Jeff Bridges: Big Z Tells All

I best remember actor Jeff Bridges from a classic 1980's film called Starman in which he played a friendly, confused alien visiting earth. Go rent it. He's great in it. More recently, you might have seen Jeff as the coach for a girls' gymnastic team in the teen-aimed film Stick It. It's his role in the cult comedy The Big Lebowski in which he played The Dude, a laid back L.A. type, that most compares to his voice role as penguin Big Z, a surfing legend, in the fun, animated summer comedy adventure Surf's Up. You can catch him next year as baddie Obediah Stane in the big superhero flick Iron Man.

In real life, Jeff surfs, has his own band, plays guitar and sings. Z plays the ukulele and be sure to stick around through the end credits for the film and you'll hear a funny song with Jeff on vocals and ukulele! He's also a noted photographer and takes pics of behind-the-scenes moments on his film sets. We sat down with this friendly, multi-talented guy at the Kahala resort on Oahu recently and barely recognized him. His hair is super short (growing in from shaving it bald) from his Iron Man role and he has a huge beard. In the spirit of Surf's Up, Jeff wore a colorful Hawaiian shirt.

TeenHollywood: We see some parallels to The Dude here.

Jeff: [laughs] A-ha. Well, Dude does weed and Big Z's into clams.

TeenHollywood: What about the character appealed to you? What got you to want to voice Big Z?

Jeff: Gee, you know what really got me on board was this whole surfing aspect of things and how well they pulled the water element of this film off. I said, 'They're going to do a surfing movie, how are the waves going to look? Is it going to be almost like a photograph?' Then they started to show me some of the footage they had worked on. Being a surfer myself, it was a thrill to be able to be a part of bringing to the audience what that feels like to be locked in the tube.

TeenHollywood: What's the feeling you get from catching a wave?

Jeff: I suppose it's different at each level. I'm a pretty basic surfer. I stopped surfing years ago and I'm taking it up in the last 5 years again. I used to surf in high school all the time and it was pretty great. Now I'm kind of back to getting my balance back and getting my turns down. So it's kind of challenging for me and I'm worried about hurting myself, my back and so forth. I'm in the process of taking it a step at a time these days to make sure I can surf tomorrow. But it's a wonderful feeling whether you catch a wave or not. It's a bit like fishing. You're out there, you're part of nature, you're sitting in ocean, looking at the land. Most other times, it's the other way around. You're sitting out and looking at the ocean. There's something about it that gives you a different perspective on life. It's a wonderful metaphor, catching a wave, for how you can look at other challenges in your life.

TeenHollywood: Has surfing ever been adequately represented in movies? Like the film Point Break?

Jeff: Well, I remember, probably the best are the documentaries, the old surf films. I just did narration for a wonderful documentary called Chasing the Lotus. That's a lot of B roll from all of the old surf films. They interviewed some of these great old surfers and you really get a sense of what surfing's all about. Documentaries I think probably more than the fictitious versions of it. I think a lot of my friends were in [Point Break]. They did good work I think. They all were surfers so they added a certain authenticity to it.

TeenHollywood: Will you surf while you're here?

Jeff: No, I'm not. I'm leaving tomorrow. I've got to go back to work [on Iron Man] but I had an interview up there with Kelly Slater [surf champ who pals around with Cameron Diaz]. We just met. It'd be great to go out there and surf with him. [note: check the last paragraph in this interview for the on-site lowdown on Kelly and Cameron!]

TeenHollywood: Longboard or shortboard?

Jeff: I'm a longboard guy. I don't understand how they do the shortboard thing at all. I don't get it.

TeenHollywood: Your character and Shia's have a dad/son relationship. He told us he really enjoyed working with you and recording in the same room. You feel that way too?

Jeff: I had done animated films in the past and that was kind of a lonely experience where you sit in the booth and you've got your sides [script pages] and you're reading the stuff and imagining what the other person is saying, or doing the scene to their playback, they're not in the room. But in this instance, the characters were often all there in the same room. I did a lot of work with Shia who's a wonderful improviser. We were really encouraged by the directors to do that as much as we cared to and we did a lot of it. There were cameras set up in the room that were capturing our movements and our expressions and that was all going to help the animators. So it was a lot of fun. It didn't feel as lonesome and clinical. It was really a fun experience. Pretty loose.

TeenHollywood: Did you have any influence in the look of your Surf's Up character Big Z?

Jeff: Not too much. I told [the animator], I said, 'Gee, Big Z is kind of a fat penguin. Can you give him a little more tone?' [he laughs]. He said, 'No, that's going against the story.' [when we meet Z, he hasn't been surfing in years]. I didn't have too much to say about his look or anything like that. I got a kick out of it. It was kind of funny.

