Tell me about how you found out about the role, and what your life in the Sixties was like — that era is such an important element of the film.
I drew on that a lot. The Coen brothers said, “Oh we’re writing something for you.” And I was so excited because I’m a big fan of Blood Simple. Years passed, finally they presented me with what they had written, and it was, you know, the Dude. I couldn’t figure out where they got this character. It was like nothing I had played before. But it seemed like they had been in a few parties back in the Sixties with me or something. It reminded me a lot of myself back in those days. I smoked my share of pot and all that, and the long hair.
That’s one of the ways I prepare for all my roles. I look at myself and think, What aspects of myself am I going to use for this guy, and what sides do I want to kick to the curb? And I do that on an emotional level, but also on a physical level. My looks and my wardrobe are very important. I kind of work on the exterior and the interior at the same time. They kind of inform each other. So we went up to my closet to see my clothes, kind of match the Dude. And we just found all kinds of stuff. Those jelly sandals, some T-shirts that I had.
The characters in the film are so different; I almost wonder why they’re friends in the first place. But you can sense a kind of warmth, in the midst of their constant arguing.
Totally. That’s one of the things I like about it, sort of a hope for humanity to see two polar opposites being able to get along. And love each other.
What was your first reaction when you read through the script?
I had a couple of different reactions. One was that it was an incredible script.
I was a little concerned because my kids were still in school, and remembering what it was like growing up with my father, Lloyd Bridges, who had a big hit TV series in the Sixties called Sea Hunt — it’s hard enough being a kid without having the famous dad, and having all the weird stuff projected on you. So I was concerned about me playing this strong character who was a pothead. I remember sitting them all down, my wife and my three daughters and saying, “I’m really excited about this script, and it’s a chance to work with the Coen brothers, but I am concerned about playing this kind of character, that it’s gonna give you guys trouble for some reason.” And after a long pause my middle daughter said, “Dad, you’re an actor, it’s all pretend. We know when you kiss some beautiful woman in a scene that you still love mom, it’s an act. So go ahead, that’s my vote.”
They got you a bowling instructor on set, correct?
Barry Asher. I can remember John [Turturro] and I and Buscemi, we took bowling lessons from this guy. He was a champion, one of the best bowlers in the world. We bowled a few frames and then I asked this guy, “I’m wondering what the Dude’s preparation would be?” So Barry tells this story about his own preparation when he bowls. And how there’s kind of a Zen thing to bowling: the pins are down before you even bring your ball back. So Barry would get up there to bowl and he would prep, he’s gotta shake it off, waiting for that moment to cock it back, and it would go on for five, 10 minutes. And his bowling partners on the team would say, “Throw the fucking ball!” He actually had to go into therapy about it. So I said, “So how do you do it now?” He says, “I just get up and throw the fucking ball. I don’t think.”
Do you see any sort of central message in the movie?
Well, I think the Stranger sums it up pretty good with that last speech, you know, “I hope you had a good time, it was funny.” So that was one message, that life is funny, you can find the humor in it. Bernie Glassman, who is a Zen master said to me one day, “You realize that many people in the Buddhist community look at the Dude as a Zen master?” And I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” He says, “Mo, The Big Lebowski is riddled with koans” (things that don’t necessarily have an answer).
You can watch it over and over again and it gets better each time.
You know, I rarely will watch my movies when they come on TV, but when Lebowski comes on I’ll say, “Oh, I’ll just wait until Turturro licks the ball and then I’ll do my clicking.” But it’s like The Godfather — when The Godfather comes on I have that same kind of feeling, then you get hooked.
Do you have any favorite memories from filming?
I always like to have my family visit me on the set, and I thought, “Oh, this would be a good time to have my girls visit me, during the dream sequence.” Then I started having second thoughts, I said, “What have I done? The scene I’ve invited my wife and my three girls to come see is the scene where I’m flying through these bowling pin girls legs, looking up at their snatch!” [Reads from Lebowski book] “As I looked up I found each pubic patch more ornate than the next — they had stuffed huge clumps of crepe hair in their leotards. We all had a good laugh.”
I’d be curious to hear a bit more about how the Dude is similar to you and how he’s different.
Well, I think our basic philosophies are the same. I bet the Dude is into some Eastern philosophy. You know he’s got some Buddhist books on his shelf. But it’s kinda like realizing that the more open you get, life keeps challenging that openness to open you more, and so, at some point, you say, “Well, that’s the game. I’m just gonna sit back and dig the way it is.” The next movie I did after Lebowski was The Contender, I think. To play the President after playing the Dude — it was kind of like the antithesis of the Dude, you know?
This is one of the biggest cult movies of the past few decades. What’s at the root of that?
Well, maybe a part of it is that it wasn’t a success when it came out. I think there’s a real joy in going to see movies when you discover them yourself. If somebody hasn’t seen The Big Lebowski, you say, “Oh great, you’ve got something great in store for you.” It’s something that gives joy to the person who’s turning them on to the movie, joy for the people who’re seeing it. Maybe that’s it — something that you kind of share.
You briefly met the real Dude, right?
Yeah. I know that the Coen brothers based a lot of their stuff on Jeff in the writing of it. I met him and liked him very much, but I didn’t model myself too much after him. I used myself, and some friends of mine that reminded me of the Dude. When I’m preparing for a role, the first place I look is my own self, and then I just find I’m looking at the world through the lens of this movie, and anything that might pertain to it, like a sponge, I kind of soak it up.
It seems the Coens are two of the very few directors who can do what they want to do and not get touched by the outside system.
Come to think of it they’re pretty Dude-like, aren’t they? You know, in the mellowness, and wishing and wanting to keep things kind of loose and mellow.
Do you like Creedence Clearwater Revival and dislike the Eagles?
[Laughs] I love Creedence and, you know, as far as the Eagles, I don’t hate the Eagles like the Dude hates them. I remember I ran into Glenn Frey, he gave me some shit. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but you know, my anus tightened a bit.
At what point in your life that you were living most Dude-like?
I didn’t go to college, I kind of got into the movies. There was a time when I was living in a small studio apartment in Santa Monica, and did some art, smoking quite a bit and hanging out with my friends. We used to have these things called “Wednesday Night Jams,” we did this for like 15 years or so after high school. No songs allowed, just jams, you know? But it’s some wild stuff. I had a group of friends, kinda like Donny and Walter — my brand of those guys.