Indeed, 40 years later finds both actors with illustrious careers behind—and likely still ahead of—them. With iconic roles in movies like "Apocalypse Now," "The Great Santini," and the first two "Godfathers," Duvall has become a film institution. And he shows no signs of slowing down, currently appearing on screens in the post-apocalyptic drama "The Road." Bridges began his career with appearances on his father Lloyd's TV shows and has established himself as one of America's best and most beloved actors in films such as "The Last Picture Show," "Iron Man," and "The Big Lebowski."
Now the two are sharing the screen for the first time in writer-director Scott Cooper's lyrical drama "Crazy Heart," in which Bridges plays a washed-up, alcoholic country musician named Bad Blake. Watching Bridges sing and drink and stumble toward redemption, one can't help but be reminded of Mac Sledge, the crooner played by Duvall in the 1983 drama "Tender Mercies"—a role that netted Duvall an Oscar. So it seems only fitting when Duvall shows up midway through "Crazy Heart" as Wayne, Bad's dedicated friend.
Watching the pair together, it's difficult to believe they have never teamed up onscreen before. But it's clearly a match that has been worth waiting for.
Back Stage: How did you get involved with "Crazy Heart," as an actor and producer?
Robert Duvall: It was all Scott. I knew him through a job we did—a film in Virginia—and I let him get married on my property. I have a pretty farm there. So we knew each other, and he kept talking about this book, and I had read an original screenplay he wrote about secondary schools; it was terrific. So he said he was going to adapt this book, and he did it.
Back Stage: Scott says you're kind of his mentor.
Duvall: Oh, I don't know about that. I've heard him say that, but we just talk about stuff. He's a bright guy.
Back Stage: Whose idea was it to cast Jeff?
Duvall: I think it was Scott, because he really thought out everything first. I helped out with the little things, the casting here and there. Scott got the money, and he got T Bone [Burnett] involved [as a composer and producer], and [Jeff and T Bone] bonded and were rehearsing constantly, and they got everything ready, and Jeff said, "I'm not ready to go, I need another month to prepare!" So we waited another month.
Jeff Bridges: Did I say that? Sounds like a good idea.
Duvall: Well, you had a lot of music to learn.
Back Stage: Jeff, is it true you originally turned down the role in "Crazy Heart"?
Bridges: Yeah, because it didn't have any music to it yet.
Duvall: He always does that, I hear. The Coen brothers said he's the hardest guy to get to do anything.
Back Stage: Wait, you didn't say no to the Coen brothers, did you?
Bridges: No, but with "Big Lebowski" I had young daughters at the time, and I knew I was going to be playing a hard-core pothead and drinker, and I said, "Gee, is that going to be tough for them in school?" I knew I had some considerations. About this one, the music was my consideration. I set my bar pretty high with "The Fabulous Baker Boys." That had such great music, and we had Dave Grusin at the musical helm. So I took a pass on this one, but when I ran into T Bone Burnett, he wanted to know if I was interested. I was if he was.
Back Stage: With Robert starring in "Tender Mercies" so many years ago, did you ever talk about this sort of symbolic passing of the baton to Jeff's character?
Duvall: Not really. You don't think in those terms. The films are similar but different. When you did it, you used [Kris] Kristofferson and Waylon [Jennings] and guys like that. It was kind of a compilation, right?
Bridges: Yeah. One of Scott's first bits of direction was, "If Bad was a real guy, he would be the fifth Highwayman." That was a big tip. [The Highwaymen was a 1980s country supergroup that included Kristofferson, Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson.]
Duvall: When I did "Tender Mercies," afterwards I met Willie Nelson, and he said, "Did you ape Merle Haggard?" I said, "No, I love him, but I didn't ape him." Maybe it was unconsciously. Everybody thinks the film is about George Jones: He said it was his life story, which it wasn't. It wasn't anybody's life story, really, but it might be similar.
Bridges: I don't know how you relate to this as an actor, but I find I prepare unconsciously. When you're steeping yourself in that music, you're not thinking, "Oh, I'm going to try to be like this person." But you can't help it.
Duvall: No, you can't help but to gravitate towards your heroes.
Back Stage: Did you have any expectations about what it would be like working together? Or was there anything you were surprised to learn about each other?