TeenHollywood: Do you see young actors who have potential like Cody Maverick does in surfing and want to mentor them?

Jeff: Sure, well, when we were making the movie, there was a bit of that. You could transpose surfing for acting in a sense that Shia and I are both actors and did it since we were kids. We would play together. There's a lot of play in acting, like when you were a kid and you used to pretend and that sort of thing. Not that it doesn't have to be serious but there's an element of play to it. That goes for surfing and goes for acting so yeah, certainly I think playing with Shia there was a lot of that same kind of sense. Not so much teaching somebody because he's a wonderful improviser and there's a great willingness that he has to play, to maybe be the fool or not. So we got to surf together, we got to play together.

TeenHollywood: You sing the Uke song at the end of the film, only it's called an "Ook". Was that fun?

Jeff: Oh, great. I heard that they were putting that song in but I hadn't heard it yet. That's funny. When I was recording it, one of my friends says, 'You know, it's not a Yuke-elele, it's an ook-elele.' So I went off, they had the mic on and recorded it. I didn't know they were going to do that. That's me playing and that song was written by perhaps my oldest friend, a guy named John Goodwin. We go back to the fourth grade together, we've been making music and art and playing together all these years. He's very good. He's got a song in quite a few of my movies actually.

TeenHollywood: This movie is about keeping the joy in what you do. How have you maintained it in acting?

Jeff: Yeah, well, different things come to mind when you say that. My mom would often say, 'Remember, don't take it too seriously.' I say, 'Oh yeah, thanks.' My wife, whenever I'd go off to work and I'd be kind of anxious, she'll say, 'Remember, have fun.' Oh, I forgot, thanks for the reminder. Because sometimes we do forget. We take it all too seriously and there's a lot of joy to be had wherever you are. Tap in and kind of get out of your way and there it is.

TeenHollywood: Are you still doing music just for fun? And, what other hobbies do you have?

Jeff: I play all the time. I played not too long ago. I think I've got another album in me. I'm going to get my buddies together collecting songs. I do a lot of ceramics. My website's kind of fun for me. I get to do drawings on that. A lot of family time these days. My oldest daughter Isabelle is getting married so we're kind of all gearing up for that.

TeenHollywood: Let's talk about Iron Man. How has filming been?

Jeff: It's been wonderful working with Jon Favreau who's the director of the film. He's a wonderful actor that I've admired for a long time. I remember first seeing him in Swingers. He wrote that, did such a great job. And Robert Downey Jr., we're doing a lot of improvisation in Iron Man to discover scenes and get off the written page. I know Jon is very interested in grounding it in as much reality as he possibly can.

TeenHollywood: You are playing?

Jeff: I'm playing Obediah Stane who in the movie version is Tony Stark's mentor, that's Robert Downey's character, Iron Man. I run his company, Stark Enterprises.

TeenHollywood: You were in one of the first movies ever to have computer graphics, Tron. How far have the special effects come since Tron?

Jeff: [Laughs] Man, leaps and bounds. I remember when we did Tron, we were so excited, seeing it and then I remember about a week after the opening going home and seeing all that technology in a commercial. Just boom, it just made it passe like that. That's the way technology is. It changes so fast.

TeenHollywood: Have you worked with Gwyneth Paltrow yet?

Jeff: A little bit. We've got some scenes coming up but I haven't worked with her too much yet.

TeenHollywood: What's next for you after Iron Man?

Jeff: Yeah, after Iron Man, I just signed on to a movie called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People with Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst. I play the chief editor of a magazine that Simon is working for. Loosely based on Vanity Faire. [The film is] based on a book by the same title I think.

TeenHollywood: Have you seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz?

Jeff: I've seen both of those and I'm a fan of Simon Pegg. I think he's great. I like Shaun of the Dead a lot. I think it's wonderful.

Later, after our interviews, TV crews were doing their interviews on Waikiki beach in back of the Moana Surfrider hotel. Surf consultants on the film Kelly Slater and Rob Machado were on the beach seemingly teaching young folks the basics of surfing (hey, that's what it looked like. We were just strolling by on the beach). We were told that Kelly's pal Cameron Diaz was staying in our hotel and surfing with Kelly. She was spotted both in the lobby, at the snack bar and on the beach and I think I saw the back of her head, but we didn't have a personal Cameron sighting. We did see Chris Buck and some other filmmakers hit the waves at least once while we were there.


Lynn Barker is a Hollywood-based entertainment journalist and produced screenwriter.

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