SALON TALKS

Jeff Bridges on the Dude, making "The Old Man" and the experience of "dancing with my mortality"

On "Salon Talks," the beloved Oscar winner discusses his new FX series, his health and finally embracing TV

Published June 16, 2022 6:29PM (EDT)

Jeff Bridges attends "The Old Man" Season 1 NYC Tastemaker Event at MOMA on June 14, 2022 in New York City. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Jeff Bridges attends "The Old Man" Season 1 NYC Tastemaker Event at MOMA on June 14, 2022 in New York City. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Somehow after many decades in the movies, including an Oscar win for his work in "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges can't seem to shake his association with one signature role – two, maybe, if you count his messianic programmer Flynn from "Tron."

As for the other, you know who I'm talking about, right?  That guy might describe the last few years for Bridges as involving "a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous," if he were putting it far too lightly. Bridges himself describes it as a "dream" culminating in the FX action thriller "The Old Man," an adaptation of Thomas Perry's 2017 novel that marks Bridges' first leading role in a TV series.

Bridges plays ex-CIA operative Dan Chase, a man who managed to disappear for decades until an assassin shows up at his door. This surprises the cops, to whom Chase appears to be a harmless elderly widower, one who hasn't seen his daughter in some time. (For a while, we don't either.) But by that point, the audience has already come to understand how dangerous it is to cross Dan, based on the trepidation with which his one-time government ally Harold Harper (John Lithgow) and Harper's right-hand Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat) approach hunting him.

"The Old Man" shows the 72-year-old Bridges getting thrown around, slamming against walls and hard floors, and even considering the production's usage of a stunt double, it's an incredibly physical portrayal. Bridges credits the stunt coordinators' expertise for making the combat look so realistic. "It's like figuring out a dance routine or something," he told me in a recent episode of "Salon Talks."

RELATED: How Jeff Bridges built his fascinating body of work: "I tried hard not to develop too strong a persona"

Any knocks Bridges may have sustained are nothing next to the battles he fought and won since the series was first announced in 2019. Production was underway when the pandemic forced it to halt, resuming for a brief time before the actor announced he'd been diagnosed with lymphoma after doctors found a 9-by-12-inch mass in his stomach.

Then he contracted COVID during chemotherapy treatments, a setback that very nearly killed him. To hear him tell it from the other side, Bridges describes it as "dancing with his mortality," an altogether different type of fight choreography.

During our conversation, Bridges was enthusiastically open to discuss what his experience with near-fatal illness taught him about life and aging, and how he brought that lesson to his work in "The Old Man." We also asked whether Dan Chase has much in common with the iconic role he's most associated with,  to which he responded in a very "dude"-like fashion.

Watch our "Salon Talks" with Bridges here or read the interview below.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

"I think there's an old age adolescence."

One interesting thing about Dan Chase is his balance of what we think about this time of life for people versus what he can do with it. Specifically, there's a real element there in terms of questions about . . . what's going on with him and his body? He wonders if he has memory issues, because he's lost his wife. He plays with that within the story, too. I'm wondering what it must be like for you, and what do you think this role says about our concept of human frailty.

Yeah, it's a funny kind of thing. I think one of the themes in the film and certainly into life is that we're habitual creatures, and when we practice something over and over again, stop it for years, but when that task is called upon us to perform, our muscle memory kicks in and that's certainly an aspect of us.

Then another thing that I find fascinating in my own life, and I don't know if he finds it as fascinating . . .  But what I'm talking about is I think there's an old age adolescence.

We hear so much about adolescence and you coming into your sexuality and you have fear of asking that girl out and have all those challenges, but when you get older, you've got these other challenges that are just as fresh that you haven't ever experienced. This memory thing is one of those things.

I don't know if it's because I've had COVID or if it's getting old. My memory is challenged, so you feel sometimes ridiculous when you can't remember somebody's name that you've known for so many years or have trouble expressing yourself. All kinds of different challenges, but it's new stuff for us old guys, too. In a way, I still feel young because of that.

