News & Opinion

Jeff Bridges

Point and shoot? No, this gunslinger has a true eye for detail

The Times

February 26, 2011


Jeff Bridges laughs dismissively when considering his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for True Grit, one of ten nominations that the film has scooped, including Best Picture.

“I never held any ambition for making it as an actor,” the 61-year-old star told The Times in New York, in his gravelly, genial voice. “Awards like the Oscars are all whipped cream and cherries to me. I don’t think I’m going to win. I’m not counting on anything.”

He has already been warned to keep any victory speech to 45 seconds. “But if I get up there, I’m gonna let rip, haha. You’ve got to.” If he wins tomorrow for his role as the one-eyed US marshal Rooster Cogburn — unlikely, if predictions of Colin Firth’s coronation for his role in The King’s Speech prove true — Bridges would become only the third actor after Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks to win two Oscars in consecutive years.

He won Best Actor last year for Crazy Heart — “and this year I’ve invited my daughters and their boyfriends as my guests,” he says. “The parties are jammed and too loud, but a great opportunity to catch up with old friends.”

What separates Bridges from his fellow nominees, indeed most big-name actors, are his impressive skills as a photographer, hitherto untrumpeted but immediately apparent if you click on his website and scroll through the stunning, playful black-and-white images he took while working on True Grit.

They transport the viewer from a soulless rehearsal room to the breathtaking wilderness vistas that the directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, used as the backdrop to their reversioning of the classic John Wayne film, alongside informal moments featuring Bridges, his co-stars and family. The website includes photographs from the shoots for Tron: Legacy and Crazy Heart.

On the True Grit set, Bridges captures Hailee Steinfeld, 14 — who is appearing in her debut film and has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress — Matt Damon and Josh Brolin smiling and scowling in a series of “comedia/ tragedia” double-takes; we see Loyd Catlett, Bridges’ stand-in for 56 films (“a wonderful relationship and thread through all that time”); and his daughter, Jessica, who for the first time acted as his assistant on a film — “and thank goodness she did, she was brilliant and her being there made it all the more special for me”.

Stepladders mysteriously photographed in the middle of fields were stand-ins for the characters’ horses, Bridges explains. His favourite images feature the Coen brothers moodily attired in cowboy hats and one of himself looking into the camera, with a man hanging above him from a tree in one of the film’s most chilling scenes.

The landscapes of rocky precipices, grassy plains and spooky woodland are not only wide and open but alive with activity. Steinfeld is photographed with her stand-in and stunt double; Damon applies a special “tongue” to his mouth; Bridges’ wife pays him a visit; and the behind-the-camera team holds booms, puzzles over close-ups and applies make-up. Bridges, whose films include The Last Picture Show, Tron, Jagged Edge, The Fisher King and The Big Lebowski (also directed by the Coens), uses a Widelux camera with a 28mm swinging lens. He has used similar cameras for the past 33 years.

“My wife [Susan] bought me my first one as a wedding gift. What I love about them is they give that wide, panoramic perspective,” he says. “The end result is like the missing link between movie images and still photography. This camera lends itself to capturing action, for my money it’s like a human eye. At school I heard the photographer used to take group shots with it and I remember hearing if you ran fast enough you could appear twice in the same shot.”

Bridges, who has three daughters, comes from solid Hollywood stock: his father, Lloyd, and mother, Dorothy, were actors and his brother Beau is too. He began taking photographs as a “kid in high school, I had a dark room and all that”. He was particularly inspired by the French photographer and painter Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), “who was so brilliant at capturing moments, rather than stiff formality. He helped change how we saw photography.”

Music is another passion: the actor is working with the songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett on his first album, which will be released this year. “I’ve written a lot of stuff and he is amazing,” Bridges says of Burnett. “He’s got an amazing band together. We’re having a wonderful time. I’m concentrating more on that than acting right now.”

He is a spokesman for the latest campaign, beginning next month, for No Kid Hungry, an organisation for eradicating child hunger in the United States, “which affects 17 million children, which is remarkable in a country as fortunate as ours”.

Bridges laughs when asked if he minds becoming the subject of internet parody: his True Grit character’s sometimes indecipherable diction has been subtitled by one online wag. “I was building a character,” he says.

“I was checking in with the guys [the Coen brothers] all the way through and they thought it was fine. But you know, in life sometimes, some things people say to you or what you say to other people are unintelligible. I’ve seen the movie two or three times and it isn’t a problem for me, but to those who have found it a problem, I apologise.”

He told The Hollywood Reporter recently of his enjoyment in getting “trashed” after working hard and of his lifelong love of liquor and drugs. When “I’ve worked my ass off in a movie, [I’ll] say, ‘You want to get drunk? You do whatever you want’. There was always a relationship, you know, between booze and pot and drugs and all those things. It’s an element in my life. I’m not in AA or anything now, but I do drink occasionally.”

But he is not an ugly hellraiser. Indeed he has been described as the nicest man in Hollywood. Is he? “I like to be open with who I work with and acknowledge them. I guess that could be seen as nice,” he says quietly.

Acting, he adds, “is my life. I’ll make movies till the day I die. At different moments I’m passionate and dispassionate about it. I’ve thought ‘I’ ll never do it again’, then do it again. I can see myself doing it when I’m an old man. “Your mortality is a significant thing, you only have a certain amount of time to do what you want to do, so you’ve got to enjoy it, so do, do, do.” He pauses, breathes heavily: “Sorry, man, I gotta go and get on with some singing before I poop out.”