by Antonia Quirke
I think the most harrowing thing I ever saw in my fucking life was a poster for the launch issue of Glamour magazine. It featured Kate Winslet wearing something casual and it said something like, ‘Kate Winslet on Having it All: I love my life, my man, my baby.’ She had, since the magazine had gone to press, left her ‘man’ – her husband, Jim Threapleton. But the poster was everywhere. All the way down the Finchley Road. On the tube. On bus shelters. And it was on the cover of the magazine, of course. Now, you probably remember how immensely popular Kate Winslet was at that time, what a byword for normality among actors she was. OK! magazine just couldn’t get enough of her. She was in every week being snapped strolling around north London. And part of the reason for this reverence was the fact that her husband was not a musician or another actor or a hot young English theatre director who had just made a successful leap to Hollywood but a civilian. Jim Threapleton was a second AD, an assistant director, which sounds much grander than it is – it means you make sure the actors get to lunch on time. Which meant that the princess had chosen one of the people. And what drove and still drives OK! magazine nuts with hatred and envy of the celebrities it spends half its time fawning on (the other half is spent candidly venting that fury at them) is that the evil, talented bastards won’t ever go out with the likes of us. So Jim and Kate held out a faint distant glimmer of hope for even the most humble of us, in the OK! scheme of things.
How sad when a marriage breaks up. But having to see this protestation plastered around town! Being Jim Threapleton and having to see this protestation plastered around town! Oh, it must hurt ... A civilian. Jonathan had once known Emily Mortimer when she was young and used to say that in any given room Emily had the most wattage. This book is not, though it might seem so, about being starstruck (I hope). Civilians tend to think that on the other side of the glass are a bunch of lucky people who have been selected by lottery to fulfil the roles of stars. But of course they’re not. They may be horrible worthless human beings, unexceptional in every other way, but they have wattage. They’re stars because they are exceptional in their own peculiar ways, by and large, although our culture would desperately – despairingly – like to think otherwise. That’s not being starstruck, that’s being honest.
I had never met a star. I once interviewed Christopher Eccleston. I had to go and talk to Ken Russell in his house in the New Forest, which was a pleasure. I saw Terence Stamp once in a bookshop in Manchester. I saw Sharon Stone in a grocer’s on Parkway, stinking the place out with her charisma. I drunkenly told Peter Mullan he was great in The Claim about a dozen times in a row, and of course I had Alan Rickman’s voice on my answering machine. But I had never met a star.
Back Row was winding down its series of actor profiles. Meanwhile, inside my pink folder the bar receipts were growing so thick that I transferred them into a box file, and then piled more folders on the top. I was only saved by a stroke of fate. Alexander Walker died. And somehow a lot seemed to go with him – a sense of continuity with Ealing and Gaumont, with Lindsay Anderson and producers in offices in Frith Street, with a time of fewer releases, longer runs, and yellow cashmere scarves. So it turned out that I was offered a job on the Evening Standard and an escape route from the ICA, which I took, managing to get away by throwing my entire fee for Jaws at the bar tab, hiding the other receipts in a plant-pot on the balcony and hoping (I’m still hoping) that that would sort of do. But like I’ve said, my heart wasn’t really in reviewing any more and I didn’t last very long at the Standard. If you’ve quit inside, you should quit. Nonetheless, Back Row coming to an end was a pain in the neck.
The BBC always suggested the actors and I merely concurred, or spiked the obviously boring ones, like Brad. One day, I was sitting on the stern of Wandering Lady feeling a little lonely because the wharf beetles had disappeared for another year. There was a great pale carp, known as the Ghost Carp, which you occasionally saw about, greenish in the canal, and I was half hoping it would swim over for some crumbs when the producer of Back Row called.
‘Antonia. Would you like to interview Jeff Bridges?’
‘What, interview him?’
‘He’s in town next week. He’s doing interviews at the Dorchester.’
‘Uhm ... not my kind of thing, Stephen. Thanks for thinking of me, but no.’
‘What are you talking about? You love Jeff Bridges. You’ve already done him twice. I know you love him. You’re always going on about him.’
‘Oh, I do, I do, yes, absolutely. I know exactly what you’re saying. I used to love him. But I think you should get someone else to do it.’
‘What do you mean, you used to love him? Since when did this happen?’
‘Gone off him. I don’t really like him at all these days. Overrated. Plus, I’ve never done any interviews. So thanks, but no. To be honest, I’m surprised you’re even asking me. It’s so obviously not my kind of thing. You know. Why are you trying to involve me in all of this, anyway, Stephen? It’s your problem. It’s your job. I mean, get a grip, will you? How dare you?’
A little later, I called him back and agreed to do the interview. It was in five days’ time. I drove round to Video City and rented a stack of favourite Bridges movies. Not John Huston’s Fat City (1972), not Bad Company (also 1972) and not Cutter’s Way (1981), because you can never get hold of them. If any of those three are ever on TV, record them. They’re all great, and nobody ever talks about them. But I managed a pretty good stack, because Bridges has managed a pretty good stack. In the afternoons I revised him in the BFI Library. I bought his blues record, which isn’t bad at all (John Goodman plays on it). I wandered around his charming website. I had my hair straightened. I resisted getting some Dexedrine, and then got some, and then drowned them all in the canal. I accumulated notes. I had a pedicure in a Vietnamese parlour off West End Lane, and read about long-defunct marriages in very old back editions of Hello! Old divorces whose pain had, all these years later, been completely healed. The happy had become sad; the sad had become happy, and sad again, and happy again. I watched him resurrect the deer killed by hunters in Starman (1984) over and over, wondering about how protective of the animal he must have felt at that moment, filmed from the back in long-shot, standing over it for long minutes, waiting for it to wake from its drugged stupor so they could get the take. I bought an expensive blue-and-white-striped top which I thought would make me look French. I took it back. I marvelled at what he creates from a truly recalcitrant part in The Last Picture Show. I saw how one of the marks of a great actor is how little he changes in covering a range. Bridges has range in that way. I got my bikini-line waxed. I prepared late into the final night, condensing my notes for questions into a manageable number of pages. I wore a cream Chinese jacket embroidered with scarlet flowers over a plain white T-shirt with jeans over boots. The jacket was mysterious, the jeans and boots were practical. Practical plus Mysterious equalled Romantic, I had assessed.
