Think of all the iconic roles in Jeff Bridges's long career, which has spanned some 50 years now: Frank Baker, Bad Blake, Rooster Cogburn, Starman, the President, the Dude. And he just seems to keep getting better with age, winning his first Oscar in 2010, at 60, for his portrayal of a country music star gone to seed. He sang the weathered songs in his own voice in that one—ruggedly and beautifully, as you might expect—and has become the ideal vessel for the plainspoken, hardscrabble dialogue of Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, and John Irving, all of whose words he has worn as comfortably onscreen as his beard. Most of all, Bridges has stayed himself—a little beat-up, a little aw-shucks, but of undeniable quality. This past year, he was up for yet another Oscar, his seventh nomination, for his gruff Texas sheriff in the contemporary Western Hell of High Water. (At this point, he has become an honorary Texan.) Here, Bridges revisits literally an entire life spent in the movies.
I think your first role was in the TV series Sea Hunt.
That's incorrect, actually. My first part was in a movie called The Company She Keeps (1951), when I was six months old.
Ah. You were held in someone's arms?
Jane Greer held me in her arms.
And then you were with her in Against All Odds (1984). She held you in her arms again.
Tried to kill you. [Laughter.] But what was the very first thing you auditioned for?
Oh, the very first thing was probably a movie called Halls of Anger (1970). I played a white kid who was trying to integrate into a black school, and the black kids kept beating me up and that sort of thing.
Did you get the part right away?
You know, I can't remember back that far. I got the part, yeah, but I don't know about right away.
You've said to me and to others that you weren't sure you wanted to be an actor. Was there a moment that you knew you wanted to be an actor?
Yeah, I struggled with really committing to being an actor. My father, Lloyd Bridges, was so enthusiastic about all his kids going into showbiz and, you know, what kid wants to do what their parents want them to do? Plus that whole nepotism thing, so I resisted quite a bit. The first time I really realized, "No, I can do this," was kinda late in my career. I had maybe 10, 12 movies under my belt, and then I got to work with Fredric March and Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan in The Iceman Cometh (1973), directed by John Frankenheimer. Working with those old time masters, they were such wonderful actors. I felt, "Yeah, this would be something I can do for a long time."
Was that before or after The Last Picture Show (1971)?
It was quite a ways after Last Picture Show actually. I mean, I certainly had a great time in Last Picture Show, and it was a wonderful experience. But I didn't know if I was gonna continue acting for the rest of my life. You know, I'm interested in music and other stuff.
But The Last Picture Show is the first time somebody made you, a boy from Southern California, a Texan.
Yeah, that's true.
Are you an honorary Texan now? You've played a Texan how many times?
Oh gosh, I don't know. You know, during The Last Picture Show there was a young kid, a 16-year-old kid named Loyd Catlett who was hired to teach us California kids how to come off as Texas kids. He's also in the movie, and we became friends. Now it turns out we've done over 70 films together.
Oh my god.
He's my stand-in and a thread through all of these movies. So whenever I have to play a Texan, he's my go-to guy.
Well, you just played a Texan in Hell and High Water.
It was originally called Comancheria. In other countries it will keep that title.
Oh really? It's kind of a great title.
I think so, yeah.
And when they sent [the script] to you, did you immediately say yes or were you resistant?
I can't remember. Probably there was a bit of resistance. You know I'm good at resisting stuff—I try to resist as best as I can and then when it's just too cool it pulls me in. This script happened to just wonderful. Taylor Sheridan wrote this script that just reeks of authenticity, so it's just fascinating to me. You're following these characters, you don't know what's going to happen. It really draws you in.
Do you have to like the character to play them? Do you have to think he's a good guy?
No, I don't have to think my character is necessarily a good guy. In fact, one of the interesting things about my job is examining those guys that you don't think are such good guys. You know, see what that other side feels like.
Do you take that home with you or do you feel like you can shake it at the end of the day?
I remember doing an interview years ago and the interviewer asked me that question: "Are you one of those actors that takes the part home with you, or do you stay in character?" And I said, "No, not really," and my wife Sue happened to be in the room and she goes [imitates laughter]. And I said, "What are you doing that for?" She said, "You don't think you do but you do." And I happened to be playing a terrible person at the time, a killer or somebody who buried people alive or something like that.
I feel I must ask you if you took The Dude home with you. I think you did take The Dude home with you.
Ah, yeah, maybe so.
Well with The Big Lebowski (1998), which is like every human being's favorite movie, it was not a success when it first came out. When did it suddenly become clear to you that The Big Lebowski and The Dude were a thing that people were obsessed with?
Yeah, I was surprised that when The Big Lebowski came out it wasn't received so wonderfully here in this country. I think it became a hit in Europe and then splashed back on these shores and people started to appreciate it more. You know, there were these two-day-long festivals that celebrate the film. I've attended a festival or two.