Duvall: No, we just jumped in and did it.
Bridges: We just jammed, man.
Duvall: I don't like a lot of rehearsal. Sometimes, rehearsal is okay, but I think you can overdo it. So we just had fun.
Bridges: Our first scene was a fun one to do because it's actually our last scene together in the film, where he picks me up from rehab. It was a joyous moment for two best friends and a great way to kick off the relationship. Don't you think something about it informed the rest of the shooting, in a way?
Bridges: But mostly we were just playing. It was like jazz; we'd improv.
Duvall: I like to improvise. Some directors don't like that; they don't want you to change an "er" to "ah" or "eh." I worked that way a couple years ago, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was worn out because I had to do it so many times exactly the way he wanted. I was like, "Come on!" You can always do take one or two or three, even if you do change it. It seems to be the old-time directors who don't like you to change it. The new guys are okay that way. Like, Scott didn't mind if you changed the dialogue; he didn't care if you stood on your head and said the lines!
Bridges: There are some scripts—the Coen brothers are a good example of this—where you see their movies and it seems like improvisation, but that's just how good the writing is. We would often improv to discover the reality of the moment, but I would always go back to the script and make sure I had every "fuck" and every "man" in the proper order because that was the best way. If something didn't feel right, I'd look at the script and say, "Oh, there's the rhythm!" It's like you can have a great song, and you can improvise that, too; but there's a reason Sondheim wrote it that way. I also think it removes you from yourself to go back to the script. The impulse is to change it to how you would do it, and [then] you're playing yourself. If you have to say a word you don't like, well, if you can figure out how to say it, that could be the key to the whole character.
Back Stage: How do you think acting has changed over the years?
Bridges: I'll tell you something about that. I just did the sequel to "Tron," which is about a guy who gets sucked inside a computer, so there's lots of special effects. I got a taste of all this motion-capture acting—have you done any of that stuff?
Duvall: You mean like blue screen?
Bridges: That's bad enough, acting opposite nothing, but motion capture is a whole new deal. They put 150 black dots on your face and have these sensors, and everything is done in post. You're in a leotard with sensors on it. Your costume, your makeup, the sets, the camera angles—everything is done in postproduction.
Duvall: Why would you want to do a movie like that?
Bridges: They pay you, that's one thing. But the other thing is, there's something about doing movies that is like a kid pretending.
Duvall: It's like playing house when you were a kid.
Bridges: Right. So when someone says, "You want to be this guy who gets sucked inside a computer?" the kid in me says, "Yeah, okay!" But as far as the acting goes, I feel like a whole new bunch of skills are going to have to be developed for these actors to learn how to do that. It's a different thing. Can you imagine having to play a love scene with somebody who's got all these dots on their face?
Back Stage: Do you feel as though your own acting style has changed from when you started out?
Duvall: I've gotten more relaxed. But acting for me is still just listening and talking, talking and listening. When I first started, I used to stay in character between takes. But not anymore. Some guys still do that.
Bridges: Right, and some want you to call them by the character name.
Duvall: Jesus. I remember way back, I had an emotional scene where my wife had died in the street and they yelled, "Cut," and I went over to the director and said, "You know, the best way to make soft-shell crab is to use butter and salt and pepper." He couldn't believe I was talking about soft-shell crabs after this emotional scene. But I think sometimes if you go to something real in life, you can go back to something that's imaginary easier. You don't have to beat your head against a wall—that can work against you.
Bridges: A lot of people approach it different ways. You get some great actors who do some things I find crazy.
Back Stage: Do you remember the last time you had to audition?
Duvall: It's been a long time.
Bridges: I auditioned pretty recently for "Where the Wild Things Are." I wanted that part really bad. I really admire Spike Jonze. But I didn't get the part; [James] Gandolfini got the part. I enjoy—well, maybe "enjoy" isn't the right word—but I don't mind going out for a part that I really like.
Duvall: You mean to read? You have to read?
Bridges: Yeah. I'll meet with a director and do whatever he wants, because there's a chance for them to see what you can do. You don't have that pressure of "I wonder if we're going to be in sync."
Duvall: And they make you read the script in front of them?
Bridges: I'll do whatever they want.
Duvall: This is before you're guaranteed the part?
