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Crazy Heart: The Dude Can Sing

We expect charismatic Golden Globe nominee Jeff Bridges to be making the awards rounds for his turn as down-on-his-luck country singer Bad Blake. The Dude can sing, and we dig him. Find out why.

Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges
Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges

In Crazy Heart, the debut film from writer/director Scott Cooper (and adapted from the out-of-print novel by Thomas Cobb), the charismatic Jeff Bridges is at his down-home best as washed-up country star Bad Blake. Though he once was quite famous, Bad is now relegated to a dismal life on the road, complete with gigs in bowling alleys, one-night stands, chain-smoking, and way too much whiskey. He’s also dealing with the bitter taste of watching an old protégé (Colin Farrell) hit mega-stardom in the shiny Nashville realm. Enter Maggie Gyllenhaal as a young reporter and potential love interest (who’s also a single mom), and we start rooting for Bad to get on the road to redemption, with a little help from buddy Robert Duvall (also one of the film's producers).

At a roundtable interview last week (before his Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor was announced), a relaxed Bridges opened up about his own musical aspirations (did you know he released an album in 2000?), the role models he channeled for this part, and his penchant for bumming cigarettes.
 



Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges, Robert Duvall

How did you come to this project?

 
Jeff Bridges: It came to me, and I originally turned it down, because while I’m always looking for a movie that has to do with music—The Fabulous Baker Boys set the standard really high, since we had Dave Grusin and all those great pop and jazz standards—but this one didn’t have any; there was nobody at the helm of the music. So I was happy to say, “No thanks.” But then T-Bone [Burnett] got involved, and about a year later, I ran into him, and he said, “What do you think about this script?” I said, “Why? Are you interested?” And he said, “Yeah. I’ll do it if you’ll do it.” And I said, “Oh, gosh, well, let’s go!”
 
When you started out in showbiz, obviously you chose acting. If things had gone differently, though, could you see yourself having Bad’s life?
 
I don’t know about Bad’s life—I hope not! My father Lloyd Bridges was a very successful actor, and he enjoyed his work so much, that he really wanted to turn his kids onto it. So he encouraged all of us to go into showbiz. And as you know, we don’t like to do what our parents tell us to, so I wanted to do the music thing, or to paint, or some other stuff, but I’m glad I took the old man’s advice, because I sure love it too. And all the other things I thought I might like to do, I can bring to the work, like in this one.
 
In Bad Blake, we see so many cowboys we know—Waylon Jennings is the first one that comes to mind. In your research creating this fella, who inspired you?
 
I was really fortunate in this one to have two very close friends who were my main role models: T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton [who recently passed away]. We go back to Heaven’s Gate 30 years ago, [where we worked with] another role model—I’m not as close with [Kris] Kristofferson, but he’s certainly a good buddy, and he brought all his musician friends to that party. So it was six months of jamming, every night after work, [which is] really the birth of this movie—it came out of that in a funny sort of way.
 
And Kris is certainly a role model. One of the first bits of direction Scott [Cooper] gave me was that if Bad was a real character, he would be the 5th Highwayman. Do you know who The Highwaymen are? Kris, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. So those guys were all role models, along with Hank Williams. Another thing that T-Bone told me—and I thought it was a really good idea—he gave me a timeline of the music Bad might have listened to when he was growing up. T-Bone and Stephen grew up together—they were childhood friends—and Stephen’s dad owned a music store [in Texas], and exposed them to all sorts of blues, Ornette Coleman, and all sorts of music. Country music comes from all kinds of places now, so Bad could be listening to T-Bone Walker, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, different guys that aren’t thought of as classical country guys.
 
Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges

How much did Stephen Bruton bring to the feeling of the old country music, before he died?
 
He was the whole deal. He was the whole deal—his life so closely paralleled Bad—he would be the guy driving from gig to gig, hauling his own gear, and he certainly had problems with booze and other substances. He knew about all of that stuff, and was encouraged by me and Scott and T-Bone—any time he had any little impulse about what that might be like for him in that situation, we said, “Bring it on.” And he would. He even got to do some of the polish of the music with T-Bone before he died. It’s all up there on the screen.
 
How easy was it to take yourself out of the role?
 
Oh, a certain part I don’t want to get out of. The music stuff—hopefully, I’ll keep that guy with me. Maybe another album will come out of it? That aspect of the character is still cooking. The other side, the boozing side and the unhealthy side, gaining that much weight… Part of the preparation for a character is what you ingest, whether it’s a cup of coffee, or how much you eat at lunch that day. So with this part, my regimen was “remove the governor”—take that guy and put him over there. You want that extra pint of Häagen-Dazs? Want that extra drink? Sure, go ahead, man! Giving that up was a little tough, but the downside is also the blessing of the hangover—the hangovers let you know: don’t do this too often. We learn that lesson over and over—well, hopefully, not too many times, if we’re lucky. So that side was a little tough, because you get in a groove, and the older you get, the harder it is to shift, to lose the weight, etc. But there’s nothing like health—that’s the best high.
 
What about the cigarettes? There are so many in the movie!
 
It’s always the challenge—at least they were filtered cigarettes. I remember doing Tucker—that guy died from lung cancer, he smoked three packs of Luckys or Chesterfields a day! Oh, my God, I’d be puking during a scene, you know? Because when you’re in the character, you just do it how you do it, and then after two or three takes… [Grimaces.]