You may have answered this just by talking about this, but I noticed that when I said this time of life, you kind of smiled a bit. What made you smile when I said that?

Well, this time of life, the word that comes to mind is a dream. It all feels very dream-ish to me, especially having gone through this illness that I currently had. In the middle of shooting "The Old Man," we took a two-year break. We had the COVID break and then I got sick and we came back two years later. And I show up on the set with the same cast and the same crew, and it seems like we had a long weekend and I had this bizarre dream. It seemed so unreal.

That child's song: "Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream/ Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream." That comes to mind often.

Regarding the physicality of the role, how much of [filming the fight scenes] occurred before the break versus after? Was there any split? Did you feel like the scenes played out differently for you . . . before production took that break, versus after?

There were physical scenes before and after the break. It's a funny thing that happens with an actor. Athletes probably have the same thing, too. . . . Again, it's that muscle memory or that spirit memory. All of a sudden, you're not thinking about your health or your illness, only who you're supposed to be in the show.

What made you choose "The Old Man" to make your series lead debut on TV?

Yeah. Well, I resisted getting into doing TV for a long time because my father, Lloyd Bridges, had done several TV show series. And I saw how hard he had to work with that quality because you didn't have the time to pull off the magic trick that you'd have in the movies. So I was a bit concerned about that, but then over the last, what, 10 years now or so, the movies that are taking place on TV are so high quality of the shows, all of the shows. There's so much content now, it's hard to keep track, but the quality is certainly there. I thought, "Oh, I'll do a little experiment." This story sounds great, the description. "I'll meet with the guys."

. . . I thought, "Oh, these guys, their dream is one that I can dream, too." So much of it is the teams that you assemble. All these guys were experts at what they were doing, so I was in good company.

You referenced the fact that your father, Lloyd Bridges, worked in TV and you had a couple of appearances on his programs when you were very young.

Oh, yeah.

I'm wondering if any of those experiences had colored that experience of saying, "OK, I see what's going on behind the scenes. I see what Dad looks like when he comes home at night. I'm going to stick with movies."

I think so, because I saw how he was frustrated a lot of times with the TV stuff, and I was concerned about it, but my experience in making "The Old Man" was no different than making a film. . . . All the scenes were given appropriate amounts of time, and the quality of the writing and the directing and acting was all top notch. It wasn't any different, so I'm glad I took that experiment.

" I learned things during . . . illness that I would not have been privy to if I hadn't gone through that experience."

I know that you have answered a lot of questions about your health. First of all, I'm very glad to see that you're in good health and good spirits today.

Thank you.

You've been in this profession for a very long time. You've been in situations where you've had to answer questions over and over again about the roles you're playing. What is it like for you to answer these questions over and over again about the state of your health?

Ah, it's funny. Just generally speaking, doing interviews like this for as many years as I've been doing them, 60-some-odd years or whatever, you say, "Gee, I've told that story, but it's the story of my life." You ask me a question and that's the thing that pops up. Now that I think of it, it's kind of like playing a part. You want to do it differently somehow or try to find some new nuance in it. With the asking the health questions, man, it was such a profound time in my life that . . . it's not something that I get tired of talking about, because it's still pretty fresh.

But you know how you're told a story when you were a kid and you've told the story and you don't know, am I telling what actually happened? Or am I retelling the story that I was told? It's kind of a funny thing. And I mentioned the word dream. A lot of that illness feels like a dream to me. I can't remember accurately quite a bit of it, but I don't mind talking about any specific questions you want to ask. Please do.

I realize this is going into inside baseball territory: We do have to ask these questions as journalists, but also as human beings, we're aware that there's another human being who is answering questions about what is potentially a very traumatic time. Not potentially – it is a very traumatic time in their lives. It strikes me that in this instance, you are somebody who people obviously care about.

