Tavis: Tonight, though, I could not think of a better way to kick off 2011 than to spend some time with the man who has not one, but two blockbuster films in theaters right now. Jeff Bridges, the Oscar-winning actor, stars in both “Tron” and “True Grit,” and thanks to his stand-out performance in “True Grit” he is once again at the center of the conversation about this year’s best acting performances.
On Wednesday night right here on PBS you can catch the season premiere of “American Masters,” featuring one Jeff Bridges. The terrific episode is called, “The Dude Abides.” More on that in a moment.
First, though, from the film everybody’s talking about, a scene from “True Grit.”
Tavis: “True Grit” has exceeded all expectations at the box office and this past weekend it sold more tickets than any other film in the country.
Jeff Bridges joins us tonight from Santa Barbara. Jeff, an honor to have you back on this program. I hate you’re on a satellite, but I’m just glad to have the chance, as busy and as hot as you are, just to talk to you tonight, sir.
Jeff Bridges: Oh, wonderful to be here, Tavis, thanks for having me.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that (laughs) again, you got the two hottest movies in the country at the same time? Did you plan it this way?
Bridges: No. I didn’t have any idea they would come out so close together. You never can count on something like that. It’s a little bizarre, I must say.
Tavis: Let me take them one at a time. I’ll start with “Tron,” in no particular order, in part because when “Tron” came out back in the day the first time around, obviously it developed a loyal following, to be sure, but it didn’t become the blockbuster, box office hit that this one is. What gives? What makes the difference?
Bridges: (Laughs) Well, maybe it’s the technology thing. This new one makes that old one look like a black and white TV show. But what brought me to both those films was pretty much the same thing – I was really anxious to get to play with all of the latest technology that our industry has to offer, and this new one I got to experience what making movies without cameras is like.
Tavis: So what is that like for you?
Bridges: Well, it’s very bizarre. For one thing, you don’t have any costumes, no makeup, no sets and no cameras. Everything is done in post. From the performing side of things I wear a leotard with a bunch of glowing balls (laughter) glued all over it and black dots on my face. It’s a very, very different experience. Actually, it really requires you to kind of think back when you were a kid and played pretend, when you didn’t have all those great costumes and props and all that stuff.
Tavis: To the point you’re making now, Jeff, for a true artist, a real artist like yourself, who takes his work seriously, is that kind of movie-making a greater challenge, lesser challenge, about the same, to get the craft out of you?
Bridges: Yeah, well, it’s a different chop that you’ve got to have in your kit bag, but it is challenging. I’m not used to it. I kind of like to have a costume and a set. That helps me to get into the character. So when I started out there was a warming-up period where I had to give up some of my resentment for not having it the way I normally like it and kind of get with the program. But once I did, it was kind of fun and strange, bizarre.
Tavis: So once you go through that strange and bizarre phase and you see this on the big screen as everybody else is now seeing it, obviously, in huge numbers, now that you’ve seen the work and the technology, you think what of it?
Bridges: Oh, well, it’s mind-blowing. Joe Kosinski, our director, he’s an architect as well, so there’s a wonderful sense of design and you really get a feeling that the grid is a real place. All of the action sequences are tremendous.
Then another element that I was very curious about and excited about was I get to play myself at a younger age in this movie, which is terrific for an actor because now I can play – any character that I’m playing, I can play him at whatever age the script requires. Rather than having a younger or an older actor play the guy, it can be me.
So that’s kind of a cool thing. It was odd, seeing myself as a young guy up there, (laughter) because it wasn’t actually me as a young person but it was a different wonderful artist, the rendering of me at that age. I think they were kind of zeroing in on how I looked in “Against All Odds,” a movie I made, oh, God, 30 years ago, something like that, 20 years ago.
Tavis: I love that movie, it’s a great film. I love that movie. Before I move on to “True Grit,” let me ask you one final question about “Tron.” It is easy, I think, for some people to get caught up in all the fancy technology and think that that’s going to turn a bunch of kids on, but story line, in this business, as you know, still matters.
Talk to me about the importance of the story line in “Tron” and not just the high-tech stuff.
Bridges: Yeah, well, I’m glad you brought that up, because while I was excited to participate in all that high-tech stuff I also didn’t want to get on board if the story wasn’t going to be any good. As they pitched the basic idea to me, I said, “We have a chance to create a modern-day myth about technology.”
Myths are wonderful tools that we’ve had, oh, for eons now that help us navigate the situations we find ourselves in. Right now, I think we could use some help how to navigate these technological waters we find ourselves in, because you can get to a place very fast nowadays that you might not (laughs) want to be in once you realize where you are.
