The two sides of Jeff Bridges

The two sides of Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges, seen here with wife Susan (above), has been wanting to make The Giver, starring Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard, for 18 years.

He is 16 years older and a lot greyer now, but to legions of movie fans, Jeff Bridges will forever be The Dude, that bathrobe-wearing, White Russianslugging slacker he played in 1998 in the Coen brothers' cult hit The Big Lebowski.

In person, you see immediately why the role suited him - the actor is so amiably laidback and given to various zen-like utterances that it is easy to confuse him with his most famous incarnation.

Yet the mellowness belies a surprising tenacity, a quality that saw the Oscar-winning star of Crazy Heart (2009) and True Grit (2010) produce a rather tricky movie adaptation of a young adult's book, sticking with it for 18 years as various directors and writers dropped out.

At a recent Los Angeles press event for the film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, Bridges tells Life! and other reporters that the whole process took so long that he ended up playing the titular character himself instead of his original choice - his father Lloyd Bridges, who died at age 85 in 1998.

"I originally wanted to direct him in the film," he says of the science-fiction tale, which is set in a dystopian society where one person - The Giver - is tasked with being the repository of painful memories.

"I wanted to make a movie that my kids could see - they were young at the time. And I was looking at a catalogue of children's books and came across this wonderful cover with this grizzled old guy and the Newbery award stamp on it.

"I read it and thought, on a kid-book level but also as an adult, that this is a movie I'd like to see being made."

Bridges was so taken with the 1993 bestseller and its exploration of conformity and totalitarianism - which won it the Newbery Medal for outstanding contributions to American children's literature - that he made a home-movie version of it starring his father.

"We shot it at my parents' house - we read the whole book, Bud Cort was the narrator," he says, referring to the star of the quirky romance Harold & Maude (1971).

"We had this Betamax camera and shot it in some garage - this was 18 years ago."

But his father - who appeared in the Airplane! satirical comedies in the 1980s - died in 1998 and the project suffered various setbacks, with Bridges at one point losing the film rights to the book, which also proved difficult to adapt with its many interior monologues and distinct lack of action.

On the back of the success of The Hunger Games (2013) and other young-adult franchises on the screen, however, it was finally greenlit and with a star-studded cast that would include Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes and heart-throb-in-waiting Brenton Thwaites.

By this point, Bridges, a producer of the film, knew it was time to let go of some of his original ideas, including the plan to cast his father, along with his initial resistance about having the character of Jonas - the boy chosen as the next Giver - played by Thwaites, 25, instead of an 11-year-old as he is at the start of the novel.

Bridges says: "It was tough for me. I wanted to direct it myself, I had a certain vision of how it would go.

"I was really in love with the book and I wanted to put it on screen exactly how it was."

He was eventually convinced that it made sense to have Jonas played by an older actor - mainly so the writers could add a romantic development between Jonas and his friend Fiona (played by actress Odeya Rush, 17) and capture the teenage audience in the process.

"I struggled with letting that go and I finally did. And when these guys showed up, I was glad that I did."

As for the decision to play The Giver himself, Bridges looked in the mirror one day and realised he was old enough.

"Yeah, I finally qualified as the grizzled guy," says the 64-year-old, laughing.

"The closer I got to the movie being made, I had to decide whether I was going to come on board and play The Giver.

"Often when I come to those crossroads in my life, I try to project myself into the future and go, 'How am I going to feel if I let this one go?' And I felt just terrible.

"So I decided to just go for it and dance with the universe. And have a jam session with all the artists that came in and kind of give up control, which in many ways is the theme of the movie."

"Jam" also sums up his approach to film-making in general.

He adds: "We just jam, you know. It's a musical expression but it works for making movies too.''

It is an attitude that he inherited from his father Lloyd, who taught him and his elder brother Beau, 72, the technical tricks of the trade as well as how to enjoy it.

And he says, "the main thing I learnt from my dad was really just observing how he worked and the joy that he had in doing what he loved doing".

"I got to work twice with him as an adult - in Tucker (1998) and Blown Away (1994) - and in both those movies, whenever my dad came on set, that joyful vibe came with him," he adds.

"It's contagious - it kind of runs through the whole company. And you relax when you are feeling joyful and all the good stuff really gets to come through."

Yet Bridges says he initially resisted the idea that he should be an actor.

"One of the toughest things in the acting business is getting your break and that was kind of handled for me. And I fought against that for a long time because, you know, when you're growing up and figuring out what to do, you don't want to be a product of nepotism.

"You want to be there for your merits," says the star, who went on to prove his acting mettle, winning the 2010 Academy Award for Crazy Heart, in which he played a washed-up country singer.

None of the three grown-up daughters he has with wife Susan Geston, whom he married in 1977, are actors.

As happy-go-lucky as Bridges seems now, there is still fire in the belly for a cause apart from the movie business.

Pointing to a plastic water bottle on the table, he tells Life!: "I'm trying to get rid of these - aren't these a lousy idea?"

"This convenience is basically killing the planet because they aren't biodegradable, they go into the oceans, the fish eat them, we eat the fish - everything's connected," says the star, who has lent his name to the Plastic Pollution Coalition's Resolve to Refuse campaign to reduce the amount of wasteful plastic packaging and also speaks passionately about his role as spokesman for an initiative to address child hunger in America.

Still, pursuing projects such as these - along with upcoming films such as Seventh Son, an adventure fantasy - are slightly at odds with his inner "Dude", who would rather just kick back and chill out.

Those are the "two streams in my soul", he says. "One voice is saying, 'C'mon, you've got to get to work' and another guy is saying to me, 'C'mon, Jeff, just relax, do you want your whole life to be one giant homework assignment?'

"So it's balancing those two things. It drives my wife crazy."

This article was first published on August 20, 2014.
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