Interview | Jeff Bridges Explains How To Annoy Jeff Bridges

To start with, I spent part of my day explaining to Hell or High Water star Jeff Bridges how to correctly pronounce the name of the Superman villain “Mr. Mxyzptlk.” We were sitting across from each other on the patio of a posh Los Angeles hotel, and he was wondering about my Spider-Man t-shirt, and I got to talking about why I fell in love with a neurotic superhero, and he started equating Spider-Man’s psychological crisis to that of Jesus in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, and it took me a while to realize that we hadn’t talked about Hell or High Water yet and that was literally the reason why I was there.

So let’s skip the pitter-patter and get to the meat, our talk about the new crime drama, about a pair of brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who set out the rob the bank that’s driving them bankrupt. Jeff Bridges plays the grizzled detective on their trail, and Gil Birmingham plays his partner, who is also the brunt of the detective’s many off-color, racist jokes. It’s an acclaimed drama about hard economic times, and it’s now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.

Without any further ado, here I am with Jeff Bridges, who will also explain exactly the right way to annoy him (it worked for his brother Beau!).

CBS Films / Lionsgate

CBS Films / Lionsgate

Crave: What do you look for in a role nowadays? You’ve got your Oscar, you’ve got many classic films to your credit. Do you get to pick and choose, still? What do you look for?

Jeff Bridges: I don’t really look for anything. A lot of my energy is spent in resisting what’s coming my way. I don’t have as many of those aspirations. Well, I’ve got a few aspirations, a few fantasies, but I’ve noticed I don’t pursue them as vigorously as I might. But I spend a lot of energy pushing projects away because I know what it costs. For one thing, once you agree to do this thing, the other thing – you don’t even know what it is yet – you won’t have the opportunity to do it because you’re doing something else. So what I end up doing is that thing I can’t resist. There’s something, an element of it that just draws me in.

What drew you in about Hell or High Water?

Well this one, I read the script. Taylor Sheridan’s script was so authentic. It felt like this writer really knew, really knew what he was talking about. And the ambiguity, you know, the blurring of right and wrong, and who’s right. Of course it’s wrong to rob a bank, but is it right for banks to loan money to people they know can’t pay it back, and that then they’ll be able to get their land?

It seems like every generation or two we update our Robin Hood myth to justify stealing from the rich, and giving to… if not “the poor,” then to ourselves, because we are the poor. Is that part of the appeal, that theme?

You know, nowadays when we’re talking about the movie, I’m so glad that it’s being well-received, and a lot of people are saying that it’s being well-received because it’s a movie of these times. But as I look back, it’s sort of how we roll as a species, from as far back as we can go. This idea of selfishness, and making sure that my family, or my ideas, my party is the one that got what it needs to survive.

There’s an element I liked, which is this pervasive quality of masculine bonding. Between brothers. Between you and your partner over the course of the film, which is antagonistic but also very intimate. It was nice to see that sort of relationship explored against a genre backdrop.

Yeah.

Hell or High Water

Because you bond with your partner by making racist jokes, which is an interesting character to play. What do you think about that? How does your character feel about that? Is it all in good fun? Is there a part of him that is just kinda racist, but doesn’t see that much of a problem with it?

I come from a long line of teasers, myself. My grandfather was from Liverpool. He had this cutting, dry sense of humor. Teased us kind of unmercifully. My brother, Beau, he inherited that gene pretty well. [Laughs.] He’s eight years older than I am. He teased me terribly and my mother would always say, “Well, that’s because he loves you so much!” And I say, “Yeah. I can see that.” [Laughs.] It’s a showing of intimacy. I know you so well, if I go like that it’s going to… So there’s some kind of love, but it’s also very hurtful and very painful. But it’s how we’re raised. It depends, what comes out of our mouths, and our actions.

But I like that when push came to shove none of that mattered [in the film].

Yeah, yeah, no. It’s all nothing.

If I may, if it’s not too personal, what did Beau tease you about when you were kids? What was the thing that he knew was your button?

He got beyond words. He was that sophisticated. He’d simply do this… [Editor’s Note: Jeff Bridges points his finger at me, wiggles it ever so slightly, and keeps doing that for a long time. It really is annoying.]

You see what I’m saying?

I can see that getting annoying real fast.

Or he’d even go like this. [Editor’s Note: Jeff Bridges puts his hand under the table. I can’t see it but I just KNOW he’s pointing that finger at me and wiggling it. It’s uncanny.]

You know what I mean? At the dinner table! My parents would say, “Stop! Beau, what are you doing to Jeff?” I’d say, “He’s pointing at me!” “No he’s not!” and I can tell he’s pointing at me under the table, just by the expression on his face!

Does he still do it?

No, thank god. But now that it’s out he probably will, and everybody will be pointing at me! Oh shit!

On red carpets, it’s just like [points and wiggles].

That’s right, everybody!

I’ll do that and you’ll know it’s a gesture of affection.

What have I done…?

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

When you look back, because I’ve loved you in… god, everything, Starman, TRON, the other TRON, everything, Tucker: A Man and His Dream

Iron Man?

Iron Man, that was a fun one.

Iron Monger, for me that was my best… See, you’re a Spider-Man guy and I’m an Iron Man guy. I think that was the best one of that genre. I thought Jon Favreau and Downey pulled that [off]. The tone on these is very challenging.

He did it the first try.

And he had the Marvel guys, the suits I mean, we had to write that thing as we went. You know, very frustrating in a way, but Jon was able to just direct that so beautifully.

It’s an excellent tone. You managed to look threatening on a Segway.

[Laughs.]

Tell me about that Segway. Was that your idea?

I can’t even remember but I loved that, going to and from the set on that thing. I saw a guy, where was I? In New York on a unicycle Segway with no handle, have you seen that?

Yeah…

I don’t know, it was quite amazing.

Dreamworks

Dreamworks

It’s hard to be threatening on that but Jeff Bridges could pull it off. Do you have a preference, when you’re playing a character, that they be in a broad storyline with robots, etc. or that they be in something that’s really intimate and human? Is there a difference?

Not a difference in my approach. My dad, Lloyd Bridges, he had a tv series in the ‘60s called Sea Hunt where he played a skin diver, and he was a very versatile actor. He replaced Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha on Broadway, singing “I Don Quixote!” Great comedian, Shakespeare and everything. But he did that one series and he got typecast, and I saw what a wonderful compliment it was when people said, “Gee, you’re a skin diver!” But he would get only skin diver scripts, you know…

How many were there…?

Well, they would just come up with them! Because it was a success people wanted to cash in on that. So I, early on in my career specifically, really tried hard not to develop a strong persona, so people could project a character more easily on me, and also it would hopefully inspire the filmmakers to send me a variety of roles. But as far as which kind I like the best, I approach them basically the same way whether it’s a comedy, a drama, a tragedy, all that stuff.

Did they ever try to typecast you, after The Big Lebowski or after King Kong? “Oh, this guy just fights giant monsters.” 

Yeah, in a way. You know it was great, very gratifying, after The Dude, to play the President in The Contender. That’s a good example of how I would like to shift it like that.

That was an inspiring character and it really made me want to try a sharkskin sandwich. Or shark fin, wasn’t it…?

Shark steak sandwich? Shark steak sandwich.

Shark steak sandwich, which you can’t even get anymore. You were the last one. I hope you enjoyed it.

Rod Lurie, great director. Talking about authentic scripts, I remember that one, having the same type of reaction that I had with Hell or High Water, that this screenwriter knew what he was talking about. It was a political animal. Do you know, because he he started out as one of you guys…?

Right, he started out as a critic. He’s one of our success stories. The Contender feels a little extra topical nowadays.

Top Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for CBS Films

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.