IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Beau Bridges talks 'The Descendants'

Thursday, 08 December 2011 09:40 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Beau Bridges talks 'The Descendants'

Obviously, actor Beau Bridges is part of a Hollywood dynasty as he is the son of screen legend Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) and brother to recent Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), but Beau has created quite a name for himself with his career having made almost two-hundred film and television appearances since he first began acting as a child in the ‘1940s. After a small role on his father’s popular show Sea Hunt, Beau went on to appear in numerous television series throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s but it was his role opposite Sally Field in Norma Rae, the role she won an Oscar for, which finally validated Beau Bridges as an actor and not just for his surname. However, it was teaming with his brother for ‘1989s The Fabulous Baker Boys that would bring the actor his highest praise. Since then, Beau has starred on two successful television series (Stargate: Atlantis, and Stargate SG-1), and several critically acclaimed films including Jerry Maguire, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and The Good German. Now the actor returns once again with another critically acclaimed film called The Descendants, which is earning him rave reviews and promises to be a frontrunner at this year’s Oscars.

The film, which is currently in limited release and opens wide on December 16th, stars Oscar-winner George Clooney (The Ides of March) and was directed by fellow Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways). The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (Clooney), a real estate lawyer from Hawaii put in charge of his family’s big land deal while he is dealing with his wife’s terminal coma, and two young daughters. Soon after finding out that his wife is going to die, Matt is struck with more bad news … she’s been cheating on him. Along with his children, and his oldest daughter’s (Shailene Woodley) friend Sid (Nick Krause), Matt goes on a quest to confront the man his wife was having an affair with. Beau Bridges plays Matt’s older cousin Hugh, who has a vested interest in the family’s land deal, and also possesses information on the man Matt is looking for. But when Matt finds out what Hugh knows, it could put the land deal in jeopardy and tear a riff between the two cousins permanently.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with actor Beau Bridges to discuss his work on The Descendants. The legendary actor talked about the new film, working with director Alexander Payne, his love for Hawaii, George Clooney, how filmmaking has changed over the years, and the book his father gave him about acting that he has now passed on to his own daughter.

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: Before we talk about The Descendants, since you’ve been acting in films and on television most of your life, what is your opinion on Hollywood’s use of new technology like digital cameras and the Internet and do you think it has changed the entertainment industry?

Beau Bridges: Well, probably just in terms of making the films, the biggest thing with a digital camera is there's no big long wait. There's no waiting or having to change film thing and all of that. I mean it's like you can sit there and do twenty (takes) a day, one after the other, which a lot of people do. Yeah, there's something very freeing about that; the size of the camera, all of that is wonderful I think. Now the quality of digital is right up there pretty much with film. The people that are shooting it now have taken it to all kinds of great places creatively. Then the selling of the movie, that's fascinating to me. I don't know that much about it. There's one aspect to it that concerns me, but I remember even hearing people talk about that concern when it was just TV in your home, but there's the intimacy of it. The digital world is like mind boggling and kind of scares me. I mean I don't get real active in the Facebook thing and the Tweeting thing probably because of that. I mean it fascinates me, and I love hearing it from my children who are adults, but I don't really feel like going there too much. I like the immediacy of just email, I mean that's an amazing thing to me but I haven't gone too much farther than that. It's kind of sad to see the disappearance of books happening, it's kind of a weird thing. But what it's also freed up and made possible is for the storytellers to have a better chance to get their stories told. It's kind of easier because there are so many avenues now, almost too many perhaps, but we'll work that out. We'll figure that out.

With The Descendants, I understand that Alexander Payne called you directly and asked you to be in the film, were you surprised to receive a call from him and did you worry that it might be a friend pulling your leg?

Bridges: No, I certainly knew it was Alexander Payne. When he called I said to myself, oh my goodness, he's one of the great ones. I'd seen his films, not all of them but a good deal of them, and then I read the script and I really loved it. I live in Kawaii a lot of the period of the time. I’ve a house there for like twenty-years and I went to the University of Hawaii. I’m really interested in the issue of indigenous land rights, which so much of what my character was about. So I was fascinated by it.

Did he know that you lived in Hawaii when he first called you or was that just a coincidence?

Bridges: I don't know. I've heard that one of the important things to him is casting. I don't know whether he knew about that aspect of my life or whether he intuitively thought about it. I mean I knew that he'd seen some movies that I'd done and that he was interested in, but that was it. Then we started talking and I immediately sent him about five or six books on indigenous land rights in the islands because I know it's a very complex thing. I think he already had been down that road. He's very well prepared and has a very strong vision I'm sure with all his stories and he certainly did on this one. I thought what he did very beautifully was take what Kaui Hemmings wrote in her novel and especially gleaned the Kauai culture from that book because that was an important aspect it. Her dad, Fred Hemmings, was a big time, big wave rider, like a legend in Kauai. I think that Alexander preserved that aspect of the book in the movie and made it a character in the movie. I don't think people have seen Kauai like that before.

How much of the Hugh we see on screen was in the script and how much of Beau is in the character? Is there a fine line between the two, or were you just able to bring a lot of your history with, and knowledge of, the islands to the role?

