Hell or High Water: Oscar Winner Jeff Bridges Again Excels in Role He Was Born to Play

hell_or_high_water_posterAssigning Jeff Bridges the character of Marcus Hamilton is one of those magical casting moments.  The aging but unbowed Texas Ranger met his match in the Oscar-winner and six-time Oscar nominee whose roles have spanned a vast range–from a down-and-out country singer in “Crazy Heart” to Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ retelling of “True Grit.”

Additionally, Bridges played a video game programmer in the influential “Tron” and “Tron: Legacy,” the survivor of a major plane crash in “Fearless,” and the culturally iconic The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” 

Bridges’ career has been so rich and long that he is both one of the youngest actors (early twenties to be nominated for an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 classic The Last Picture Show, and also one of the oldest (early sixties) to win, Best Actor for “Crazy Heart.” 

Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong

Bridges was drawn to “Hell or High Water” for its sly, modern twists on the classic face-off of good and evil.  “I enjoy that what motivates each of these characters is complex,” he says.  “You are never quite sure who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, or who you’re rooting for.  We all tend to judge each other’s motives in life, but in this story, it’s a matter of point of view as to who’s right and who’s wrong – and maybe every character is a bit of both and that is always intriguing.” 

The filmmakers were hugely motivated by Bridges’ interest in the role.  Says Julie Yorn:  “Jeff has always been one of my favorite actors and he had such a great read into this character.  His Marcus is fresh and funny, but I think it’s also really moving watching a guy like Marcus facing down the realities of age.  His performance is so authentic.” 

David Mackenzie had only ever imagined Bridges taking the role.  “I think Jeff puts in an amazing performance as the dogged done-in hunter.  I adored working with him and found him to be enormously creative, incredibly engaged with the material and a lot of fun to be around.  I am a big fan of his huge body of work and feel very privileged to have worked with him,” says the director. 

The Texas Rangers

hell_or_high_water_3_bridgesThey started by digging into the history and camaraderie of the Rangers.  “We talked a lot about the reality of being a Texas Ranger, about the codes, ethics and honor of being a Ranger,” recalls Mackenzie.  “A lot of it was about getting these details right and then once they had been found we were able to relax into humanizing the character.  Jeff is a great improviser and we had a playful approach to the material which really helped us inhabit the moment of it.”

The chance to embody both the hard-forged physicality and opinionated persona of Marcus interested Bridges, especially because Rangers are so woven into the West’s mythological fabric, but Marcus knows that myth is fading. The fact that Marcus hears the clock ticking– and has no intention of going quietly into the good night — added an extra layer of both drive and tragedy to the character.

One Last Hunt

“Texas Rangers are kind of the cream of the crop as far as law enforcement goes,” says Bridges.  “But Marcus has reached the end of the line.  As the movie begins, he just got a letter from the higher ups telling him it’s time to shut it down and retire.  He’s spent his whole life doing this — getting the bad guys and solving crimes – and now it’s come down to this: one last hunt.  I think a lot of people can relate to that idea – having to leave behind the thing they’ve done all their lives.”

Bridges conducted his own research into life as a Ranger.  He picked the brains of Taylor Sheridan’s uncle, former Texas-based U.S. Marshall Parnell McNamara, and also spent time with Joaquin Jackson, the famed Texas Ranger who became a symbol of Texas law enforcement after appearing on the cover of Texas Monthly for a story entitled “Twilight of the Texas Rangers.” “They both helped a lot in making every detail as authentic as possible,” Bridges explains.

Marcus’s honed instincts tell him that the duo holding up Texas Midlands bank branches are not the usual junkies or lowlifes after fast cash.  He knows this is a different breed.  “These kinds of veteran law enforcement guys are pretty in synch with the criminal mind,” Bridges observes, “so he gets that this is the work of some pretty smart fellows with a very specific goal.” 

hell_or_high_water_1Marcus’ many colors came bristling to life in his rapport with his partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham.  Their repartee was a highlight for Bridges.  “Alberto is half Comanche, half Mexican — and Marcus enjoys teasing him on both accounts. I found Gil just wonderful to work with, not only as an actor, but he picks a mean guitar, so we had a lot of fun between setups,” he notes. 

Mackenzie holds that Bridges nailed the ways that bias seeps into our relationships, often casually, even unconsciously.  “The casual racism was one of the elements of Taylor’s script that makes it come alive,” he points out.  “We sometimes felt awkward with it, but I was very keen not to soften it.  What is interesting for me there is an arc to it where what starts as offensive becomes increasingly affectionate and the way that Alberto takes it on the chin and tries to get his own back becomes central to the tough love of their relationship.” 

Adds Taylor Sheridan:  “I watched Jeff truly become another person as Marcus.  He embraced all of the character, warts and all, and he shows us not only who this man is, but he lets us into the moment when he realizes his own mistakes – and he does it so cathartically and movingly.” 

The role also took Bridges into an intensive shoot-out sequence in 110-degree heat. “That’s the fun part of a role like this–getting to learn skills that you never thought you’d do,” he muses. 

Vengeance: Light and Dark

Bridges says that the film allowed the cast to dig deep into the light and dark sides of loss and vengeance.  Bridges says it makes sense that the film’s sympathies don’t come down on one side or the other.  “When it comes down to us humans, we’re a pretty ruthless bunch.  When somebody else is harming you and yours, it looks like they’re the bad guys.  But when you do it to them, you feel like you’re the good guy, doing right.  That’s the human condition,” he summarizes. 

For Chris Pine, who has one unforgettable scene with Bridges, Marcus is the heart of the film. “This is a story about things coming to an end.  Toby sets out to sacrifice his life for his family.  And Marcus is watching this vast wasteland of retirement approach. Toby becomes Marcus’ purpose, something to live for, and that’s beautiful and sad at the same time.” 

Says Pine of working with Bridges as a fellow actor:  “Boy, is he a special animal.  He’s just very, very giving and very open.  He has a real presence but he doesn’t come in bellowing just because he’s won an Academy Award.  He’s a gentleman, and actually, he reminds me a lot of my father.  As Marcus, he has the quality of a man who’s seen a lot in life.”