Jeff Bridges on His Nostalgic Life in The Only Living Boy in New York

The legendary Jeff Bridges reveals how he picks his roles these days, how he thinks New York has changed, and what he loves about actors.

There are few actors who need much of an introduction, and Jeff Bridges is one of them. His astounding range of roles over the past 50-plus years includes memorable characters in The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman, Tron, Iron ManThe Fisher King, True Grit, and many, many more, including his Oscar-winning lead role in 2009’s Crazy Heart. Of course to many, he might always be “The Dude” 20 years on from The Big Lebowski.

But this week, however, you can catch him in director Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York, where he plays W.F. Gerald, the enigmatic neighbor of the story’s young protagonist Thomas (Callum Turner). The sparkling cast also includes Pierce Brosnan, Kate Beckinsale and Cynthia Nixon. It’s a Woody Allen-esque comedy/drama about people making questionable romantic choices, and after we sat down with Bridges to talk about it–and 15 minutes is not nearly enough with this acting icon–we had to edit the interview a bit to keep a few details about W.F. from getting out there too soon.

Den of Geek: I actually wanted to start this off with a belated congratulations for Hell or High Water, and I wanted to say what a spectacular piece of filmmaking that was.

Jeff Bridges: Thank you.

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Best movie of the last year in my opinion.

Thank you very much.

What’s your approach these days to selecting roles as opposed to maybe years back?

Well, a couple of things come to mind. My father, Lloyd Bridges, he had a very successful TV show in the 60s called Sea Hunt. He did such a good job portraying Mike Nelson, this skin diver, that people thought he was a skin diver, and that’s a great compliment for an actor. The downside of that is that all the people who made movies said, “Let’s get Bridges to play this underwater guy,” so he’d get all these underwater scripts. He was a very versatile actor, Shakespeare, comedy, all kinds of things, so it was wonderful in one sense that he got success, and it was great financially and all that, but on the other side, it was a tough road to hoe because he developed a strong persona, and that’s how he was seen.

I took that as a clue. I saw how he struggled with that, and I really didn’t want to develop too strong a persona. Also, being a movie lover myself, I know you can’t help but have baggage when you go to a movie, what you read about the guy you’re about to see, or when you last saw him, or anything like that, you carry that into the theater with you. So I wanted to pleasantly confuse the audience so they would be able to superimpose the character that I was playing and also give a message to the financiers that I could play different roles. So I really set out trying to mix up and not develop this strong persona.

Are you a lot more selective now, as a result of that?

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Over the years, as I get older, I don’t give so much a shit about that, you know what I mean? But there is something else that has been a constant throughout the whole thing, and that is I still try to mix it up for my own entertainment basically, but I really try hard not to work, not to engage, because I know what it takes. It takes being away from my … Well in the old days, my family, but now my wife. All my girls are grown up, and I’ve got so many other interests that I like doing, and I know what it takes, just the energy that it takes to do it, so I try not to.

Christian Bale said something like that once, that he keeps making excuses why he can’t take the part.

That’s right.

And then when he runs out of excuses, he does it.

Yeah, yeah. That’s it. Then if a movie comes along like this one or, like you mentioned, Hell or High Water… It’s like that line that Pacino has with Godfather III: “I tried to get out, and they pulled me back in.” I try not to do it, but the thing is too attractive, so that’s my method. I struggle to not do it, but if the gravitational pull is too cool, the first thing is the story, if it’s the kind of movie that I want to see, and then, who are the other guys in it, who are the other artists involved, then that draws me in.

What did you like about this guy, W.F.? Did his character arc surprise you as you were reading the script?

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One of the things that I loved about the script that Allan Loeb wrote is that my character is set up as a mysterious guy. You don’t know who he is, and then about half way into the movie, you get to know [a little bit more about him, and then more after that]. It’s fresh and it kicks you. I love that arc, how that character was presented, and it’s challenging for me to talk about it.

He’s a romanticized version of a certain type of New York character that we know and that is not around as much these days. Is that something that also caught you about him?

I guess I didn’t think of him as much as a New York character. I’m more of an LA kid, so I had to take my direction from Marc and Allan, the writer and director. This one was a love story to New York, and the nostalgia for the way things used to be, I can dig that too being from LA. I love New York. I was just talking about how much New York has changed. My favorite part of New York really is Central Park. I love Central Park, and that hasn’t changed. What do you think? Where are you from?

I’m a native New Yorker.

Oh you are? So what do you think about that? Do you think Central Park’s soul has remained intact?

I haven’t been home too much in the last 10 years, but I think Central Park has stayed more or less the same. But I’m always reading online about this record store that closed, or this club or this book store, and that’s very sad to me.

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I know. It’s the gentrification of the nation or whatever that’s going on, and it is sad and a bit nostalgic, but that’s the way it is. Things don’t last. I was a big Talking Heads fan, and I was sorry that I missed the whole CBGB scene. This hotel I stayed at was right next door to where it was. Now it’s some kind of men’s store.

The film itself is also kind of a movie that we’re not seeing a lot of these days.

Yeah, mid-range, mid-budget movies that for a while there we weren’t seeing. We’d either have these hundreds of million dollar movies or very small movies, and that mid-range was harder to get made. Now, I think with outfits like Amazon getting in the picture, we’re going to see more of these kind of films, and I like that. I think there’s a certain kind of story that’s best told with this budget, so I’m glad we’re going to see more of those.

When you work with younger actors these days like Callum, are they different or similar to how you and your brother and your friends were when you were starting out?

They’re very similar. I love actors. They’re so great. It’s almost like you’re in a family together, and there’s a shorthand that you have with each other. You’re both going to go through the same experiences. And not all actors experience it in the same way, but most actors experience flop sweat, the performance anxiety, and that’s something that you can relate to and laugh about and that eases the tension.

There’s a desire, I feel, for most actors to get to know each other quick because you’re going to have to play with each other, and you want to feel relaxed with each other because, for my mind, I think being relaxed the best stuff comes out. So to create that relaxation, you engage. You let people know who you are, and you’re anxious to know who they are, and you become friends, but it happens at a quicker speed than it normally would because there’s a purpose involved. We’re making art together.

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