Jeff Bridges still has faith in humanity
"I've got two of your doodles, framed, in my downstairs bathroom."
As an opening line, this had sounded better in my own head, where the delivery was jauntier and less rabidly fan-like. Now I'm wondering what I was thinking. I suppose that it might have been a quirky way to break the monotony of a whole day's interviews, but instead of looking relieved or amused, Jeff Bridges is standing in front of me – one hand still outstretched in greeting – looking distinctly concerned.
"How? Why would that be?" he asks, frowning. And when I explain that he drew the doodles – one of them a bearded Dude from The Big Lebowski – during an interview with my husband a few years ago, he laughs. It's a closed-mouth, musical laugh that comes without warning throughout our interview: a laugh that is warm and incredulous and full of appreciation for the silliness of life.
READ MORE: Movie Review: Hell or High Water
Only when we sit stiffly around a hotel conference table do I realise my foolish opener was about nerves. I've met a few heroes and experienced a lot of disappointment over the years but this is Jeff Bridges, an actor I first fell in love with in Jagged Edge, mooned over in The Fabulous Baker Boys, forgave for starring in The Fisher King, would abide with anywhere and forever after The Big Lebowski, and recently cried over in the animated adaptation of The Little Prince.
That kind of disappointment you don't come back from. And on first glance I'm a little worried by how unrumpled Bridges looks: clean-shaven and starched, he is about as similar to the White Russian-drinking stoner, The Dude, as a middle manager at Carphone Warehouse. But it's a disappointment I won't be experiencing today because the 66-year-old Oscar winner is soon relaxed, sprawling in a chair and telling me an anecdote about his Liverpudlian grandfather.
"Yup, that man had a very dry sense of humour – he would tease me terribly," he says, throwing back a full head of birch-coloured hair and crinkling up his eyes.
The teasing was an expression of love, Bridges' mother told him at the time, and she repeated this years later when his older brother, Beau, "who inherited the teasing gene, took to teasing me the whole way through my childhood". The actor was reminded of the intimacy this heavy-duty ribbing implies when he took on the role of a wisecracking Texas Ranger who – with his persecuted partner, played by Gil Birmingham – pursues a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) across the parched plains of west Texas in his new film, Hell or High Water.
One of the funniest chunks of dialogue in the David Mackenzie-directed movie has Bridges' character – a Columbo-style, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race investigator with a penchant for racial invective – responding to his Indian-American partner's point that he's "also part Mexican" with: "Well, I'm gonna get to that when I'm through with the Indian insults. But it's gonna take a while."
Above enjoyment, the viewer experiences waves of relief throughout Hell or High Water. Relief the film doesn't stick to any conventional heist cliches; that although it's shot in the present day, the characters are seemingly from another time, so plain-talking and uncensored are they; and, finally, at the amoral plot twist.
"That moral ambiguity was another thing that appealed to me," says Bridges. "Not quite knowing what was right or wrong. Which seemed lifelike – and kind of the situation we're in at the moment."
Bridges is prone to expansive, hippie-ish pronouncements, the wisdom of which you probably wouldn't want to challenge even if you could work out what it was. There is a silence as I muster the courage to ask what will seem a very pedestrian question: "Which situation is that?"
"Well, we're such a funky species," he says with a shrug. "We're so violent, so greedy: this is how we roll. But what are we going to do about it? How do we move forward given who we are? Because situations don't come out of nothing. They come out of certain conditions."
Now I see what Bridges is saying. And he's right: it's the conditions Americans are living with now – the origins of which date way back – that are directly responsible for their current "situation". On the day I interview Bridges, the reviewers are already starting to question whether Hell or High Water has a deeper message and is inviting Americans to view the insanity of their own gun culture from the inside out. Since Bridges is one of the only Hollywood stars brave enough to broach the subject of gun control in public, I know that he won't evade the issue, although his features twitch with frustration when I raise the topic.
"Honestly, I think we're just at the initial stages of dealing with the problem. And I don't understand how you can counter an argument against gun safety, against a loaded weapon. Just getting something in the books that makes sure people with mental illness and terrorists can't get guns would be a good idea," he says wryly. "But to tell you the truth I haven't got into this issue as deeply as I might have."
