When Jeff Bridges was in his twenties, he wrote a short story about fear.
In it, a young man (Jeff Bridges) attempts to sprint across a beach with his eyes closed, but finds he can’t. In the darkness, his brain plays tricks on him: he imagines being smashed in the face by a steel girder, “swung by some invisible giant”. Recalling the piece today, more than four decades since writing it, Bridges laughs: “You’d think after all these years I would have relaxed a little, but it hasn’t happened. That feeling is still with me. It’s like, ‘Oh, here he comes again: my old buddy, anxiety…’”
This is not the direction you would expect a conversation with Jeff Bridges to go. Received wisdom – if you’ve ever read or watched an interview with him – is that the man himself is largely indistinguishable from his most famous role: Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski. It’s not just the beard or the Bob Dylan obsession or the tendency to end sentences with “man”: it’s his whole outlook on life. Bridges appears to embody a flagrantly “Dude abides” approach to existence. He radiates laidback, unruffled optimism: a frazzled contentment that suggests the universe has placed him exactly where he needs to be.
Today, though, the 68-year-old dismisses that idea with a hollow chuckle. “You say, ‘Oh, you seem so relaxed’, but really, that’s a bit of an act; it’s a show. We like to present a certain image of ourselves, but I worry about everything. I worry about success, about failure.” He offers a vaguely Lebowski-themed metaphor: “Think about a rug, right. You’ve got the presentation side on top, which looks great. But if you flip it over, you can see what it takes to make it look like that. All those twists and turns and knots… It’s just like in the movie: nobody is exactly what they seem.”
The movie in question is not the Coens’ 1998 stoner classic, but rather Bridges’ latest: brutal neo-noir thriller Bad Times At The El Royale. It’s the reason we’re speaking today, and it’s also the reason we’ve wandered on to this subject of pretending to be something you’re not. Duplicity runs through the film to such an extent that it’s difficult to say anything about it without spreading either spoilers or misinformation. So suffice to say that, in an era where cinemas are overgrown with sequels and superheroes, a great standalone film fullof original characters is a refreshing anomaly.
“I had the same thought reading the script,” Bridges says. “I never could understand why you’d want to make a $200m [£154m] movie when you could make a whole bunch of smaller ones. It’s wonderful to be part of a movie like this where you think, ‘Yeah, this is something new, something fresh.’”
But as well as providing a welcome break between franchise blockbusters, Bad Times is also just the latest in a decades-long line of Very Good Films Starring Jeff Bridges. He’s one of those rare actors that combine mainstream success with cult credibility, and his meandering career path has been revered by everyone from Jon Hamm to Ryan Reynolds. Since 2010’s True Grit he’s become Hollywood’s go-to grizzled cowpoke, but his 20th-century track-record is an intensely watchable mishmash of genres and characters, from The Last Picture Show to Tron to The Fisher King. This, it transpires, was no accident.
“Labyrinths are a beautiful metaphor for life. You’re trying to get to the centre: sometimes you get close, you don’t quite make it, you’re sent way back out…”
“I made the choice early on to play a wide variety of roles,” he tells me, in that chewy West-Coast growl – Tom Waits with a mouthful of golden syrup. “Growing up, I saw how frustrated my father [Lloyd Bridges] was at being typecast. He was in this TV show, Sea Hunt, and he played a skin diver. He played it so well that all he got offered were skin diver parts. I saw that and I went out of my way never to develop too strong a persona.”
As a game plan it’s worked wonders, earning him six Oscar nominations – plus a win for 2009’s Crazy Heart – and inspiring a religion, Dudeism (currently at more than 250,000 followers). With all that in mind – to return to the underside of the rug – why on earth would he have to worry about failure?
“I suppose a lot of it’s in my head,” he says. “Crazy Heart’s a good example. I love music, so it seemed like a dream project to me, and I initially turned it down for that reason. If things only exist in your head, they’re kind of… safe. In a dream state, things stay perfect. It’s when you bring in real life that you get problems.”
This, then, is how Jeff Bridges deals with real life. He rises at 6.30am every morning (a veritable lie-in for Mark Wahlberg), sticks some coffee on and meditates. He has described himself as “Buddhistly bent” and self-examination plays such a large part in his life that he – personally – mowed a labyrinth into the back garden of his Santa Barbara home in order to practise “walking meditation” through it.
“Labyrinths are a beautiful metaphor for life,” he says, sounding, on this occasion, supremely Dude-ish. “You’re trying to get to the centre: sometimes you get close, you don’t quite make it, you’re sent way back out…”
When not traipsing the labyrinth, however, most of Bridges’ free time is spent with his wife of 41 years and their three daughters. Parenting is a topic he’s surprisingly frank on. When I ask what advice he wishes he’d been given as a new dad, he sighs. “I do look back and think, ‘Gee, I wish I’d made fewer movies and spent more time with my kids.’ We have a great relationship now but, honestly, that period [when they’re growing up] goes so fast.”
Bridges is making up for it these days by “inventing reasons to hang” with them: co-writing a children’s book with his eldest, and regularly singing live with his middle daughter. He is also still close with a group of male friends he met more than 50 years ago at high school.
“It’s sad, though,” he reflects. “The older you get, the less you ‘play’ with your friends like you used to. We had this tradition for years: Wednesday-night jam. It started in school and there was one rule: no songs, only spontaneous stuff. And you know, one of my friends came to the Bad Times premiere, and he turned up listening to all that music we recorded years ago. That’s all he listens to! Wonderful, man!”
I ask again about his Old Buddy Anxiety. Any tips for keeping him at bay?
“I think a lot about something Kevin Bacon told me,” he says, and I’m immediately on board with whatever’s coming.
“Before every take [on the schlocky 2013 sci-fi cop film R.I.P.D.] he’d say in this serious voice: ‘Remember, everything depends on this.’” The air is flooded with giggles. “Isn’t that funny? I mean, you take any moment of your life and blow it up to that degree and you can see the ridiculousness of worrying about it. Fear, anxiety…you’ve got to make friends of them both.”
Bad Times At The El Royale is at cinemas from 12 October