Bad to the Bone

Photo: Left: Christopher Felver/Corbis. Right: Greg Gorman/Icon International

Barring some unlikely oversight, Jeff Bridges should earn his fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor with his Golden Globe–nominated performance as Crazy Heart’s Otis “Bad” Blake, a gone-to-seed country singer fighting his way back from alcoholism and a stalled career. If he wins his first Oscar, expect him to thank the producer of Heart’s soundtrack, Grammy-fêted songwriter T Bone Burnett (the songwriter and producer behind the bluegrass soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It was Burnett who persuaded Bridges to take the role and who furnished Bad with a credible oeuvre that could also score Burnett a few awards this season (he shares a co-writing credit on the film’s theme song, “The Weary Kind,” also nominated for a Golden Globe).

Jeff, you held out for a year before joining Crazy Heart.
Jeff Bridges: The Fabulous Baker Boys set a high bar for me, musically. I had such a great experience, and loved the way that came out. And there was no music in the Crazy Heart script—it was a movie about music and they didn’t have any. But I signed on when T Bone came aboard. Not only is he an incredible musician, but he’s also a dear friend of mine. We basically started preparation for this movie 30 years ago with Heaven’s Gate.
T Bone Burnett: I think we met before that, probably with Gary Busey in the seventies. But [for Crazy Heart] I said, “I’ll do it if you do it.”

It’s hard to believe songs weren’t a part of the original screenplay. They’re pretty critical to defining Bad. How were they written?
T.B.: Jeff, [director] Scott Cooper, [songwriters] Stephen Bruton, John Goodwin, Ryan Bingham, and I sat around a table for a few months and talked and played music. We had conversations about who Bad was and where he came from. Scott described him as the fifth outlaw in the country group of Kris [Kristofferson], Waylon [Jennings], Willie [Nelson], and Johnny Cash.

Ryan Bingham had written half of “The Weary Kind” by the time he’d played it for you. What did you add?
T.B.: We worked on the melody and some of the other lyrics. I added the line “You are the man who ruined the world.” I’d initially written that lyric about George Bush. I was thinking about a tragic hero and I thought about Bad, in that Shakespearean part of the film when he falls on the bed.

Jeff’s a musician, but was it hard for him to keep up with the pros?
T.B.: No, man, he’s great. The only thing we had to make sure of was that the genre of music that we put him in was more southern and Texas, as opposed to being more polished and Nashville. [Laughs.] Because of his voice—he has a deep chest voice.
J.B.: Stephen Bruton [the late Texas musician], who was my main role model for Bad, was with me every day. He even hired a band just for me to practice with. T Bone said right from the beginning that these songs need to feel like they’re coming out of this character. They weren’t just good songs that were placed in the movie. And he put them all in my wheelhouse.

Jeff, you’ve released an album of your own material. Did you ever consider contributing songs to the film?
J.B.: T Bone invited me to write, but I had my plate full with getting the character down. The writing thing, I just didn’t feel it coming naturally. I was there during a lot of the sessions and I would throw ideas in, but I wasn’t doing the actual writing.
T.B.: You know, I’ve said this before, but Jeff and Scott could be credited as songwriters. I don’t think they put any lines or melodies in, but they were so much a part of the process.

Nicolas Cage played an alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, and he recently admitted to drinking between takes. Did Bad need that kind of help?
J.B.: No, it doesn’t work for me. I want to have all of my faculties. Even when I was preparing for the part, I didn’t drink as heavily as he did, but I’d have that extra drink and eat as much as I wanted. When I got the part I thought, “Oh, I get to get fat?” It was exciting at first, but after a couple of weeks you say, “Oh, shit, I feel terrible.” Anyway, actors have a thing called sense memory. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, my first scene was with Ewan McGregor, and we were supposed to be on LSD. The makeup guy came up with contact lenses that made our pupils really big. I’ve taken LSD before, and to look at some other guy with those things in his eyes, it puts you there pretty easily. With [Crazy Heart], I had booze around. I’d just dip my tongue in it, or use it as a cologne so I could smell it.

You’re the sentimental favorite to win this year’s Oscar for Best Actor. Do you agree with people who think you’re one of our most underappreciated actors?
J.B.: No, but I love the title. I certainly don’t feel underappreciated—I feel very well stroked. But I prefer the underdog position rather than, “Hey, I’m hot, man. Goddamn. Look what I’m gonna do now.”

And you’re certainly memorable as an underdog—there’s a virtual cult surrounding your role in The Big Lebowski.
J.B.: I like the poles. Whether I’m playing underdogs or upperdogs, they go hand in hand. With my father, I saw the good side of developing a strong persona, but I also saw his struggles. If you do the same thing too often, people think that’s who you are. I remember recommending my dad for Blown Away. I said, “I know a guy who could be my uncle, who looks like me and is a good actor, named Lloyd Bridges.” And the guy was like, “Your dad’s a wonderful actor, but he’s more of a comedian.” I said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He had to read for the part! So I like doing both.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, Bad’s much younger love interest. Was it hard to make the romance credible?
J.B.: I didn’t really think about it too much. People fall in love for mysterious reasons. Jean is attracted to Bad’s honesty. That’s kind of a country-music thing, that honesty you can relate to. You can relate to somebody’s pain and you have compassion, which can lead to intimacy. But ultimately she sees who he really is, which is an irresponsible fucking drunk. T.B.: My philosophy is that you don’t want to make movies about terrible music. If Bad was drunk, he was still gonna be a good [artist]. That was the idea.

Bad to the Bone