I gave up dope
He’s Hollywood’s most laid-back star. But Jeff Bridges has a bizarre ‘confession’ to make about his biggest ever role... to play the dope-smoking Dude!
Jeff Bridges is relaxing in his hotel room, overlooking the beach in Santa Monica and talking in the familiar and endearingly mellow tones that he used to great effect in his best-known role to date, the chilled, White Russian-drinking pothead The Dude in 1998’s cult classic The Big Lebowski.
Bridges’s preparation for the role of the peace-loving stoner was unorthodox. ‘I actually gave up smoking pot to play The Dude,’ he admits. ‘The lines of the Coen brothers’ script were so beautifully written, with every “man” put in the right place, that I really wanted to be conscious of them. Actors have a thing called sense memory, where something you’ve done you can recall, and I’d smoked pot for years. Anyway,’ he adds, ‘it’s nice to go sober every once in a while.’
Now 67, Bridges retains the abundant long hair, dishevelled beard and rugged good looks that have endeared him to women for five decades in films as diverse as Jagged Edge (1985) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) to
Iron Man (2008) and True Grit (2010). It’s a genial toughness he exploits wonderfully in his role of Champ, the head of the Statesman spy agency in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
The sequel to the hugely successful 2014 comedy-action film Kingsman: The Secret
Service sees the return of Taron Egerton as Eggsy, a newly minted Kingsman agent, and Colin Firth as Eggsy’s mentor Harry Hart – presumed dead in the first film but clearly very much alive.
Bridges is a playful bit of casting: he and Firth enjoyed a friendly rivalry for the Best Actor Oscar for two years running, with Bridges beating Firth in 2010 for his role in Crazy
Heart and Firth pipping Bridges the following year for The King’s Speech. Their off-screen rivalry is echoed in this latest film where, as the respective heads of their spy agencies in the US and UK, they team up to battle the Golden Circle, a group of super-criminals threatening to destroy the human race.
‘I thought the original was the best James Bond-type film I’d ever seen,’ Bridges says.
As he’s mentioned Mr Bond, who does he think would make a good replacement for Daniel Craig? ‘Colin Firth,’ he says. ‘But Tom Hardy would be fantastic too.’
In sharp contrast to some of the tortured and driven souls in Hollywood, Bridges seems a pretty relaxed and happy chap. He thinks himself ‘a lazy guy’ but this is contradicted by both the volume – and the quality – of his output. Certainly it’s easier to talk about
his hits than his occasional misses (1980’s Heaven’s Gate was famously described as ‘an unqualified disaster’). He was nominated for his first Oscar at 22 for The Last Picture Show, and finally won Best Actor (after six further nominations) for his role in the low-budget Crazy Heart – a beautifully drawn portrait of a dissolute country singer who eventually finds redemption. He made his first screen appearance as a one-year-old alongside his mother and older brother Beau (also an actor) in the 1951 film The Company She Keeps, but it was his father Lloyd Bridges (High Noon, Airplane!) who actively encouraged his son to enter the business. ‘I worked with him as a kid on his TV show Sea Hunt,’ says Bridges, ‘but as I grew older I had a lot of other interests such as music and art, so I fought against acting a lot initially. When you’re young you don’t want to get a gig because of who your father is and I was definitely a product of nepotism. But he loved acting so much that his joy was contagious.’ His parents had good reason to keep him close to the family as their two-month-old son Garrett died of sudden infant death syndrome (or cot death) in 1948, but despite their heartbreak his mother’s doctor encouraged her to have another child. ‘My middle name is Leon, after him. My mother used to have me sleep by the side of her bed when I was a baby and she’d shake me all the time just to make sure I was still alive. I always wonder how ultimately it affected me. Maybe,’ he giggles, ‘it explains why I’m as crazy as I am.’ By his own admission he got into a ‘little bit of trouble – nothing too bad’ when he was young, so his parents sent him away to military academy for a year. It couldn’t have straightened him out too much, however, as, come the Seventies, he volunteered to work with the unorthodox scientist John Lilly, whose avant-garde studies into the nature of consciousness led him to develop the isolation tank, for which Bridges duly signed up.
‘You’d be floating in this box filled with water and 1,000lb of salt,’ Bridges explains. ‘You couldn’t see or hear anything and the idea was that you got rid of as much exterior stimulation as possible. John was an eccentric-looking cat in a jumpsuit, and as soon as I got into the tank my brain would start thinking, “Is the water filled with LSD? Did the guy in the jumpsuit have breasts?” But then you’d relax. John would take LSD and stay in the tank for hours,’ laughs Bridges. ‘I experimented with LSD but I didn’t do it in the tank.’
Bridges and his wife Sue Geston have that rarest of things, a successful Hollywood marriage. When they met in 1974, Bridges was filming the western Rancho Deluxe and, despite Sue’s two black eyes and broken nose (she had recently been in a car crash), Bridges says ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off her’. They’ve been married for 40 years and have three daughters: Isabelle, 36, Jessie, 34, and Haley, 31. The secret, says Bridges, is seeing challenges as opportunities to grow even closer.
There’s an old acting adage that says extracurricular activities during filming ‘stay on location’. But Bridges shakes his head. ‘Many of the stories we make are about love, and part of the job is to get in touch with that. But you don’t want to make the mistake of physicalising that love – that can lose you everything.’
With so much going on in his life, does Bridges ever think about retiring?
‘All the time!’ he laughs. ‘I do my best not to work because I love doing other things – I’ve got a band going and I love ceramics and photography. But then I just keep being offered these wonderful assignments. It’s like that Al Pacino line from The Godfather Part III,’ he sighs. “Just when I thought I was out… e they pull me back in.” ’ ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ is out on Wednesday
Left: Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Above: in Kingsman: The Golden Circle