You just can't help listening to the wisdom of Jeff Bridges, whether he's playing uber-slacker The Dude in "The Big Lebowski" or a has-been gymnastics coach in his latest film "Stick It!"
The four-time Oscar-nominated actor stars as Coach Vickerman, a former gymnast permanently sidelined by an injury he received executing a risky element. Nowadays, he sweet talks ambitious mothers to finance what he promises are future Olympians. In practice, however, he doesn't push the girls to excellence, but only emphasizes safe and rather boring routines.
At first Bridges thought he'd model Vickerman after legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who had coached his brother, actor Beau Bridges, in college. "Beau showed me John Wooden's pyramid of success," says Bridges. "He approached basketball as a metaphor for how you live. The coach I play is not quite as enlightened as Wooden. He's got some con man in him."
Instead, Bridges attended a Nationals gymnastics meet in order to research his character.
"I must have looked pretty peculiar, all these girls doing these amazing things, and I'm videoing the coaches -- their hands, how they move their feet," he says. "[There are] some coaches who probably never stepped foot in a gym in their lives. A lot of these guys weren't even gymnasts. Bela Karolyi was probably the most famous of them all and ... he was a boxer. Of course, there were some coaches that were very fit and trim and looked like they could get up there and do the tricks themselves, so I took bits and pieces and made my character a bit of that."
In the film, Haley (Missy Peregrym) is a juvenile delinquent and former gymnast who left her team in the lurch unexpectedly at the World Championship meet two years ago. After her most recent run-in with the law, she's forced to make restitution by attending the Vickerman Gymnastics Academy where she and her coach must learn to work through their demons and find middle ground between cautious and risky routines.
Bridges played a coach in real life, helping Peregrym with her scenes by introducing a different way of running lines.
"One time he said to me, 'OK, I want to go over the lines but ... get your point across without using the words on the page,'" recalls Peregrym. "That was the best exercise I have ever done because you immediately internalize. It's about how you're feeling ... it just makes it that much more real."
Bridges quickly became a sought-after mentor and even father figure on set, giving director Jessica Bendinger advice on the script, sharing tunes on his iPod with actress Maddy Curley or serenading a weeping Nikki Soohoo, who plays gymnast Wei Wei, until she felt better. Bridges took this parental role in stride.
"The fact that I have daughters really helped me a lot," he explains. "I didn't really have to think about it. It's something that came with the package. It's almost like a reflex action: A girl that age and she starts to cry; I'll make sure to play guitar."
"Stick It!" tumbles into theaters nationwide on Friday, April 28.