From multiple Academy Award-nominated performances in films like True Grit, to roles in countless blockbusters, playing the hero in cult classics, including The Fisher King and, of course, his immortal role in The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges is one of the greatest actors of our generation. But as a teenager, Bridges just wanted to rock. Instead he took his famous father’s advice and put his musical ambitions on hold to enter into the family business of acting. Music re-emerged decades later when he starred in the country music-themed film Crazy Heart, which garnered Bridges his first Academy Award Best Actor. It also brought his musical talents to the general public, and since then Bridges has been spending as much time writing, recording and performing music as acting on screen. About to celebrate his 65th birthday, Bridges is as busy as ever with the release of Jeff Bridges and The Abiders Live. The VCReporter caught up with the living film legend to discuss his music career and how he handles audience requests for all things Lebowski.
VCReporter: What’s your personal background in music?
Jeff Bridges: Music as far as I can remember has been in our household. My father, Lloyd Bridges, he was quite musical. I remember him doing Guys and Dolls on the road. He replaced Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha on Broadway. My mom was always playing the piano and gave us all piano lessons, and my big brother Beau, he’s about eight or nine years older than I am, he turned me on to all the original rockers — Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. So I was around music for a long time. At about 15, I grabbed my brother’s guitar, an old Danelectro, and started to write songs and I’ve been doing it ever since. Always found some guys to play with and of course when Crazy Heart came around that really kicked it into another gear.
You put out a solo record prior to that film, but how much did the success of Crazy Heart push you to do more music?
I originally turned down Crazy Heart because there wasn’t any music, and no matter how good that script was, if it didn’t have the right tunes, it wouldn’t have been a good movie. So I passed on it and I ran into my buddy T Bone Burnett and he was interested in it, and asked me if I was, and I said, “Well, if you are, I’m in. We’ll figure the music out.” He of course did such a beautiful job of doing that. So after Crazy Heart, I made another album with T Bone. But, yeah, like you said, that movie really put a fire under my music and I figured if there was ever a time to put a band together and go out on the road, now was the time so I got this band of great musicians together, all from Santa Barbara. We’re all dear friends and have a great time out there. We just put out a live album of tunes we did on the past tour. I’m really proud of it.
Were you concerned about how you would be perceived?
Not so much how other people would perceive me but how I would perceive myself. (Laughs.) It was a great opportunity to do something I love, but I was more concerned if I was going to be able to catch that particular ball, so to speak.
Do you get the same enjoyment from making music that you do from acting?
It’s actually quite similar. I like acting in movies and plays, but there’s a lot of solo time as far as learning your lines, which is a lot like learning your songs. There’s also time with other artists whether you’re playing in a band or acting with them. So I think there are a lot of similarities. Even [with] the audience. When I perform, it almost feels like I’m doing a kind of improv for an hour or two with the audience. Just having a great time up there.
What’s the songwriting process for you?
In a way it’s kind of similar to acting in that when preparing for a part, a lot of the assignment is just getting out of the way and letting the thing come through you.
Do you think you would have pursued music as a career if you didn’t get into acting?
Oh yeah. I remember having that conversation with my dad. He was so gung-ho about me getting into show biz. He loved show biz. All the different elements of it. I, for a while thought, “Oh geez, I don’t know if I want to get into that.” That would cut into my music thing and I told him that. He said,” Oh Jeff, don’t be silly. Be an actor. You can call on all your talents when you act. One day you’ll play a musician and you’ll get to do that too.” So I’m glad I listened to the old guy.
Any other actors who’ve gone into music that you’ve been a fan of?
Oh man there’s a whole slew of guys. Kevin Bacon. Billy Bob Thornton. In going the other way, Bob Dylan. I got to work with him in a movie, Masked and Anonymous, where he acted and I’m a big fan of his acting and his music. It’s a tendency for humans to put people in categories and stuff, but really that’s not where we belong. People can do all sorts of things.
Being famous yourself, have you ever been in awe when meeting a musician?
Oh yeah, Bob Dylan certainly fits in that category. So wonderful to act with him. That was a lot of fun. We got to do a little picking too.
How intense do Big Lebowski requests and heckles get at a Jeff Bridges show?
Oh, I don’t consider them heckles. It’s sort of a celebration, celebrating that movie with people. People dig it and I certainly do. The Abiders have played the Lebowski Fest in Los Angeles a couple of times. It’s been great.
Does the audience blow up when you do Creedence?
(Laughs.) Yeah. We do “Man in Me” sometimes. “Dead Flowers,” too. Gotta do some tunes from Lebowksi.
If you were to tell the 15-year-old version of yourself messing around on your brother’s guitar that when you were in your 60s you’d be releasing records and touring, think he’d be happy to hear that?
(Laughs.) I sure would. The young version would probably say, what the hell took you so long!