Jeff Bridges' long career is nothing if not varied. He has portrayed a guilt-stricken plane-crash survivor in Fearless, the ultimate L.A. slacker, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, in the Coen brothers comedy The Big Lebowski, and a forward-thinking President of the United States in The Contender. The variety of his efforts has not been happenstance. Rather, Bridges said, it is a conscious attempt to keep himself from being typecast. "I've really tried to mix up my choice of roles," he said. "Part of that effort came just from being my father's son and seeing him struggle with being typecast in several different ways over the course of his career. Maybe I'm super-sensitive to it, but I think actors need to be careful about the baggage they accumulate from their different roles, because the people who are hiring you and the people who are watching you expect you to repeat that. If you build to strong a persona, it's hard to break it."
His father, the late Lloyd Bridges, made it big with the hit TV show Sea Hunt and found himself unable afterwards to get other work. When he finally got a break as a dimwitted airline employee in the Airplane franchise, he once again found himself pigeonholed, this time as a comedian.
"It's sort of a compliment to be typecast, in a way, because it means that people really believe in you as that character," said Bridges. "With my father, people really thought he was a skin diver—they believed completely that he was that guy. After that it was very hard for him to get roles. I remember recommending him for a role as my uncle in a film I was doing [1994's Blown Away]. I told the producers, 'Hey you know who would be great, is Lloyd Bridges,' and all these young producers said, 'Yeah, your dad is great, but he's really just a comedian.' All they knew of was his work on Airplane."
Growing up in a family of actors, Bridges said his primary training ground was home. Though he admits that he never faced the same challenges that actors without famous parents do, he said his father's enthusiasm is what drove him to decide to be an actor.
"One of the most difficult things about the acting profession is getting in the door," Bridges said. "I'm a product of nepotism, really, so the door was propped open by my dad. He gave me all my early roles in his Sea Hunt TV series. So the opportunities came rather easily to me. I don't think I really decided to make acting a career until I had already been in about 10 films. But my dad really was my teacher, and I learned all the basics from him. It was great as an adult to work with him a few times. He approached the work with such joy. Acting with him was always fun because you got the feeling that he was really enjoying himself. Unlike a lot of [actor parents], he really encouraged his kids to go into show business because he loved it so much and loved to pretend on that level. Even when we weren't working together, it was always great to get his take on things.
"I remember being about 8 years old and sitting on his bed when I was going to perform in one of his Sea Hunt episodes," the actor continued. "He would tell me about saying a line, and making it seem like it's happening for the first time, and how important it is to listen to the other actors—to let the other person's dialogue inform the delivery of your lines. He would make me go out of the room and come back in, and each time I had to say the lines differently.
"My mother also always encouraged my brother and me to create these little plays and stories," he added. "So that way of being and thinking was just always around. I think all of that has really led into all of my performances—being able to commit to the reality you have been given."
In Bridges' latest transformation, he plays Charles Howard, the visionary millionaire, in Seabiscuit. Bridges had an immediate connection with story. As a horse lover, he read Laura Hillenbrand's novel and eagerly anticipated its film adaptation. Two years later, when he read director Gary Ross' precise and engaging script, he was ready to come onboard. Bridges said that his decisions for taking a project on are as varied as his roles. But there is one commonality: Each script must invoke curiosity. "I have a real lazy streak in me, and I know the incredible amount of work that goes into filmmaking, so usually when I'm reading a script I'm half-hoping I won't like it," he said, laughing. "The times when I read a script and something about it intrigues me, and I know that the only way to find out why I am intrigued is to see the thing through, then I know I'm really on to something. The drive to plunge and explore that curiosity is so important for me."
In Seabiscuit, Bridges based his character on a real person, a first since his 1988 portrayal of Preston Tucker in Tucker: The Man and His Dream. He said the process of creating his character was ultimately the same as it would have been if it had been fictional; he just had more material to work with. "I talked extensively with author Laura Hillenbrand, and she was kind enough to give me a bunch of photographs, as well as a wealth of additional information. Whenever I work with a script that is based on a book, I always find it helpful to speak to the author. Laura knows so much about the history of Charles Howard that it allowed me to really get a sense of how the guy carried himself and how he expressed himself. The photos gave me a feel for how he wore he his clothes, his demeanor. At one point I worked up the nerve to ask Laura if she had any objects of Howard's for me to hold on to. She sent me a little police pass that he used, and I often carried it in my pocket during shooting."
Whatever the role, Bridges works to create a world in which the character—no matter how outrageous—has a place and a purpose. This commitment is evident in the Big Lebowski, in which "The Dude" never falls prey to caricature.
Said Bridges, "When I decide to take a role on, I usually spend some time thinking about all the things I have in common with the character, and then how we are different. I look for pieces of the character that I see in friends and other people that I know. Slowly, I think, I just absorb the character. Little pieces will fall into place without me even knowing it. I try to break down the script by finding a one-sentence motivation with each scene. Then when I'm studying the script the night before we shoot, I can look at the motivations I've come up with to see how the scene relates to what we've already done."
For Seabiscuit, Bridges said, it was especially important to be aware of his motivations because there were so many scenes. While most films have about 250 scenes, Seabiscuit had twice that. "It was a great device that Gary Ross used to stuff that expansive, wonderful book into a two-hour film without losing any of its soul. Some of those scenes might only be one or two lines, so it was challenging to keep everything straight," he revealed.
Equally important, according to Bridges, is communicating with the director, screenwriter, and other actors to ensure that all have the same vision. "Whether the film is comedy or drama, I approach it the same way. You are always trying to find the style of the world the movie is taking place in. Each film has its own reality. I try to explore that with everyone I'm working with so you're all sort of existing in the same world. This came up a lot when were shooting the horseracing scenes for Seabiscuit. We were supposed to be watching an exciting horse race, when in reality we were looking at a guy carrying a broom. Of course we all had to seem like we were watching the same race and have it be just as exciting for every take."
Although his next film, Door in the Floor, is another drama, Bridges remains committed to pursuing a diverse collection of roles. "Maybe my lazy streak keeps the bar raised, because I know it's not worth it to put out the effort to dive into something unless I'm sure that I really want to see it through. First and foremost, though, I only work on movies that I know I really want to sit in a theatre and see."