Actor Beau Bridges

Bridges discusses carrying on the family legacy and his character portrayals in two very different small screen series.

A critically acclaimed actor and director for more than six decades, Beau Bridges continues to demonstrate his versatility in two very different small screen series in which he currently stars: the CBS comedy, The Millers, and Showtime's drama, Masters of Sex. He was born into a preeminent Hollywood acting dynasty and has worked consistently from a very young age. He's directed and starred in several productions, including with his father Lloyd and brother Jeff, and has also explored acting from the perspective of a playwright with his daughter Emily. Bridges has received three Emmy Awards and 14 nominations and a Spoken Word Grammy and finds time to actively support environmental causes.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with three-time Emmy winner, Beau Bridges, who’s currently starring in two very different TV series, the comedy, “The Millers,” on CBS, and the drama, “Masters of Sex” on Showtime.

Bridges, who also has 14 Emmy nominations, two Golden Globes and a Grammy to his credit, has appeared in more than 80 television shows and more than a dozen films including, of course, “The Fabulous Baker Boys” with his brother Jeff.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Beau Bridges coming up right now.

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Tavis: Acting is part of the legacy Lloyd Bridges left his two sons, Beau and Jeff. Without question, both of the Bridges boys have excelled at what might be called the family business. Beau Bridges has three Emmys, two Golden Globes and a Grammy to his credit.

Right now, he’s costarring in two very different TV series, the sitcom, “The Millers,” on CBS, and the drama, “Masters of Sex,” on Showtime. In that series set in the late 50s, he plays a repressed husband. We’ll start with a look at a scene from “Masters of Sex.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So I was congratulating you on not one, but two, series right now and your quick response was, “I am lucky to be working in this business right now.”

Beau Bridges: That’s right, Tavis [laugh].

Tavis: You really feel that way?

Bridges: Yeah, I feel blessed to have this opportunity. I mean, you know, this is an up and down business, so this is great. I’m on a little bit of a run.

Tavis: What do you make of this “little bit of a run” that you’re on right now? I know there’s no rhyme or reason to this, but why at this point in your life do you think this run of these two series just happens for you?

Bridges: Well, you know, one of the wonderful things about show business is the unpredictability of it all. I mean, I had no idea and these two great opportunities came, “The Millers” by my friend, Greg Garcia, who is the show runner and he did “My Name is Earl.” I played Earl’s dad on that, so I know Greg. He’s one of the best show runners going.

And then “Masters of Sex” is, you know, the total opposite of that, a full-on drama. I play a closeted gay provost of a university in a rendering of a true story, Masters and Johnson, who did all those sexual experiments in the 50s which really turned the world upside down in terms of how we deal with sexuality, especially in terms of women.

Women were always thought to be just, you know, kind of along for the ride, and William Masters in his sexual experiments determined and introduced to the world that in fact the ladies are driving the bus [laugh]. You get what that is.

Tavis: Any hesitation at all, any equivocation whatsoever, about playing this particular character on “Masters of Sex” at this point in your career?

Bridges: Well, you know, it was interesting. When I was asked to be in the pilot, in the show, it was not revealed that he was a gay man. He was just the provost who was, you know, at the university where the experiments were happening. He wasn’t very happy with them. He was mentoring William Masters and I thought, oh, that’s an interesting character. And then they decided that he was a gay man, so that was a surprise to me.

One of the other great things about this business, especially when you’re in a series, is you kind of grow with the character. You know, you don’t really know where he’s going and you find out. It’s like opening a Christmas present. You find out every time you get a script. Oh, that’s what’s happening to him. So you kind of evolve with the character.

The first time I ever played a gay man, I played a man who was a transsexual, who had the operation, became a woman. I did that a couple of times, but never a gay man. So it was interesting to get into those shoes.

It was tough being gay, especially in the 50s. There was a lot of ignorance afoot in the land, you know, especially people in positions of power really had a tough time and most of them remained in the closet. I mean, police used to break into gay bars and arrest people and so forth.

So it’s kind of interesting to lift up those rocks and show what it was like to be gay in those years because, even today unfortunately, there’s still some ignorance in the land in terms of your sexuality. Sometimes it’s hard for us to be who we really are.

Tavis: What happens when – and I’m not talking about, you know, the fact that this particular character happens to be gay because it could be any number of character traits. But as an actor, what happens when you sign on?

How do you navigate signing on to play a particular character and then, at some point in the season or the run of the series, they flip it on you and you’re signed on to play this character? And what if, as an individual, you have misgivings about playing this particular aspect of a character? What do you do at that point?

