The Achiever 

Actor and musician Jeff Bridges has found a cool niche, man.

click to enlarge art35_music_jeff_bridges.jpg

Danny Clinch

When I find out Jeff Bridges is playing with his country-rock band in Alexandria at the end of the month, there isn't much to decide. Who wouldn't want to chat with the dude who played the Dude?

The 64-year-old has studied Buddhism and practices meditation regularly. As others have noted, he has a natural affinity with his most famous film character to date, the so-laid-back-it-hurts Jeff "Dude" Lebowski from the Coen Brothers' classic, "The Big Lebowski." It's almost uncanny.

When Bridges calls, he's in the backseat of a car being driven somewhere. Earlier that week he bowled out the first pitch at a Dodgers game. He sounds upbeat and instantly friendly, with an almost giddy, high-pitched laugh.

"How ya' doing, mane?" he says in a chipper voice. As an unnecessary icebreaker, I tell him there's a brewery in Ashland that makes a White Russian Milk Stout called El Duderino. He gives a slow, wrinkly laugh. Does that mean he'd like to try some at the show? "Sure, why the heck not?" he says. "Bring it on."

Center of the Universe Brewing: I hope you still make the stuff.

Bridges is accustomed to the Lebowski references on a daily basis. He even named his band the Abiders. "There was a band called the Royal We already," he says. "That was my vote. The guys [in the band] are all from my hometown of Santa Barbara so we play a lot of local gigs. They're dear friends and great guys."

I ask him the most interesting way the Dude role changed his life.

"Well, the number one thing was working with the Coens, they're real masters, and whenever they call I take it real seriously," he says. "And these [Lebowski] festivals are ongoing things. They're great. The Abiders have played and had a blast. I watched the film for the first time in awhile with the audience there and it was just fantastic."

But Bridges says he doesn't think any of his movies have represented his true self too closely. "I've gone about trying to mix up my roles to not develop too strong a persona," he says. "To pleasantly confuse the audience so they can project the character onto me."

Ideally, how would he prefer to split his artistic pursuits now that he's fast approaching retirement age? "I pretty much have it the way I like it," he says. "I'm open to doing movies and working on music, and generally speaking, you know, it all comes at me a little faster than I like. But bitch, bitch, bitch, right? I'm a lucky guy and I'm just trying to relax and have fun in the midst of it all."

Bridges, the son of actor Lloyd Bridges and brother of Beau, has starred in Hollywood films since he was a kid, beginning with "The Last Picture Show" and moving through each decade with continued success. There was the '70s version of "King Kong," '80s films "Tron" and "Starman" and more recent work such as "Iron Man" and "Crazy Heart," which won him an Oscar for best actor and really launched his music career, which had been a hobby for 40 years.

"Crazy Heart" was written and directed by Abingdon native and Hampden-Sydney College graduate Scott Cooper, with whom Bridges hopes to work again.

"He's one of my favorite directors," Bridges says. "We're talking about making a movie out of a wonderful book called 'Shadow Country' by Peter Matthiessen. Hopefully that'll turn out, you never know. I loved [Cooper's most recent film] 'Out of the Furnace.'"

I ask if he recalls the moment he fell in love with music.

"Well, I had piano lessons. And my brother had a Danelectro guitar that I confiscated and jammed on," he says. "Beau is eight years older than I am, so he was into all the original rockers — Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly."

After becoming famous, Bridges got his chance to jam with the legends. Most recently he busted out the Credence tune "Lookin Out My Back Door" (again, from "Lebowski") at the Sturgis biker rally as the onstage guest of John Fogerty. Then there was the time he worked with Bob Dylan on the film "Masked and Anonymous."

"Larry Charles, the creator of 'Seinfeld,' wrote that with Bob, you know, so that's a weird combination," he says. "[Charles] looked at me as the elder thespian and asked me to work with Bob on the acting thing. So I improvised with him for hours, he seemed to take to it pretty good."

One day, Bridges heard a knock on his trailer door and it was Dylan standing there with his guitar.

"He came in and played 'She Belongs to Me,' the beautiful version that he had done in 'Natural Born Killers,'" Bridges says. "I heard that and learned his version. We shot the whole thing in a couple weeks — just had a wonderful time."

Bridges says he's mastering a live album that will be released by a label owned by his longtime friend Jimmy Buffet. "We go back close to 40 years," he says. "[Buffet] did some music for the movie ["Rancho Deluxe"] that I met my wife on in Montana."

Bridges says he hopes to have the album available during this tour: "We'll probably be playing stuff from first album, some 'Crazy Heart' stuff, some stuff I did with T-Bone and some newer stuff."

In addition to his music, Bridges seems most excited to talk about his role as national spokesman for the nonprofit Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, which you may have seen advertised on buses around Richmond.

"A lot of kids struggling with hunger get their meals at schools, and when school's out, so are the meals," he says. "For kids who need to be fed in the summer, they should text 'FOOD' to 877-877 and find out where meals are being served. No paperwork, no questions asked. If you're a hungry kid, you can chow down."

What a swell guy. And that's like, not just his opinion, man. S

Jeff Bridges and the Abiders with Jessie Bridges play at the Birchmere in Alexandria on Sunday, Aug. 31. Tickets cost $89.50, but since the interview, have sold out.

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