Politics and Hollywood have always been inextricably linked - both on screen and behind the scenes. Jeff Bridges, one of moviedom's most underrated stars, is the latest incumbent of the celluloid White House.
There is nothing Presidential about the way Jeff Bridges presents himself. Dressed down in open-necked blue shirt , he appears freshly shaven with his lanky dark blonde hair loosely pushed back from his forehead. He runs his fingers through it frequently, allowing it to fall neatly back in to place.
If he were a political animal up for the highest office he would certainly inspire confidence. Partly its the imposing physical presence - wide shoulders look as if they could carry most of life's burdens and crises, while his brooding, reflective blue eyes under bushy eyebrows suggest a deep thinker at work. Partly its the surroundings in which we find ourselves: the imposing chateau of Bagnolet in rolling French countryside leading down to the Charente river near Cognac where a film festival devoted to thrillers is honouring Bridges over this weekend. It's just the sort of place where politicians would gather for brainstorming sessions out of the public gaze.
He brings all his statesmanlike assets to bear as the latest filmic resident of the White House in The Contender, a sharp political thriller directed by Rod Lurie, a former critic and journalist. It revolves around the intriguing conceit that when the sitting vice-president dies, President Bridges chooses Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to be his successor, the first woman to old such high office. His choice causes much opposition from members of both parties - and an adversary (played by Gary Oldman) sets out to discredit her. Bridges, 52, has absorbed the demands of Washington duties as if he had been born to lead the most powerful nation in the universe. Actually he was born to act although with a father (Lloyd Bridges who died three years ago) and an older brother Beau both in the business he had his doubts.
"I was well aware that I had a foot in the door because of Dad. It wasn't until I had ten movies under my belt that I decided this was what I wanted to focus on," he says. As a child he had a few parts in his father's television series Sea Hunt. "To be able to have a couple of weeks off school when you're eight years old, was great fun even if one of my recollections is being thrown off the pier at Malibu into this freezing cold water, shivering, and then trying to remember my lines," he suggests. "I was always questioning whether I was doing this simply because my father was an actor and he was such a good dramatic and comedic talent.
Then I figured that they would not keep hiring me if I wasn't any good. So after that I never gave it a second thought. We weren't a typical Hollywood family in spite of our backgrounds. Dad had lots of friends in the wine business. His children were important to him. The effort and the work ethic were also important. I used to argue with him over good and bad habits. Human beings can be so habitual. But the older I get, the more I see it his way.
"Strangely I thought of Dad when I was doing The Contender. I really did not want to do an impersonation of Bill Clinton. I did look at some of his speeches and some video footage, but I also looked at some other Presidents like the Kennedys, John and Bobby, and Lyndon Johnson."
"But my father always seemed to have a Presidential air about him. He also shared something with the character that I played which I thought would be a good thing to bring to the film: simply a love of his work. He really adored the acting profession and enjoyed what he did. He got a lot of joy out of it, and his joy was almost contagious. And that was something that I thought President Jackson Evans, the character I play, also had. He loved being President."
Bridges junior has never been your average Hollywood male lead in the mould of Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson although two early Academy Award nominations by the age of 25 certainly helped his reputation and confidence: as the guy-next-door in Peter Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show, the (1971) and three years later in the buddy movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). There was a rare show of heroism when he rescued Jessica Langin the King Kong (1976) remake in 1976 but that was unusual. In the eighties he sailed along on a wave of approbation winning another best actor Oscar nomination for his role as an alien masquerading as a human in Starman (1984) and there were turns in such box office hits as Against All Odds (1984) and Jagged Edge (1985). In the 1990s there has been Fisher King, the (1991) for Terry Gilliam; Fearless (1993) for Peter Weir; the psychological thriller Arlington Road (1999) and Big Lebowski, the (1998) for the Coen Brothers, fellow spirits in the low key approach to the business.
The late American film critic Pauline Kael once opined that Bridges was probably "the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that ever lived" while Janet Maslin in the New York Times considered him to be "the most under-appreciated actor of his generation." He accepts the reminder of the compliments gracefully. He has never been motivated by either financial gain or career ambitions. So why does he do it? "Sometimes I feel the end result, the movies, is almost a by-product of the real process which is just being alive, finding out about yourself and your character and having relationshipswith the people you're working with.
"I never went down the movie star path. I always enjoy taking a 90-degree turn from the last thing I did. Audiences bring information into the theatre about what they last saw an actor in. Because I've done so many different roles, it's easier for me to project a character on to the actor so when people see me on screen they think 'Maybe he's the bad guy, maybe not.'"
When he's not in the throes of work he sticks close to his family - his wife Susan Geston, and three daughters, Isabelle, 19, Jessica, 17 and Hayley 15 - at Santa Barbara, a beach town in idyllic surrounds north of Los Angeles. He has become something of an addictive photographer, documenting most of his shoots, some of which end up in the publicity packs for the movie (including a limited edition publication for The Contender) and his work has been published in books and magazines. Otherwise enjoys making music informally with his neighbours - he plays guitar and piano - and also is into painting.
Although not an overtly political animal he has causes he supports. He works for the End Hunger Network. "I am very concerned with certain issues but I do not consider myself a real political animal. I am very concerned with hunger in America, I formed the organisation about 20 years ago along with some other folks. In the early dayswe were primarily concerned with world hunger. Over the last ten years we have refocussed our attention to America because we are the only industralised nation that has this problem with hunger. We are going to have something called ring around Congress when the kids will literally join hands around the Congress building and give the politicians report cards about how they are voting on the different hunger issues and bring attention to it. It is a bi-partisan issue."
Bridges keeps a fatherly eye on the way certain roles might be misappropriated by impressionable minds. "Parts of me were connected to Dude in Big Lebowski, the (1998) and I did worry about it glamourising drugs. When I think about the stuff I did in my younger days, especially the drugs and the alcohol, it's a wonder I'm still alive. I look at some of my own experiences and I am so thankful I survived. Some of my friends didn't. You don't experiment running across the freeway so why try drugs?"
He met his while she was working in a hotel at a resort he was staying at while he was filming Rancho DeLuxe (1975) in 1975. "The first day I met her she had two black eyes and a broken nose. Raised as I was in this fantasy world of movies I suspected her boyfriend had beaten her up, and vowed to be her shining knight in armour. It was instant chemistry. Later I discovered that she had been in a car accident. We stay in contact, and talk every day which is something many couples don't bother to do." Such devotion probably explains why they've been together for 27 years. "My parents also were a great example of how to hold a marriage together. It's a team effort, but it's really a tough thing when you're away from home a lot."
The ageing process doesn't concern him over-much. He liked being 40 - "it felt good." Now he senses this decade is more definite and "a real singpost. That's worrying and scarey. I look at myself and feel young. I still think I'm 20. Yet at other times it's like Where has it all gone?"