They can’t give you fake ones?

That doesn’t even help much. That was never my jones, the cigarette thing. I always draw the line at buying cigarettes—whenever I’d get the urge to smoke, I’d just bum one off someone.
 
I heard there might be a sequel to Fabulous Baker Boys.
 
Did you? There should be!
 
Do you see any commonalities between the characters you play in the two films?
 
Now that you mention it, I bet there is. I hadn’t thought about it before. I think they both get caught up in the myth that a lot of these artists do—about suffering being the source of their talent, so they keep that going in the subconscious. I love that line in the song from this movie, “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else.” Bad probably wrote that thinking, “I used to be famous, and now I’m not famous,” but if you flip that around, [it could be] “I don’t have to be punishing myself as much as I do, I don’t have to be this guy, this myth—I don’t have to keep playing that same tune.” And that’s kind of a positive thing.
 
Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

You’ve worked with some amazing women—Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger. What makes a good screen romance?
 
Well, a lot of it depends on the play, the story, what the lines are, the relationships. One of my favorite moments was with Kim in Door in the Floor, just saying goodbye: I don’t think we even said any words, we just looked at each other, and that’s just kind of the story you’re telling.

There are so many different approaches to acting. Maggie [Gyllenhaal] is a person who approaches it like I do—getting to know the people you are playing with as well as you can, so you can bring some of that genuine friendship and caring to the screen. Kim works in a different way, where she is on 1000% between “Action!” and “Cut!” but between there’s not so much engagement. But that doesn’t matter, because there are many different ways to approach the work, and both can be effective.
 
How was it playing the mentor to Colin Farrell [as Bad’s protégé-turned-mega-Nashville-star]?
 
He was great! He came in for maybe four days, and gave that great performance. That’s one of the challenges of doing movies, is that you have such a short period of time—we shot this in 24 days, so a very short period of time to get up to speed, and to get as deep as you have to get to make it a good movie, and Colin certainly did that. He was wonderful to work with, and it was great harmonizing with another actor. It’s kind of a great metaphor for what we’re all trying to do.
 
You are so vulnerable in this role. [There are scenes of him in his underwear and he kind of lets it all hang out.] What did you think when you read the script? Did it make you nervous at all, or were you totally gung-ho?
 
Not really. I was not too concerned. I had a thong on under my tighty-whiteys.
 
There can be an uneasy line to tread when you’re playing a character who can be potentially unlikable, but here the audience is with you, even before Bad has established himself as a good guy. How much of that is the character and the script, and how much of it is fact that we know and like Jeff Bridges?
 
It’s probably kind of a combination of all those things. Making a movie is sort of like a magic trick: there are all kinds of sleight of hand things going on, and there’s also real alchemy—you’re kind of summoning up the muse or whatever—and there’s the story and what it says in the script. My approach is that I try to make it real and interesting—what holds your attention doesn’t necessarily have to be that the character is a good guy, but that you’re sort of wondering what’s going to happen next, and you care about that. It’s like in life—you don’t have to like that guy walking down the street, but you can find him fascinating. The same things are working in movies, too—finding things that are interesting but don’t rip the fabric. You don’t want the makeup to make you say, “Oh, that’s great makeup”—you want it to be invisible.
 
Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

What do you think draws Bad to Maggie’s character, Jean?

 
Seeing that he’s been married four times before, he’s looking for—the wonderful thing about marriage, and I’ve been married going on 33 years, it’s like a playing field to get as deep as you can with your soulmate. It’s a structure you can move in, and do that, and be as intimate as you can, and I think he’s longing for intimacy, for somebody to really know him as he is, even though he despises parts of himself. That’s what’s kind of tragic and uplifting about this—when he finally shows who he is, an irresponsible drunk, it’s an impossibility [for her to be with him], but it does wake him up with a big splash of cold water.
 
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
 
The words “waking up” kind of comes to mind—that we can wake up from the bad dreams we put ourselves in.
 
What’s next for you?

I’m going back to work with the Coen Brothers in [a remake of] True Grit.
 
Is there anything from this character that will help you with that?
 
Well, he’s another alcoholic. Oh, God, taking the governor off again, dammit. I’ve got to play me a healthy, skinny guy next.
 
And what about Tron Legacy?

We shot that. That’s all done. It’s kind of the same thing [as the 1982 original]. It appealed to the kid in me—you want be this kid who gets sucked into a computer? Oh, man!
 
And now the technology is so much better.
 
Exactly! The new one makes the old one look like an old black and white TV show. I can’t wait to see it.

Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges

Some people are comparing Crazy Heart to The Wrestler [Mickey Rourke’s comeback vehicle of 2008], saying you should be up for an Oscar. How do you feel about that?

 
I like someone to appreciate what I do, especially the guys who do what I do. It feels great, [but] I’m certainly not counting any chickens. Plus it also feels good to bring attention to a movie I’m so happy with—that’s what awards and festivals can do for a little movie like this that can’t afford big print ads, getting people into theaters in other ways, so I’m happy about all that.

I like to be dug. [Grins.]
 



Crazy Heart opens in limited release today, December 16, with a wider release in coming weeks. Get tickets now.

You can buy the film's theme song, The Weary Kind, now. The song (also up for a Golden Globe) is sung by an up-and-comer named Ryan Bingham (he's also in the movie), which is, oddly enough, the name of George Clooney's character in Up in the Air.

Watch the trailer:


 

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