So this is sort of a cautionary tale a bit, and the title of the film is “Tron: Legacy.” So in a way, it’s asking what kind of legacy are we going to leave our kids, what kind of help can we give them as far as pointing them in the right direction.
Tavis: To the point you raise now, because it’s such a juicy tidbit I’ve got to get you to unpack it from your own perspective, when you talk about and you think about the legacy that we’re leaving for our children where technology, et cetera, is concerned, what do you make of it?
Bridges: Well, it’s a wonderful opportunity to bring us closer together, to bring the world together with this Internet, but it also can kind of drive us farther apart. We can each get into our own private worlds and concentrating on making that a magical place and not really think about the rest of the world.
That’s where I think the trouble lies, because we’re all connected. We’re all in this together, and the gap between those who are hip to the computer and the Internet and those who aren’t, that gets wider and wider and can drive us father apart. So we have to be conscious of that.
Tavis: I take it and I hear you and I agree with it. Let me move on now to the other blockbuster hit. We could have spent a whole show talking about “Tron: Legacy,” but now we go to “True Grit.”
The thing I want to start with on this is this notion that everybody keeps putting forth that this is a remake. Of course, you keep hearing the John Wayne comparisons and John (unintelligible).
Tavis: I know this remake language is out there, but as I read a little deeper into this, what sold you – you tell me if I’m right or wrong here – what sold you on this was not that it was a remake but that the Coen brothers were going to make this movie based on the book. So it’s really a re-do, not necessarily a remake. Does that make sense?
Bridges: Yeah, that is perfectly stated, absolutely. Charles Portis wrote a wonderful novel in the ’60s called “True Grit” and when the Coen brothers first came to me with the idea of making “True Grit,” I said, “Well, why do you want to do that?” Like you were saying, there’s already that movie. They said, “No, we’re not interested in that, we’re going right to the book. Have you read the book?” And I said, “No.”
So once I did read the book (laughs) I saw what they were talking about. The book reads like a Coen brothers script, it’s so wonderful, filled with terrific characters, a lot of twists and turns. So I jumped on board after I read that book, and of course I was happy that I enjoyed the book so much because the Coen brothers, you can’t get any better than those guys. They’re real masters.
Tavis: Are there two or three things that you could point to right quick for me and the audience that are quite different between the movie – I’m talking about the movie, the John Wayne classic, and the book – things that pulled you in that were uniquely different?
Bridges: Well, I would say the tone is quite a bit different as far as the darkness of this one. It’s a bit more violent. A lot of comedy in it, though. Execution is everything. Depending on who the actors are and who the directors are and all of that stuff, that changes everything.
Tavis: When you look at a script like this, Jeff – read a book like this, I should say – and you know the character that you’re being asked to play, on this particular character we see what you brought to the screen. What did you think this character was offering you by way of opportunity to show us on the screen where your chops are concerned?
Bridges: (Laughs) Well, I don’t think of it – any movie that I get involved with, I don’t think of it in those terms, how it’s going to show me off or anything. I usually have to get turned on to the story and the people that I’m working with. That’s what really brings me on board.
Tavis: What about this cast?
Bridges: Oh, man, what about Hailee Steinfeld, this girl? (Laughter) Thirteen years old when she did the movie, and man, did she come up with the goods. She’s something else. She was wonderful. Got Matt Damon – God, we had a great time working together. I’ve admired him for so many years and he’s such a great actor. Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper. It was just a great, great cast.
Tavis: I keep hearing and reading people suggest that this may indicate, the success of “True Grit” may indicate that westerns are back. Again, my take on that a bit different. It doesn’t necessarily mean that westerns are back, it means that a good book may have a good chance of becoming a good movie, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that westerns are back. What’s your take on that?
Bridges: Well, I hope westerns are coming back. A lot of people think that I was part of a movie that a lot of people say put the nail in the coffin of westerns, “Heaven’s Gate.” (Laughter) Now, for my money, that was a brilliant film, kind of a classic in its own right, and maybe with the success of this people will start to revisit that film.
But I hope we see more westerns. “The Unforgiven,” Clint’s movie that came out quite a few years ago, was I think maybe the beginning of bringing the westerns back. But like you say, a good book, find that story, that’s key.
Tavis: There’s always talk in this town, Jeff, as you know, about the value or lack thereof of an Oscar, and there’s this debate continues to rage year in and year out about what happens when you win an Academy Award, what happens to your movie, what happens to your career.
Contextualize for me as you see it what the Academy Award did for you relative to this moment, or nothing at all.
