While being a self confessed lazy man, Jeff is also one of the most steadily employed actors around, dedicating himself to, and practicing, a craft he truly digs. He has appeared in more than 60 films and TV productions across the sands of time, with his wide repertoire including comedies, dramas, mysteries, Sci-Fi, cartoons and even documentary narration. It seems that adult entertainment is the only kind of film he hasn’t done. Born into the Hollywood scene, you’d think Jeff would have ended up a kind of fragile, egomaniacal movie star with emotional problems. By all accounts, he’s extremely cool to work with on the set and is generous and friendly with cast and crew alike.
Perhaps it’s because he’s into some kind of Eastern thing that he apparently sees through the illusory nature of stardom and recognises there’s much more to life than waltzing around Hollywood with a bunch of sycophants. He’s been married to the same woman for over 40 years and has a healthy relationship with his wife and three daughters. Beyond acting Jeff is a pretty good artist, musician, and photographer who devotes his time and talent to humanitarian causes.
In short, he’s not only the Dude, but he’s one helluva Great Dude and we’re going to find out a bit about his life and his Eastern philosophy when it comes to his acting career. So, here goes:
‘Just throw the fucking ball!’
Jeff would sometimes care too much. He would sometimes worry for a long time about a big scene: ‘How am I going to do this?’ Meantime, there’s another little scene he’s not concerned about at all and he’s sure he know what to do there. When the day comes and he’s filming and the big scene is a snap the smaller little one is trouble. And he’s reflecting, all that time that he were worried about the wrong thing!
Mark Twain said, ‘I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.’ So if you’re going to wait to get all the information you think you need before you act, you’ll never act because there’s an infinite amount of information out there.
So, just throw that fucking ball. Just do it. Get into the thing, see where it takes you. When the camera’s rolling, you want it to capture you discovering the character, not re creating what you discovered or figured out days ago in rehearsals. You should strive for the kind of acting that shows no apparent obligation to the audience; the audience is just a fly on the wall. In life we should be spontaneous, just orgasm and just go.
When Jeff was young his mother would force him to go to dancing classes and he ended up loving it. That introduced him not just to dancing but also to working with someone without having a goal. Years later when his mum sent him off to work she’d always say, ‘Remember, have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.’ So he now has this word for much of what he does in life: ‘plorking.’ Means not playing and not working, just ‘plorking.’
Once, while working with Kevin Bacon on a movie together and just before they’d begin a scene, when most of them would feel the normal anxiety that actors feel before they start to perform, Kevin would look at Jeff and the other actors with a very serious expression on his face and say: ‘Remember, everything depends on this!’ It would make them all laugh.
To do every morning
Some Zen practice for the morning: Wake up, go to the bathroom, pee, brush your teeth, look in the mirror, and laugh at yourself. Do it every morning to start off the day, as a practice.
Be here, now
Part of what makes the dude in The Big Lebowski great is that his character never felt the need to achieve something. He likes lying in the bathtub drinking his white Russians with the whale music on. He’s just taking it easy, talking it the way it is. People talk about being seekers, searching for meaning, happiness, whatever. Be the finder who finds all these things right around yourself.
When you care about perfection, you care about an expectation. But there is also caring for where you are right now, for what’s happening right now. Befriend what’s happening, not just who you’re supposed to be or what the world should be like. This is where you are now, so how do you care for yourself this minute? It’s to drop the expectation of perfection that you have in your head, and jam with what’s going on instead.
According to Merriam Webster’s official definition, to abide means to wait patiently for something, or to endure without yielding, accept without objection. This is no easy feat, especially in a culture that is success driven, instant gratification oriented, and impatient, like ours. True abiding is letting go of the outcome and going with the flow and it’s a spiritual gift that requires great mastery.
That is what life is, constant change, ups and downs. And like the dude, we have to abide.
Leaning into it
Jeff has an excellent way to lean into uncomfortableness which he believes is an opening channel to receive gifts and to appreciate the struggles as opportunities to wake up.
One thing he does with his wife is they will sit opposite each other and one person expresses what’s on his or her mind and the other person just listens and receives, till the first person has no more to say, and then they switch. They keep on doing that till both of them feel like they’re done. It’s a jam. Sometimes the shift happens, sometimes it doesn’t but there is definitely intimacy in it and sometimes even humour. The nice thing is you get all these little bumps and discomforts to explore which are really opportunities and they keep your curiosity going: ‘Oh, this is interesting, what’s this about? Why did I get so upset?’ It’s by leaning into things, revealing some embarrassing moments but also being honest and truthful.
In life we have to make adjustments because everything is always changing. When hens lay eggs to have chicks and the chick is ready to come out of the egg, it pecks at the eggshell. Hearing that, and sensing it’s the right time, the hen also goes pecking, using her beak to peck from the outside. Together, they break the shell and the chick is born. If the hen does it too soon, the chick dies, because it’s not fully formed. If the hen does it too late, the chick suffocates. So timing is really important.
In the same way, in every instant there’s a new universe or a new me about to be born. If you’re attuned enough, you can hear the pecking of the universe saying peck peck peck, I want to be born! So I want to help and peck back. But what tool do we have to use to give birth to our new selves? We’ve got choices. We can use a screwdriver, love, an elbow, lot’s of different tools.
Oscillating doll analogy
We are all like those dolls that are full of sand at the bottom. You push them and they oscillate quickly from side to side, and then come back to centre. So as you practice life, you’re filling up with sand. At first, even a weak force hits you and almost knocks you over, but you oscillate in big arcs till you come up standing again. As you practice more and more, it takes a stronger and stronger force to get you knocked over, and even then the oscillations aren’t so big, and before you know it you’re back to centre.