Bridges: Well, it was a total surprise. When they told me, you know, that I had the show, that the show had been picked up, I was excited. They went to a Christmas party with my wife and Michelle asked – the producer of the show said, you know, “We’re so excited that you’re here. You’re so great in the pilot” and she’s kind of stroking me and my wife was standing next to me and she said she kind of saw where it was all going. And I said, “Well, thanks. You know, this is a great opportunity for me” and they said, “We have some really wonderful twists for your character coming up” and my eyes kind of lit up and my wife said she knew exactly where my head was going which was, oh, I’m the provost of a university.

There’s all these people behind the scenes that are having sexual experiences. I’m probably getting it on with some of these coeds at the college and stuff. And I said, “What? What’s the twist?” And they said, “You’re gay.” You know, it totally threw me for a loop and my wife burst out laughing because she knew where I was going [laugh].

But in the end, you know, love is love really and I’m playing a man who is married for many years. Allison Janney plays my wife. I guess she was on the show not long ago.

Tavis: Not too long ago, yeah.

Bridges: Yeah. And…

Tavis: And not unlike you, she’s working two jobs.

Bridges: That’s right, yeah. One comedy, one drama.

Tavis: One comedy, one drama just like you, exactly.

Bridges: But, yeah, so we’ve been married a long time. We have a grown child and we love each other very deeply. But we’re operating at different worlds sexually and we don’t want to give up our closeness, our love relationship.

So we work through that in the show and it’s pretty complex, but I think beautiful because, you know, I don’t think our sexual drives define us. I mean, I think there’s more important, more deeper aspects to the human condition than that, although that’s an important part of it.

Tavis: So you’re, by your own admission, on a bit of a roll right now with these two different series. Let me go 180 degrees in the other direction. So you’re part of this rich legacy, this lineage of wonderful, brilliant acting in this business.

How does Beau Bridges survive the lean years when we weren’t seeing you on one, much less two, series at the same time? How do you sustain yourself in the lean periods?

Bridges: Well, you know, I was a circus brat. My dad, Lloyd, was an actor, so I saw, as his son, saw him go up and down in the roller coaster ride of being an actor. You know, it wasn’t news to me that that might happen in my career and it did. It has.

And he always told me, my father, that, you know, you want to keep working, keep being in a ready mode because you never know when that chance is gonna come and you have to work hard in this business because there’s a lot of people that want that one role and one person gets it. So preparation was an important part of what he taught me.

And also, the word respect came up often; to respect yourself, respect those people that you work with, respect your fellow man. I think if you do that as a person, it kind of helps you through those lean times because, you know, it doesn’t matter if someone else is giving you a job or patting you on the back.

As long as you respect yourself, I think you have a chance to get over it and get it to happen. Also, I have a wonderful wife, Wendy, who is there supporting me all the time and my five kids. We’re a good family and that helps in the lean times too.

Tavis: Yeah. This question might be a bit too stark, but let me ask it anyway, which is whether or not you have, for the most part, seen this lineage that you’re part of as a blessing or a curse.

Bridges: Oh, well, it’s definitely a blessing. I mean, it’s very difficult to get the first job as an actor in this business. And my father being an actor put all his family to work, basically, me and my brother, my sister Cindy, even my Mom, and he felt it was a family business.

And that’s not too unique. I mean, I think if you look at a lot of professions, the children will at least try out their father’s business. But I don’t lose sight of the fact that I was blessed to have that shot that my dad provided.

Now once I got that first job, he told me, he says, you know, that’s it. You’re now gonna have to bring the goods because this is a professional world and they don’t care after that first job whose kid you are. You know, you got to show that you can do your thing. So I did work hard at it, you know, and I love it. It’s a great business.

Tavis: Because you’re, again, playing these two parts now, dramatic series, comedy series, whether or not you have worked assiduously harder at one of those things to become proficient where the other might have come more easily or if you had to work equally hard in both aspects…

Bridges: Yeah. I think most every job in the acting business comes with its own set of challenges. “The Millers,” which is a balls-out comedy for CBS, that was unique for me because it was a live performance, multi-cam show. I’d only done it once before, but we had a brilliant director, Jimmy Burrows, who’s done the classic…

Tavis: One of the best.

Bridges: “Friends”…

Tavis: Sure.

Bridges: You know, “Cheers,” a lot of different great ones. So he helped kind of hold my hand through the first few episodes. It has a great cast, Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, and I got comfortable toward the end of it. We did 22 episodes so far.

But at the beginning, it was kind of scary because it’s like doing a new play every week and I never felt totally prepared when that live performance came. And you have 9 or 10 writers with you all the time handing you new, you know, stuff. If a joke doesn’t work, bam, they’ll just give you a new one right on the spot. So that took some getting used to.

