Sings His Crazy Heart Out
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s hard to believe that in a career that has lasted over 40 years (actually longer, his first appearance on film was in 1951 as an infant), Jeff Bridges has never won an Oscar. He has worked regularly and made vibrant contributions in such legendary films as The Last Picture Show, Starman, The Big Lebowski, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Fearless, yet he has only been nominated four times and has never brought home the little statuette.
This may all be changing with his latest role. In Crazy Heart, Bridges disappears into the role of an aging country singer named Bad Blake who is fighting with his demons when he is offered two chances of salvation. One comes in the form of a potential family with a younger woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her son. The other is through his career, with an old protégé (Colin Farrell) becoming a country superstar and wanting to bring his old mentor along for the ride if the older guy could just swallow his pride.
Crazy Heart is the writing/directing debut of character actor Scott Cooper and features a wonderfully realistic alt-country soundtrack written mostly by roots musician/producer T Bone Burnett and old Nashville hand Stephen Bruton, who died before the film saw release.
A little under a week before Crazy Heart was set to be put on limited release so it would be eligible for Oscar consideration (and a matter of days before Bridges was nominated for a Golden Globe for the part), Bridges sat down for a roundtable with us and some other websites to discuss his career, the movie, the role and the Oscar buzz.
You’ve been involved with music for years – in fact, I have the CD that you did about ten years ago [called Be Here Soon] …
Oh, yeah? Oh, good. Good, good, good. Ten years ago? Is that what you said? Jeez… Has it been that long? Phew, it probably has.
Do you think that had things gone a different way for you when you were starting in show biz you may have ended up having a life like Bad’s?
I don’t know about Bad’s life. I hope not. (chuckles) You know I’d certainly get into music. Unlike a lot of people, my father, Lloyd Bridges – who had a hit TV series in the 60s and was a very successful actor – he enjoyed show biz so much that he really wanted to turn his kids onto it. So, he encouraged all of us to go into show biz. And as you know, we don’t like to do what our parents tell us to. So I wanted to do the music thing, or to paint, or some other stuff. But I’m glad I took the old man’s advice because I sure love it, too. And all those other things I might have gone into, I can bring to the work, like in this one.
In Bad Blake, we see so many country singers we know – Waylon Jennings is the first one that comes to mind. In your research creating this fellow, who inspired you?
I was really fortunate in this one to have two very close friends who were my main role models: T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. Those guys, we go back to Heaven’s Gate 30 years ago, with another role model – I’m not as close with [Kris] Kristofferson, but he’s certainly a good buddy, and he brought all his musician friends to that party. So it was six months of jamming, every night after work. That’s kind of the birth of this movie. It came out of that in a funny sort of way. And Kris is certainly a role model. One of the first bits of direction Scott [Cooper] gave me was that if Bad was a real character, he would be the fifth Highwayman. Do you know who The Highwaymen are? Kris, Willie [Nelson], Waylon and Johnny Cash. So those guys were all role models, along with Hank Williams. Then, another thing that T-Bone told me – and I thought it was really a great idea – he gave me a timeline of the music Bad might have listened to when he was growing up. T-Bone and Stephen grew up together – they were childhood friends, basically – and Stephen’s dad owned a music store and exposed them to all kinds of blues. They would listen to Ornette Coleman. All kinds of music. T Bone said, ‘Country music comes from all different kinds of places now,’ so Bad could be listening to T-Bone Walker or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen – different guys that aren’t thought of as classical country guys. They were role models as well.
How easy was it to get out of the mindset of the character?
