Jeff Bridges might be best known as “the Dude,” but in real life, he proves much too graciously thoughtful to be seen as an ambivalent pothead. The Oscar-winning actor spoke candidly about his long career before he accepted the American Rivera Award at the SBIFF on Thursday, February 9, at the Arlington.
The crowd’s adulation of Bridges was graced with familiarity; the 67-year-old has resided here since he first bought his Montecito estate in 1994, shortly after the Northridge earthquake “shook” him out of Santa Monica. The decade prior, he had fallen in love with Santa Barbara, he said, after shooting the Fiesta-inspired thriller Cutter’s Way. And unlike many celebrities who keep low profiles, Bridges can be regularly spotted campaigning against childhood hunger at predominantly low-income elementary schools.
Though his longtime philanthropy was duly noted, Bridge’s accomplished acting career was the focus of the conversation. But, as moderator Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter noted, Bridges initially had reservations about embracing Hollywood. Unlike some successful people who play up their modest beginnings, Bridges acknowledged his early career had something to do with the fact he was born into a family of actors. Success, he joked, can be attributed to “luck” and “a lot of nepotism in my case.” When he was a baby, his mother, Dorothy Bridges, offered him up for a role that otherwise would have been filled by a doll. The part called for a crying child, but Bridges explained he was “kind of a happy baby,” so “my mother said, ‘Oh, just pinch him.’”
Even after successful roles as a teenager, Bridges was hesitant to pursue acting. “What kid wants to do what their parents do?” he asked. He saw himself as a musician or an artist, but his father, Lloyd Bridges, told him, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Those talents are all integral to filmmaking, anyhow, his dad said, and plus, acting could get him out of class in high school.
Bridges explained the root of this anxiety had to do with “caring how you are perceived.” He alluded that he worried what his parents and older brother, Beau Bridges, also an actor, thought of his early performances. He told a story of a dramatic scene that was severely edited to depict — to his horror — the exact opposite emotion he sought to convey. But he came to appreciate filmmaking is a “communal art form.”
Bridges spoke conversationally, a far cry from stars whose speeches are more worn out than the Dude’s coffee-colored bathrobe was in The Big Lebowski. When Feinberg sort of breezed past his signature performance, Bridges stopped him to talk more about the crowd favorite, telling a joke: “Donnie doesn’t exist; he is a figment of Walter’s imagination.”
In fact, Bridges interjected Fienberg’s gentle probing a few times to ask, “Can I just say one other story?” One favorite was on the set of The Last American Hero, where he spent rehearsal time with “great old masters.” He noticed these guys left “puddles of sweat” on the tabletops when the cameras started rolling. “They were still scared,” Bridges said. “I realized that never goes away.” It was 1973, and the then-25-year-old mistakenly thought that role could have been the end of his career. But it turned out he was a little too attractive — and talented — to quit Hollywood.
Bridges also spoke earnestly and fondly about the late Robin Williams. He described Williams as a “constant actor,” who would — surprisingly — be solemn at times when he was sure the comedian would be “busting everyone’s chops.” “Robin was just a wonderful guy,” he said.
These days, it is not totally clear if Bridges leaves “puddles of sweat” when the cameras start rolling, but he talked about feeling a bit uneasy before he has to give acceptance speeches. So, he said, he’s created a little mind trick that works every time: He imagines he has sort of time traveled to the next millennium, and is at a futurist amusement park, where he can simply ride the roller coaster.