Don't buy Bridges's possibly weed-influenced smoke screen. He actually does a lot of things. He is an almost practicing Buddhist. He throws pots. He sells Hyundais and Duracells on the idiot box. He speaks out for ending child hunger in America. He paints. Did I say he throws pots? But amid the jumble of meditation, Sonatas, and crockery, there's one thing Bridges does almost as well as acting: photography. He's had a darkroom since he was a kid and has shot portraits on his movie sets for decades. Taking photos helps him relax on difficult shoots like 'Iron Man,' where the script was still in flux as shooting began. "I was freaking out," recalls Bridges. "But then I told myself, 'Hey, we're just making a $200 million student film. It'll be okay, or it won't.'"
This being Jeff, his method is eccentric. No retro Polaroids or quick-snap digital equipment. He shoots with a Widelux camera, which has a lens with a superlong exposure time – about 15 seconds for a single picture. That's perfect for him. You can move people around during the exposure, committing to nothing until the last second. Jon Favreau frowns on the right side of the frame; Jon Favreau grins on the left. The juxtapositions are very Jeff – not too dark, not too fluffy, and easy on the eyes.
Looking at the pictures after spending time with Bridges, I was struck by the only constant in all of Bridges's endeavors: He is always trying to entertain someone. Banal revelation? Maybe, but think about it. Is Daniel Day-Lewis actually trying to entertain you? Eddie Vedder? How about that Bright Eyes dude? Bridges readily cops to it. "I come from a family of entertainers," he says. "That's what I do – I'm a performer. I entertain people. I'm not ashamed of that; it's a good thing."
There's circus in his blood. When Bridges was 14, Jeff and his older brother, Beau, would drive a flatbed truck into the parking lots of L.A. grocery stores. They would jump out of the truck and begin fighting. A crowd would gather. Once they had achieved critical mass, Beau and Jeff would cease hostilities and jump into the back of their truck, and they would then do dramatic readings from 'The Catcher in the Rye.' Invariably, the Bridgeses would try to incorporate the late-arriving cops into their performances. This usually ended badly, with the Bridgeses hightailing it for the next grocery store. The activity seemed completely normal to Jeff: "We were raised with the idea all the time of putting on a show. It was the most natural thing to me."
Bridges's naturalism as an actor is repeatedly cited by everyone from legendary 'New Yorker' film critic Pauline Kael to director Peter Bogdanovich, who gave Bridges his first big break with 'The Last Picture Show' in 1971. Bridges plays Duane Jackson, a handsome, smalltown Texas teenager. As written in Larry McMurtry's novel, Jackson comes across as a coarse, womanizing jackass. In the film, Bridges provides him with a vulnerable warmth that makes him less an asshole and more a lost soul.
Bridges scored an Oscar nomination for the role and then another three years later in Michael Cimino's 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,' in which Bridges plays a flamboyant, impossibly sunny bank robber alongside an already crusty Clint Eastwood. Bridges's giddy innocence leavens Eastwood's poker-face performance – Clint spends the whole film suppressing grins opposite the exuberant Bridges – and the result is a buddy-film classic equal to 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.' "I couldn't find the character," remembers Bridges. "And Michael told me, 'You are that character. You be yourself; your choices can't be wrong.'"
Love & A Sharp Pain in The Ass
Applying the mellow gold to Bridges's personal life took a bit longer. We're eating and talking post-birth canal when Jeff's wife, Susan, emerges from the kitchen and says hello. She looks as radiant as she did last March watching her husband win his first Oscar. Jeff had been nervous heading into Oscar night after an earlier screwup at an awards ceremony in which he kept referring to 'Crazy Heart' director Scott Cooper as actor Chris Cooper.
"That is such a thing you don't want to do," says Bridges. "But then you realize that the worst possible thing has happened, the thing you feared the most, and you know what? It doesn't matter."
