Following his Academy Award-winning performance in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges steps into John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn boots to star in a Coen brothers remake of True Grit.
Jeff Bridges may be best-loved as The Dude, but he was ready for the challenge of The Duke’s classic role in True Grit.
Photography by Kurt Markus
John Wayne’s boots need big feet to fill them, and Jeff Bridges is just the guy to do it. After 40 years of memorable performances in films about horses and the West, including his Oscar-nominated turn in The Last Picture Show in his early 20s and his role in the western epic Heaven’s Gate, Bridges is now starring in the remake of True Grit. Opening on Christmas day, the movie is being directed by the notably eccentric brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?), who have based their version of the western classic more on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis than on the 1969 movie starring Wayne as the irascible Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn.
The original True Grit was a showpiece for Wayne, who won an Oscar for the role, but the film did not focus on the book’s central story: that of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl (then played by Kim Darby) who undertakes a quest to avenge her father’s death. Bridges has the gruff, tough-as-nails quality that Wayne brought to the role — not to mention the eye patch — but the central story now focuses on the girl’s (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) point of view.
Speaking about playing Rooster Cogburn, Bridges isn’t sure where to begin. “I always find it challenging talking about my roles in films, and as a lover of movies myself, I want to know as little about the story and characters as possible,” he explains with his characteristic endearing grin, “so I’m challenged to talk about it without giving too much of the plot away.”
Looking relaxed and at home on the grounds of a spacious Santa Barbara ranch, Bridges pauses for a moment and continues, speaking more about the feel of the film than the actual story line. “Cogburn is hired by Mattie to go after the murderer of her father, and they have to travel from Arkansas deep into Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. I partner up with Matt Damon’s character, La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger, and the three of us ride on together,” Bridges says.
The Coen brothers are referencing the book and not the movie in this film, the actor continues, and there is a wonderful dynamic between the three lead characters — Cogburn, Mattie, and La Boeuf.
“They all have their own brand of ‘True Grit,’ ” Bridges says. “I’m supposed to be the meanest and toughest of all the hombres in that town, thus the reason for Mattie hiring me to find her father’s killer. And we really lucked out with Hailee Steinfeld, as she is a wonderful actress and just about the same age as Mattie was in the book.”
Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld star in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit, opening Christmas Day.
Photography: Lorey Sebastian © 2010 Paramount Pictures
Bridges particularly enjoyed bringing Portis’ words to life, as the author wrote wonderful dialogue brought to great life by the Coen brothers. “You really feel that you are back in the 1890s,” he says. “The book’s dialogue and story are a bit eccentric, and the Coen brothers keep that rhythm going and create the sense that you’re back in the era when the story took place. It’s a great place for Ethan and Joel to be, and when you read the book you can imagine the two of them directing this movie.”
Bridges is hot as a pistol after his 2009 Academy Award-winning turn in Crazy Heart as Bad Blake. His name may have been Bad, but his performance was so good that he walked away on Oscar night with the coveted golden statuette for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his heartbreaking performance as an alcoholic, washed-up country singer who seeks redemption in the arms of a journalist and through the eyes of her young son.
“Crazy Heart was such a high point in my career for so many reasons,” says Bridges proudly. “First, I got to do my music, which is such a part of my life, and second, I worked with the wonderful director Scott Cooper. I consider my life and career an extension of my parents’, and my Oscar win was really an honoring of them. It made me feel so great.”
Ever since The Fabulous Baker Boys, Bridges had been looking for a project with music at its core. “It was so great to find this project and to work again with T. Bone Burnett, who wrote the music for another one of my favorite films, Heaven’s Gate,” Bridges says.
Crazy Heart and The Fabulous Baker Boys have a lot in common. Both were helmed by first-time directors, relied on music to move the stories forward, and had wonderful leading ladies. Maggie Gyllenhaal was key in helping Bridges’ character believe in himself and his talent again, and Michelle Pfeiffer turned heads and warmed hearts as a sexy lounge singer.
“Baker Boys was such a high for me that I didn’t want to do another music-based project unless it was at that level,” Bridges explains. “Originally when the script came to me there were some great characters but no music was attached to it yet, and if the track had been bad the movie would not have worked.”
Jeff Bridges originally passed on Crazy Heart, but when longtime friend T. Bone Burnett signed on to write the music, Bridges was on board.
