Bridges: more than a Hollywood 'contender'

The last time Jeff Bridges was in Boston, he was trying to stop a terrorist from blowing up Copley Square, just one block north of the hotel boardroom that he is sitting in now.

"Oh man, yeah," laughs Mr. Bridges, recalling "Blown Away," the 1994 film in which he played a bomb-squad officer.

"I'm glad to be invited back after blowing up half the place," says the actor, who was here for the annual Boston Film Festival in September, which was screening a preview of his latest movie, "The Contender" (opening nationwide today; see review page 15).

In the movie, a political thriller, the star of movies like "The Fisher King" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" portrays a president of the United States eager to seal his legacy by nominating a controversial woman senator (played by Joan Allen) to be his vice president.

Bridges says that the decision to star in "The Contender" was made in a matter of seconds. "You just don't read scripts that are that good. It's very, very, very rare," he says. "I like to do movies ... where the filmmaker's kind of ahead of the audience and you don't know what's going to happen."

He's not exaggerating. The California native's filmography reveals a minor specialty of starring in thrillers with plots that twist like Mbius strips - among them "The Jagged Edge," "Arlington Road," and "The Vanishing."

The choice of casting Bridges as president in "The Contender" would seem counterintuitive to anyone looking at the Hawaiian-shirted actor casually doodling on a pad of paper and taking full advantage of a backward-tilting chair. Yet Bridges utilizes his easygoing persona to create a believable president.

"I really wanted to stay away from doing an impersonation of [Bill Clinton]," Bridges acknowledges.

"I looked at other politicians like Mario Cuomo, Robert and John Kennedy, [Lyndon] Johnson. But I ended up really using elements of myself, and also my father kept coming to mind."

His father, the late actor Lloyd Bridges, introduced him to acting.

"I was carried on in a movie when I was six months old," he says of his movie debut. "I'm a product of nepotism, you know. All those doors were open to me."

It's quite a self-effacing comment from the two-time Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor and one for Best Actor whom former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin once called "the most underappreciated great actor of his generation." Indeed, it's unusual for Bridges to have success with ticket sales.

"I'm kind of getting used to it," Bridges deadpans before unexpectedly rippling with laughter. "I was surprised that 'The Big Lebowski' wasn't a huge hit. That was a funny movie, man," he adds with enthusiasm.

So which movies would he recommend audiences to revisit on video or DVD?

"Probably most of them!" he replies with his famous goofy grin, before particularly singling out "Heaven's Gate," "Fearless," and "American Heart," a movie Bridges produced for a film company in 1992 that went bankrupt.

"It came out ... but we didn't have any money to put ads in the paper," he says. Then he shrugs, "You always feel like the movie itself is like a byproduct, like a skin of a snake that has been left behind."

When he isn't on a set or spending time with his wife and three daughters (who he reckons will pursue showbiz careers), Bridges can be found painting, taking photographs, or recording music. His new record, "Be Here Soon," featuring Michael McDonald and David Crosby ("a dream come true," he says), can be heard at the actor's Web site, www.jeffbridges.com

But acting remains the actor's first calling. Bridges will soon join Kevin Spacey in the filming of "K-Pax," a psychological drama with a pinch of sci-fi.

"You put all that energy and emotion and time into a film," Bridges says. "The real big kick of a movie is the making of it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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