Susan pats her man-child husband on the shoulder. They talk for a minute about their three twentysomething daughters and then she goes back inside. During 2009, the couple spent 10 months apart as Bridges filmed 'Crazy Heart,' 'Tron: Legacy,' and the Coen brothers' 'True Grit' almost back-to-back. "She lets me fly my kite and then we come back together," says Bridges. "We can survive being apart, but it's not the way I want it to be. I love her more every day."
He admits that their marriage of 33 years was initially forged out of Cali ennui and angst. They met in 1974 while Bridges was filming Rancho Deluxe near Susan's hometown of Livingston, Montana. Bridges likes to trot out a picture a friend snapped of Bridges trying to ask Susan out the day they met. But today, he tells a different story. After the movie wrapped, Sue moved to L.A. with Bridges. They dated for three years, but Bridges couldn't pull the trigger on marriage.
Then one day the couple hiked from Bridges's Malibu house toward a giant rock on the other side of a canyon. "This rock had two eyes and a big nose and a cave as a mouth," remembers Bridges. "As the sun went across the sky, the expression on the face would change. We get there and I'm sitting in the guy's mouth, looking back at my house just how I used to look at the face, and I'm saying, 'Wow, isn't this wonderful?' All of a sudden, this voice speaking very loud coming right up my ass, up through my spine, is saying, 'YOU WILL NOW ASK THIS WOMAN TO MARRY YOU.' And I go, 'Oh, wow,' and tears start to ejaculate out of my eyes. Sue says, 'What is it?' I say, 'I have the feeling I was supposed to ask you to marry me and I am so fucking frightened.' And she goes, 'Well, you don't have to do that,' and I say, 'Good, let's get the fuck out of here.' "
But a week later, Sue got impatient and politely informed him that her biological clock was ticking and he needed to make a decision or she was heading back to Montana. Bridges proposed a day or two later and the couple was married the same weekend, before he could lose his nerve. They headed to Hawaii for their honeymoon.
"Cut to the Seven Sacred Pools in Maui," says Bridges. "All these beautiful pools, and all I smell are the rotting mangoes. I'm pouting and pouting. And she goes, 'What's wrong?' and I say, 'Oh, nothing.' And this kind of goes back to that birth thing, doing what you don't want to do, wondering, 'Am I being coerced into this?' It took years to get out of it."
Bridges leans back into his chair and stares out toward the ocean.
"Whenever I doubted my love, I'd say, 'Remember that guy's mouth, that voice shouting up your asshole to your heart.' I had this vision of myself being an old man and saying I had one true love and I let that diamond slip through my fingers." But Bridges explains there was one other thing that pulled him through, admittedly not quite as romantic. He looks boyish, as if he just stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum. "The adjustment I gave myself that allowed me to marry her, having all these fears, was that you could always get a divorce. I know it's not romantic, but once I gave myself that escape hatch, I knew I'd never use it."
Bridges switches the subject to an upcoming trip. He is heading to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts in a couple of weeks to speak and meditate at a Zen Buddhist conference.
"You should come, man. Johnny is going to be there. We're going to play some songs. Johnny is petrified to play in front of people, but we're going to make it happen."
The purpose of the conference, according to Bridges, is to convince people to think differently about peace and nonviolence. He grabs a book off a shelf called 'The Lucifer Principle' that expounds on this theory for almost 500 pages.
"There's a Solzhenitsyn quote in here I like. Here it is: 'If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?'"
Bridges is still reading as we head out to my car. It's now magic hour, and California is in a golden state. Evil, hunger, and Michael McDonald songs seem blissfully out of reach. But not to Jeff.
"Interesting, right? We have to stop thinking peace is this natural state. It's not. It goes against centuries of evolution. We have to think about everything completely differently. Take the book, read it if you want. Okay, man, cool hanging with you. See ya."
I head down the drive and look in the rearview mirror. Bridges is peering over his granny glasses. He is waving.
