When Jeff Bridges ponders why he'd remake True Grit, his answer has a dash of the Dude in it.
"I must say that my M.O. is kind of like I've got to be dragged to the party," Bridges says lazily, with a hazy rasp, chatting on a telephone in an LAX airport lounge.
"I try to resist working as much as I can, even if it's with the brothers — although certain things get me to the party quicker than others."
"The brothers" are Joel and Ethan Coen, the men who made the Dude and to a certain extent Bridges, with their first collaboration. 1998's The Big Lebowski created a cult Bridges embraces, even appearing at an "Achievers" convention in 2005 when he was merely the steadiest actor in the business.
Bridges, 61, won an Oscar since then, if you haven't heard, for playing a country music singer in Crazy Heart not unlike his past or future.
Yes, Bridges has an album of songs on the way, and a zigzag path to celebrity behind. Always respected, he has been mostly hired by folks like the Coens seeking something more genuine than movie stars typically provide.
Like what it takes to step into the cowboy boots of a legend like John Wayne, who won a Best Actor Academy Award for playing the heroic, alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in 1969's version of True Grit.
"Them being involved is certainly something that's encouraging to me," Bridges says. "Initially I couldn't figure why they wanted to make that movie, you know? John Wayne won that award and it was already made.
"They corrected me, saying: No, that's not what we're doing. We're referencing the book; we're making a movie as if no other movie had been made. That was a big relief to me. I took them up on it."
Charles Portis' novel spoke from the perspective of Mattie Ross, a headstrong teenager who hires Rooster to track down her father's murderer. Wayne's iconic stature turned the earlier script into his chummy showcase; the Coens' version makes Rooster another flinty varmint to contend with on Mattie's quest, allowing Bridges free rein to carve out a truer and grittier portrayal.
"I didn't look at John Wayne's movie and study movements or how he did scenes," Bridges says. "That would've been a frightening proposition."
Surprisingly, Bridges never met the Duke, despite growing up in Hollywood with his actor-father Lloyd Bridges, a contemporary of Wayne's. Yet he's aware enough of Wayne's myth to know a compliment when he hears one — and casually deflect it to the Dude.
I mention a line in my True Grit review declaring him the closest to a Wayne-like object of respect in Hollywood today.
"Well, that's very sweet of you to say," Bridges says. "That may be a function of being part of a bunch of great movies. Since the Coen brothers directed True Grit, you've got to mention Lebowski.
"I know I'm partial, but if I'm spinning through the TV channels and that one comes on, I've got to stop and watch. I'll say I'm just going to watch a couple of scenes but I get hooked, just like The Godfather or something."
True Grit opens in theaters Wednesday, only five days after his encore role in Tron: Legacy, a 3-D sequel to a 1982 sci-fi flick. Exactly one year ago, Crazy Heart was just beginning an uphill indie climb leading to an Academy Award, two more surefire hits to film and promote, and the unique honor of a PBS American Masters biography — aptly titled The Dude Abides — airing Jan. 12.
Has this been the most satisfying year of Bridges' half-century career?
"Oh, yeah, it's got to be. My god," he says. "It's kind of gratifying and kind of a b----, too, because I've been so damn busy. I've been away from my wife and that's tough. But that's the downside of the whole thing. Otherwise, I've been working with great folks making good movies."
Bridges makes a point of doing that, and a groundswell of industry respect makes great folks come to him. Would achieving this level of admiration have meant as much when he broke into movies in the 1970s?
His reply is pure, freely associated Dude.
"That's an interesting question," he says. "I'm really not sure.
"One thing that's interesting, another thing that Crazy Heart brought about, is that I just finished cutting tracks for an album with T-Bone (Burnett), my old bud, that's going to be out next year. It's a little odd for a guy who's 61 years old to start realizing his musician dream.
"That, I would've dug happening in my 20s. That would've been cool."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. For more from his interview with Jeff Bridges, read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.