Hunger is not political discourse to Jeff Bridges.
When the actor discusses the inability of children to access food, reduced food quality, the importance of food banks or federal nutrition programs, he evaluates them as societal or communal problems as opposed to explicitly political ones.
“I don’t believe that something such as hunger can be a political thing,” said Bridges, who in 1983 founded the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to feeding children around the world.
Bridges and his band The Abiders perform at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula this Tuesday. It will be a fundraiser for the re-election of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who, Bridges said, has made childhood hunger and food insecurity a priority.
“I see all of us working at it from a bipartisan issue and I have great connection with Republican and Democrat governors on the hunger issue, whether it’s Gov. (Brian) Sandoval (R-Nev.) or Gov. Bullock. I played the Democratic convention a couple years ago with The Abiders, but I can’t say that I’m only supporting one party. Hunger is one of the certain issues I really respond to. And the hunger and the health of our kids is a pretty good compass of where we are as a society. Man, if our kids aren’t doing well, then we are far off course.”
In March 2014, Bridges organized a meeting with several Democratic governors, including Bullock, to address childhood hunger in their states.
“I first met Gov. Bullock and his wife, Lisa, as the national spokesperson for the Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry campaign,” Bridges said. “I thought that Gov. Bullock and Lisa responded beautifully to the idea of making Montana a ‘No Kid Hungry’ state. The panel discussed removing barriers to bringing breakfast from the cafeteria into the classroom, and both the governor and his wife were responsive to the federal funding available for after the bell and summer meal programs.”
Approximately one in seven Montanans “struggle with hunger,” according to Montana Food Bank statistics. While severe hunger and malnutrition are rare in Montana, tens of thousands of low-income Montanans face food insecurity, including nearly 22 percent of children (nearly 48,000 kids).
Bridges said that he is aware of the risks of political endorsements but isn’t worried. He rattled off myriad personal reasons he is supporting Bullock’s candidacy. Nonetheless, he said that he has no aspirations to ever compete on the political front; lending his name to highlight and improve food security in Montana, he said, is the least he could do for what he deems his “home state.”
Indeed, Bridges is no well-meaning outsider: a 40-year resident and small-town denizen, he is as Montana as unobstructed views and alpine lakes. He met his wife, Susan, at Chico Hot Springs, and he lives in a cabin initially constructed as a prop used in one of the three made-in-Montana films he has starred in.
His relationship with Montana began when he was selected to play opposite Clint Eastwood in the 1974 movie “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”; shot in 47 days in the summer of 1973, almost entirely in and around Great Falls, the film follows a pair of drifters who fall into friendship and criminal enterprise. (Bridges received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.)
“‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ was an exciting movie,” Bridges said. “I was a young guy and Eastwood was producing (along with Robert Daley) and he was giving Michael Cimino his first shot, his first editorial job. It was filmed partly in Helena, at the Gates of the Mountains, at the Snake River. I fell in love with Montana, I bought a Harley-Davidson, and there was no better place to buy a bike and ride around. My friend Gary Busey was also in the film, and I had a wonderful time to share with him. Clint Eastwood is famous for not wanting to do more than one take of a scene, but Clint was patient with Cimino and he would say, ‘give the kid another shot.’ It was all a wonderful experience. The light, the mountains, and the people—everything just struck a chord in me.”
The 1975 Montana-made film “Rancho Deluxe,” written by Thomas McGuane, tells the quaint tale of two modern-day cattle rustlers (Bridges and Sam Waterston) disconnected between a romantic past and a motorized present and the distant memories and principles of the West.
“‘Rancho Deluxe’ has special significance for me because I met my wife during the filming,” Bridges said. “She was working her way through college, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl waiting tables with a broken nose and two black eyes (from a car accident). … We were married three years later. On one of our first dates we went along with a Realtor.”
According to Bridges, a “Rancho Deluxe” makeup artist mailed the couple a photograph 10 years after they married, showing the moment they met.
“The makeup man was going through his files and found some pictures of me asking Susan out,” said Bridges. “There we are. I’m speaking our first words, and there she is answering no.”
Bridges also played in Cimino’s finance-inflated “Heaven’s Gate”—often derided as Hollywood’s biggest box-office disaster—a mismanaged flop that culminated in the disbandment of United Artists. The 1980 movie, based on an 1890 range war in Johnson County, Wyo., starred Kris Kristofferson and was filmed at five different sites in Glacier National Park as well as several areas adjacent to the park, and a few scenes in Idaho and Colorado.