Photography: Fox Searchlight/Kobal
At first he passed on the project. It wasn’t until he ran into his buddy and musical genius T. Bone Burnett that he became interested again. Burnett was considering committing to the project when he found out that Robert Duvall and his production company, Butchers Run Films, had signed on as producers. Burnett asked Bridges if he had read the script. “I said, ‘Why, are you interested?’ He said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’ So I said, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ ” Bridges recalls.
The two got mutual friend Steve Bruton (“my music guru”) to commit to the project. “I wanted the same kind of collaboration that Kris Kristofferson, who was a role model for me in Crazy Heart, had on Heaven’s Gate,” Bridges says. “He brought his musicians together on the set and they worked on the film’s music for almost six months. To put the cherry on the cake, my oldest friend, John Goodwin, wrote the opening song for the movie, so I got to work with him as well.”
Crazy Heart went on to receive the Oscar for Best Music (Original Song) for “The Weary Kind,” penned by Ryan Bingham and Burnett. Inspired by the movie’s musical success, Bridges is now touring the country with his new band The Abiders. (One reviewer described a recent performance: “Bridges was the picture of actor-turned-singer perfection. There were no egos, just a lot of gravelly, brooding country tunes, each punctuated by Bridges’ Johnny Cash-meets-Tom Waits-style croon.”) Also this fall, he has been the special guest in Burnett’s national Muse Revue, which includes fellow musicians Leon Russell, Patti Smith, Elton John, and Kristofferson.
In addition to True Grit, the busy actor stars in TRON: Legacy, a continuation of the 1982 cult original TRON, in which Bridges plays video game developer Kevin Flynn. In Legacy, Flynn has been trapped in the video game for 20 years, and when his son Sam is pulled into that world, too, father and son embark on a life-or-death journey to escape the digital universe.
“There is somewhat of a parallel between these two movies,” says Bridges of the original and the sequel. “The reason I got back on board originally is that it sparked the kid side of me, as I got to play a guy who gets sucked up into a computer. In the sequel I get to use all the cutting-edge technology that is now available: Legacy makes the original TRON look like black-and-white.”
The filming of TRON: Legacy and True Grit overlapped somewhat, and the experience of going from the Spartan West to a blue screen was almost surreal for Bridges. “I went from a motion-capture world where you’re making movies without cameras, costumes, or sets to the ultimate ‘True Grit’ set out in the wilderness surrounding Las Vegas, New Mexico, with no modern conveniences,” he says. “Our talented costume designer on True Grit really took you back to those days. Conversely there is a certain challenge to Legacy where you don’t have any costumes and are dressed in a blue leotard with a bunch of black dots on you.”
As a boy, Bridges made his acting debut on his father Lloyd Bridges’ television series Sea Hunt, and some 70 films later he is still going strong. The Last Picture Show kick-started a diverse movie career that has earned him four additional Academy Award nominations: for his roles in the crime thriller Thunderbolt and Lightfoot opposite Clint Eastwood; the poignant science fiction film Starman; the political drama The Contender; and, of course, Crazy Heart. Other memorable performances include “The Dude” in the cult phenomenon The Big Lebowski, the smooth lounge lizard Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys, plane crash survivor Max Klein in Fearless, and, more recently, the badass Obadiah Stane in the megahit Iron Man.
Some of Bridges’ most intriguing performances have been the western roles he has played for the last 35 years. In the 1975 oddball western Rancho Deluxe, he and Sam Waterston starred as a pair of modern cattle rustlers who steal a rancher’s herd, one cow at a time. Later that same year Bridges starred in Hearts of the West as a writer of Wild West dime novels, who gets more than he bargained for when he heads west to become a cowboy. Five years later came Michael Cimino’s epic Heaven’s Gate about the 1890s Johnson County land wars in Wyoming, in which Bridges played John L. Bridges, a local town leader who took the side of European immigrants who wanted to settle on the cattle owners’ grazing land. In another riveting character study, Bridges tackled the role of the scruffy and mangy James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok in Walter Hill’s 1995 film Wild Bill.
Bridges rode in several of these memorable roles, and True Grit was no exception. “I got to do the classic reins-in-my-mouth riding while firing the guns when we were in hot pursuit of Tom Chaney, the killer of Mattie’s father. I tried these tricky moves on a mechanical horse first before Joel Coen asked if I wanted to try it for real.”
Of course Bridges wanted to — and ended up galloping across the New Mexico plains at full throttle.