On the one hand, I would imagine if I were in your shoes, you're both reassuring people, but on the other hand, as a human being, I would also be tempted to think, "Hey, everybody, I'm OK. You don't have to keep asking it." It seems like it would take a great deal of patience. The reason I'm asking is I'm wondering what it's like for you to have people keep on inquiring about what is a very personal experience.

Yeah, that's a good thing. Intimacy. That's kind of a high in life, isn't it? My marriage, well, we just celebrated our 45th anniversary. We've been intimate with each other a long time.

Congratulations.

Thank you. The more you get into another person and find out what makes them tick, there's a wonderful feeling of connection with that. That goes along with people curious about mortality, and that's a subject that we're all very interested in, I'd say. I certainly am, and I got to experience dancing with my mortality.

That was . . . I mention this word over and over again, a dream and it's not necessarily a nightmare. I learned things during that illness that I would not have been privy to if I hadn't gone through that experience. It wasn't necessarily new stuff, but I found that all of my philosophies about life and ideas of spirituality and different strategies that have worked in my life in the past, all of those were kicked into overdrive.

I got super curious about we're not alone in this situation. Thousands of years have gone by with people struggling with all the things that we struggle with today.

I found I was curious about reading. One of the books that I got into or philosophies that I got into actually came through "The Old Man" when I talked to . . . this former CIA guy. I said, "What are your philosophies?" And he said, "Well, a lot of military and guys in the CIA, they were into stoicism and Marcus Aurelius," who was one of the founders of that philosophy. Basically, that's kind of leaning into your obstacle. The obstacle is the way. What hinders your task, that's the task.

When I was sick, each little moment, one of my big challenges, it seems funny, it makes me smile, but it was true and painful at the time, was just turning over in bed. Just doing that. When you sleep, I like to say that position is not quite right. Just that little task. I'd have to call the nurse and get oxygen before I turned. And then while I was in turn, I'd have to get more oxygen.

It'd take about 15 minutes just to make that just little turn, and that became the task, and everything was focused on that little thing. You'd feel all the irritation. "Damn it." And you'd say, "What's that doing? Oh, that's not beneficial." All those little things became clear, and I wouldn't have gotten into that kind of thing if I hadn't been in that position.

 That carries over now when I'm healthy. I can catch myself a little bit in irritation and say, "What's to be done here? Oh, yeah. Relax. This thing that's giving you the irritation, that's the class you've just enrolled in. This is where your next lesson is." Sometimes in life, you're in an algebra class and you haven't even finished math yet. Sometimes you say, "Oh, I can't do it." Sometimes, you get a D or an F in your class, but that's life.

But to look at it into just a different perspective, that's something that I got into when I was sick.


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Sometimes when we think about people like you who are regularly in front of us, it's in terms of certain roles or taking on different personas. It must be interesting from your perspective to hear how people interpret you through these characters.

The character, I think, that people obviously associate with you, no matter what you do, would be "The Dude" from "The Big Lebowski." What do you think it is about that character that speaks to people not just now, but throughout the years? He seems to have this intergenerational appeal that's very comforting.

Well, the character is in a movie that is a classic movie. Man, those Coen Brothers, they know how to do it, man. It looks like they've just fallen off a log, but they're masters, man. Every aspect of that film is so good. God, I don't watch too many of my shows on TV, but when that one comes on, I'll say, "Oh, I'm just going to watch it up to. . ." And then I'll find myself watching all the scenes because they're so good. The acting is so good and all the parts. I get a kick out of it. I'm so proud to have been in that film.

But I think The Dude, he is who he is. He's the Dude! It's funny, people think he's this too chill, laid-back guy. But as Walter says, "Very un-Dude." He's always blowing it. He's being tested constantly with his coolness.

Is there any bit of The Dude in Dan Chase?

Yeah. In a weird sort of way. He's certainly who he is too, but very complicated character. I have to think about that. That's interesting. I guess we all have in common that we're alive, and there's a common denominator there, certainly. Yeah. But we're all unique too, but that's another similarity, I guess.

"The Old Man" premieres at 10 p.m.Thursday, June 16 on FX and streams on Hulu.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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