Jeff Bridges: Hotter than Brad Pitt

THE EXPRESS Feb 13, 2011

THE past 12 months have destroyed the reputation of the peerless Jeff Bridges as the most underappreciated actor in Hollywood.

Last year he scooped the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, after four previous nominations, and then starred in two blockbuster movies in America, sci-fi sequel Tron and the Coen brothers’ True Grit. Both have earned more than £90million in the US, making Bridges hotter than Brad Pitt. Not bad for a 61-year-old actor best known for not being better known.

“I’ve kind of blown that status, haven’t I?” chuckles Bridges, as amiable in the flesh as he appears on screen. “I’m loving the fact these movies are getting a lot of attention. It’s wonderful.”

The success of True Grit is the real surprise, smashing expectations at the box office and earning 10 Oscar nominations, including another one for Bridges as Best Actor. It is also up for eight Baftas tonight. “You always have high hopes for any movie you’re part of but, gosh, I didn’t think it would be anything like this. It’s a runaway hit,” says Bridges, who started work on the movie the day after winning his Oscar last year.

His performance as the “one-eyed fat man”, hard-drinking US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, is a joy; one part The Dude, Bridges’s famous slacker from the Coen’s cult classic The Big Lebowski, and two parts Dirty Harry.

It erases all memory of John Wayne in the 1969 adaptation of Charles Pontis’s novel and not simply because he wears the character’s famous eyepatch over his other eye, the right. “A lot of people like to make some kind of political statement out of that but it was just because it felt mostc omfortable that way,” he reveals with amusement.

Bridges is not the only one to give an outstanding performance. The film’s discovery is Hailee Steinfeld making her movie debut as 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who hires a reluctant Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer. She has been Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress and is one of the reasons the film has connected with a broad family audience.

“She is remarkable,” says Bridges admiringly. So why else does he think the movie has become such a phenomenon, soon to overtake Dances With Wolves as the most successful Western in history?

“Love of the Western ebbs and flows and maybe it’s flowing now, people are fascinated by those times,” he says thoughtfully.

“I think the subject, true grit, is a quality we could certainly use today and the story is very well written. Beneath the surface entertainment I think it’s quite poignant and moving.”

It’s also, he points out, thanks to the craftsmanship of master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose many Oscar winners include Fargo and No Country For Old Men. One of their greatest gifts, muses Bridges, is assembling “who you’re going to party with” in terms of the cast and crew.

“If you choose those folks wisely a magical thing happens where the movie starts to have a life of its own. It starts telling you what it wants, almost like a child.” One of those people was his daughter, Jessie, 26, who served as his assistant.

She is the middle of his three children with wife of over 30 years, Susan. “That was kind of the highlight for me. Not only was she a great assistant, the best I’ve ever had, she’s also a wonderful musician, so we played guitar together and put on concerts,” says Bridges, who is currently recording a second folk-rock album with music producer friend T-Bone Burnett.

“We had some serious father daughter time and I’m trying to do that same thing with all my kids.”

BRIDGES’S previous collaboration with the Coens, 1998’s The Big Lebowski, resulted in one of the star’s best-loved roles as Jeffrey Lebowksi, otherwise known as The Dude or His Dudeness (favourite pastimes: “bowling”, “driving around” and “the occasional acid fl ashback”). Spawning an annual Big Lebowski festival in America, where participants arrive in dressing gowns and Bermuda shorts, it fi rmly established the actor’s laid-back persona, an identity he admits he had hitherto resisted.

“For a while in my career I really tried my best not to develop a strong persona but now, what am I? 61? God! I’m starting to let that go. People can  pin whatever persona they want on me and I’m not going to spend any energy trying to stop that.”

Of The Dude, he says: “I’m fond of The Dude. It’s such a wonderful movie and it shows you how great the Coen brothers are. They make it look so easy.”

As for Bridges’s own famously effortless style, when I ask the star what his secret is he is momentarily fl ummoxed.

“Maybe it’s a way of dealing with fear and anxiety which is something you don’t conquer,” he offers eventually. “You perform a sort of thespian judo, making that force work for you instead of against you.”

A second theory is less elliptical: sheer hard work. “It’s like, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practise. You do it over and over again.”

The son of actor Lloyd Bridges and actress Dorothy Dean, performing is also in his blood: he made his fi rst screen appearance aged four months, alongside elder brother Beau Bridges, also an actor.  It’s one reason why the modern trend for Oscar “campaigning” doesn’t unduly concern him (back when he was fi rst nominated in 1972 for The Last Picture Show, Oscar electioneering was unheard of).

“I take my cue from how my dad navigated these waters. It’s all part of being an entertainer and an actor,” he says. “We put on plays when we were kids and we had to tell everybody to ‘come see our play’. It’s kind of the same thing with the Oscars. It’s a chance to shout about your movie.”

With no more fi lms lined up, Bridges is focusing on his music and ongoing work for US charity No Kid Hungry – “17 million kids live in food-insecure households”.

You get the sense that, despite his love of acting, he can take it or leave it, which just maybe holds the key to his success. “I think I’d fare pretty well if the acting ground to a halt,” he says. It’s hard to disagree.