Bridges channeled his love of horses — which his father, veteran western actor Lloyd Bridges, inspired — in his role as Charles Howard in Seabiscuit.
Photography: Universal/Kobal; Francois Duhamel
His father, and his father’s work in westerns, including the classic High Noon, instilled in Bridges a love of horses that continues to this day. In the 2003 movie Seabiscuit, Bridges plays Charles Howard, an automobile magnate and the visionary owner of that great racing horse who saw the horse’s potential regardless of his initial sour disposition, extreme laziness, and disinclination to perform well on the track. Seabiscuit was the inspiring tale of not only a down-and-out horse who galloped into the hearts of millions during the Great Depression but also of three men — owner, trainer, and jockey — whose lives were changed forever by this remarkable thoroughbred.
“Perhaps my attraction to Charles Howard and to the movie stemmed from my lifelong love of horses and the fact that I grew up around them,” Bridges says. “My dad loved to ride, and whenever he was in a western he would frequently come home dressed as a cowboy. I would dress up in his cowboy costumes and try on the boots and a hat and run around the house like that. He loved making westerns and the riding part was always his favorite.”
Bridges says his dad was a wonderful horseman who taught all of his children to ride at an early age. “High Noon was the most famous western he was involved with, but I also loved The Tall Texan and Little Big Horn, two really good but lesser known films,” Bridges says. “Perhaps I’ve been drawn to westerns as well and have worked hard to not develop too strong of a persona so that filmmakers and the audience don’t get me locked into one type of character. I imagine the filmmakers asking who is an actor who has done western roles, and maybe they think of me.”
Bridges enjoyed shooting True Grit in some old western towns and reading up on their history. One of his favorite stories took place more than 120 years ago. There was a gallows in the middle of the town square that was kept there permanently as a warning to outlaws, and the townspeople would watch public hangings all the time. “I read one story accompanied by a newspaper article where the local sheriff was shot in a barroom brawl. The killer was in jail and all the citizens broke in and dragged him to the gallows, but before they could hang him the sheriff’s widow grabbed a gun and shot him and then all the citizens opened fire on the guy. This was one rough town,” Bridges says.
As busy as he is, Bridges and his wife, Susan, try to get up to their Montana retreat as often as possible. The ranch is near a national forest and there are thousands of acres behind their house where family and friends can go riding for hours. “The area is so wonderful to go riding through, and it’s so easy to become part of the landscape — even get lost out in the wilderness with streams, the forest, sky, and mountains,” he says with a smile. “A great ride starts with a great horse and great company. My father used to love that, and we would ride together in Montana on a regular basis.”
Bridges’ Montana ranch and home have a close connection to one of his films he has made, Heaven’s Gate. “Our house there is the whorehouse from Heaven’s Gate, called the Hog Ranch, where the girls serviced the townsmen,” he says. “All the barns were made from hand-hewn logs, and when Michael Cimino asked if anyone wanted the cabin, whorehouse, and barn, I shot my hand up. We disassembled the buildings, numbered the logs, put them on a flatbed truck, and drove 200 miles south to my and Susan’s ranch. Since that time we’ve added on to the buildings a bit, but the core of the main house is built around the Hog Ranch. The bullet holes are still in the walls.”
“Every time I see Heaven’s Gate I appreciate it more,” says Bridges with a smile of the film that failed critically and at the box office. “It was a classic western, and the audience needs to enjoy the movie’s slow-paced rhythm and get absorbed in the story.”
With one Oscar win already and awards buzz for True Grit, Bridges has been spending more time on airplanes and making appearances on the film festival circuit than at either his ranch or Santa Barbara home he shares with Susan, his wife of almost 35 years. The two met during the making of Rancho Deluxe outside of Livingston, Montana, and have been together ever since. A family man at heart with three grown daughters, Bridges is appreciative of this time in his life and career.
And he’s the kind of guy who pays it forward. In 1983, he helped found the non-profit End Hunger Network, which originally concentrated on world hunger but has since shifted its focus to America. On his website, Bridges cites the sobering statistics: “Thirty-five million people are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and 13 million of them are children. The End Hunger Network is leading an effort with other national hunger organizations to motivate our political leaders to end hunger in America.” [To learn more and join the effort, go to www.endhunger.com.]
Spoken like a man with True Grit. Will his Rooster Cogburn become for him the iconic role it was for John Wayne? We’re bettin’ on it.