No matter how much sand you put in, no matter how much you practice, there will always be some force that’s big enough to knock you over. Life’s not about not getting knocked over, it’s about how fast you come back. So, if you get knocked over that’s a sign that you’re not practicing well enough, all that happened was that you met a situation that was a little bigger than you, and that gave you a new opportunity for more practice.
Accepting instead of forcing
When Jeff works on a movie, he sees that everyone is different, that they all serve a different purpose and are all aspects of the whole. What he finds freeing is turning it over to the director. Holding his or her opinion above his unless he gets something that comes from a higher power; if it’s that intense, he’ll be subversive and try to sneak in his way in there. But generally, he likes to empower the director and give them power over himself so that he can transcend himself and make something bigger than what he has in his own mind, maybe even surprise himself. All the folks there have different opinions and visions of what’s going on, which enriches his experience and also make for a better movie. Therefore, Jeff will never force these guys to do what he wants. If you don’t get the benefit of hearing another aspect of yourself then the creativity’s gone.
Making a movie Jeff often does something to create his own empty space. For example, once he’s studied for the role, learned his lines about how to play his character and feels really ready, the other actor might not be doing it how he imagined so it’s starting to feel tight. What he then does is start singing or doing somersaults around the stage, doing something that’s apparently inappropriate. Once, he led the cast and crew in a big om session and it shifted the vibe; it changed the tightness to looseness. When you do the unexpected, everyone starts wondering what else can happen. They start reassessing all the givens of that moment. And the great thing is that in movies all of this is totally allowed; it’s even encouraged. Creativity is what’s called for. The idea is to get empty so the thing can come through you. It’s finding the space to dance in and there’s no need to feel harnessed or limited in any way.
Jeff has been often asked in interviews why he does the movies he does and is there a thread that runs through them? At first he thought there wasn’t but then he realised that many of his films have the theme of difficulty and opportunity in them. What appears to be a drag is actually a wonderful opportunity.
Chinese language which is made up of symbols rather than letters consist of two characters for the meaning of difficulty, and one of those characters means opportunity. Hidden within every difficulty lies opportunity.
As an actor he feels that he represents a community, the family of man and woman and his job is to show how different people will act in different situations. So when it comes to feelings of struggle and suffering he’s not alone; his suffering is on behalf of the whole group, on behalf of all of us. It’s also the beginning of compassion.
Just being there
One of his favourite actors is Tommy Lee Jones. He brings an intensity to his character that is so rich and mysterious. He’s very opaque; you don’t see all the wheels turning, which he admires in actors. To him it seems more the way people act in real life. He doesn’t particularly care for the kind of actors who feel obligated to show you everything; that’s what is meant by indicating. They’re going to show you what they think the audience needs to see, to tell the story. But with Tommy, like a lot of other actors, you don’t see the work. You don’t see the practice, the effort; he’s not trying to do anything, he’s just there.
Use your ingredients
In life we tend to be constrained by what we don’t have instead of appreciating what we do have. So always look at the ingredients you have. Let’s say you want to make the best meal possible and you were going to eat it and enjoy it. But when you look in your fridge or cupboard you don’t have the oatmeal or eggs that you want so you say ah, I’m not going to do it then. That’s what we do in our life. We say, I don’t have enough time so I’m not going to do this; or I don’t have enough money so I’m not going to do that.
Instead, we could say, Okay, I don’t have oatmeal or eggs, but I have green peppers and cheese and crackers. We prepare, eat and appreciate the meal, whereas if we just sit around bitching about all the things we don’t have and not eating anything, we’d starve. And that goes for life, too. Look at the ingredients you have, make the best meal possible, and offer it. Don’t forget to offer it. If you make the meal just for yourself, you don’t get the same pleasure. Work with whatever you have, and make something beautiful. Use your ingredients and take action.
Resistance is necessary
Jeff believes that there are two streams pulling at us all the time, or at him, anyway. One is toward life and the other is toward death. The one toward life says, Open, open, open. So there’s opening up and there’s the resistance to opening up. We’re afraid that life will say, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, check this out. You think you can do that? okay, let’s see you?’ The more you open, things just seem to get tougher and more demanding. When that happens to Jeff, his impulse is to just say, ‘Fuck it… Please, let it be over. Let me just be a rock or something; I’m tired of this.’ He resists giving what’s needed because the need is so great. Life’s asking for everything and he’s holding on.
So shit will always come to light, but it’s hard to welcome something new because we have no idea what it will look like or where it’s going to take us. It’s not easy, but it’s always growth.
Jeff says that he always feels a panic with making a movie. When he choses a role he always wonders doe he really have what it takes to pull it off? So he resists as much as he can until a part comes along that is scarier than shit. Crazy Heart is a perfect example. It had so many things going for it: he got to do his own music, got to be with his friends, got to have John Goodwin write a tune. Then the voices starts ‘But what happens if you don’t pull it off?’, ‘But what if this isn’t what it’s all about?’
And then he does it and it’s better than he ever thought. Every once in a while, especially with Crazy Heart, The Big Lebowski, or any other of his favourite movies, he’s got high expectations going in, and those expectations are blown out of the water because something completely more wonderful happens. There’s resistance, a pushing against it, and then-boom! A wave breaks. But for that to happen he has to be ready to experiment with those uncomfortable feelings.
He has learned to notice these reactions more and more as they happen, and instead of saying yes or no, instead of jumping in, he gently leans into the challenge a little bit. He’s learned to create more space for himself; that way it gives him a sense of greater freedom.