Jeff Bridges talks Hell or High Water

Jeff BridgesLiving legend and 65 year veteran Jeff Bridges (yes, his first starring roles was at two years of age) has played every possible genre and style from the arthouse to the blockbuster and back again.

He’s been in slow burn favourites (The Big Lebowski), lush romance (The Mirror Has Two Faces) and blockbuster smashes (Iron Man). He’s been scanned by CGI software to play a younger, evil version of himself in TRON: Legacy, done voices for animation (Surf’s Up) and starred opposite giant animatronic monsters (King Kong).

But one of the genres we most equate Bridges with is the Western. Whether it’s washed up gunslinger Rooster Cogburn in the Coen’s True Grit or the legendary outlaw in Wild Bill, he only gets more delightfully grizzled and craggy as he ages (he’s now 66), which makes the role of Stetson wearing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton perfect for him.

With the same cud-chewing visage from A Crazy Heart and an ‘aw shucks’ accent that hides a wily detective, Bridges plays the lawman on the trial of two bank robbing brother (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) across contemporary Texas in Hell or High Water, and as he tells in Los Angeles, he decided to do the movie the same way he does every project – by trying to avoid it.

What do you love about Westerns so much?

Gee, it probably goes back to my Dad, Lloyd Bridges, who was in a bunch of westerns, like High Noon, and a bunch of other great ones. I remember as a kid, whenever he would come home dressed up like a cowboy, I would get a big kick out of it! I’d put on his cowboy hat and boots. I’ve always loved westerns, as long as I can remember. And I’ve been fortunate to be in some good ones.

What do I like about them? It’s an interesting time – a relatively short time in our country’s history. But I find it fascinating. And some of the themes that are traditional western themes… I guess our movie will be classified as a modern-day western… is this idea of change. Cars replacing horses, the Old West, the way it was, and I think that’s a fascinating theme. It goes beyond the western genre. But it always keeps changing.

There’s also a perennial theme in the Western that’s revisited here, of the little guy standing up to the cattle baron.

That’s right, it’s that same thing. What really appealed to me was the authenticity of the script. It really seemed like this writer knew this world. He could really let the audience in because he did know it so well.

The writing seemed real. Another great western writer has the same thing – Larry McMurtry. He did The Last Picture Show, which was not really a western but was kinda, I guess. The dialogue…it just feels real and draws you in, and you get swept away.

With the film’s success, might we see more of these mid-budgeted movies of the type everyone’s saying don’t get made anymore?

I hope this is a turning around – that we are going to see more movies that are made with a budget at $25 million, or something like that, as opposed to $200 million! A movie I saw that I was a big fan of was Tangerine. Did you see that? All shot on an iPhone! I think that was in response to the $200 million movies. But we don’t see that many of these mid-budget movies.

So there is space for movies like Hell or High Water in the Hollywood system?

I think so. It depends on how well they do. If this is a successful movie, people want to put their money into more of these kinds of films. I hope! I think!

It’s all about superhero movies.

I know, I know! It’s more like that. I don’t really understand it. It’s showbusiness, right? It’s that business side of things. I could never understand. Instead of making one $200 million movie, why don’t you make ten $20 million movies? Maybe one of those will be really terrific! But that’s not the way.

This is why you’re not a studio executive – I think so! They must know…they certainly do…it’s more financially savvy to make those big-budget movies.

Do you watch or like those kinds of films?

I made one! Iron Man was the first Marvel one. I can tell stories about that, that was really crazy. But you kind of get bored or maybe jaded is the word. Oh, you can make a billion people and it looks real! I know you guys can do that but give me some heart.

That’s the greatest special effect and it doesn’t cost anything. One of my favourite movies was Once… remember how great that was? That was made for not much. That’s the great special effect, I think, when you see characters relating like that. That’s really special and unique and fresh every time, when it’s done spot-on. But you see a dinosaur and it looks so real, you go ‘OK, I’ve seen you do that trick.’

You pretty relentlessly tease your partner (Gil Birmingham) in the movie. Are you a teaser in real life?

I come from a family of teasers myself. My grandfather Fred Simpson was from Liverpool, and he had that dry sense of humour. He would tease us terribly. My brother, I think he inherited that gene. He’d tease me really well. He was very elegant in his teasing. He could tease me just by doing this [pointing finger]. It would get to you.

We’d be at the dinner table and I’d go, ‘Beau is pointing at me! Under the table, he’s pointing at me!’ Stop pointing at Jeff! I was so teased, but I don’t like to be teased. I don’t like to tease people. I’m too sensitive! But my mother says, ‘It’s just because he loves you so much!’ I guess it’s a form of intimacy – you know somebody so well.

20 years ago you and Beau could have played the brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster.

That’s interesting! Yeah… we had such fun playing in The Fabulous Baker Boys. I thought Chris and Ben did a great job, achieving the brotherly thing in this. I remember doing Baker Boys, actors would say ‘How do we achieve this illusion?’ But Beau and I didn’t have to worry about that!

What made director David Mackenzie right for it?

Oh, he did such a great job. Largely because he was foreign to this culture. He was so concerned about getting it right and paying attention to details and soaking up all of the environment around him and showing it back to us. I thought he did a great job.

I saw Starred Up, and I was really impressed with that. That’s another low-budget film, and I said, ‘Look what this guy did with this low budget film.’ I was so moved by the story, so impressed, and I thought, ‘I can see that working well with Taylor’s {Sheridan] script.’

It was so satisfying, I always have high hopes when you go in, and every once in a while. Your hopes get transcended, and that was the case with this one. I thought they did a beautiful job. The cinematography was great and I loved that opening shot. It’s so fluid that people don’t realise it’s one shot.

Any other movies of yours that have transcended your expectations?

Well, Lebowski comes to mind. Last Picture Show.

Everyone still loves The Big Lebowski.

When I saw it, I said, ‘God, this is terrific.’ But it didn’t catch on too much. But now it’s really built up some momentum.

There’s talk of Turturro doing a movie about his character.

He’s doing it! His character, the Jesus, has his own movie now! A paedophile!

Any word on a cameo from you?

I don’t know, they haven’t talked to me about that. It would be fun.

Is it ever annoying when people still call you The Dude?

No, no…I sign a lot of bowling pins!

How come you’ve never directed?

I know what it takes. It takes a year, two years, and you’ve got to find some material that can drive that intention and keep you on track. There’s nothing that’s really grabbed me, that will keep me from doing all the other stuff I want to do in those two years. I have a funny mode of operation.

I really do try my best not to do movies, not to engage! I know that once I agree to do this, then anything else that comes down the pipe, I won’t be able to do because I’m doing this. And also, it takes me away from my family. One of the things I kind of regret… it’s a double-edged sword. I regret it in a way. In kind of a big way, it brings some kind of sadness to me that I was not there for my kids.

I was working, doing that thing. I have a family life, I have other things… I love to play music. I like doing art. A lot of other things I like to do. So I really try not to do a movie. But I had a dream that I made a painting from.

And the dream is that I’m going down a river, and there are these huge cliff walls on either side, and my task is to go down this river and navigate between these very large whirlpools. And the vortex of each whirlpool is a beautiful jewel and I’m in a little rowboat and I kind of get mesmerised by this jewel and I go, ‘Ah, I almost got caught!’ I get out of the whirlpool, and I go down… and I’m stuck.

I made a painting of that and the name of the painting is ‘Jeff makes a decision’. I really try hard, but something is so mesmerising, I commit and I get stuck! Like with this one…look at the script, look at the cast, look at the director…I can’t help it!