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Crazy Like Us

  • Written by  Jenny Yatzi
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Jeff Bridges Brings soul and spark to crazy heart, a story of everyman Jeff Bridges Brings soul and spark to crazy heart, a story of everyman

With his Golden Globe win for Best Actor, Jeff Bridges seems destined for Oscar greatness. In the most compelling role of his long career, 60-year-old Bridges stars in Crazy Heart and gives a tour de force performance as an alcoholic country singer that garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The drama, based on the Thomas Cobb novel, is about a musician named Bad Blake, whose career is falling apart. Meanwhile, his protégé’s star ascends. An encounter with a journalist, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, might just keep Bad from hitting bottom. We caught up with Bridges in the midst of what, for him, has turned into a very busy awards season.

What did you have in mind when you were working up this character?

I was real lucky to have my prime role model onboard with me every day. That was Stephen Bruton. I met him 30 years ago along with T Bone [Burnett] on Heaven’s Gate. The star of that movie was another one of my role models, Kris Kristofferson, and Kris invited all his musician friends to play minor parts in that movie. That was six months of jamming every night after work, and so it was like a preparation for a movie that we were going to make 30 years later that we didn’t know about. Stephen’s life paralleled Bad’s. quite a bit, in that he would drive himself from gig to gig, towing his guitar, and struggle with substances and booze. So he was a wonderful resource and a dear friend, too.

There’s a quote in the movie early on that I think summed up everything: “I’m 57 years old and I’m broke.”

I don’t know about everything.

But it is a key line.

It is a key line. There are a lot of key lines in there. I like that line; it’s in a song. And that’s another wonderful thing about the music in the movie—a lot of it was written specifically for the movie and for the character. There’s a line in one of his songs, “I used to be somebody, and now I’m somebody else.” I imagined that Bad wrote that about being famous and now he’s not famous anymore. But you can also look at it in the positive sense in that you don’t have to be who you think you are. So in the end, he doesn’t have to be an alcoholic country guy who almost wants to maintain that suffering because that’s where he gets his tunes. “I don’t have to be that guy. I can be someone else.”

Anything stand out as a highlight in making this movie, and in your career?

A couple of things. There’s a role model for me in this movie who is also a dear friend. He is a guy named John Goodwin, and we go back to the fourth grade together, writing music together, dancing and doing art and everything. He wrote that song “Hold On You” that’s one of the themes through the movie. Also, T Bone and Bruton wrote on that song as well. So it’s always wonderful to see Johnny. Having him  onboard was great. Another moment to share with you was performing at the Lebowski Fest. [This year’s fest is April 2–3 in Los Angeles; see lebowskifest.com.] My band and I performed to a sea of Dudes. I felt like the Beatles. It makes me laugh when I think about it.


What did you perform while you were there?

A bunch of Johnny Goodwin tunes, my buddy that I talked about. I performed “The Man in Me,” the [Bob] Dylan song that’s in The Big Lebowski, and a couple of my tunes, I think. I did a set and it was fun.

Did this film make you feel affection for music journalists and critics?

Yeah. I’ve always had affection for journalists.



I thought this was sort of The Wrestler with a guitar. Do you think it’ll have the same awards results?

If that happens, great. I’m not counting on that chicken, but it’s wonderful to be acknowledged by the guys who do what you do.

What has been your experience with music critics?

I haven’t really talked to that many music critics. I put an album out a couple of years ago, and I remember I thought, “I have a certain degree of fame. I’m going to do the talk shows and talk about my album. I think that might get people to buy it and get it on the radio,” or whatever. But the radio is so different from when I was growing up. I mean, it’s impossible to get on the radio now. So I did a kind of go-around and created a Web site. I don’t even know how many albums I sold on the Web site, but it became another kind of canvas for me creatively, and that’s a lot of fun.

What was it like working with Maggie?

jeff-bridges-crazy-like-us-maggie-gyllenhaaljeff-bridges-crazy-like-us-maggie-gyllenhaalWell, she’s just an incredible actor, and our approach is similar. There are a lot of different ways to approach the work. Some guys want to be called the character all the time. They don’t really want a relationship besides the one in the movie, and that works quite well. I’ve had good experiences with actors that work that way. I like to work in a way where I’m very open and get as intimate as possible with the other actors. You don’t want to have sex, of course, because that can mess everything up, but you want to open up your heart and get to know each other, especially since you only have [limited time]. We shot this in 24 days. If you get that kind of deep feeling and put it up on the screen, it’s very helpful to know each other well and to really care about each other. So Maggie and I took that approach. She works the same way, and so we became good friends.

What was it like working with director Scott Cooper, who used to be an actor?

There are a lot of different approaches to acting, and if you’re an actor you know what each of these different types requires from a director. So Scott read me perfectly, and he gave me exactly what I enjoy getting from a director, which is instilling self-confidence. He’s a wonderful person, just very kind, very compassionate and loose. There’s a tremendous opportunity to be anxious and fearful and pressured when you’re in the director’s seat, and there’s a lot of different ways to manifest that. Some directors—I was going to say first-timers, but it doesn’t have to be first timers—hear your ideas, but they’re really just placating you. The way Scott works is wonderful. We only had 24 days to film, but I felt like I had all the time in the world and he was interested in every idea I had. Like the best directors, he circled himself with all these people that he admired in each position, from the director of photography to the production designer to all the actors. He listened to them. He was very collaborative. Even in the editing process, he invited me in to look at my scenes and give my ideas. He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s great.

How did you act in this movie, play an instrument, sing, and be the executive producer, and still manage to get a good movie?