Bridges: Yeah, well, it was kind of interesting. The hoopla with all the award season is kind of mind-boggling. It kind of puts you on your heels. Right after that was all over I went right to work on “True Grit” so I didn’t have too much time to party or celebrate or anything. I kind of went right back to work.
Then I noticed now I’m a little more noticed on the street, that sort of thing. One of the positive sides of fame, because I think it’s kind of a double-edged sword, the down side, especially for an actor, is as you become famous you lose some of your anonymity, which is wonderful for an actor to have because you can observe people and also people don’t have such a strong sense of who you are and that sort of thing.
So when they see you in a movie they can accept you as that character a little easier. That’s kind of the down side of it. But the up side is that it raises my profile so I can bring attention to some things that I’m concerned about and I think other people should be concerned about. I’m currently the national spokesperson for a campaign called No Kid Hungry that an organization called Share our Strength has developed.
I’m very excited about that. It’s all about ending childhood hunger by 2015 here in our country, so I’ve been involved with the hunger issue for I guess about 30 years now. This particular campaign is very exciting because, well, it’s kind of good news and bad news.
The bad news is that according to the Department of Agriculture we currently have 17 million children in this country living in food-insecure homes. Those are households where the kid is not certain to get enough nutrition to lead a healthy and active life. That’s one in four of our kids, if you can believe that.
The good news is that there are programs already in place, like the food stamp program, it’s called SNAP now, the school meal programs and the WIC programs, the women, infant and children feeding programs that are already in place, and they’re being financed to the tune of $1 billion.
This $1 billion is available to states but it’s not being used for various reasons. So this No Kid Hungry campaign is working with governors and mayors with five states each year, we’re concentrating on those states, and we’re working with them in the private sector as well as the public sector, the government, to find out why that money is not being used and what we can do to change that.
So that’s something I’d like to encourage the viewers out there to go to NoKidHungry.org and take the No Kid Hungry pledge and find out how they might help end childhood hunger here by 2015.
Tavis: I’m glad you LED me there in this conversation, because had you not gone there I was going to raise it myself. So since we’re there, let’s keep talking about it.
Bridges: Okay, good. (Laughs)
Tavis: It raises for me I think a pretty central question, Jeff, and that is how it is, why it is, that you think that we can, in fact, end child hunger by the year 2015. That’s just four years away.
I raise that because it seems to me that the things that get most of the attention in Washington tend to be issues connected to folk who can punish or reward elected officials with their votes. The thing that so often is unfair to children in this country about the way they get maltreated by our government is that they have no vote.
Bridges: Yeah, they have no vote.
Tavis: Exactly. So they –
Tavis: So how is their issue going to be addressed in this way, you think, by 2015?
Bridges: Well, I’ve got some ideas up my sleeve. One thing I want to do is create something called Ring Around Congress. It would be a state deal and also a national thing, where the kids, as a field trip, will go and join hands around Congress and give the politicians report cards on how they’re voting on hunger issues.
Tavis: I like it, I like it, I like it.
Bridges: Something like that. But this problem of our kids going hungry in this country is so important to address, not only just the basic human thing of feeding our children but defense, national defense.
There was a report put out by the Pentagon not too long ago that only 25 percent of the kids between 19 and 24 are eligible for the military because they’re not nutritiously fed. Our work force, to compete with what’s going on internationally, you need calories to get your brain functioning in school.
If kids don’t have enough food to eat and the right kind of food, they’re not going to learn as well as they might. Of course, we can’t compete with the rest of the world that way.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad this –
Bridges: There’s so many reasons why we have to handle this problem with urgency.
Tavis: I’m glad this conversation, Jeff – got a minute to go here – I’m glad this conversation turned the way that it did, because it just seems to me that the good Lord, as I see it, sometimes allows those of us who are trying to do something, trying to say something, particularly on behalf of and in defense of the least among us, maybe all this good fortune that’s coming your way has given you a bigger and broader platform to raise these important issues.
Bridges: Well, that’s what I’m saying. This is what’s important about making hit movies, (laughter) is being able to bring attention to this kind of thing.
Tavis: Well, if you get a chance to raise this issue about our babies vis-à-vis hit movies like “Tron: Legacy” and “True Grit,” you keep on making hit movies, then.
Bridges: All right, all right, thanks, Tavis, I will.
Tavis: Good to have you on, Jeff. Take care of yourself.
Bridges: Thank you, man. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Jeff Bridges, with two big hits out at the same time – “Tron: Legacy,” and of course, “True Grit.”
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