Lebowski & the Anti-Lebowski
The everybody-loves-Jeff Bridges home base is, of course, 'The Big Lebowski.' For the two of you who haven't seen it, Bridges's Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. the Dude, is a bowler stoner. He has a big heart, no job, and an omnipresent White Russian. He is hapless and well-intentioned, much like Bridges would be without his wife, daughters, sidemen, and manager. "The Coen brothers told me they were writing a script for me," recalls Bridges. "I thought, 'That's cool.' Then I read the script and I was like, 'Have you been following me around to parties?' It's a lot like a younger version of me."
I vowed to be the first magazine writer not to write about Bridges's Dude-like qualities. Such a cliché, I thought. And then you meet him and he is, well, the goddamned Dude in all his fuzzy-headed, non sequitur goodness. If anything, Bridges's cinematic Dude understates things.
Here's a taste. In 1984, Bridges was cast as an alien fallen to Earth in 'Starman.' This was his research: "I started going through my phone book thinking, Which of my friends would I not be surprised to find out was an alien? Then I just followed the dude around. He was a dancer and had dyed his hair platinum blond – white almost. He definitely could have been from another planet. He was far out."
The power of Lebowski works for Bridges, even when he is the anti-Lebowski. He has built so much good will that when he goes against type you can't look away, whether it's the sullen piano player in 'The Fabulous Baker Boys,' the choleric and alcoholic Blake in 'Crazy Heart,' or his upcoming portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal on an altruistic killing spree, in 'True Grit.' Mind you, this isn't a remake of John Wayne's cranky but lovable Cogburn. This is trademark Coen brothers darkness – just in time for Christmas! – hewing closely to Charles Portis's novel. "I had some concern about, 'Why are you doing a remake?'" says Bridges. "But once I read the novel, I understood." He dodges further questions about the film, slipping back into Dudespeak.
"I don't like to ruin the discovery of seeing it in the theaters by talking about my characters too much. You know, I didn't see the 'Star Wars' films until much later. I was so grateful my friends didn't spoil the whole 'Luke, I am your father' thing. That was cool of them."
Nectarines & Head
It's two weeks later and on the other side of the land. Late summer in the Berkshires. If you've hit the mill-vegan bookstore, you've gone too far. Back up a mile or so. Take a left up the dirt road that leads to a converted farmhouse that is full of good vibes, peasant skirts, and a palpable lack of deodorant. In a back room, Jeff Bridges strums a guitar at a conference table. Next to him is a beautiful young woman and a man who looks rode hard and put up wet.
"Hey, man. This is Johnny Goodwin. And this is my daughter Isabella. She's an expert on kids' yoga – any questions, ask her. This is . . . Aw, man. I forgot your name. Stephen! Yes!"
Techies enter and begin throwing dark blankets over the window. They are from the PBS show 'American Masters,' which is filming an episode on Bridges, and they will give the next 24 hours an extra layer of refracted refraction. An old guy with shaggy eyebrows, suspenders, and a cigar in his shirt pocket walks into the room. He looks like a retired prop comic. The old man and Bridges embrace like lefties reuniting on the site of an ROTC protest.
Bernie Glassman is his name, and he's the reason we're here. He founded Zen Peacemakers. The ZP are Buddhist activists. This is a bit like being Mennonite snipers. Bernie holds a yearly conference where writers, philosophers, activists, and Jeff Bridges (if he's not shooting a film) come. They talk about the application of Buddhist teachings to solving issues like violence and hunger. When things get too stressed or the conversation grows angsty, Bernie puts on a red clown's nose and everyone chills.
Bernie takes Bridges by the arm and leads him into the center's main room. Tonight, Jeff and John are going to play songs for the folks, but first there's a panel on artistry and activism. Bridges ambles onstage and everyone claps. He sits down and puts a small briefcase on the table next to him. Bernie introduces him, then the room goes quiet.
"Thanks for having me," says Bridges. He speaks sleepily. "As an appetizer, I would like to offer someone in the audience a little head. I like to do that from time to time for my friends. Give them a little. It establishes a bond."
The pacifists and poets titter.
"Matter of fact, I gave Bernie a little head for his 70th birthday. He seemed to enjoy it."
