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Crazy for Him

Crazy for Him
When Jeff Bridges was approached with the script for "Crazy Heart" and was asked to play its leading man, Bad Blake—a boozing, womanizing, once-great country singer reduced to performing in bowling alleys and small-town bars—he saw vast potential in the role. And he turned it down. Now, earning some of the best reviews in his heavily lauded career for the role, and with "Crazy Heart" almost guaranteed to garner him his fifth Oscar nomination, does Bridges feel sort of silly for initially taking a pass? "Nah," he says in that unmistakable, easygoing drawl. "I usually try not to work. That's my MO."

That tactic doesn't seem to be working out for Bridges, who despite his purported resistance has turned in dozens of memorable performances over the past four decades. He has played a friendly alien ("Starman"), a hip president ("The Contender"), and a supervillain ("Iron Man"). For better or worse, the role he's likely to be associated with for the rest of his life is that of Jeffrey Lebowski, aka the Dude—aka El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing—in Joel and Ethan Coens' seminal comedy "The Big Lebowski." Bridges can't help but sound a bit like that iconic character as he explains why he likes to avoid taking jobs. "My strategy is to try really hard not to take roles, because I know what it involves to do them," he explains. "It's wonderful, but it's intense. So the stuff I end up doing is sort of like in 'The Godfather': They make me an offer I can't refuse. It's too cool to pass on. But I do my damnedest to turn it down."

"Crazy Heart" was adapted from Thomas Cobb's novel by writer-director Scott Cooper, who wrote and directed the indie "For Sale by Owner." Cooper, who has appeared in the films "God and Generals" and "Austin Powers 2," took the script to his mentor, Robert Duvall, who signed on to play Wayne, the wizened and wise friend of Bad Blake. But even with Duvall attached, Bridges was hesitant. "I liked the script and was excited that it was about music," he admits. "But there was no actual music with the script. It was this great unknown." Bridges points out that when he previously did a film about the music world, "The Fabulous Baker Boys," he knew the songs would be old standards. "The music was just such an important element, and it wasn't there yet," he notes.

Things changed when Bridges ran into his longtime friend, music producer T-Bone Burnett, with whom he had worked on 1980's "Heaven's Gate." Burnett had been approached by Cooper to produce and write songs for the film. "He said, 'I'll do it if you do it,' " Bridges recalls. "I said, 'God, if you do it, I'll do it.' And it took off from there." Along with guitarist-songwriter Stephen Bruton—another friend from "Heaven's Gate"—Burnett wrote several songs for the movie, based on the character and script. Bruton was also invaluable on set to Bridges. "He was there every day with me," The actor notes. "He really took my guitar-playing to the next level." The film is dedicated to Bruton, who died from cancer in May 2009.

Angels and Demons

Bridges has long held a reputation as one of the more likable, down-to-earth actors in the business. He lives near Santa Barbara, Calif., a good distance from Hollywood, with his wife of more than 30 years and their three daughters. Yet Bridges says he was able to tap into dark emotions to play the lonely, alcoholic Bad Blake. "I've had my share of demons," the actor admits. "But I'm slowly coming around to the realization that my demons are deities and gods dressed up in funny costumes. They're your pals, too. And you're never going to get rid of them. If you learn to dance with them and work with them, they can take you to some really wonderful places."

Bridges was already an accomplished musician, even recording an album in 2000 called "Be Here Soon." He used Burnett and Bruton to further immerse himself in the world of a country singer. "They were touchstones for me," he says. "I could go and ask them how people behaved. They helped me study the other guys, people I know and people I never met, like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. I took bits and parts of them all to fill in the character."

"Crazy Heart" is made up of countless tiny details that lend the film a deep authenticity. From the sweat stains on Bad Blake's shirts to his drunken, meandering walk, the character is fully inhabited by Bridges—so much so that one wonders how much was on the page and how much Bridges brings to the role. There's at least one element the actor says was his contribution: the way Bad Blake walks around with his pants unbuttoned, particularly when he's driving. "I do that," Bridges admits with a laugh. "That was my idea."

Bridges also signed on to the film as a producer and even had a say in casting the other roles. "I got my dream cast," he says of co-stars Colin Farrell, playing a wildly famous country singer, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the woman whose love could redeem Bad Blake. As a co-star and a producer, Bridges has nothing but praise for his fellow actors, noting, "Working with this group truly transcended even my highest expectations."

Coming Attractions

"Crazy Heart" isn't Bridges' only great performance of 2009; the actor also starred alongside George Clooney and Ewan McGregor in the offbeat comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats." It was another part he nearly turned down—mainly because he was deep in production on "Crazy Heart" at the time. "When I'm working, I tend to have blinders on, and I don't like to be distracted by something else," he says. "It's like you're eating some wonderful French cuisine, and someone says, 'Let's go to that Japanese restaurant and eat some more!' I'm trying to enjoy what I'm doing."

Up next for the actor are two projects sure to excite many. He's re-teaming with the Coens for an update of "True Grit," in which he'll take on the role made famous by John Wayne. And next year will see a sequel to his 1982 classic "Tron," in which he reprises the role of computer programmer Kevin Flynn. "There were two main reasons I wanted to do it. First, I've only done one sequel before, with 'Texasville,' and that was a wonderful experience. So that appealed to me," Bridges notes. "And the second reason is the same reason why I did the original, which is all about the kid in me. To play a guy who gets sucked into a computer is pretty hard for a kid to turn down."   

- Says he still auditions occasionally, most recently for the voice of Carol, the creature voiced by James Gandolfini in "Where the Wild Things Are"
- First acting gigs were with his brother, Beau, on their father's TV series, "The Lloyd Bridges Show," in 1962–63
- Is an accomplished photographer and illustrator
- Received Oscar nominations for "The Last Picture Show," "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," "Starman," and "The Contender"

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