It's easy to think that within the confines of a tentpole would-be blockbuster, the actors have little more to do than show up, look good, and hit their marks. But Jeff Bridges seems to approach every role the same way, whether he's belly-up in a bathtub in 'The Big Lebowski,' chasing down damsels in distress in 'King Kong,' or returning to a role he played almost 30 years ago to reinvent a plucky computer programmer as a silicon valley hippie in 'Tron: Legacy.' And while that approach might seem spectacularly intuitive, especially given his consistently natural presence on screen, Bridges confesses that it's a lot more formal than it looks, and it's helped him last in a business that doesn't offer a whole lot of longevity.
It was last July in San Diego when Cinematical sat down with Jeff Bridges at Comic-Con to discuss 'Tron: Legacy,' his long-anticipated follow-up to the 1982 sci-fi groundbreaker. In addition to talking about the task of reviving a character after what is arguably the longest hiatus between installments in film history, he explained the process by which he works on each new acting challenge he tackles, and offered a few anecdotes about the lessons he learned as he developed his craft and eventually became one of the industry's most well-respected performers.
I think this is the longest period of time between one film and its sequel, but a close runner-up has got to be 'Texasville' happening after 'The Last Picture Show.'
Yeah! Isn't that something?
Have you ever felt like you left behind characters before you were done exploring them, or do you consider your experience finished once shooting a film has finished?
Well, in those two films that you mention, I wasn't really thinking of sequels on either one of those films. I never imagined that, but I felt pretty complete at the end of both of those.
But have you finished with other films and felt like there were ideas that you would have liked to explore with your characters?
No, I don't have that experience. In most of them, I feel like I've done it, basically, as much as I am going to.
Where does your preparation start for each role you take on?
Bridges: Well, I guess what comes to mind when you ask that question is where it started in 'Tron' how I prepared, and then in my general preparation, and then I go back to when I was a kid learning about it, so I'll talk about that a little bit. My father, Lloyd Bridges, was my teacher, and unlike a lot of actors, my father was so gung ho about turning his kids on to this profession that he loves so much. I was carried on when I was six months old to a movie where he was visiting the set, and I don't know – you're probably too young to remember 'Sea Hunt,' but whenever there was a young kid part for that, he would ask me, "do you want to do this? Do you want to come to work with dad?" I would say "nah," and he said, "come on! You get to get out of school, man, and you'll get some money to buy toys."
So I said okay, and then he would sit me on his bed and teach me all of the basics of acting, about making it seem like it's happening for the first time. He would say, "okay, go out of the room and come back, and do it completely different – like you've never said this before." And "don't just wait for me to stop what I'm saying. Listen to what I'm saying." All of these basics.
And then my mother would also teach me about things; they were both students of Michael Chekhov, so I remember one of the things my mom talking about was ways of looking at a scene, and one way would be to make it as real as possible – as if it was you. As if you were in that character's position. So then you work on the scene that way, and then the other way is to say, okay, now work on it thinking of how the character is different from you, and what you might accentuate in the character at different levels. And then the third way is almost in an architectural way, like, what is the function of this scene in telling this whole story, and what is your function as the character you are playing in that scene?
Getting back to your question – this is kind of a roundabout way, but as far as prepping for 'Tron' or other movies, I go through all of those basics. You get back to the basics: the story that you're telling is the most important, so I look at this scene and see what's the function of this scene in telling the whole story, what is my character supposed to be doing in this scene, and I just approach it that way. So I approach all movies in that similar fashion, whether they're comedies or dramas or science fiction or anything, basically it's the same. A long answer, sorry.
Not at all! Does the fact that Flynn is sort of withdrawn from the modern world make it easier to create his personality for this film, or did you have to sort of reverse-engineer his personality between 2010 and the original 'Tron?'
Yeah, there was some of that, and that was in the script a lot. We talked about that – we talked about that with the director [Joseph Kosinski], with [Steven] Lisberger, who was very much involved in this, who was the original writer and director. So that was something we were looking at – speech patterns, phrases that he might have used, and the general energy of who that guy was, and then, you know, letting him age, that character age, and what that character would be like.
As you get older, does that process become easier to let go of - to construct the character in your head and then just be in the moment when you're on set?
Well, you do all of your homework and you're thinking about it, and I try to be as prepared as I can. Different actors approach it different ways. I like to learn my lines so I'm not thinking about them; they're just in my brain and they'll pop out when the time is right, and then like you say, when you get there on the day, it's often completely different. The other actor might not be saying it the way you imagined he would deliver his lines, or it was supposed to be a sunny day and now it's raining, and so all of those differences. There's an impulse because you want to perform, you want to rise to the occasion and do your best work, there's an impulse that surfaces that you're like, "oh, shit – that's not how I imagined it," and you feel the resentment kind of bubble up, and there's nothing like resentment to kill your buzz - and to make you feel good and relax.
So when you feel that, when I feel that, I notice it and say, oh, get with the program, man! Don't try to muscle it to be how you imagine it. Get a little yin in here, man, and take it because those are like directions from God; they're little mistakes and things that are different, and those are real gifts that are going to take you off your game plan, which is kind of what you want, because you want to be fresh, and my method, I put a lot of faith in the director and look to him to take me past my conceptions, so I will most often hold his opinion of the way it should be over my own. I try not to get too locked into my own opinion.
Do you have to think about whether or not the character or his behavior is resonating within the story, or is that purely the director's responsibility?
It's mostly relying on the director. I do my stuff, and then the director is in charge of how it's all put together. I remember one of my early acting lessons that I learned was on my first movie, it was called 'Halls of Anger,' and I was playing a white kid who was being bussed into a black school, and the kid was trying to integrate and stuff, and the black kids kept beating me up. So this is kind of like the climax of the scene and Calvin Lockhart was playing the vice principal at this black school, and I came to him because I'd just been beaten up by these guys, and he was trying to say, "you've got to go back and keep trying," and I would get very emotional and cry and say, "no, I've had it," and it would be a big emotional scene.
I happened to be going through my first deep love affair, and my heart had been broken, and I was able to kind of use that pain to do an acting judo or whatever and make it work for the scene. They shot all of the coverage first, and they came to me and I was able to bring it up like it was happening for the first time. I was like, f**k, man, I'm good at this! That was hard to do! I'm so proud.
Now we cut to the premiere of this movie and it's in Watts and it's kind of a sea of black people and my family is sitting, my father on one side of me and my brother on the other side. I'm sitting there saying, wait until you see this scene, because in my head I'm excited, and now here comes this scene, and the director's choice was to have it all on Calvin Lockhart's face, and it finally cuts to me at the height of my emotion, my face is [apoplectic distorted] and the whole audience bursts out laughing. And I about shit, man. I thought, it had the opposite reaction that I had imagined from the audience, and so the lesson or the choice there was, so what are you going to do about this? Are you going to protect yourself and not go there, or how do you do it? You hear some actors say, 'I'm not even going to give them that choice'.
And I decided that, no, you've got to be willing to be the fool; you've got to be willing to just be totally misunderstood, and just give it up. And that's kind of what I do: you give it up to the director that he's going to take you past yourself, and every once in a while it's better than you ever imagined. But that's kind of a rare thing, when that happens and they put it all together and you say, 'God, I thought that felt good while we were doing it, but that's even better'.