack ‑ a family man belonging to a privileged economic class. Was it interesting for you to play a tough guy from the lower class, a reject of society not without his charming side?

I approached this film as I did my others. I try to find a role model. It can be many people or one person, somebody to base my characters on. For American Heart I was really fortunate to lock up with Eddie Bunker, who's a terrific writer‑he wrote books like Little Boy Blue, Runaway Train [from which the Jon Voight movie was taken], No Beast So Fierce [which became the Dustin Hoffman film Straight Time]. He also had small parts in both of those films, plus he had done lots of time in prison himself. I couldn't have found a better person. He was a writer, an actor, and he had been in prison ‑ he had all those things going for him. He was on the set quite a bit and really served as a touchstone for me, as far as authenticity. During rehearsals or while doing scenes, I often looked at him for a nod that it felt right. Martin Bell, the director, was very open to his suggestions as well, any ideas that he had to put into the scene. Up in Seattle, I worked out with a guy named Bob, who was in the work‑release program, which means that you're in prison but you work outside and have to come back to the building at night. He designed my tattoo and we talked quite a bit. My fellow producer, Rosilyn Heller, was very helpful too. She had a similar relationship from writing to somebody in a prison, and she shared that part of her life with me.

After the breakdown of the old‑fashioned social structures that were based on religion, it's much more difficult for young people to acquire a sense of right and wrong. Jack's dilemma is that he's not sure if he wants to be good or bad, go straight or return to his thieving ways. In your family, how do you teach your children a sense of morality?

You teach through example. You live the kind of life that you'd like them to lead, according to the old Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." There's a lot of wisdom you can glean from any of the religions, ideas that feel right to you as an individual, so you gain your morali­ty or ethics that way. The children learn through example. As the day goes by, you're constantly confronted with instances that come up, and you have to decide all the time which way to go, which fork of the road to take. It's very, very tough. Sometimes it seems easier in the short run to let something slide, but in the long run it's better not to, because it's going to be tougher to explain it later.

You must be a good example to your daughters: You're known as a devoted father who doesn't cheat on his wife, and a man committed to social change in the world. What causes are most dear to your heart?

I belong to different environmental organizations, but I put most of my energy into the End Hunger Network. I'm on the board of directors, so I work with them a lot. We are planning different events. Our latest project was the End Hunger Mayor Awards‑we had each mayor in about a hundred cities give awards to people that excelled in ending hunger in the community. Now we're hoping to get international sister‑cities to do the same thing, so we're almost sidestepping the government, going through more of a communal aspect of society.

There have been problems in simply bringing food and aid to war‑torn countries like Somalia or Yugoslavia. Some people feel that military intervention is needed. What do you think?

It's true, you can't just throw money or food at a situation; the problems are deeper. I'm glad the United States went over to Somalia, but I would have preferred it had been a combined effort with the United Nations. That's another thing I'm excited about, and putting some energy into the reorganization of the United Nations. Just before he left office, Bush appointed a panel, four guys, to examine what the United States part could be in changing the United Nations. So they're doing a great thing right now, going around the country to town meetings where people from different cities get to ask questions of experts about the United Nations and talk about what they feel that organization should do. I spoke on behalf of the End Hunger Network and said that we'd like to see the United States sign the Bill of Rights for the Children of the World, which 15 NATO nations have signed but we have not. It sets basic health standards, protection from hunger and disease, and we're trying to encourage Clinton to sign it. We basically spread the work in terms of media and offer educational presentations.

Jeff Bridges with director Martin Bell.

If you had your utopian wish, what would you like to see the United Nations do to change the world?

Hopefully, in my thinking, the United Nations could actually be a world government and function that way. Now, as soon as you say that, nobody wants to lose their sovereignty, and everybody's afraid of Big Brother. One big military [organization] looking over the whole world is a frightening thought, but there are certain issues, like the environment and hunger, that concern the entire world. I think there really is a place for a revamping of the United Nations, so it could work more effectively. Then we could get some real "law and order." If we had some sort of world government, it could handle things like feeding people, because we know all the ways to end hunger‑we just haven't done it. It could deal with dictatorships and wars, madmen who go off with nuclear arms, so it's not just one country going after another country, but it's the whole world concerned about what's going on.

Lucinda Jenney With Jeff Bridges

Lucinda Jenney on her diverse career

“Oftentimes ministers and actors seem to be connected,” says Lucinda Jenney, who, although family forebears were missionaries, has followed a thespian calling. “Acting is really in its purest form very spiritual because I think it is the desire to take oneself… out of the purely personal and into the more universal.”

It’s an early Monday morning, and the actress is recuperating-“I sort of fall on my hands and knees with gratitude” for her one day off- from her role as battered wife in Frank Pugliese’s Aven’U Boys at the John Houseman Theater. “It’s an off-Broadway schedule, so that means we have four performances on the weekends. And it’s a brutal play, it’s so violent, that four in a row really knocks you out.”

And knocks out the critics The New York Times Frank Rich says Jenney and her costars create “women who are strong and sexy without being either ideological pawns or sentimental victims.” Jenney next takes that strength to American Heart, where she plays Charlotte, the woman with whom Jack, the homeless man played by Jeff Bridges, falls in love. “It’s truly a character-driven piece about people trying desperately to create relationships in their lives, without the skills to do so.

“Aven’U Boys is a very truthful play, but it’s about some ugly things, and there’s no way out.  And yet with American Heart, despite the fact that’s a very sad piece, I think it’s actually quite hopeful."

The daughter of a poet mother and an oil executive father,  Jenney became serious about acting while attending Sarah Lawrence College and has since done both Broadway (leads in Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, and Cinders opposite Christopher Walken at the Public) and Hollywood (mostly supporting roles in Wired, Rain Man, Thelma and Louise, Matinee). This fall, she appears in Mike Figgis’ Mr. Jones as “a sort of sexual deviant.”

The last isn’t typecasting; in fact, none of her roles is. Her diversity of personae on stage and screen means Jenney has not acquired a Hollywood handle with casting directors. “Sometimes I think one’s greatest weakness is also one’s greatest strength,” says the Long Island native, who now lives in Santa Monica with her husband, the abstract painter John Swanger. "I think I fall a bit between the cracks –it’s hard to get a footing and get going if people can’t go, ‘Oh, she is this.’ But I think in the long run it serves you the best.”

And what does she want in that long run? “I love it when people sit down and talk to me (about past movies) and go, 'Oh, that was you!" That’s my favorite thing. It’s hard to build a career on oh-that-was-you. But I do. I want to be totally unrecognizable, and in constant demand.