"The word that comes to mind is 'momentum,'" says actor Jeff Bridges as we sit down in Los Angeles to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast and begin to discuss why he hasn't given in to his temptation to retire. The 66-year-old Oscar-winner and fan favorite, who currently is the subject of significant best supporting actor buzz for his portrayal of a chatty Texas ranger out to solve one last case before retiring in David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, mulls over the matter for a moment before continuing. "I've been doing this for such a long time, and even though my m.o. is to try to turn down as many movies as I can - what's that Pacino line? 'Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!'"
(Click above to listen to this episode now or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Warren Beatty, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson and Michael Moore.)
Bridges, the son of actor Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt) and actress Dorothy Bridges, and the younger brother of Beau Bridges, was encouraged to join the family business by his dad. "I like to say that I'm a product of nepotism," he cracks, noting that he was put into his first movie when he still was just an infant. But the truth is a little more complicated: Bridges actually resisted becoming an actor, even after his breakthrough role in Peter Bogdanovich's "huge success" The Last Picture Show (1971), for which he received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, and the part he played after that, as a small-time boxer in John Huston's Fat City (1972). "You don't want to get a job just because of who your dad or mom is and, like most kids, you don't want to do what your parents want you to do," he says. "I questioned whether I was going to make this the main thrust of my life."
His "surges of anxiety" began to abate when, as "a little experiment on myself," he reluctantly went to work on a movie he didn't really want to make: John Frankenheimer's The Iceman Cometh (1973). There, surrounded by revered veteran actors who also displayed doubts and fears, he began to relax and appreciate his craft. A year later, he garnered his second Oscar nomination, for Michael Cimino's directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and a year after that he met his future wife, Susan Geston, on the set of Rancho Deluxe (1975). This newfound confidence and sense of self probably enabled him to survive his starring roles in two of the biggest flops of all-time, Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong (1976) and Heaven's Gate (1978), the latter a reunion with Cimino.
For the next 20 years, Bridges proved one of the most reliable, if somewhat under-the-radar, actors in the business. Among other highlights, he picked up his third Oscar nomination for Starman (1984), in which he plays an alien; got to draw upon his personal passion for music in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989); and memorably shared the screen with Robin Williams in The Fisher King (1991). But it was his work in a part that was written for him, and that he made look easy, that served as a shot of adrenaline for his career - namely, the part of a stoner nicknamed 'The Dude' in Ethan and Joel Coen's comedy The Big Lebowski (1998). "It'd be one of my favorite movies whether I was in it or not," he says with a smile, noting that he "made a choice to not get high while I was making the movie" because it would have made it harder to be faithful to the Coens' priceless, intricate dialogue.
Ever since, Bridges hasn't stopped mixing it up - "I said, 'Shit, I better really concentrate on not developing too strong a persona,' so I tried to shift it up" - or shining in parts ranging from the president in Rod Lurie's The Contender (2000) to a horse owner in Gary Ross' Seabiscuit (2003) to a grieving parent in Tod Williams' The Door in the Floor (2004). He received his fourth Oscar nom - and finally won, in the category of best actor - for his portrayal of an alcoholic country singer named 'Bad Blake' in Scott Cooper's directorial debut Crazy Heart (2009), on which he collaborated with two music-world gurus he'd known since Heaven's Gate, T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. Just a year later, he was a best actor Oscar nominee again for a reunion with the Coens, True Grit.
As for Hell or High Water, Bridges couldn't be prouder. The August release, which was made for just $12 million, has grossed $30 million and become one of the year's best-reviewed films. Bridges thought it was special when he first read Taylor Sheridan's script ("It just rang real") and spoke with Mackenzie (who indicated he was going for the vibe of several early Bridges films). He loves its Western-like feel. And the actor celebrates its exploration of "the ambiguity about right and wrong." In short, Bridges is happy he didn't retire before this one came along - and as long as other opportunities of this caliber continue to come along, he won't. In other words, you might say, the dude abides.
Read more: 'Hell or High Water': Cannes Review