Bridges: Yeah, it was all written there certainly. But like the scene that George and I do in the bar … that was in my buddy Christian Marston’s bar in Hanalel called Tahiti Nui, which is a great local bar. All the guys sitting around there at the bar are locals. In the band, the Hawaiian guy with the white hair, he plays every Thursday night, so it was very comfortable.

Did the production choose that location or did you recommend it?

Bridges: No, they found it and I called Christian and said, hey Christian, I understand they're filming down at the Nui. He said, “Yeah, c'mon down!” He's one of my best buddies there on the island. I think that wasn't just for that scene, but for a lot of the scenes where it had that familiarity. There is a certain kind of laid-back aspect to the islands, which is a great counterpoint to this very challenged family trying to get it together and have big decisions to be made.

You play George Clooney’s cousin in the film and your characters develop some tension regarding a family real estate deal, did the two of you work out your characters back-story together before you filmed those scenes?

Bridges: I knew George because I worked with him on The Good German, so I felt real comfortable. He's a good guy. I had talked to Alexander about my character because when you have a character that has just a couple of scenes, you need to create what came before and what happens after, what's not in the story. So first I talked to Alexander about it and then George and I sat down on the morning that we did the scene and just shared with each other where we thought these guys had come from. You know what was their life experience was together. I figured I probably knew him from birth, since he was a little baby. I probably taught him how to surf, and went backpacking with him, all the stuff. I kind of got into thinking of him like I do my nephews in my real life, they’re guys in their thirty's but I see them still as little kids like I knew when they were growing up, so I kind of thought of George that way. I think one of the nice evolutions that are in the script is in the beginning and I'm all about just wanting to do it my way. I am the senior member of the family, he's got all the power and I know that, but still I'm the elder statesman here and he's fighting me on it. I can't understand it. But then I've been looking at him like a child and he's not prepared. He makes this decision to keep this land from the people. Something happens there and I start to see him as a man. I've heard George talk about his character as a coming of age story for a fifty-year old man. So I felt that a good contribution my character could make in the telling of the story would be to see him as a man, a grown man with an idea that should be respected.

Is that what you think happens in the final scene between your two characters? Do you think Hugh gains a respect for Matt as a man and an adult that he may not have had previously?

Bridges: Yeah. I had that long look at him. He's telling me his decision and I tell him that I'm going to sue him and I still I'm looking at him. I finally say, well everybody, Matt's got something to say! It's like turning it over. It's like older people do. A young man comes along and he has a different idea and it kind of shakes your world. But then in the end you think, well you know what, he's going to be here probably longer than I am, and he's got to see his family through.

Unlike many directors, it’s well known that Alexander Payne runs a very tight set. He only shoots about 8-12 hours a day; he always uses the same crew, and he’s very collaborative with his cast. Do you feel that mood and tone on the set right away and is that a nice environment to be acting in?

Bridges: Yeah, he's very economical in every part of the process. The way he communicates to everybody; he's a soft-spoken man, and doesn't have big highs or big lows, you know, he's like right there in the center. Because he's well prepared, he infused the whole production with a lot of confidence no matter where you sit. I sat in a chair that I always bring with me to all my jobs, which is I think was made by this company called Lafuma and it folds out and it reclines. We get them at a store called Relax The Back and the contour of your body is a little pillow, because one of the hardest things an actor has to do is the time between the scenes. There is a lot of waiting around and they have these uncomfortable director chairs. I just crank that baby back and I just lay back. This particular job was very relaxed and mostly due to Alexander. Now my next job is not going to be perhaps as relaxed. I'm leaving to do Broadway and that’ll be something, but I'll bring my chair with me.

Have you ever done Broadway before?

Bridges: Yeah I did as a young guy; I did a couple of things.

Finally, looking back on your long and impressive career, is there a project that you are especially proud of? Is there a film, TV show, or even a stage play that you can think of and say, “I’m really glad I did that one?”

Bridges: Recently what was really wonderful was my daughter Emily who's twenty-five, she and I wrote a play based on a novel called Acting the First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky, a book my dad gave me when I was about sixteen. The only book on the craft of acting he gave me. My daughter Emily and I created a play on it. Samuel French recently published it and we performed it a couple months ago in L.A. It’s a two-hander about a teacher and a student, who he calls the creature. It's about acting, which is reflective of why, and they're life lessons too. The fun is in the relationship between teacher and student, who sends her off crying at the end of the first lesson. She keeps coming back for another lesson throughout her career and they become friends. I loved doing that with my daughter. That is probably what I would go to for answering that question.

Taking the book on acting that your father gave you, and then writing and performing a play based on it with your daughter, that must have been a very moving experience for you, how did that make you feel?

Bridges: Wonderful! In the beginning of the play we come out as ourselves and talk about all that. So it has that family aspect to it. It’s been great and we want to tour around with it. It's a great thing for universities I think.

The Descendants is currently playing in theaters in limited release and will open wide on December 16th. 

To watch our exclusive video interview with Robert Forster about his work on The Descendants, please click here

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