Now everyone is paying attention, particularly the PBS folks.
Bridges opens the briefcase. He pulls out a little head he has made of clay. "When I make pots, there's always a little clay left over," he explains. "I make little heads out of them, hundreds of heads. Some look angry, some look sad. This isn't Bernie's head. This is the head I'm offering today. It's not free head. I'm going to charge for it. All the proceeds will go to the Zen Peacemakers."
Everyone is a little disappointed. You don't even get the head; you lease it, Elantra-like, for a year. Any questions about Bridges's persuasive skills are answered when folks fork over $12,000 for a head.
Backstage, Johnny Goodwin strums a guitar. He is the molecular opposite of Bridges – short, slightly overweight, with dark circles under his orbs that are sometimes mistaken for black eyes. He is beyond world-weary but kindhearted.
"Jeff lived two doors down when we were kids," says Goodwin. "We both had great imaginations, and we just made up whole worlds while we played."
Goodwin's life has been as turbulent as Bridges's has been smooth. There have been lost decades in L.A. writing songs before heading out for Nashville 15 years ago. He's had moments of success – a song on a Brad Paisley album – but he's just scraping by. When Bridges was approached by producer-musician T-Bone Burnett about 'Crazy Heart,' he suggested Johnny write a song, and the end result was "Hold On to You," the tune that opens the film.
"T-Bone really liked it," says Goodwin with pride. "He helped with the second verse. He could have buried it, but he put it first. Me and Jeff have been trying to find a place for our music, and we found it."
Goodwin hasn't played live for decades, except for a cameo at a Montana bar near where Bridges has a ranch. (He played one song and, according to Bridges, "was just ejaculating sweat.")
"I just stopped," says Goodwin. "L.A. and Nashville audiences are so intimidating." He twists the knobs on his guitar. "I don't know, this whole crowd is so easygoing. It's going to be like playing for a bunch of nectarines."
Bridges returns. "You doing okay, Johnny?"
It's now about 20 minutes before showtime. The room is getting claustrophobic with well-wishers. Someone suggests we clear out so Johnny and Jeff can have a quiet moment. Instead, the door opens. A man leads a blind girl into the room. She has long, beautiful black hair and a beatific smile.
"Jeff, she's a huge fan – just wanted to meet you for a minute."
"Hey, sweetheart, why don't you sit here. I've got to run through a few of my songs."
The girl sits down, her walking cane across her lap.
Jeff starts strumming. He plays "What I Didn't Want," one of Johnny's songs. It's a sweet song. Maybe Goodwin had his best friend in mind, maybe he didn't, but the words mirror Jeff's reluctance-as a-way-of-life vibe.
I didn't want to be bound
I didn't want any ties
I didn't want to give an inch or make any sacrifice
I didn't want more
Thought I had what I needed
But the love we made made a better man of me
I used to dream of being free but now I don't
And I bless the day I got what I didn't want
Bridges plays quietly and sings in a voice that is his own. The blind girl smiles endlessly. She bobs her head, metronome-like. When the song ends, the room goes silent.
"Bravissima," says the girl. "Bravissima."
I know it sounds made up, but it happened.
A few minutes later, Goodwin and Bridges are seated on a small stage in front of maybe 400 people. Bridges is all smiles, but Johnny looks gray: A shimmer of his flop sweat is reflected in the overhead lights. Then Jeff reaches over, touches him lightly on the shoulder, and whispers something to his friend. Johnny exhales.
Everyone sits down and the PBS cameras roll. Bridges sings a song. Johnny sings a song. It's perfectly enjoyable. Then Bridges decides to liven things up. He stands and puts on Bernie's red clown nose. "I'll do some physical movement to your song," Bridges says to Johnny. He turns to the cameraman. "Now, Alan, would it be better if I did it over here so we both stayed in the frame?"
A few in the audience snicker. Bridges smirks and thrusts his palms outward.
"Hey, what can I say? I respond to cameras, man."