MATT SAYLES / AP Enlarge
LOS ANGELES — Jeff Bridges has been reacquainting himself with old friends.
First, he follows up on his best-actor Academy Awards win for Crazy Heart with Tron: Legacy, a return to the glossy virtual reality of 1982's Tron. The movie hits theaters Friday.
Days later, Bridges stars as boozy, one-eyed lawman Rooster Cogburn in a new take on True Grit, reteaming with Joel and Ethan Coen, who directed him in the cult hit of cult hits The Big Lebowski.
His previous sequel experience also was a long time coming — 19 years — with 1990's Texasville, a followup to 1971's The Last Picture Show, which earned Bridges his first of five Oscar nominations.
Tron: Legacy took almost a decade longer, and while the original was cutting-edge at the time, its pioneering computer graphics look as quaint as a game of Pong in today's world of photorealistic digital animation.
"It was like a long weekend in a way," Bridges, 61, said of returning to the role of Flynn, the computer genius who ventures into a deadly computer realm known as the Grid. "Odd, very odd. Of course, then there's all this new motion-capture technology that I hadn't experienced. That was completely different than the other one."
Motion-capture, used in such films as last year's blockbuster Avatar, allows actors to render a digital performance that is topped off with computer effects to create finished characters.
In Tron: Legacy, Bridges not only plays Flynn, but also the villainous computer program Clu, created by digitally erasing 25 years off the actor's face, then grafting his rejuvenated image on another actor's body.
"I'm just blown away by how willing he was to try something new. Playing the character of Clu, the technology required to pull that off, and the stuff we had to do to him," said Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski. "You'd think a lot of actors would shy away from that, especially someone who's been working as long as he has. But he embraced it. He wanted to play with the new toys."
Bridges got his start as a child actor, taking small parts on Sea Hunt, the TV adventure series starring his father, Lloyd.
He has built a wildly varied body of work in populist films (Seabiscuit, Starman, The Fisher King) and smaller tales (American Heart, Fearless, The Fabulous Baker Boys, co-starring his brother, Beau). Usually cast as likable guys, Bridges turned villain for 2008's blockbuster Iron Man.
While Bridges had been game to revisit Tron, he knew people would have doubts about True Grit. The 1969 original is one of John Wayne's best-known Westerns, earning him an Oscar as Cogburn.
Will Wayne fans consider it sacrilege?
"I don't think about that, but that question comes up all the time. ‘How does it feel to fill the Duke's boots?'" Bridges said. "That's going to be interesting, what the audience does with that. If they're going to be able to see me as Rooster or they're going to say, ‘Ahh, that's not Wayne!'
"But I didn't let that figure into my doing it or not. The Coen brothers wanted me, man. Come on, I'm there, man."
When he drops the word "man," it's like an echo of his laid-back patter in 1998's The Big Lebowski, which did modest business theatrically but gained such a following on video that it has come to define his career, in a way.
Jeff Lebowski — The Dude — is lovably off in his own world, living for bowling and preserving his middle-aged slacker existence. His declarations include: "The Dude abides," ‘'This will not stand, man," and, when someone jostles one of his trademark White Russians: "Man, there's a beverage here!"
There are traces of the Dude in Tron: Legacy, as Bridges' Flynn talks in hippie-dippie fashion about "bio-digital jazz" and complains, "You're messing with my Zen thing, man."
His surfer penguin in 2007's animated comedy Surf's Up and burned-out psychic in last year's The Men Who Stare at Goats were Dude-like, as was the take-what-comes attitude of his alcoholic country crooner in Crazy Heart. Even Bridges' ornery, drawling Cogburn in True Grit drops the Dude word "abide."
Bridges himself has something of a "whatever, man" attitude about being defined by Lebowski.
"People like to use that element because I think people are fond of that guy, and there are certainly bits of the Dude in myself," Bridges said. "It's funny, more in the past, I was very concerned about creating too strong a persona, and I still have a bit of that. Not as much as I did when I began.
"I think a lot of that is due to my father, who had Sea Hunt, and he created such a strong persona in that that he only got skin-diving scripts."
Jeff Bridges has been far luckier, able to pick and choose, rarely lacking for something interesting to do.
With other interests including photography (he creates photo books of images he shoots on his film sets), Bridges aims to cherry-pick only roles that truly grab him.
"I try to turn as many as I can down for a number of reasons. One is being separated from my wife. That's one of the toughest things about it. Last year, we were apart, like, 11 months," Bridges said.
"Then once I engage in a movie, I'm concerned that maybe just around the corner there's something that I really want to do that I won't be able to do because I'm doing this. So those kinds of things cause me to really try to find as many reasons not to do it as there are. ‘This is not the best,' ‘Oh, I played that guy already,' ‘I didn't like that guy's last movie.' … The ones that I do end up doing are ones I can't resist."