Jeff Bridges is speaking quietly to his publicist. He’s Googled something that he wants her to print out before our interview at a swank West Hollywood hotel. What this could possibly be has us in suspense — much like Hell or High Water, the acclaimed film the 66-year-old actor is promoting. The taut yet blisteringly funny thriller puts Bridges’s grizzled Texas sheriff Marcus Hamilton, three weeks from retirement, on the trail of a pair of fraternal bank robbers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) methodically hitting one branch at a time.
Spoiler: Bridges’s print request turns out to be a passage from anti-Communist Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the impossibility of drawing a clear line between good and evil. Bridges intended the quote to sum up the struggle at the heart of his film, which makes it nearly impossible for audiences to choose a side. But the passage serendipitously arrived just as our conversation veered into the presidential election that has sharply divided America.
You get the feeling that this stuff happens all the time when you’re The Dude. Witness the happy coincidence that the Big Lebowski alum’s most recent film takes place in the same tiny Texas town where he shot his big breakout, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. Bridges earned his first of six Oscar nominations for that film (he won one, for Crazy Heart), and could very well land a seventh for Hell. Read on to find out how Bridges feels about retirement, President Trump, and if and when we’ll see The Dude again, be it in a Big Lebowski sequel or elsewhere.
Warning: ‘Hell or High Water’ spoiler ahead.
I have to assume you get a constant barrage of job offers, but Hell or High Water is a clear diamond in the rough. What factors do you look for when deciding what to do next?
One thing that comes to mind is if it’s the kind of movie that I’d like to see. And those are movies where the filmmaker is ahead of you as an audience, and you can’t quite figure out what’s gonna happen. Or a movie that seems authentic. This movie in particular had that feeling. Taylor Sheridan wrote a script that just reeked of authenticity. You knew that this guy really knew this world. And turns out Taylor’s a Texan and his cousin, Parnell McNamara, was a marshal. And also I was drawn to the ambiguity of it, who’s right and who’s wrong?
Do you have a soft spot for stories set in the dusty South? You’ve done films like True Grit and Crazy Heart, or even going all the way back to one of your very first, The Last Picture Show.
Well, I love Westerns for one thing. My father, Lloyd Bridges, he was in a bunch of Westerns so whenever he would come home dressed up like a cowboy I’d get all excited and put all that stuff up… And like you mentioned, Last Picture Show. It’s interesting that the first bank that these guys rob [in Hell or High Water] was in Archer City, which is where we shot Last Picture Show. And when we shot the sequel to Last Picture Show, 20 years later, called Texasville, the town looked just the same except there was a big black glass bank that looked like it was just dropped right into the middle of the town. But I think the success of Last Picture Show is what kind of set this ball rolling of playing characters from that part of the country.
Are you more of a city guy or more of a country guy?
Well, I’ve got a place in Montana. That’s where I met my wife [Susan Geston] and I’ve done a few movies there. So I can kind of straddle the two.
Even though Hell or High Water is, on the surface, a shoot-’em-up bank robber tale, it addresses all these social issues, too, like the mortgage crisis, bank greed, disenfranchisement, even concealed carry laws. Was that also appealing?
No, not really. The success of the movie is wonderful and a lot of people that you talk to say that part of that success is due to the fact that it’s kind of a movie of these times. I think that’s true, but I don’t think it’s particular to these times. In my experience and also just looking back through history, that’s how we have rolled as a species forever. Very selfish, putting the other guy down or in his place, looking out for ourselves.
How are you feeling in light of the presidential election?
What times we’re living in, man. God. As The Dude might say, “New s–t has come to light.” I mean, God! Here we are. I don’t know quite what to think. It’s totally new turf. I mean, I voted for Hillary. But looking at Donald’s acceptance speech, it was very heartening to hear him to say, “First, I want to thank Hillary for all her great work.” And, “All you people who didn’t vote for me, I want you to know that I’m looking for your guidance.” If you took that out of context, that’s wonderful.
I love what Elizabeth Warren said. She was on Rachel Maddow saying that there are some things that Trump is talking about that I’m for, and I’m going to really help him work on, and there are other things that I’m not. And when I heard her say that, that kind of struck a chord with me. I would definitely work with him on making America a great place. I see more interconnectivity, that the world is America and America is the world. [Starts singing “We Are the World.”]
[Bridges’s publicist arrives with the printout he requested. “Good timing, dear,” he says.]
What do you have here?
This is a quote that kind of goes into context of our conversation, and I think it’s a good thing to say at this time. This is from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. [Reading] “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
It’s a challenge for us. In the end of this movie [where Bridges and Pine’s characters threaten to “bring each other peace”], what is this peace that we’re looking for? And are we capable of achieving this living together? Not achieve some kind of utopia, but you know, work with each other. Have some empathy. Try to understand what it means to be a human being and this need we have to not only serve ourselves and our families, but the greater whole.
In the film, Marcus is struggling with pending retirement and the end of his life as he knows it. Do you ever think about if and when you’ll ever hang it up?
It’s kind of an interesting thing because with actors, you could act on your deathbed. Retirement is sort of attractive to me. Not stopping altogether. My buddy Bernie Glassman [co-founder of the Zen Peacemakers] says, “Retiring is just putting on a new set of tires. Re-tire.” Going off-road. I have a lot of different interests. Music and photography, art, all kinds of things, and just being with my family. Making movies kind of takes you away from that. So I don’t know what I’ll personally do with retirement.
Well, you’ve done Westerns, you’ve done the superhero thing, you’ve done sci-fi. Is there anything you haven’t done yet in the acting realm that you still want to explore?
Yeah, probably. I don’t know if it’s a different genre or anything. But I’m sort of a counter-puncher that way… It’s not like, “I want to play George Washington.” Projects are presented to me and most of my energy is spent in trying to resist them. Because I know what it means to go to work. Other projects might be coming down the line that you can’t do because you’re already obligated to do something that’s taken me away from my family and from other things that I’d like to do. So my process is I really try not to engage, and then the ones that I just can’t resist, they’re just too well written or the character or the director, the actors are just too cool… That’s what I end up doing.
You quoted The Dude earlier. Is there any chance we’re ever going to see The Dude again?
You never know. I mean, it’s all set up. The Stranger said… Maude’s got that bun in the oven, the little Dude. We’ll see if the Coen brothers say, “Look what’s happening.” I’m there.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
Well, John Turturro is working on his own Lebowksi spinoff, Going Places. Have you followed that?
Yeah, though with The Big Lebowski you don’t know if that’s a rumor or if that’s real.
It sounds pretty real. It’s been cast.
I know, but I’ve heard those things that sound real with other things about Lebowski. I know for a fact that John’s wanted to do that for so long. I hope it does come down, it would be wonderful.
Hell or High Water is available now on Digital HD and releases on DVD and Blu-ray Nov. 22.