Jeff Bridges plays gritty Federal Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn in the Coen brothers' revisit of the famous 1975 western which gave John Wayne his first Oscar. The new film is quite a departure from its predecessor, and Bridges puts his own stamp on the quirky character, both violent and brutish yet ultimately compassionate toward the young girl whose father they seek to avenge. Buzzine sits down with the "one-eyed" movie star and gets an exclusive and revealing interview.
Izumi Hasegawa: Why is the eye patch on the other eye now?
Jeff Bridges: I'm a commie.
IH: Did you think about that?
JB: No, we put it on the right eye. It felt good. Put it on the left eye, not so good. Put it on the right eye: "This feels right. What do you think, guys?" We went back and forth like that.
IH: So it wasn't intentional?
JB: No, not at all. Sometimes I would forget to put it down for the scene, so I would be very pleased with a take and I'd say, "What do you think, guys?" They'd just [point to the eye patch].
IH: Did you have any hesitation taking on a role that was made famous by The Duke?
JB: I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again. I think it was Ethan (Coen) who I talked to first, and he corrected me. He said, "No, we're not making that movie. We're making the book, as if there was no other movie ever made, kind of. We're just referring to the book." I wasn't familiar with the book and he said, "Check that out, tell me what you think." I read the book and then I saw what they were talking about because it's such a wonderful book. It suited them so well, I thought, and god, what a great character. Most westerns have that strong, silent type, and here's this boorish ra ra ra, so that could be a lot of fun, I thought.
IH: What qualities of Rooster Cogburn should men aspire to?
JB: True grit, I believe, is seeing one thing through to the end. That's a good thing. I aspire to that.
IH: Why did you mimic the iconic scene with the reigns in his mouth on the horse? Did you consider doing it differently?
JB: I remember that day well: right at the beginning of the day, Joel (Coen) coming over to me and saying, "What do you think about really trying this deal?" I said, "Oh, all right, that's kind of interesting." A little anxious, a little fear, I'm going to ride myself, do it in my teeth, so we did it that way. It wasn't as tough as I thought, actually. It was kind of cool. We had a horse that kept the rhythm well. That's basically it, from my point of view.
IH: When we talked at Crazy Heart, you were far away from Rooster. At what point did you nail this character?
JB: Gosh, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you're portraying. I begin developing a character pretty much the same way every time. You're looking at the script or, if you're lucky enough to have a book, you're looking at that material and seeing what other characters say about your character, what you say about yourself, what the author says about you. That tells you quite a bit, and then one of the first things you do when you're hired on to make a film is you work with a costume designer. In this case, it was Mary Zophres, who was also the costume designer on The Big Lebowski. That's one of the cool things about making movies--there's a collaborative artform, so you have all these other artists who are concerned about specific areas that might be what room your character lives in, what it looks like, and what the clothes look like... The first person you meet is the costumer because they have to make all those clothes. So Mary has these wonderful books that she brings out, so you look at, "Here's a hat like this..." and your character starts to fall in place. You dress, and as you're looking in the mirror, there comes a time when the character starts to tell you what it wants and you might prefer, "Oh, this scarf looks nice," and the character [spits], it won't stick. You say, "Oh, okay." The same thing happens when you're making a movie too. Sometimes you want to do something, it's not what the movie wants. There's a wonderful time when that happens. I'm not sure there's one particular time it happens. It's kind of a slow process coming into focus. As far as the models, I used to love it when my dad would play in a western. When he appeared at my door all dressed up in his cowboy clothes, it was a thrill to me, so I guess there's some of my dad in there.
IH: Did you know Hailee (Steinfeld) was such a sassy girl?
JB: [Laughs] I didn't really. She's got a pretty sweet side as well.
IH: Did she intimidate you?
JB Yeah, we played a lot of Pass the Pigs. Bo Bandit was her pig name because she was very intimidating. She could throw those double leaning jowlers.
IH: How did you perform the stylized dialogue?
JB: It was a fun challenge to take on. Every once in a while we'd allow a contraction to slip, if it felt right musically.
IH: What's fun about playing a dirty western versus Tron, which is clean?
JB: That's the fun of my job--I get to play all different kinds of guys. We did a reshoot for Tron about a week after we completed True Grit. I had the same makeup guy--Thomas Nellen was on both. So going from Rooster with all the dust and the grime and the dirty teeth, a few days later back in the chair, him putting 100 little black dots on my face--motion capture darts. Bizarre, but that's the gig. That's the fun of it.
Paramount Pictures' 'True Grit' is released in theaters December 22, 2010.