But the immediate response from the audience is great and I also learned that they probably enjoyed more if I screw up a line than if I’d get it right. They laughed their head off.

Tavis: That’s why it’s called comedy [laugh], yeah. See, I asked that question in part because I know Jeff, your brother, just a little bit better than you and I know each other. I was trying to get a sense of whether or not you think your personality is given more to drama than comedy, although you’re doing both of them pretty well right now.

Bridges: Yeah. You know, I think that there are elements of comedy and tragedy in all characters, and probably the first thing I look for is just the opposite thing. If I’m doing a real serious, dramatic role, I kind of look for laughter in there because I think that’s what people enjoy and that’ll make the guy kind of surprising so he’s not one note.

If I’m doing a comedy, I try to look for the heart and soul in a person. Like in “The Millers,” I’m playing this man who leaves his wife after 43 years and moves in with his daughter. You know, it’s a laugh a minute, that show, but that’s a serious deal too, someone trying out their wings at my age, you know. And I had my first make-out scene in a long time too in that show recently.

Tavis: And how was that for you?

Bridges: Pretty good [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. It’s impossible to talk to you or your brother, for that matter, if you’re fans of the Bridges’ work as I have been for quite some time without raising, you know, the “Baker Boys” project.

I mean, it’s been a while now since – this is in the rearview mirror here. When you look back on that project – I don’t want to color this question too much deliberately. What do you think when you look back on that project now with your brother Jeff?

Bridges: Well, one of the things I remember from that project is Michelle in that red dress on top of that piano [laugh].

Tavis: Everybody does [laugh]. Don’t we all?

Bridges: It wasn’t just my brother and I.

Tavis: Point well taken.

Bridges: Yeah. No, she was tremendous in the show. I loved it. You know, the music was such a wonderful part of it…you know, the chance to get in and tickle the keys, you know. My mom had taught me how to play a little bit when I was younger, but never like the real guys.

Dave Grusin did the wonderful music and it was great to see my brother get into music because he always – I thought that’s what he was gonna become was a musician in the beginning. And then he did his first movie, “The Last Picture Show,” and got nominated for an Academy Award. I think he was like 19 or something.

And now in his career, later in his career, because of “Crazy Heart” and “Baker Boys” and he’s getting into his music, he now thinks he’s a rock and roll star [laugh]. He’s touring around the country with his band, The Abiders. So, you know, it’s fun to see him evolve like that.

Tavis: So he, you thought, would be a musician or a photographer. As a matter of fact, I have a book of his photos. His…

Bridges: Oh, yeah. He’s a good photographer.

Tavis: His photography book is sitting on my desk in my dressing room, as a matter of fact. I see it every day. But you might have been, could have been, thought you might be, a basketball player.

Bridges: Well, yeah. You know…

Tavis: This is a great story. Don’t try to blow me off, man.

Bridges: Well, I was a walk-on.

Tavis: Tell the story.

Bridges: I was a walk-on at UCLA. I can’t even remember the year. Somewhere in the early 60s. And so the coach – some say the best college coach of all time, John Wooden.

Tavis: Not some say. If they don’t say, they’re idiots [laugh].

Bridges: He was my coach and he walked out there the first day and I’m sitting there with a lot of high school All-Americans and little me from Venice High School with a halfway decent jump shot from the corner, sitting there and here he comes and he says, “We will begin, gentlemen, by learning how to tie our shoes.” You start very tight so there’s no wrinkles that’ll feel like a rock in your shoe after a length of time. You start with the laces at the bottom and you work the way up and always double knots. You know, we don’t want them coming unloose, you know, at the end of the game.

You know, I played maybe two or three minutes a game if I was lucky. I think I scored 1.3 points a game [laugh], but I was there. And the beautiful thing about coach is he remained in contact with all his players.

Just a wonderful man, you know. His Pyramid of Success that he began as an English teacher and then later gave to his teams, I pass that on to so many young people. I coached all my kids’ teams. Yeah, I’m so happy that I was a small part of his experience and he was part of mine.

Tavis: I was going to say, that has to be one of the great joys in your life. I mean, I read his affirmations all the time and I had the honor of interviewing him a number of times on this program and radio.

Bridges: Oh, really?

Tavis: I’m from Indiana and he’s from Indiana, of course. So every time we saw each other, we had the Indiana connection.

Bridges: Sure.

Tavis: So I just felt so honored when I got to L.A. just to get to know him a little bit. But those affirmations of his…

Bridges: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Tavis: That’s it. You know them.