“‘Heaven’s Gate’ was shot near the border near Glacier, and Michael Cimino received a lot of bad attention for it, and undeservedly so, I think,” Bridges said. “I consider it a classic, because it really puts you back into what the times must have been like. The movie is leisurely paced, it’s quite slow, but the filmmaking has a rhythm, and I’ve ended up enjoying it more and more over the years.”
United Artists gave director Cimino absolute artistic control of “Heaven’s Gate,” and he immediately carried the project over the film’s initial budget of $7.5 million. Cimino overspent at least $30 million on props, tools, helicopter rentals and mindboggling set construction. At film’s end, Bridges ended up with a log house that functioned in the picture as a brothel, dismantled it, and had it re-located to Livingston, near the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
“Toward the end of the movie, there is a whorehouse in ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and Michael Cimino said, ‘Does anyone want this cabin?’ He said that the owner or whoever was going to burn it down. I numbered the logs and took them 400 miles south to Livingston. To this day, I’m living in the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ whorehouse.”
Bridges said his roots as a professional musician have their origin in the unplanned jam and tutoring sessions that took place on the set of “Heaven’s Gate.”
“We shot for close to six months on that movie,” he said. “During those six months, Kris Kristofferson invited a lot of his friends. On movie sets, many actors play music. Kristofferson brought Ronnie Hawkins, Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and our down time was spent making music. Some lifelong friendships started there, and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was really the birth of the music that came out later in ‘Crazy Heart.’”
Since then, Bridges has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, a six-time Academy Award nominee; his performance in “Crazy Heart” (2009)—as Bad Blake, the luckless, alcoholic country music singer at the center of the drama— garnered him his first Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. At first, he passed on the role of Bad Blake, because the script “lacked music.” But when he learned that noted songwriter, musician and producer T-Bone Burnett was interested, he reconsidered.
In August 2011, Jeff released his self-titled debut album for Blue Note Records, produced by Burnett. He has also released a solo effort, “Be Here Soon,” on his own label, Ramp Records, and a live album “Jeff Bridges and The Abiders Live.”
At 66, Bridges is a guy who loves engaging in art far too much to rest on one medium’s laurels. Indeed, he has been enamored of music (in addition to drawing and painting) since his mother forced him to take piano lessons at age 8, and his interest peaked when he first listened to his brother, Beau, experiment with a Danelectro guitar; in high school, he linked up with a batch of musically inclined buddies for a Wednesday night gathering that continued weekly for 15 years.
The actor said that music has had special significance in several of his film projects.
“Different assignments through the years have turned me on to various kinds of music,” he said. “‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ was steeped in jazz and the Bill Evans style of piano playing. You are engaging the music and they put that in the movie.”
Bridges said acting and music draw from and enhance similar creative forces.
“There is not too much difference,” Bridges said. “I remember years ago while preparing for a role in a hotel room, I had the idea for song, and I was really irritated that I had to get back to work. Sometimes I get an idea for a painting while playing the guitar. I’ve found that over the years all of my creativity is connected and it all gets shook up and manifests in different ways.”
Despite his fame, Bridges said that on the night of March 15 the fight to end childhood hunger in Montana—and America—will take center stage.
“I believe that with hunger and hunger-related issues, we make these advances, but if we are not watching, these advances go away and hunger just raises its head again and again,” he said. “If we are not watching, we will lose programs, lose safety nets and lose those gains we’ve made. The gains will slip through the holes if hunger programs are not properly supported or funded.
“I will be there with (producer and singer-songwriter) Chris Pelonis and you never know what’s going to happen. There will be a lot of improvisation—a guitar, a harmonica, a piano—and we will be getting together and jamming.”
Leading roles. Intermittent touring. Fundraising. Charity work. There is always something sending Bridges off in a different direction, splintering time.
“Right now, I spend a couple of months in Montana (and the rest of the year in Santa Barbara, Calif.),” said Bridges. “I wish it were closer to 50-50. That sounds pretty good to me.”
A night of music and conversation with Jeff Bridges takes place at The Wilma Theatre, in Missoula, March 15, at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $50 and $500 campaign fundraising tickets include pre-show V.I.P. access to Bridges and Gov. Bullock.