I drove down to Park Lane on a white, wettish day, met Stephen at reception, went up to the suite, and waited among other journalists in a side-room until a publicist put her head round the door and said, ‘Antonia.’ Kinerotiquana. It’s an anagram of Antonia Quirke. Jonathan did it for me the other day. Kinerotiquana, with a hard qu as in ‘Mozambique’: Kine. Kinerotiq. Kinerotiquana. The whirl of sex and cinema. My life is kinerotiquana. I followed the publicist through the doors of the next room. I entered the kinerotiquarium.
He had on a white shirt and a pair of houndstooth check trousers. He stood up as I walked in and negotiated the introductions between publicist, Stephen and me, very deftly. It was just a little bit of gentle pre-publicity for Seabiscuit. Nothing too onerous, not the full, gruelling junket that would come six months later. We had ten minutes.
We sat down side by side on the sofa and I brusquely shuffled my notes, not looking at Bridges, while Stephen set up. I was able to see at the periphery of my vision that he was studying me with that very patient, reassuring, curious, unreadable smile you’ll know so well. Careful, I thought, this is a guy whose face had you fooled all the way through Jagged Edge. A film predicated on Bridges’s ambiguity. (Reader, who could have been better in that part? You have one minute.) When I looked up, his head seemed enormous, at least the size of the back of a chair, say, about three feet wide by four feet high and solid as a bronze of itself. Nothing about his face, apart from this scale, was a surprise. He seemed to have carried it like an egg on a spoon intact from two dimensions into three. His famous hair, like the wake of his head. Those eyelids. The set of his mouth, as if he is hiding a crabapple on his tongue. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most handsome man I have ever encountered. I felt extremely unwell – my throat seemed clogged with painful tears. I wanted to go home.
‘Just before we start on Seabiscuit,’ I said, grimly, ‘did you like playing opposite an alien more than you liked playing an alien? In K-Pax. I mean, you were wonderful as Starman. The scene in the diner when you eat the apple pie, and it’s the first time you’ve eaten food. It’s astonishing how you go from wariness, to learning the technique of eating, to joy, to gratitude, to greed. I mean like the whole spectrum in about two seconds.’
‘The thing about playing an alien must be that you have to re-examine so much of your own technique as you did not by using a movement coach but by observing your own baby daughters over several weeks of pre-production, but of course you know that anyway. It wasn’t actually the question I wanted to ask. OK. That bit at the end of Starbiscuit when Karen Allen looks up into the spaceship and the look on her face I just wondered what she’s seeing in there. Oh, forget that, because you’re not on the spaceship anyway.’
‘There was no spaceship.’
‘No, no. Of course there wasn’t, it was a studio. But the question is, when you’re playing an alien discovering humanity, you must be working from your own responses. So my question is this. What do you think of humanity?’
‘Well! I think ... sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad.’
‘Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ohoho oho oho! Ohhh! Ohhh, dear! Oh, you know that bit in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot when you have a stroke and you can’t talk well, I read somewhere that you injected novocaine into your own jaw to get that effect, is that true? I mean, of course it’s true, it’s famously true, of course, of course, forget that.’
‘Well, there was this dentist –’
‘I remember now it’s totally true. So sorry to ask.’
‘Stephen, would you mind very much if I went to the loo for a second?’
In the loo I ran the taps and washed my hands thinking if this were a movie I’d splash cold water on my face now but I can’t risk ruining my make-up. The cold water was comforting. If I were called in / to construct a religion / I should make use of water, I thought reflexively. The incredible purity of this water. I walked back with a new approach. To be more casual, chatty, to relax him, draw him out.
‘We thought you were running a bath in there!’ said Stephen as I returned. Bridges maintained a courteous silence. He was like a lion that had allowed itself to be captured, in that room. A talking lion. In a hotel room in London, the King of the Lions takes human form in order better to observe human behaviour and compassionately guide us to a higher path. He falls in love, by accident, with a journalist whom he imbues with complete understanding of the Laws of Nature, enabling her to write astonishing articles making the case for a fundamental change in human behaviour. Yet the journalist is corrupted by the world and her articles fail. Though he must leave her to return to the savannah, she may follow him, transformed into a lioness, despite the fact this means almost certain extinction at the hands of an unchanged humanity. Starring Jeff Bridges. Yeah – he looked like Aslan.
‘I just wanted to say how much pleasure your record has given me!’
‘Oh really? Well that’s great that you’ve listened to the album. You wonder if people in the UK are into this sort of ...’
‘And isn’t John Goodman good on it? What’s he like? No, sorry, not enough time. But you know that song Get Your Whip Out? Is that a personal song at all? Obviously it’s personal, but I wonder who the person is with the whip? Is it you with the whip? Why the whole idea of a whip, I suppose I’m saying. What’s the idea with you and these whips?’
I said goodbye to Stephen and got very drunk on red wine on my own in a restaurant in Shepherd’s Market. When I got back to my car, it wouldn’t start and I was desperate for the loo, so I found another car and went behind it and the car park attendant tried to throw me out. I was crying so much he changed his mind and sat with me in my car and confiscated my keys while I cried and cried and cried.
I love Jeff Bridges!