Oh, a certain part I don’t want to get out of. Keep that guy with me, you know? Just the music stuff and hopefully, I’ll keep on with that. Maybe another album will come out now that he has done those kinds of things? So, that aspect of the character is still cooking. The other side, you know the boozing side and the unhealthy side, like gaining that much weight… part of the preparation for a character is you think of what you ingest. Whether it’s a cup of coffee, or how much you eat at lunch that day because you have a scene. How you feel sleepy after you eat… all those kinds of things. So with this lot, my regimen was “remove the governor.” Take that guy and put him over there. You want that extra pint of Haagen-Dazs? Sure. You want that extra drink? Sure, go ahead, man! You don’t want to drink when you’re working, because you’ve got to sustain that kind of thing. But you be a little humble, that might work for you. Giving that up was a little bit tough, but there is a downside. It’s like the blessing of the hangover. The hangovers let you know – don’t do this too often. We learn that lesson over and over. (laughs) Well, hopefully, not too many times, if we’re lucky. So that side was a little tough, because you kind of get in a groove, and the older you get, the harder it is to shift; lose the weight and all that stuff. But there’s nothing like health – that’s the best high.
What about the cigarettes? There are so many!
Oh, yeah. That’s always a challenge. At least they were filtered cigarettes. I remember doing Tucker. The guy died from lung cancer. He smoked three packs of Luckys a day! Or Chesterfields. Oh, my God. I’d be puking during a scene, you know? Because when you’re in the character, you just play it. You’re doing it how you do it, and then after two or three takes you go… (moans)
They can’t give you fake ones?
That doesn’t even matter. That doesn’t help that much. That was never my jones, the cigarette thing. I always draw the line at never buying cigarettes. Whenever I’d get that urge to smoke, I’ll have to bum a cigarette off someone.
Do you think Maggie’s character was right to break off the relationship?
Yeah. Man, yeah.
I kept hoping they’d get back together.
I know. Well that happens in the sequel, you know, Crazy Love. (laughs) Her guy turns out to be a terrible guy and I come to the rescue. I write a song about it. I write a song about the kid. No, I don’t know. That’s my optimistic mind, though.
I heard there might be a sequel to The Fabulous Baker Boys.
Did you? Ooh, I hope so. There should be!
Do you see any commonalities between this character and the one you played in that?
Yeah, now that you mention it, I hadn’t thought about that before. But I bet there is. I think they both get caught up in this myth that a lot of these artists do – about suffering being the source of their talent, so they keep that going in the subconscious. I love that line in the song from this one, “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else.” Bad probably wrote that song thinking, “I used to be famous, and now I’m not famous.” But if you flip that around, I don’t have to be punishing myself as much as I do. I don’t have to be this guy, this myth. I can get off of that wheel. I don’t have to keep playing that same tune. That’s kind of a positive thing.
In the promotion of the movie, they seem to be downplaying Colin Farrell’s role – I didn’t even know he was in it until he appeared on screen.
I think that might have been his decision. I think, don’t quote me on that. I’m not sure. That’s a good question for the producers. [Ed. note: Writer/director Scott Cooper confirmed that Farrell asked for his part in the film to be downplayed in promotion because he didn’t want to steal any of the spotlight from Bridges and Gyllenhaal’s lead performances.]
How was it playing the mentor-protégée relationship with him?
Oh, God. He was so great! He came in for maybe four days or something and gave that great performance. That’s one of the challenges of doing movies, is that you have such a short period of time. We shot this in 24 days, so you’ve got a very short period of time to get up to speed, and to get as deep as you have to get to make it a good movie. And Colin certainly did that. He was wonderful to work with. As well as great to sing [with] – harmonizing with another actor, people you are working with. It’s kind of a great metaphor for what we’re trying to do.
You are so vulnerable in this role, doing scenes in your tighty-whiteys and passing out on the floor. What did you think when you read the script? Did it make you nervous at all, or were you gung-ho?
Not really. That’s part of the role. I was not too concerned. I had a thong on under my tighty-whiteys. (laughs)
You’ve worked with some amazing women – Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, now Maggie Gyllenhaal. What makes a most unforgettable screen romance?
Well, a lot of it depends on the play. The story, what the lines are. Not even the lines, just the relationships. I think one of my favorite moments was with Kim in The Door in the Floor, just saying goodbye. I don’t think we even said any words, we just looked at each other. That’s just kind of the story you’re telling. There are so many different approaches to acting. Maggie is a person who approaches it how I do, which is getting to know the people you are playing with as well as you can, so you can bring some of that genuine friendship and caring up to the screen. Kim works in a different way, where she is on 1,000% between “Action!” and “Cut!” but between those things there’s not so much engagement. But that doesn’t matter, because there are many different ways to approach the work, and both can be effective.
There can be an uneasy line to tread when you’re playing a character who could be potentially unlikable. Here the audience is with you. Even when they watch you getting out of the truck with his bottle of questionable substance.
(smiles) Gatorade. It was Gatorade. (laughs)
The audience is with you even before Bad has established himself as a good guy. How much of that is the character, and how much of it just that we like Jeff Bridges?
It’s probably kind of a combination of all those things. In a general sense, making a movie is sort of like a magic trick. There are all kinds of sleight of hand things going on, and there’s also real alchemy going on. You’re kind of summoning up the muse or whatever. And what you were saying about the story and what it says in the script is on the writer. Then, my approach, I try to make it real and interesting. I hear you saying that what holds your attention doesn’t necessarily have to be that the character is a good guy, but there is something that makes you wonder what’s going to happen next, and care about that. It’s like in life. In life, you don’t have to like some guy who’s walking down the street, but for some reason you find him fascinating. Whether he’s just talking to himself – and you’re like what’s he saying? What is that? You don’t know quite what it is, but you find it kind of interesting. But you don’t necessarily like him. I think the same things are working in movies, too. It’s finding that thing that is interesting but doesn’t pop, doesn’t rip the fabric. There are so many different things in movies that are like that – from wardrobe to makeup. You don’t want the makeup to look… God, that’s wonderful makeup. You want it to be invisible. You don’t want to see that. Or the clothes. You want it, like, you’re dressed really interestingly. [gestures to one of the writers on his right] It would be cool if a costumer said, “Let’s dress a guy like this.” Well what’s he like? It doesn’t matter, but he’s so fascinating. It’s real and it goes with the thing. So, to come up with those kinds of things – other aspects – that’s kind of what we go for.
Do you need to like a character to play him?
Umm, like him…? Feel compassion, I guess. Is that kind of like? Is compassion liking? I guess, kind of, if you have compassion for him.
Some people are comparing Crazy Heart to The Wrestler [with Mickey Rourke], saying you should be up for an Oscar. How do you feel about that?
I like to be dug. (smiles) I like somebody to appreciate what I do, especially the guys who do what I do. That feels great. I’m not counting any chickens, but it feels good, I’ve got to say. Plus it also feels good to bring attention to a movie that I’m so happy with, because that’s what these awards and the festivals can do for a little movie like this that can’t afford big print ads and getting people into theaters in other ways. This is a way to do that, so I’m happy about all that.
It seems like Bad isn’t lonely, he can go home with women from shows pretty much every night. She is younger and has a four-year-old, which is sort of like an instant family. What do you think draws Bad to Maggie’s character, Jean?
I think those things definitely drew him to Jean. Also, I think, seeing that he’s been married four times before, he’s looking – the wonderful thing about marriage, I’ve been married going on 33 years, it’s like a playing field to get as deep as you can with your soulmate. It’s a structure you can move in, and do that, and become as intimate as you possibly can. I think he is longing for intimacy, for somebody to really know him for who he is, even though he despises parts of himself. That’s what’s kind of tragic and uplifting about this, that when he finally shows who he is, an irresponsible drunk, it’s an impossible for the woman he would love to know him. It’s an impossibility, but it does wake him up with a big splash of cold water.
How did you come to this project? Was it your relationship with T Bone?
No, it came to me, and I originally turned it down. Because while I’m always looking for a movie that has to do with music, [The Fabulous] Baker Boys set the standard really high. I had such a great time making that movie and we had Dave Grusin and all those great pop and jazz standards. But in this one, they didn’t have any music and there was nobody at the helm of the music. So, I was happy to say, “No thanks.” But then T Bone [Burnett] got involved. About a year later, I ran into him, and he said, “What do you think about this script?” I said, why? Are you interested? He said, “Yeah, if you’ll do it, I’ll do it.” I just said, oh, gosh, well, let’s go! (chuckles)
Also, Stephen Bruton unfortunately died during the filming. How much did he bring to the music and the character?
