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'I'd like a little gold guy'

The Golden Globe is already on the shelf -- but Jeff Bridges hopes it will be joined by his first Oscar, for his performance in Crazy Heart. The laid-back star tells Evan Fanning about ignoring the age gap, good music and confusing the audience

JEFF Bridges sits bolt upright in his chair, chest puffed out and tells it like it is. He's discussing his love interest in his new movie, Crazy Heart, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is 28 years his junior. Or more precisely, he's discussing how the age gap never really bothered him. "I think of myself as 25. I can't believe I'm 60 years old. I mean, come on."

Age is very much just a number when it comes to Bridges. He has the laid-back manner of a man who you would think spends a large proportion of his life in hammocks, but although he insists that he tries to do as little work as possible, his enthusiasm for his job can be seen in just how many movies he has appeared in over the past few years. It's as if he's as hungry for experience as someone just starting out in the business.

But then, Bridges just seems pretty chilled out and relaxed about everything. He is The Dude after all. Bridges may be identified as the robe-wearing, White Russian-drinking California slacker Jeffrey Lebowski in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, more than any other role in his varied career, but it may well be a case that there is more of him in The Dude, than vice-versa.

The story goes that after reading the Lebowski script for the first time he called the Coens and asked them if they had been following him around.

While there may be no escaping The Dude, today Bridges is here to talk about Crazy Heart, in which he plays Bad Blake, a once-great country singer now forced into performing in bowling alleys and Tulsa saloons as a reminder that he is still alive, while his protege Tommy Steel (Colin Farrell) achieves the kind of success that eluded Bad.

While not quite bad to the bone, Blake drinks too much, sleeps too little, throws up on stage and generally behaves like a man who has fallen so far from grace that the world is no longer paying attention. The director, Scott Cooper, told Bridges that in real life Bad would have been the fifth member of the Highwaymen, lining up alongside Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.

It is a masterful performance from Bridges -- the kind that you would normally say would be career-defining had the man once described as "the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived" not defined his career by the unpredictability of his choices.

It was the memory of one of these previous performances which meant that Bridges initially turned down the role of Bad Blake. "The bar was set pretty high for me as far as making a movie about a musician's life with The Fabulous Baker Boys [in which he starred opposite his brother Beau]. I had a great time making it, and it had wonderful music -- you had all those pop and jazz classics.

"And on this one, while the script was great, there was no music, there was nothing attached to it. And you can imagine this movie with lousy music. It wouldn't be half the picture.

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"So I took a pass on it, and then about a year later my friend [the legendary songwriter, musician and producer] T-Bone Burnett asked me about it and I said: 'Why are you talking about this? Are you interested? Are you going to do it?' And he said: 'I'll do it if you do it'. So I said: 'Come on, let's go'."

Made for $7m, and shot in just 24 days, Crazy Heart was heading straight to DVD before Fox Searchlight stepped in to distribute the film. With no time to enter festivals, engage in long promotional campaigns or generally do the kinds of things that gain a film a lot of pre-release hype, Bridges was sent on the road to sell the film like a singer trying to fill as many venues as possible while his song is top of the charts.

And Bridges is certainly top of the pops at the moment. The Golden Globe is already on his shelf and he is currently an almost unbackable 1/6 to lift the Best Actor award at the Oscars in two weeks time. It is the fifth nomination of his career, following unsuccessful Best Supporting Actor nominations for The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Contender, as well as a Best Actor nomination for Starman.

The promotional game is a role Bridges plays with an ease and openness that is rare with big stars. He carefully considers each answer, stroking his salt and pepper beard as he gathers his thoughts, not so he will avoid saying the wrong thing, but so he will give you the most honest answer he can. He treats every question with the same level of importance, like you're having a chat over a beer in a bar.

Unfortunately, we're not. We're holed up in a hotel room and time is against us. Perhaps the thing about Bridges is that he is so unassuming that he doesn't grasp that you feel honoured and excited to be in his presence. He spends five minutes describing the wonders of the motion-capture techniques used on his next film Tron Legacy, due out later this year, a sequel to the 1982 film Tron.

"I'm not sure I've completely figured it out," he says of the techniques that cause his eyes to flicker as he describes their mechanisms.

Bad Blake was a role that came more familiar to Bridges, both in terms of the character and his profession. Bridges himself released an album called Be Here Soon in 2000, and has another one in the pipeline using songs which didn't make the final cut of Crazy Heart. While he has his own experience of performing, he still wanted inspiration as he searched for the right stage manner for Blake.

"Dylan was a role model," he says. "I watched some of his performances. And certainly Kristofferson. I knew Kristofferson, I still know him. I saw him not so long ago. And that's really the birth of the music for Crazy Heart.

"It started 30 years ago on Heaven's Gate. Kris brought all his musician friends on board and two of those guys were Steven [Bruton, who helped compose the music] and T-Bone. So we were playing music together 30 years ago."

It is far from accidental that Bridges has played such a wide variety of roles, from bank robber to president, or stoner to country singer. The origins of this variety came when he noticed how his father, the brilliant Lloyd Bridges, struggled with typecasting.

"I saw how frustrated my father was with Sea Hunt when he played that skindiver Mike Nelson," he says. "He played it so well that for a good length of time people thought he was a skindiver and so he got offered a lot of skindiving roles. But he was a very versatile actor. He did Shakespeare, he replaced Richard Kiley on Broadway in Man of La Mancha -- not too many people know that. He was kind of frustrated by that.

"So I decided I wanted to try and navigate it a bit differently and mix it up. One, just to keep it more interesting to myself, and also to send messages to the people out there who finance movies that I can play different roles so that I'm offered different roles. And also as a lover of films myself, when I go to the movies I notice that if the actor has developed a really strong persona it is hard for me to imagine him as the character that he is playing in this particular film.

"So I've tried to confuse the audience in a good way, not to develop that strong persona so that I could be able to play different types of roles."

While he may have learned all about his father's struggles with typecasting, he also absorbed the importance he placed on family values. In the transient world of Hollywood unions, Lloyd was married to Dorothy for 60 years, until his death in 1998. Dorothy died last year at the age of 93. Their three children -- Jeff, Beau and their younger sister Lucinda -- scattered her ashes into the sea by the family beach house, the same place they put their father.

The sense of family unity is one which Lloyd passed on to his youngest son. Jeff has been married to Susan Geston for 33 years, and they have three children. The reason he tries to turn away work is, he says, because "I don't like to be away from my wife".

He will be away from her again in a few weeks as he once more teams up with the Coen brothers to make True Grit. Bridges will step into the shoes of John Wayne for the film which will be based on Charles Portis's book, rather than Henry Hathaway's 1969 western.

He can make up to his wife with a night out at the Oscars on March 7. But what about the award -- is Bridges just too laid-back to care about something like this?

The night itself is "tense", he says, "and I don't like to be tense". While he acknowledges the positive effect it could have for the film, he also lets slip that he may already be clearing a space for the statue.

"It feels great personally to get the nod from my guys, from the actors who do what I do. That feels great, the nomination. It would be wonderful to have that little gold guy, you know that cool statue. That would be a cool thing. I'd like that." What The Dude wants, The Dude may get.

'Crazy Heart' is now showing in cinemas nationwide

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