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With 'Hell Or High Water,' Jeff Bridges Returns To The American West


Jeff Bridges became a cult hero playing The Dude in "The Big Lebowski," but he's made a career in movies set in the American West. He was Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers "True Grit" and had an Oscar-winning role in 2009's "Crazy Heart." His latest film "Hell Or High Water" adds to that, but with a modern twist.

It's a present-day "Robin Hood" tale that unfolds across the sprawling plains of West Texas. The story centers on a pair of brothers driven to robbing banks that want to foreclose on their deceased mother's home. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a career lawman tasked with capturing the brothers for his final assignment.


GIL BIRMINGHAM: (As Alberto Parker) It's reckless is what it is. It's tweakers, I'm telling you.

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) I don't think these boys is reckless - damn sure ain't tweakers. They know exactly what they're doing.

BIRMINGHAM: (As Alberto Parker) I don't know how you're going to survive without somebody to outsmart. You need a hobby and quick.

BRIDGES: (As Marcus Hamilton) Maybe one of these bank robbers is going to want a gunfight, and I can dodge my retirement in a blaze of glory.

CHIDEYA: Jeff Bridges joins us now from Santa Barbara, Calif. Welcome to the program.

BRIDGES: Oh, thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So what drew you to this film?

BRIDGES: Well, it was the old, you know - the reading of the script. It rang so true to me. I felt that the writer, Taylor Sheridan - he must know this world that he's talking about - Texas and lawmen. And I find out after meeting him that his uncle is a marshal down in Texas and that really helped. I got to talk with him and add his authenticity to the whole experience. Also, I mean, you know, after reading the story, the ambiguity really drew me in. You know, this is examining right and wrong, which is not really such a black-and-white issue. It's a pretty gray area.

CHIDEYA: In terms of westerns, you obviously have played the lead role in "True Grit," the Coen Brothers' version. There was a John Wayne version, and there's been a whole arc of westerns throughout American cinema history. And in this film, it's set at a moment in time where people have been hit hard by the economy. There's questions about what gun culture means and how to valorize or not, you know - how weapons are used, so how did you come to think of this western compared to westerns that have come before?

BRIDGES: Yeah. Well, one of the themes to many westerns is the times they are a changing, whether it's here come the automobiles, kicking horses to the curb or, in this sense, banks owning up private property or, you know - you go back to another western that I was involved in - "Heaven's Gate" had kind of a similar theme, you know. In those days, it wasn't big oil companies, but it was cattle barons that ruled the land. And this is a story that's always timely.

CHIDEYA: Your foil in the film is the character Toby Howard, played by Chris Pine who's the face of the newest "Star Trek" franchise. And Howard has turned to robbing banks in order to help his family. So what was it like working with Pine and how would you describe, for people who haven't seen the film, the dynamic between your two characters?

BRIDGES: Chris was just so wonderful to work with. You know, one of the things that I enjoy so much about what I do is working with actors, and so many of them approach the work kind of like I do. A lot of us go into this situation knowing that we've got a lot of hard work to do. We've got a time element involved, and so we've got to get to be friends so we can relax. And I find that the more relaxed I am, the work can flow through me in a more truthful way.

And so Chris and I approached the work that way. We really, you know, became friends in a fast sort of way. David Mackenzie, our director, did something wonderful to facilitate this camaraderie. Every weekend, he would invite all of us to a cabin in the middle of Albuquerque where they were editing the film. And he would show us an assembly of the work that we had accomplished that week, and we would have a party and just hang out. And we'd, you know, break out our guitars. I - speaking of that, I - you know, my partner in the film - most of my scenes are with Gil Birmingham, who's a wonderful guitarist. And we spent many hours jamming, you know - just playing music is a great way to get together and know each other.

CHIDEYA: Well, you've made a lot of westerns over the course of your career, but you have also played a huge variety of roles, you know, in the cult classic "Tron," The Dude in "The Big Lebowski." So answer this - which of the characters that you've played in your career would you most love or hate taking a cross-country road trip with?

BRIDGES: Well, that is a very difficult one. As far as characters I would want to travel with - oh, my gosh. Well, you know, The Dude comes to mind, you know, that'd be sort of like talking to myself, maybe in a way. I don't know. Playing the president - President Jackson - he was kind of an interesting guy. You know, I don't know. I have a fondness for all my characters. I play some pretty evil, you know, bad guys, too. I don't know if I'd want to hang out with those guys too much. But all of them are pretty cool cats. You know, "The Fabulous Baker Boy" guy, you know, I could pull over into a little saloon or something. We could do some jamming, get him on the keys. He plays a lot better than I do.

CHIDEYA: Jeff Bridges, we're so glad to speak with you. Thank you so much.

BRIDGES: Nice hanging with you.

CHIDEYA: That's actor Jeff Bridges, and we caught up with him in Santa Barbara, Calif. His new film "Hell Or High Water" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.