Jeff Bridges, looking like a Malibu prophet with his bushy beard and seasoned surfer smile, says he had a bit of a flashback while filming “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” which fictionalizes the oddball odyssey of a U.S. military program that tried to train soldiers to use mental powers as a weapon (and, yes, to snuff out farm animals by glaring at them).
“I found myself remembering my own experiences in the 1970s when I hung out with John Lilly, the man who invented the isolation tank and did experiments with trying to communicate with dolphins,” Bridges said. “I was a test subject in the isolation tank; it was a box with about 2 feet of water and 1,000 pounds of salt so you would float. John was a guy who would shoot acid -- he’d inject LSD straight into his veins -- and go in there for 24 hours.”
And what did Bridges discover as his head bobbed in the silent darkness? “Well, it’s true that when you can’t see out, you start looking in,” he said. “Why is John wearing that ‘Star Trek’ jumpsuit? Wait, what’s really in this water? What if he’s a mad scientist doing an experiment on me? You get carried away a bit.”
If there was ever a movie that gets carried away with the mind games, it’s the quirky “Goats,” which opens Nov. 6 and stars Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Bridges. Clooney produced the film, which was directed by his production partner Grant Heslov and based on the book of the same title by journalist Jon Ronson. The story is based on a real military program and, as the movie states in the opening sequence, “More of this is true than you would believe.”
In the film, McGregor plays the feckless Bob Wilton, a small-town reporter who loses his girlfriend to his editor and, to prove himself a man or a martyr, he jets off to cover the war in Iraq. He meets an eccentric mystery man named Lyn Cassady (Clooney) who seems like a character plucked from the geopolitical farce of “Doonesbury.” Cassady reveals that he was part of a military unit devoted to the potential use of brain energies to walk through walls, transport their consciousnesses miles away, befuddle enemies and obtain state secrets.
Bridges plays Bill Django, the drug-gobbling guru leader of the unit, who talks like a mash-up of Timothy Leary, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Psychic Friends Network. Chatting over lunch at the Four Seasons in Santa Barbara, he chuckled at the “years of research” he performed in the 1960s and 1970s to find the tie-dyed textures of the loopy character.
“I find aspects of myself that match up with the guy and I think about the people I know and my friends through the years,” Bridges said. “I went through those experiences too for the Dude character [in the Coen brothers film “The Big Lebowski”], and some people say this character reminds them of the Dude. I don’t see that, really. But I guess if the Dude somehow got in the Army, if he got drafted and he heard about this unit, the New Earth Army, he’d sign up.”
The Django character is based on Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who did, in fact, lead a New Age program at Ft. Bragg, N.C., that trained its members to achieve the U.S. Army equivalent of Jedi mind tricks. Bridges sought out the psychic warrior and his First Earth Battalion to offer tips for the role.
“Jim Channon is alive and well in Hawaii, and he answered all my questions,” Bridges said. “He’s very gung-ho, and he’s really dedicated to changing the human direction. A lot of the stuff is far-fetched and easy to laugh at but in my own personal view, it’s headed in the right direction. We have to find some way besides killing each other. This stuff is bizarre, but I bet whatever is really going on in the universe is a lot weirder.”
Bridges said the film shoot in Puerto Rico and in Albuquerque was often amusing because McGregor, as the film’s voice of skepticism, has numerous lines mocking the weird science and comparing it to Jedi Knight mumbo jumbo -- a funny twist considering he spent three films swinging a light saber for George Lucas.
Bridges said his favorite moment, though, was a scene in which Django secretly dosed himself and the journalist with LSD. It was another flashback of sorts.
“We had these special contact lenses that made our pupils really big, and to look Ewan in the eyes and see that and know he was looking at mine, it really put me right there, it was easy to get back to that.”
Django is different than the Dude in one major way -- Django is focused on a life’s mission, while the Dude likes to go bowling. Bridges, it turns out, approaches his career more like the latter.
“My M.O. is resistance; I try not to do anything at all,” Bridges said. “I only take projects that come to the point where I have no choice. Whatever sucks me in, whatever beats my resistance, those are the ones I did.”
The 59-year-old Bridges looks a bit like Kris Kristofferson these days. He grew the beard for “Crazy Heart,” a film about a country singer with a lot of mileage who crosses paths with an up-and-coming musician (Colin Farrell). That small film was a jolting change from the one he just finished: filming “Tron Legacy,” the Disney digital fantasy.
Bridges said he hopes “Goats” finds an audience and that he’s relieved by one early good review -- the one from Channon.
Bridges said he was unsure if Channon might feel he was being mocked too much by the farcical tone of “Goats,” but it turned out that the old psychic warrior doesn’t feel a need to win the battle for credibility -- he views the movie as a chance to win the war.
“He said he just wanted people to come to his website,” Bridges said. “He said that the people that think it’s all ridiculous, they have to find their own way into this. The people that are intrigued, they can see what the real thing is. They can find the reality.”