I looked at it as all aspects of one thing: the performance. I bring everything I’ve got to whatever I work on. I bring  everything that I’ve got, and then they can pick and choose and say, “We don’t want that, thank you.” But I bring it all. As far as executive producer, casting, they wanted to know whom I thought would be good, and so I got my dream list on that. Then on the songs, I brought in John Goodwin. And I brought in Greg Brown. He’s a wonderful songwriter. He’s a great guy. The way he’s run his career has been on his own terms. He didn’t go with the big label, but he has a wonderful fan base. If you don’t know his work, I really suggest that you check him out on iTunes. He’s a great poet. The casting went that way, and then with the singing I worked with T Bone. I worked with a vocal coach—a guy named Roger Love—and he helped me out a lot.

You’ve been a musician for a long time.

Since I was a kid.

Was music a big part of your childhood?


What kind of music?

All sorts of music, but I love country music.

Any groups in particular that you listened to while making Crazy Heart?

Well, the Highwaymen. That was a big one. That was one of Scott’s first directions. He said, “If Bad was a real guy, he would be the fifth Highwayman, in addition to Waylon [Jennings], Willie [Nelson], Kris [Kristofferson], and Johnny [Cash].”

Do you still get butterflies before you perform onstage?

There’s always a degree of butterflies and a fear in my work. I read a great article in Interview magazine with Mike Tyson recently. I didn’t see that documentary [James Toback’s Tyson], which I hear is great. But in the article he talks about fear, and you remember the first time you saw him fight, and it’s like, “My god, you’re so vicious and so fearless and just deadly, coming out like that.” He says in this article that the reason he would come out so aggressively is because he was so afraid of having an asthma attack. He was asthmatic and he had to finish it quick before the other guy hit him. So he had a lot of fear. He said something that I really related to. He said that fear is like fire. You can cook a meal on it. You can warm yourself. And it can burn your house down and kill you. So it’s how you dance with that fear and use it.

I remember I was a young actor and I said, “I don’t know if I want to do this,” because of the anxiety of being able to perform. Through the years I’ve learned that’s a fear that’s never going to go away. It’s about how you treat that and how you dance with it, if it’s there all the time. So a certain degree of anxiety is beneficial in that it gets you to remember your lines and learn the chords to the songs and all of that. When it finally gets to the point of “Now is the time,” you can rest on all that anxiety and how it caused you to prepare and then relax and be in the moment and be the character. For Bad, his throne was the stage. He was uncomfortable getting off the stage. When he was on the stage, he could be as drunk as he wanted. He could do whatever he wanted and he was fine.

Any music that you’ve been working on?

There were a lot of songs that I presented for possibly being in the movie, written by Bruton and Goodwin and myself, that didn’t make the cut. So those are all songs waiting in line, waiting for me to do.

Another lyric was “I never meant to hurt  anyone.” Even though your character is named Bad, he’s a good person.

I thought of Bad as basically a good person and he didn’t want to hurt anybody. He’s honest. He’s not presenting himself in any other way than what he is. So I think that’s attractive to people.

Where did he go wrong?

We were talking about how you dance with your fear, how you deal with that. I think that a lot of artists get swept up in this myth that “I’ve got to suffer because that’s where my tunes come from.” Your marriage just fell apart and you have a drink, and all of a sudden you’re writing and you say, “Hey, that’s good.” That kind of cheers you up and you think, “There’s something good about being bad.” So you get caught up in this myth, and it’s very hard to get healthy when that’s where your success is coming from. That’s one thing, to just kind of numb you to life. That’s another reason that you go that way. You just get into the groove and it’s hard to get out of those grooves. We’re very habitual creatures, but you can get out of those grooves.



Since you can sing and you can act, how did  this movie challenge you?

In both of those ways. I find the most challenging thing in my work is when a really great opportunity comes down the pike, like this one, and the fear is whether you’re going to be able to pull that off. You want to do what you want to do so badly, and are you going to be able to do that? I guess my mind kind of went to like it being a sexual thing. You want it so bad that sometimes it just doesn’t happen and it’s like the most maddening thing in the world, or going out for that long ball in football and the touchdown is right there: “Please let me catch this!” So there’s a lot of anxiety about that, but that’s always where the good stuff is, too.

Bad has a moment at the end of the movie that turns him around. Have you ever had a moment like that?

When I learned that lesson about fear and about the fact that that’s not going to go away. It was actually the turning point that made me really decide to be an actor. My father, unlike a lot of showbiz guys, loved showbiz so much that he encouraged all of us to go into it. Like most kids, you don’t want to do what your parents do. I wanted to play music and do painting and other stuff. So I was kind of reticent to make it my path from the outset. I’d done maybe 10 movies before I really decided that I’d maybe do this for the rest of my life, and that shift came when I did a movie called The Iceman Cometh, the great Eugene O’Neill play, and worked with all these masters. Most of my scenes were with Robert Ryan, and I had a scene across a table with Bob and he had his hands on the table. Someone said, “OK, ready to roll,” and he took his hands off the table, and then someone else went, “No, we just have to adjust the light. It’ll be a second.” He’s sitting there, and I see these big puddles of sweat on the table. I said, “Bob, after all these years, you’re still nervous?” He said, “Oh, I’dreally be scared if I wasn’t scared.” All of those guys—Fredric March, Lee Marvin—they dealt with their anxiety about wanting to pull off this great play. They wanted to say all those long speeches and wanted to do it well. But they never did it without being afraid.

Next you’re working with the Coen Brothers on a remake of True Grit, the John Wayne western. You must be excited.

Oh, yeah. I’m really looking forward to just being with those guys again. They are real masters. They make it look so easy, and they’re my tops to work with. I love working with them. I love playing with them we have a blast.

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Last modified on Monday, 04 July 2011 10:29

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