Bridges: Yeah. I remember a movie I did called "Blown Away," and I talked to the producer and said, "You know who would be great for the role of my uncle is this actor; he looks a bit like me, and he's a good actor. His name is Lloyd Bridges. Do you know him?" The guy laughed and said, "You know, your dad's a good actor, but he's really thought of as more of a comedian." I said, "What the hell are you talking about?" It was those "Airplane" movies. Like, when he did "Sea Hunt," they thought he was a skin diver. You can't do the same role too many times in a row; they think that's who you are. So my dad said, "Let's read for him." And he got the part.
Duvall: Really? I didn't think people read anymore. Of course, starting out, I had to audition all the time. I guess I was okay; I don't really remember.
Bridges: Oh yeah. A lot of actors don't like it, but I really don't mind it. I don't look at it as an audition; I look at it as the gig. Rather than thinking, "I'm going to do this so I can get that," I say, "This is it, and I have a chance to perform."
Back Stage: At this point in your career, would you be willing to audition?
Duvall: No. Well, it depends. If it was something I really wanted to do, maybe. But not just an average job. Wilford Brimley told me he was asked to come in and read and he said, "Why? You wrote it; why should I have to read it?" That's Wilford.
Bridges: My dad was my first acting teacher, and then my brother Beau kind of took it up to work on scenes with me. I remember we worked on a scene from "Catcher in the Rye," and we had this thing planned where we would come in the room to meet the agents, and Beau would say he had to go to the bathroom, but he would really step outside and listen through the door. The setup was the agents would ask what I had been up to, and I would say, "The funniest thing happened…" and I would go into this monologue, and it would be this story about waiting for the character of Luce from "Catcher in the Rye." And I'd say, "Here he comes now!" And Beau would walk in. So they didn't know the audition was actually starting, but it had. And it worked; they signed us.
Back Stage: You've both worked with a wide range of directors. What is it you hope for from a director when you arrive on set?
Duvall: The thing I hear actors always ask other actors about directors is, "Did he leave you alone?" [Laughs.] We like it when they don't tamper too much.
Bridges: Scott was a wonderful director.
Duvall: He was. Very loose.
Bridges: Very! And he's an actor, so he knows what it means to give you space.
Duvall: I've worked with some actors who are directing that don't do that.
Bridges: Yeah, some actor-directors want to act it for you. They want you to do it like they do it.
Duvall: I worked with one director who was also acting and he wanted to bookend every scene with himself.
Bridges: One of the other things I loved about Scott that, for me, is wonderful in a director is a guy who inspires self-confidence in you. That's a really wonderful thing, when you get the vibe that the guy is digging what you're doing. He was a great audience.
Duvall: He's a sharp guy. A lot of directors have things storyboarded mentally in their heads and don't want to change anything. But good directors like Scott or Coppola—[Jeff] worked with him, too [in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream"]—will say, "Well, let me see what you do." Others don't do that, and it can cause problems.
Bridges: I think part of that is beause you only have a certain amount of time to do it and the pressure of being a director is immense. In this one, we had 24 days to shoot, and I never felt rushed. Well, one day I did blow up. I blow up so rarely, but I did one day.
Duvall: I blow up not so rarely. [Laughs.]
Bridges: Some directors will let you tell them your idea, but they're really just waiting for your mouth to stop so they can get on with it. They're worried they don't have enough time. But with the good ones—like Scott, Hal Ashby, Coppola—they make you feel like they have all the time in the world. But they know they don't. But what's going to serve the thing is to create that environment.
Duvall: I worked with a director one time who said to one of the actors, "Now, when I say, 'Action,' tense up, God damn it!" Like he was Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. The difference between tension and intensity is different. Gene Hackman said one time he was doing a film and a famous director gave him one only direction: "Up." He just kept saying, "Up. Up. Up." He wanted everything to be up and out and high-energy.
Bridges: Candice Bergen wrote this wonderful article about working with Lina Wertmüller, the famous German director. She was a big fan of Lina and wanted to do everything she asked. And she would keep giving the same direction to Candy: "Look up your ass." Over and over: "Look up your ass." Candy didn't know what she meant; she thought, "Should I get more grittier? More deep?" She could not figure it out. Finally, at the end of completing the movie, she realized what she had been saying: "Look up with your eyes."