What that's like?
Ha, well I sort of had my Beatle moment. I have a band, The Abiders, and we played a festival here in Los Angeles, you know, playing to a sea of Dudes. It was kind of a wonderful thing. I mean, we just jammed. It was totally a surreal experience.
So you won the Oscar [for Crazy Heart, in 2010] and then you started with your band.
Was it something that you'd always wanted to do? Or was it something that, you know, at that moment when you could've had any movie in the world, and you went on tour and recorded an album.
Yeah. I can't remember the whole sequence of events, how the whole music thing happened. I certainly blame most of that on my good buddy T-Bone Burnett, who was the fella who did all the music for Crazy Heart. And shortly after that film I called T-Bone up and I said, "Hey, you know I've got a bunch more tunes. You want to make some more albums?" And he said, "Sure, man." So we got together and made some more music, and then I figured if I'm ever going to do this music thing, now is the time. So, at 66, I'm getting to live my teenage high school dream of getting a band together and going around playing and making albums.
Did you have bands in high school?
We every Wednesday night at my friend Steve Bame's house and jammed—you know, no songs allowed. Singing was of course encouraged, and so we would make up lyrics on the spot. But no songs; it was a jam. And we did that for a long, long time.
Is there a song that makes you cry?
Oh yeah, a lot of songs. One comes to mind, a wonderful songwriter who just passed away: "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Leonard Cohen. What a wonderful artist he was.
Were you happy that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature?
I sure am.
It's kind of perfect. So when you were doing Hell and High Water, did you have the sense that it was a really great movie?
You never know until they paste the whole thing together. There's so many opportunities for a movie to fall apart. You can have a great cast, a great director, great writing, and then somehow in editing you don't choose the right takes, or the distribution is terrible, or whatever. But in Hell or High Water it all came together. I'm very proud of the movie. I had a wonderful time making it and I sure enjoy watching it.
So what movie makes you cry?
Oh, there's quite a few. Terms of Endearment (1983) comes to mind. I thought, uh, that was just, uh, chock full of emotion and humor and everything. Those kids, they knock me out.
And it's Larry McMurtry.
Yeah, absolutely. Nobody writes dialogue any better than Larry.
Who did you have a crush on in the movies even before you were in the movies?
Uh, you say that and Tuesday Weld popped in my mind.
Tuesday Weld. Any particular movie?
Well you know, [the TV series The Many Loves of] Dobie Gillis. [Laughs.] What was the other one? Then she made a great movie. What's the other movie she made?
Lord Love a Duck (1966)?
No. Oh, there was one with Jimmy Caan. What was the one with Jimmy Caan?
Oh, The Gambler (1974).
The Gambler. She was just great, I thought.
What's your favorite love scene in a movie? And I have to tell you, many people have said love scenes that you have done. A lot of people have said [The Fabulous] Baker Boys (1989) and a lot of people have said Against All Odds.
You know, love scenes are very challenging. It's such a major part of our lives, making love and how we do that and feel about it, but it's challenging. You know it often pulls people out of the film to see these actors going at it. I thought, uh, the love scene in Breaking the Waves (1996)...
Oh, that was amazing.
Wasn’t that good? Yeah, they really pulled that off well, I thought.
I thought the love scene in Baker Boys was incredible. It's still one of my favorite love scenes.
I can't remember, was that with the blue feather?
It's with the blue feather. And the dress coming down.
But you don't see anything. It's just all there.
And you're such a son of a bitch in that movie.
You think so? I don't know. I love that movie. That was so wonderful. Steve Kloves, such a great writer, such a great director—that was his first film.
Where was your first kiss? Like in real life?
Oh man, well I don't know if this was my first one but the one that popped into my mind when you asked was Debbie Olson, at the botanical gardens at UCLA.
Was she your classmate?
he was my classmate and—now that you're bringing it up—you know who comes to mind is all my old high school girlfriends. I don't know about the first one. That must have been like a spin the bottle or 7 Minutes in Heaven. I don't know if the kids play those anymore, spin the bottle.
They play spin the bottle. They play truth or dare. Do you know truth or dare?
The movie, the Madonna thing.
No, no, truth or dare is a game where you say, "Truth or dare?"
Yeah, but didn't Madonna play that?
Yes, I think she did play that but I think she kept saying truth. Most people do dare.
Yeah... but let me just say my best kiss is my wife. That's for you, sweetheart. You're the best, baby.
And you met your wife on location, right?
I met my wife on a movie called Rancho Deluxe (1975). She was working her way through college at this kind of a dude ranch in Montana. It was love at first sight for me.
Watch Jeff Bridges reenact Shirley MacLaine's iconic 'Terms of Endearment' performance: