Jeff Bridges: From Slacker To Surf Legend

Folks around Montecito know Jeff Bridges as a neighbor, a movie star who makes himself available for community efforts regularly; they also know him as a true family man, who just likes to relax with his wife and kids whenever he’s back home from a set.

Movie aficionados, meanwhile, are familiar with Bridges’ laudable catalogue of film credits, a catalogue that includes more than 70 titles dating back to a guest role on his famous father Lloyd Bridges’ popular action-adventure TV show “Sea Hunt” in 1958, when Jeff was just 8 years old. What has now become a 50-year career if one counts that early guest appearance, boasts four Oscar nominations, from his breakout starring role as Duane in the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich classic “The Last Picture Show” to a nod for portraying the president in 2000’s “The Contender.”

But for fans of the “The Big Lebowski,” Jeff Bridges will forever be “The Dude.” The laid-back character created by the Coen Brothers, who’d rather be bowling than doing anything else, became a hero for slackers of all generations, and is now a major cult figure and inspiration for an annual convention of wannabes, held in Los Angeles every year.

Last weekend, Bridges combined all those elements in a single day, when he arranged for a sneak preview of his new film, the computer-animated “Surf’s Up,” to be screened as a benefit for the Unity Shoppe. Bridges, who stars as a washed-up surfing legend who’s been hiding in the jungle for 10 years after losing a big competition, spent more than an hour posing for photos – even crouching down repeatedly to be at eye level with kids – signing autographs and singing the praises of the charitable non-profit, which serves low-income families throughout the county. Then he was off to Los Angeles to continue shooting his role, Obadiah Stane, in the movie version of the comic book “Iron Man,” which required Bridges to shave his head.

We posed a few questions at the event and over the telephone on his ride to the set.

Q. How did you get involved with Unity?

A. When we moved up to Montecito after the Northridge earthquake, we ended up buying Kenny Loggins’ old house. I'd known him for years. My wife and I fell in love to his music. His “Full Sail” album was the score to our love affair. Kenny and I had done other hunger work together, and I’d given him a Hunger Award at the big Live Aid concert. He invited me to participate in the Unity telethon, which he’d been doing for years, and I’ve done it every year since.

It was interesting to hear you thank them for providing an opportunity to give back.

It's a funny thing, and you don’t often think of it that way, but giving can be the greatest gift to yourself because it makes you feel good. My girls, all of them, were down there at Unity volunteering, stocking shelves, and whatever was needed. I wanted my girls not to take things for granted just because they were born into privilege. They learned so much about what it's like to struggle when you are low-income, when you have to make decisions about putting food on plates for the family or paying for the roof over your head. You picture yourself in terrible straits like that and it feels great to be able to give them some relief. It also helps you to feel better about society in general, that maybe humans inherently are compassionate towards others. When you nurture that aspect of yourself, it grows and you get to express and experience more joy in your own life.

Turning to “Surf’s Up,” how was it for you to work on a major animated film? You’ve always done so much with your eyes and with expressions, so how did you like working with only your voice?

Well, I did one years and years ago called "The Last Unicorn" but this is a much bigger deal. What was unique was that unlike most animated films, the actors were all in the same room at the same time. They had video cameras on us and we were able to move around and interact. Improvisation was encouraged. I think it helped the animators capture us and our expressions and movements. So I didn't treat it any differently, like try to speak more expressively or anything like that, but instead saw it as a normal acting job.

Except you were playing a surf legend. Do you surf?

I do surf. I started taking it up once I got to Santa Barbara. That was one of the things that attracted me to the movie. The way they depicted the waves was amazing. The animation they showed me had so much reality. They brought in Kelly Slater, the world-class surfer, to council them to make sure the waves looked just right. He gave them the stamp of approval, so I think the surfers out there will like it.

Have you ever ridden any big waves like Big Z?

Negative. No way. I have surfed in Hawaii, but nothing as big as that. That's why it was fun for me, to pretend. But I think it helped that I'm a surfer. When we did improvisation I'd tell them how I'd surf a wave. I use long boards. And I surf goofy foot – I have the wrong foot in front – and they got that right for Big Z.

I think the character had a bit in common with “The Dude,” in that they’re both laid-back, overweight dudes who are trying to stay out of the limelight. Big Z is like “The Dude” on a surfboard.

Well, I played it as a separate guy, but there are some parallels. “The Dude” surfs. He’s into weed, and Big Z is into clams, so there are some similarities. And I can relate to the long, slow approach Big Z favors. I like to relax when I’m not working.

Well, in any event, I thought the movie was just terrific: really funny, great animation, and clever enough that adults can get quite a few laughs, too. And it has that great lesson of long, slow strokes, – as in slow and steady wins the race – and that wining isn’t everything anyway.

Yeah, thanks. I think it succeeds on a lot of levels. It’s got top-notch animation and it is intended for kids and their parents. I like what it has to say, and there’s a lot of good surfing stuff. Also, I got to sing one of my friend’s songs in the movie. He wrote that little ukulele song, the one I sing over and over on the last night with Shia and Zooey. It’s by John Goodwin, a friend I grew up with, who has a great album you can get on iTunes called “Up to Here.”

Speaking of music, what’s up with you in that department. Your album “Be Here Soon” came out about seven years ago already. Any plans to make another one?

Nothing’s going on intensely at the moment. But I think there is a musical swell off the ocean I can feel coming my way, so I'm sure I'll be taking off on a big musical surfing kick soon.

And surfing? When was the last time you hit the breaks?

It’s been a while. I’ve got to finish all these movies first. Then I'll be grabbing my boards and hitting the surf.