'Facing your mortality and what that experience is like, you don't know until you've been there,' the actor says.
A precision-minded professional with a highly specialized skill set who's operated at the top of his game all of his career, working hard not to lose a step to time and advancing age, suddenly thrust into the battle of his life and tested at every turn.
Yeah, Jeff Bridges can relate to the character at the center of The Old Man.
Bridges began his acting career when he as a child appearing in various guest roles on his father Lloyd Bridges' TV series Sea Hunt and The Lloyd Bridges Show before going to a storied career as a film actor/movie star in long string of iconic all-timers, including The Last Picture Show, Tron, Starman, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski, Iron Man, True Grit, Hell or High Water, and his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart.
And now, at age 72, he's making his very first foray as a TV leading man, anchoring FX's sometimes bone-crushing, sometimes heart-rending The Old Man as Dan Chase, a retired, hyper-efficient CIA field operative with a checkered history that's finally catching up to him, just as his golden years beckon. But even as he faces the limitations of his septuagenarian status as the dark forces from his past align against him, Dan is still up the challenge, a relentless one-man fighting force capable of taking down opponents a quarter of his age, though each new fight comes with a physical cost.
At the same time, he is experiencing a turbulent existential crisis — less literal than his physical battles but still rife with mortality issues — coming to grips with the specter of his late wife, managing a complicated telephone relationship with his daughter, and even considering the prospect of new love.
It's a juicy role well-suited to Bridges' many strengths, and one he was in the thick of filming until the actor was suddenly thrown into his own life-and-death struggle: After production on the series was paused as the pandemic set in, Bridges first faced down cancer, going through chemotherapy to battle lymphoma, and then contracted COVID-19 in the period before vaccines were available, which severely impacted his recovery. After long months fighting to recover his health, Bridges finally recovered enough to step back in front of the camera and return to the work that's been at the center of his life for so long.
So, yeah: he can relate.
Here, Bridges talks to Metacritic about ups and downs of his long journey back to TV, where he learned — again, literally and metaphorically — that you might actually be able to teach an old dog a few new tricks.
The Old Man seems like it's a real banquet for an actor with your skill set: you get to kick ass; you get some meaty character work; you get to subvert audience and expectations. Tell us how this character got its hooks in you and got you excited to take on such a long-form project.
It always gets down to the writing. That's the first thing that draws you into projects, and John Steinberg [has] done a wonderful job in the screenplays and the story. And then there's the cast: John Lithgow and Amy Brenneman and Alia Shawkat — all these wonderful actors that I get to work with.
And I was concerned when I first got on board that there used to be a big difference between TV and movies. My father, Lloyd Bridges, had done several TV shows and I saw how much work it was and how he struggled to keep that quality up. And at that time, he was concerned about how little time you had to pull off this magic trick, And so, I was concerned about that. But then over the years I've seen the great stuff coming on TV and the quality seems so wonderful. So I thought this was an experiment that I ought to be a part of this, and I met with John Steinberg and [executive producer] Warren Littlefield and those guys. And I said, "Oh yeah, I think they're up to something good here that I want to be involved with." That brought me to the party.
I described Dan Chase as the "Anti-Dude": He is the most competent, capable and dangerous person you'd ever encounter.
What went into figuring out how you were going to bring this very unique character to life and still keep him relatable and recognizably human?
Well, you approach it like the other parts that I've played where, like I was saying, the screenplay tells you so much about the character, and so, that's your starting point. And then you also have a great novel that was written by Thomas Perry, and so, that's a wonderful place to find aspects of your character. And then if you're lucky, like we fortunately were, you'll have a real guy on your team who's in the CIA and who did a lot of the stuff that my character does in the show, Christopher Huddleston. That was the name of the CIA fellow that helped me immeasurably, telling me what these guys were going through, the different techniques that they would have and so forth. That really helped a lot.
How prepared were you, physically, when you started shooting, before you were interrupted by the pandemic, then your cancer diagnosis and contracting COVID on top of it, and your long journey back to health, and then picking it back up? How challenging was it for you to do the physical aspect of this part?
We were so fortunate to have Henry Kingi and Tim Connolly as our stunt coordinators, and they were really helpful. I love doing fight scenes and all those kinds of things. And they're masters at pulling that stuff off, so that was very helpful. And then also, I've worked now several years with Eric Goodman, who has a training program called Foundation Training [for older physiques], and he helped me immeasurably. We actually worked on different assignments that my muscles would have to carry out in these fight scenes and did specific exercises for that.
And then after I was sick, Zach Wermers was my trainer, my physical therapist. He helped get me back in shape — because I was in bad shape — and kept putting little goals in front of me. My first goal was, see how long I could stand just out of the bed. And I could stand for 45 seconds. That was my record. And you slowly build it up to walking and all that. And Zach helped me. It was just incredible help. I worked with him three days a week, slowly getting off the oxygen.
It was obviously a harrowing experience that no one would want to go through, but were you able to somehow use this journey that you went through to help you in your performance in ways you never expected?
I imagine it has helped me in my performance in The Old Man, but just in life, having gone through something like that certainly gives you empathy for other folks who've done it. It's like getting married or having a baby or something: you don't know it until it's you doing it, you know what I mean? And facing your mortality and what that experience is like, you don't know until you've been there.
And I say about that time I was sick for about just over a year: it felt like a dream, but I think that's the time I was really dealing with my health issues. And I hesitate to say it was like a nightmare because there was some wonderful epiphanies that you receive in times like that and things that you can use later on in your life as you get older. If we're lucky, that's what happens to us: We get older and we've learned some of these things.
Was the work a great thing to have ahead of you as you recovered? To get back into it, to know that, like, "Here I am, back practicing this craft I've been doing my whole life, and doing it with some really good material."
It was a goal, certainly one of those goals. I didn't know if I was going to be able to come back and do that, but because of the support of my family — my wife and my daughters were so supportive during that time — and yeah, that was wonderful.
I keep mentioning this word "dream" because that's what it felt like. You know, I was off The Old Man for two years! And when I came back to work with many of the same crew and the same actors and directors, and it felt like, "God, we had a long weekend and I had the most bizarre dream, guys!" It just felt just bizarre.
What do you like about telling a story about a man your age who still has a lot of his skills intact, and he's barely missing a step even with his back against the wall? What about that kind of story really appealed to you at this point in your life and career?
I like the theme of consequences — that our actions have consequences. And also as you mentioned, it's almost like muscle memory. We're such habitual creatures that we've acted in a certain way for most of our life. And even if we try to do something different, that the way that we have been for all those years, that has its way with us, or it can, and how we deal with that. How do we change? I think that's one of the themes: I think this guy would like to change, but here we are. It's challenging. But you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
Speaking of dogs, you've mentioned that amazing cast and let's talk about two standouts, your two canine co-stars, Dan's faithful dogs.
Oh yes! There were actually, I think, five or six of them, made up to look like they were playing the same [two] guys, and each one was used for a different specialty that each one had. And working with Sarah Clifford, who was the animal trainer on the show, was so great because, like other actors, we had rehearsals with those dogs — how to work with them and the best way to get them to do what they needed to do to tell the story. And that was a great experience. You can learn a lot from animals and children and all that from acting with them.
The Old Man airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX beginning June 16 and also