Oscar 2009: Country Music, Booze and Talent=Jeff Bridges Oscar-Caliber Performance

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Country music, booze, and great talent account for Jeff Bridges' Oscar-caliber pereformance in "Crazy Heart,"  which Fox Searchlight will release December 16.   It's the same combo of elements that brought Robert Duvall the 1983 Best Actor Oscar for "Tender Mercies."

With Bad Blake, Bridges would vanishes into the skin of another man, exposing Bad’s genius and flaws, his loneliness, foolishness and hopefulness, in the course of his unexpectedly life-changing romance with Jean Craddock.

“I think people are going to look at this as one of Jeff Bridges’ signature roles,” comments Rob Carliner, “one that you’ll always associate with him.” 

For Scott Cooper, the role was always destined to be played by Bridges.  “We knew from the beginning we wanted Jeff without question,” he recalls.  “He is one of America’s finest actors.  Every gesture he makes is earned; every thing he does is real.  And I knew he was already a very talented musician.”

Joining the Project

Bridges says he was drawn like a magnet to the script.  “Oh, there were so many wonderful elements to this one,” he remarks.  “Music, for one, comes to mind.  I’ve been playing music since I was a kid so that was a big draw for me. I also loved Scott’s script.  We got along instantaneously and he’s very talented.  He knows country music backwards and forwards and his enthusiasm is contagious.  Then there’s Bad Blake, who is such a human guy.  He’s like all of us, with lots of positive qualities and plenty more faults.”

He continues:  “It was also a chance to work Bob Duvall, who is one of my favorite actors and with some old friends – T Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton and our production designer, Waldemar Kalinowksi – who all worked on HEAVEN’S GATE together.”

More than a Film

Bridges approached from a music angle first.  Although he has been a serious musician for years, and has even recorded an album (BE HERE SOON in 2000), nailing Blake’s particular mannerisms was key to the role, as was getting down the style of a man who was once a legend and now performs live as much as Bad Blake does.  To immerse himself in that very particular world, Bridges spent days and nights working with T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton – playing and singing and soaking up atmosphere – until it was second nature to him.  Only then did the character begin to instinctually emerge.

“Both the acting and the music need to be on an equal level – and they are,” observes Carliner. 

“Jeff could already play and sing, but he really studied hard to be Bad Blake,” the late Stephen Bruton noted.  “We tried to make his performances accurate to what a man who has been playing every night for 40 years would really be like, which was a very interesting challenge.”

Adds Cooper:  “Jeff had to perform in many different ways — when Bad is drunk, and when he is very sober and very somber.  Ultimately, he did it all so delicately and beautifully that it became something iconic.”

For Bridges, T Bone Burnett’s hard-knocks style of support was invaluable.  “I kind of went in wanting my hand held and T Bone didn’t do much hand holding,” he admits. “He said, ‘go on fly, get out of the nest and do it.’  It helped a lot that the songs were so terrific and created their own little Bad Blake country music world.  You have that feeling you’ve heard them all before.”

The character came to life through music, but also through his half-sly, half-terrified interplay with Jean Craddock, the journalist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.  “Bad and Jean are true star-crossed lovers,” Bridges says.  “It’s that kind of boom, love at first sight with them.  That’s how it was when I met my wife so I kind of know how that goes. Jean’s a great character and working with Maggie just transcended all my expectations.”

Playing a Drunk

But love is not necessarily enough for Bad to change his hard-living ways and his alcoholic hazes eventually bring their simmering romance to a boiling crisis point. “Playing drunk is full of traps,” notes Cooper.  “Most actors always over play it, but Jeff underplayed every single scene, every single emotion.  I think everyone who sees him will think of Bad Blake in terms of someone among their family or friends in some way because it’s that true a performance.”

Bridges said that his approach to playing Bad’s descent into addiction and bad behavior – and his struggle to get himself back — was to keep it ordinary.  “I didn’t want to build up the pressure of it,” he says.  “I wanted to always stay as relaxed as I could and just create that empty space where whatever is going to come out, has a chance to come out.”

That seemed to be exactly what happened once production began.  “This was just a wonderful role,” Bridges summarizes.  “Between the music, the acting and getting the chance to work with so many great players, it was one of the most intense, enjoyable experiences of my life.”