Jeff Bridges used to be arguably one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors until earlier this year when the five-time Academy Award nominee finally won a well deserved Oscar for Best Actor for his impressive turn in “Crazy Heart” as Bad Blake, the down-on-his-luck, alcoholic country music singer.
In “TRON: Legacy,” the iconic actor brings depth and range to two vastly different and fascinating characters — Kevin Flynn, a man once known as the world’s leading tech visionary who vanished mysteriously into his own creation 20 years earlier, and Clu, a master program created in Kevin Flynn’s image that’s gone rogue and seized control of the Grid and its inhabitants.
MoviesOnline sat down with Bridges to talk about “TRON: Legacy,” the first 3D movie to integrate a fully digital head and body to create a character in Bridges image that hasn’t aged since the original “TRON.” Bridges described what it was like to embrace the technology that allowed him to play both characters, how Zen mythology and a Zen master named Bernie Glassman inspired his performance, and what winning an Oscar meant to him personally. The 61-year-old actor laughed when we suggested that with today’s technology he can now reinvent himself digitally to play himself at any age:
Q: Was this character always written as a Silicon Valley hippie or did you introduce the Lebowski’ness of him to “TRON”?
JEFF BRIDGES: Yeah, no, no that was Lisberger. What was it like 28 years ago? Is that when it was? Gosh! That was the script basically from the original one. And that’s before Lebowski still, so I guess you could blame Steven for that.
Q: What were your thoughts when you first saw Clu?
JEFF BRIDGES: Amazing. For one thing, what that means for me as an actor is that I can play myself at any age now. I love going to movies but if there’s a movie where the character ages or another actor plays the guy as a younger person…it always kind of bumps, it takes a while to get up to speed on it. But now, any age you know, it’s quite remarkable. And they’ll be able to combine actors. I don’t know quite how I feel about this but that’s coming up too, just to say, let’s get Boxleitner and Bridges and put a little Brando in there and see what happens. Then they can hire some other actor to drive that image that they created. I mean, it’s getting pretty crazy.
Q: Did you have any hesitation about revisiting “TRON”?
JEFF BRIDGES: I did, sure. I have a lot of hesitation making any kind of decision really in my life. I mean, I’m really slow at it. My mother calls what I have abulia. Have you ever heard of that term? It’s like a mental disorder, I guess, having difficulty making a decision. I really resist. And with this one, I thought “Oh God, are they going to pull it off?” I mean, I could see all the technology and everything but are they going to be able to pull it off right. And Disney did a beautiful job of that. Casting, I think, is so important, not only the actors, but the director for one thing — who you get to helm the whole thing. And they got Joe who’d never directed a movie before. Can you imagine the pressure of that? And his personality is so calm and sure and then he brings all his architectural knowledge to the party. So that adds to the whole set design. They got the right director and he loved the original and all that. That’s wonderful. They also brought Steven Lisberger onboard which I thought was essential because while the movie can be seen alone and you can still appreciate it, if you saw the first movie, it’s not going to bump. There’s going to be a flow between this one and that one and really he was sort of the godfather of the whole thing. He was the source. So we would always go back to him and ask him “Is this consistent with the myth that you started?” That was another thing that brought me to want to do this because I thought we could use a modern-day myth about the challenge of technology and how we’re going to surf that particular wave. You know those are tough waters we’re coming into now. We can do some amazing things but we can also head off in the wrong direction very quickly. And this is kind of a cautionary tale in a way to look ahead and make sure that this is the direction you want to go.
Q: Does it feel like a time machine talking today of the movie you did in the past that is about the future?
JEFF BRIDGES: Yeah, it’s just bizarre. I mean, it’s just so bizarre. But at the same time it just seems like, especially having Lisberger on the set, it’s like we had a long weekend and we’re just back here doing the same work. You know, it’s crazy.
Q: Both the original film and this one are effects heavy. As an actor, what were the differences between working in 1982 and now? Did you have as much green screen on this one as that one?
JEFF BRIDGES: Well, that one was shot in 70 millimeter black-and-white, and hand tinted by some ladies in Korea. And we were in white leotards and there was black duvetyn like this tablecloth. This is basically the set with white adhesive tape for the gridlines and that was it. And then there’s some CGI, all that kind of stuff. But this one, wow, man, making movies without cameras, you know, what an idea! And when they said that, I said “What are you talking about?” They said “Yeah, you work in the volume.” “What’s that?” “Well, it’s a room. It can be any size, painted green, and there are no cameras, but there’s hundreds of sensors pointing at you. Before each take, you assume the T. You stand up like this. And now they get you, “Okay, now you’re in the computer.” And you’re in a white leotard with these dots all over your body, all over your face. You might have a helmet on with cameras going like this. Right? And then everything from makeup, costume, the set — and this is the one that kills me — camera angles are done in post. So, if you are in the volume right now and in our leotards with our dots on, they could say “Well let’s start the scene behind, way in the back of the room under the chairs and we’re going to come up under the chairs and then do a big crane… Ah, you know, let’s not. Let’s start here.” It’s all done in post now. It’s just crazy. Amazing. Well, that was the other thing. One of the wild moments in this movie was when I was scanned initially to get my body into the computer, and it was just like out of the first “TRON.” I stood there like this and this light was kind of moving. It was just bizarre. For real. It was like for real, you know.
Q: You mentioned the technology allows you to reprise some of your younger roles. Have you warned any of your co-stars that you’re going to be competing with them now with this technology?
JEFF BRIDGES: [Laughs] No. I hadn’t thought about that. That’s funny.
Q: Are there any other roles that you would like to revisit like the “Fabulous Baker Boys” or something like that?
JEFF BRIDGES: Maybe. I hadn’t thought about it. I hadn’t thought about that. But, it’s wild to be able to go back there and play different ages. It’s crazy. It opens up a whole world.
Q: You don’t have to think about the lens now in the volume, but does that change your performance?
JEFF BRIDGES: Yeah, it was a challenge because I like relating to the lens and I like having a costume and a set. Those are kind of grounding to you and it helps you. So much of making movies is creating an illusion and the first person you have to create the illusion for is yourself, right? So when I’m in a costume and the person I’m working with is in a costume and there’s a set, that helps me be in those times and be in that character. When you don’t have that stuff, you have to kind of go back, almost more childlike in a way. It’s like when you were a kid and you didn’t have all the cool gear to put you there, you had to use your imagination. So it was a challenge that way, and at first it kind of rubbed against my acting. It felt odd. I didn’t like it. But, in making movies and acting and I think in life too, you can’t spend too much time bitching about the way it is. You’ve got to get with the program as soon as you can especially when you’re making a movie. So, that was challenging but it was a good exercise. It was, you know. And that’s the way it’s going and this is the way it’s going to be.
Q: Did it change your life at all winning the Oscar?
JEFF BRIDGES: I think it has but I haven’t really figured that out entirely because about a day after the Oscars, I went right to work on “True Grit.” So I got right back into work mode and I’ve been kind of working ever since, you know. I haven’t noticed a big flood of scripts coming in or anything like that.
Q: Where do you keep your Oscar?
JEFF BRIDGES: What I wanted them to do and they didn’t really do this and I thought it would be fun, I was going to ask my wife or my kids or whoever, I said “I want you to take this and hide it in different spots in the house and we’ll discover it.” You know, like Where’s Waldo. Do remember that? I didn’t do that. I have him sitting on a little shelf between the kitchen and the dining room.
Q: When you were talking to Clu, how did you do that? Did you talk to your stand-in or a ball?
JEFF BRIDGES: I tried it a couple of different ways. I’ve worked with a lot of kids and when you’re working with kids, they have certain hours that they have to work. With a kid, they can’t work as many hours as an adult. So often you will shoot the kids close up and then when it comes time for your close-up, he’s gone or gone to school. So you’ll just put a little mark on a C-stand or whatever and do it that way. So I did — I mean I got used to that. I’d do that. I tried doing it to a television monitor where I would say that. I tried that a little bit.
Q: In “TRON: Legacy,” you appeared like a Zen master and you talk about Zen. How much Zen do you practice in real life?
JEFF BRIDGES: Yes, well, one of my concerns about getting into this movie was that we would do it and it wouldn’t just be a special effect movie but it would have some helpful mythology to it. I am good friends with this Zen master, guy named Bernie Glassman. And I guess you put Roshi in there somewhere. I’m not sure if you put it before or after. You might go to his website. zenpeacemaker.com or just google Bernie Glassman and you’ll find out what he’s into. We were just at a wonderful symposium he had, the first symposium of the socially engaged Buddhism, and it was wonderful. Anyway, he came on as an advisor and I wanted him. I wanted him to add some of these Zen mythology and stories and some of those thoughts. And I figured Flynn’s path, what he encounters on the grid coming in, being quite full of himself and that sort of thing, thinking that he can beat Clu and as he says in the movie, the more he goes against him, the stronger Clu becomes. So he’s decided I just have to stop and see the universe and everything that’s involved– just like weather will change by itself. So he’s applying some of that knowledge. And he’s kind of– his problem and the way he gets trapped in the absolute, he goes there so far that he’s maybe stopped being able to engage and now his son comes and shakes that all up.
Q: What is the caution to this tale? It seems to take two sides. There’s a danger to freedom and there’s a danger to control.
JEFF BRIDGES: Yeah. It’s a wonderful book and I think it might even be in Flynn’s bookcase in there and I asked him to put it in there. It’s Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist and he wrote a book called “The Myth of Freedom” — you know, this idea of freedom. I’ve got to be free. I’ve got to do what I want to do. You can be a prisoner to your preferences, you know. That can be a thing that can just trap you and you’re a slave to it.
Q: What about the search for perfection?
JEFF BRIDGES: Yeah, well that’s what I’m saying, perfect to who? Who’s perfection? And if you’re thinking I want it the way I want it, that can lead you into a dark, deep place. You’ve got to really think about, well what do I really want? You know like these plastic bottles. Oh good, see, I asked them not to have them and they don’t have them, good, great. But they’re single-use plastic bottles. Where did that come from? It’s like those things in the magazine. When you open it, those things fall out. Who decided to do that? Or, on TV, you see that scroll and all the little things. Come on! I didn’t– you know. And they got these bottles now, billions of tons of this plastic is in the ocean, and they say it biodegrades, but it doesn’t really. It just breaks down in small things. The fish eat it. The birds eat it. We eat the fish. You know, it’s just bad stuff. So you got to think. I think we’re all hooked. I can feel my own hookness on immediate gratification, you know. I want what I want. I want it now and I can get it now so I’m going to do it dammit, and you gotta watch that, you know what I’m saying?
“TRON: Legacy” opens in theaters on December 17th.