He was the whole thing. He died, not during the shooting of it, he even got to do some of the polish up and put the music together with T Bone. But he was the whole deal. His life so closely paralleled Bad. He would be the guy driving from gig to gig, hauling all his own gear. And he certainly had problems with booze and other substances. He knew about all of that stuff and was encouraged by me and Scott and T Bone to… any time he had any little impulse about what that might be like, what it was like for him in that situation, we said, “Bring it on, Stephen.” And he would. That’s all up there on the screen.
That store you were talking about, where Stephen and T Bone grew up, was it in Houston?
I think Fort Worth, maybe.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
The words “waking up” kind of come to mind. We can wake up from our bad dreams that we put ourselves in. That comes to mind. There probably are some other things. I guess so much of the movie-going experience depends on what you bring to it. What you’re thinking about and feeling when you sit down in a movie. So, if you’re a young mother who has a child and you’re thinking about settling down with an alcoholic (laughs), it might be she maybe won’t do that. I admire the woman who is thinking about her child instead of herself.
The movie is coming out in the middle of a bunch of blockbuster films. Do you think people will react to a smaller story?
Yes. One of the themes in the movie is a reaction to rootsy country music as compared to the normal more orchestrated [country]. This movie is maybe a response to the big tent-pole movies. You’ve got that kind of dynamic going. In a way, those poles kind of support each other. You have a blockbuster movie, [then] you get some artist saying, “Let’s make a fucking kind of down-home, gritsy thing.” You have that and then it’s like, “put some strings on that, or some French horns.” Those are kind of working together, you know?
You have done a lot of work for charity. What has that taught you?
Our kids… children are a wonderful compass for us. For our direction, we are always going ahead. And our country is way off course. I just got the statistics that the Department of Agriculture have been following food insecurity since 1995 and they just gave their report. “Food insecurity” means you live in a household where one of the kids might have to skip a meal at night or they all take turns. Tonight’s Thursday, that kind of thing where they don’t have enough nutrition to study in school – to have the calories to be able to memorize. Not only mentally and physically, but emotionally, spiritually, socially… in all kinds of ways. So the statistic is 16.7 million of our kids – that’s one in four – live in conditions like this. One in four! It’s gone up 34% between the years of 2007 and 2009. Soup kitchens are up like 30%. If some other country was doing this to kids, we would be crazy at war. But here, it’s ourselves. It’s like that Pogo thing, “We’ve met the enemy and they are us.”
Are you still involved with that charitable organization…?
Yes, the End Hunger Network, something I helped found about 25 years ago. We shifted our focus to hunger here in America. We were concentrating on world hunger when we first started but can’t be telling people what to do if we can’t do it ourselves, so we shifted our attention to here at home. The good news is that Obama has declared that we can end childhood hunger by 2015. That’s kind of like Kennedy saying, “We’re going to put a man on the moon in ten years.” So all of the sudden, all the arguments and people saying, “Oh, there’s not really hunger,” all those things now become an effective way of trying to find the answers now. He said there will be resources. We know how to do it because we had that program that reflects it. They were effective, but now they are not being funded. They are not getting support. So, we’ve got to support those and then get some leadership. Get people to make their contributions whenever they can. That’s the good news we’re trying to get behind.
What’s next for you?
I’m going back to work with the Coen Brothers in [a remake of] True Grit.
Is there anything from this character that will help you with that?
Both are alcoholic. (laughs) Oh, God, taking the governor off again, damn it. I’ve got to play me a healthy, skinny guy next.
When will you be filming with the Coens?
In March we start.
And are you in Tron Legacy?
I’m in Tron. We’ve shot that. That’s all done.
Is it the same character as you played in the 1982 original Tron?
Yeah. It’s kind of the same thing. It appealed to the kid in me. There was an aspect of advanced pretend. It’s like, come on, you want to be this kid who gets sucked inside a computer? Oh, man!
And now the technology is so much better.
Exactly! The new one makes the old one look like an old black and white TV show. The stuff they’ve got going is phenomenal. I can’t wait to see it.
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 16, 2009.
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