Bridges: “Make every day your masterpiece.”

Tavis: You got it, you got it [laugh]. It is amazing. I don’t care who you talk to, who’s been around this guy, played for John Wooden, that stuff’s, to your point, they all remember it and every one of them like you passes it on to their kids, grandkids and others.

Bridges: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: But just to be in that space, though…

Bridges: He was the real thing.

Tavis: Yeah. When, then, did you take this “thespian” thing seriously?

Bridges: Well, after my jump shot faded [laugh] and I got real, I saw I had this opportunity to maybe, you know, try out my dad’s profession. Go to work in my father’s shop, so to speak.

And I transferred from UCLA to the University of Hawaii and was kind of phasing out my college education in the surf and I got into surfing. And then I had some opportunities to work in some shows, not with my father, and I tried them and I really loved it and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.

And now my kids, they’re all involved. My daughter Emily who’s getting her Masters in arts and leadership at the University of Minnesota, she just completed an independent film. And we wrote a play together called “Acting: The First Six Lessons” which Samuel French published.

My son Jordan is a regular on “Rizzoli & Isles.” My son Casey has been a documentary filmmaker, but he’s living in South Africa now building youth centers in Soweto, you know, outside of Joburg. And let me see. I don’t want to leave anyone out.

Oh, then my youngest Zeke is going to Italy to study film and some of the Italian classics. He’s going to Chapman University. So they’re all touching film and being involved in it. You know, it’s telling the stories. It’s continuing on that old tradition of sitting around the campfire talking about what’s going on in the next village.

Tavis: How important has it been or did it just happen to happen that this next generation that you just speak of now, your kids, will continue this legacy? Was that by design or by happenstance with your kids?

Bridges: Well, you know, that’s an interesting question. I think that probably a bit of both. I mean, because of the new technology, the whole communications industry has really, you know, expanded and the potential and the possibilities are almost limitless.

I mean, it’s just amazing and I think my children, like all young people, are aware of that. My son Dylan who I didn’t mention, he’s in digital marketing at Universal and that’s a whole new world. You’re part of the…

Tavis: Yeah. I’m trying to figure it out myself, yeah.

Bridges: Yeah. And he helped school me kind of on all this stuff. So, yeah, it’s fun to see them all join in in that effort and also, you know, there’s so many important things happening in the world today that need to be talked about and thought about.

And I think we as performers in the entertainment industry, part of what we do is to lift up the rocks and say, okay, what about this? Let’s examine this in our lives today. And I’m glad that my family’s a part of that.

Tavis: Without proselytizing, as you look back on your career, how do you feel about whether or not you’ve been able to do that? To tell the kinds of stories that you want to tell, to get us to wrestle with these issues that you want us to wrestle with through your art?

Bridges: Yeah, well, you know, I remember my father saying to me when he was in his 80s, saying, “Geez, you know, I feel so disappointed that I didn’t really, you know, do all the things I wanted to in my career.” I said, “Dad, what are you talking about?” I mean, the man was vastly successful. He had successful series, did some iconic movies. I said, “How can you say that about yourself?”

But I think, you know, maybe it’s that we all – you know, we can’t help but be in touch with those things that we didn’t accomplish, you know. But I’ve had a chance to be in some great films, I think, that were meaningful. “Norma Rae,” you know, about unions. I mean, that was…

Tavis: Classic.

Bridges: I remember we were sitting there in the South and Marty Ritt, our director said while we were making the movie, he said, “You know, we’re gonna make a movie that can change this country” and it did to an extent. You know, it had a lot of important stuff in it.

I think I did a TV film called “Without Warning: The James Brady Story” about Jim Brady, the press secretary that took the bullet…

Tavis: For Reagan, yeah.

Bridges: To the head in front of President Reagan. And Jim, his whole life has been a story of perseverance and how he has overcome this challenge of brain injury. And I got to step in his shoes and…

Tavis: You played that remarkably well.

Bridges: And show that to the world. So, you know, hopefully, people who are challenged in that way see that and they say, “Oh, okay, that guy did it.”

Tavis: You played the heck out of that character. And, of course, the briefing room in the White House now is named after James Brady.

Bridges: That’s right.

Tavis: It’s the Brady Briefing Room. That was a great character. Beau’s done a lot of good stuff and he’s still doing it on a couple different things right about now. “Masters of Sex” on Showtime and “The Millers” on CBS. How you’ve had time to come see us with two series, I do not know, but I’m very much appreciative of it.

Bridges: Thanks, Tavis. Good talking to you, bud.

Tavis: Good to have you on this program, Beau Bridges. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: August 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm