True Grit - Jeff Bridges
True Grit - Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures, Photo by Lorey Sebastian

After seeing Jeff Bridges in True Grit all I can say is, move over Duke, the Dude owns this role now!

First made into a movie 1969 with John ‘the Duke’ Wayne, the movie tells the story of Mattie Ross who, in the 1870s, at 14-year-old travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to kill Tom Chaney, the man that murdered her father. She enlists the help of a trigger-happy, drunken US Marshall named Rooster Cogburn, to track down Chaney and bring him to justice.

Now in the hand of Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the movie, Bridges, whose most popular role to date is probably ‘The Dude’ in the Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski, totally embodies Rooster Cogburn.

Jeff Bridges spoke with us about this new accomplishment in his career.

In playing this character did you have any hesitation initially taking on a role that was made famous by John Wayne?

True Grit - Jeff Bridges
Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again. I think it was Ethan who I talked to first and he corrected me. He said, ‘No, we’re not making that movie. We’re making the book as if there was no other movie ever made.

I wasn’t familiar with the book, and he said, ‘Check that out and tell me what you think.’ And I read the book and then I saw what they were talking about, because it’s such a wonderful book and it suited them so well I thought. And God, what a great character. Most westerns have that strong, silent type, and here’s this boorish guy, so that was going to be a lot of fun I thought.

At what point did you know you had nailed the character?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), LaBeouf (Matt Damon) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

Gosh, you know, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you’re portraying, but I began developing a character pretty much the same way every time. You’re looking at the script or if you’re lucky enough to have book you’re looking at that material and seeing what other characters say about your character, what you say about yourself and what the author says about you. And that tells you quite a bit.

Then one of the first things you do when you’re hired on to make a film is you work with a costume designer, in this case it was Mary Zophres, who was also the costume designer on The Big Lebowski. And that’s one of the cool things about making movies, it’s a collaborative art form so you have all these other artists who are concerned about just specific areas. It might be what the room your character lives in looks like, and what the clothes look like.

So the first person you meet is the costumer, because they have to make all those clothes. Mary has these wonderful books that she brings out, and she’ll say, ‘Here’s a hat like this,’ and the character starts to fall in place. And as you dress, you’re looking in the mirror and there comes a time when the character starts to tell you what it wants.

Did you base the character on anyone?

True Grit - Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld
Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

As far as the models, I used to love it when my dad [Lloyd Bridges] would play a western, when he’d appear at the front door all dressed up in his cowboy clothes, it was a thrill to me. So I guess there was some of my dad in there.

Mattie hires Rooster because he has true grit. What qualities of Rooster do you think men should aspire to?

This is my definition, seeing one thing through to the end. That’s a good thing, I aspire to that.

What was it like working with Hailee Steinfeld, as it was her first movie?

Mattie is the most challenging role in the film. The whole screenplay is centered around her. I was worried at first about Hailee because this is her first movie, but by the end of the first day of filming, I just said, ‘Oh, God, did we luck out with her.’ She has a wonderful sweetness but then she overlays that with the hard edge of this character. She pulled it off so well, she didn’t require much advice.

Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf was an interesting choice.

True Grit - Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon
Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBeouf (Matt Damon) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

He makes for a terrific Texas Ranger. He brings a lot of comedy and character to it, and he rides beautifully. His acting was just superb and whenever you work with an actor who brings so much to it like that, it improves your own game and everybody else’s.

Can you talk about the iconic scene that everybody waits for, when you’ve got the horse’s reins in your mouth and you’re riding at full-speed, shooting both guns?

I remember that day well, and right at the beginning of the day Joel coming over to me and saying, ‘We’ve been thinking about really trying this deal.’ I said, ‘Oh, alright, that’s kind of interesting.’ I was a little anxious, [there was] a little fear. I ride myself, but to do it (with the reins) in my teeth? So we did it that way and it wasn’t as tough as I thought actually, it was kind of cool.

When you did Tron: Legacy it was so clean, this is so dirty!

Tron: Legacy - Jeff Bridges
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) in Tron: Legacy © 2010 Disney Enterprises

That’s the fun of my job that I get to play all different kinds of guys. We did a reshoot for Tron about a week after we completed True Grit and I had the same make-up guy, Thomas Nellen, on both.

Going from Rooster with all the dust and the grim and the dirty teeth a few days later, I was back in the chair and him putting hundreds of little motion capture dots on my face, it was bizarre, but that’s the gig, that’s the fun of it.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.