Given Bridges' languorous tone and laid-back nature, it would be easy to dismiss these comments as nothing more than lazy musings, but his increasing involvement with friend Julianne Moore's gun safety advocacy group, the Everytown Creative Council, suggests he is more proactive than he sounds.
"It is a problem I want to look at," he says, "even though I don't have any answers. I mean the barn doors are open and the horses are running out, because we've got guns all over the place.
"It's basically a cold war for individuals: you've got a nuclear bomb and I've got a nuclear bomb and the only thing stopping us from using them is the fact we both have them." There's that musical laugh again, only this time it's mirthless. "And then you think: why don't we have Tasers on our cell phones then? And schoolteachers with guns? It's so weird and so frightening, and isn't the world just such a bizarre place?"
I get the feeling Bridges is more comfortable talking about the vagaries of life than promoting his own movies. As the son of two actors – Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges – who grew up in the affluent Holmby Hills area of LA and landed his first role on his father's 1960s television series Sea Hunt, aged nine, acting must feel like more of an instinct than a craft to Bridges.
After his role in the 1993 drama Fearless, he was described by one US critic as possibly "the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived". Certainly his best-known role in the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski was so effortlessly played that people remain convinced Bridges really is the lovably lost hippie The Dude. "I still sign a lot of bowling pins as him," he says.
"Have fun and don't take it too seriously," his mother once told him, and that's what Bridges has always done. Although he now meditates every day, thanks to a meeting 15 years ago with a "Zen master" named Bernie Glassman (the pair even wrote a book together: Dude and the Zen Master), Bridges isn't serene to the point of vacuity like so many Hollywood neo-Buddhists. There may be an indolence to his manner (he has described himself as "a lazy guy"), but the man worries, about guns, and about the world his three daughters – Isabelle Annie, 35, Jessica Lily, 33, and Hayley Rose Louise, 30 – will grow old in. He seems to have a sense of his own responsibility, too, as a high-profile actor.
"The whole question of movies and violence," he says. "I mean, art inspires and reflects society. Did you ever see a film called The Act of Killing? That's one of the most important films I've ever seen. Everyone should see it. Because all these guys who killed thousands of people [in Indonesia] were inspired by American films. American films told them how to do it. Which makes you think!"
But then art has always reflected life, I point out, and fictional baddies have always existed. "Yes, but if movies are about telling the truth and showing society back to itself, how do you do that without making people, in turn, imitate that truth? So it's this big conundrum we have and I think the danger is cynicism, throwing up your hands and checking out. It's exactly like marriage."
Now I'm laughing, because that's a classic Dude-style non sequitur: how is it like marriage? "Listen," he says, "I've been married for 40 years and I love my wife so much – even more now than ever. So people always ask me: 'What's the secret?'" And? This I can hardly wait for, because it was Bridges who came out with one of my favourite marital maxims: "In a marriage, every fight is the same fight, over and over again, in different forms."
"Well, you're going to come up to these bumps that just seem impassable," he says, "and you think, 'This is where I draw the line', so those lines get drawn. But those lines could be real gold mines. Because if you really get deep into them, that's where love has to expand for you to stay in.
"I think the same thing applies to guns and politics. It's about thinking: 'Hey, let's figure this out.' Because we are all married to each other and living on this little dust speck – so come on!"
By this point, I'm nodding furiously, so high on Jeff Bridges and his guns and love wisdoms that I'm practically levitating.
But nothing brings you back down to earth quite like a PR mouthing "one more question" – a single digit raised for emphasis – and I ask Bridges whether, like the Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water, he has a horror of rocking chairs, porches – and retirement.
"There's only one way I like to think of retirement," he says, smiling, "and that's as re-tirement: putting on a new set of tyres, going off the road and heading off in a whole different direction."
Advance screenings of Hell or High Water (M) are taking place in select cinemas this Labour Weekend before the film opens nationwide on October 27.
- The Telegraph, London