Friday, February 25, 2011
San Diego resident Loyd Catlett has spent 41 years standing in for actor Jeff Bridges on film sets. I spoke with him about what a stand-in does and about life in the movies.
Whenever I talk to people who work on film sets, they mention two things: how great the food is at craft services; and how much standing around there is on set.
San Diego resident Loyd Catlett does a lot of standing around in movies, but that's part of his job. He's the actual stand-in for actor Jeff Bridges, star of the much beloved and oft-quoted film "The Big Lebowski," and last year's Oscar winner for his portrayal of an alcoholic country singer in "Crazy Heart."
Catlett has worked on over 50 films with Bridges, including this year's best picture nominee, the Coen brothers' Western "True Grit."
I visited Catlett at his home in Point Loma, a modest condo he shares with an 7-year-old beagle named Blu. On a desk in one corner, there's a stack of film scripts. Bridges asks Catlett to read scripts and weigh in on the best roles.
Catlett admired the script for "True Grit," which the Coen brothers closely adapted from the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name.
"The brothers," as Catlett calls the Coens, are "a pleasure to work with," and the role of Rooster Cockburn, played by Bridges, and made famous by John Wayne, had "a lot of swagger to it."
To wit: throughout the film, Bridges rides plenty of horses and fires lots of guns. He cocks his head dramatically to one side to compensate for the eye patch his character wears. In a line typical of Portis' dialogue, Cockburn boasts, "I can hit a gnat's eye at 90 yards."
As Jeff Bridges' stand-in, Loyd Catlett has to shoot the same guns, ride the same horses (Catlett was a former rodeo cowboy), and even wear an eye patch. "The eye patch, they had a special one made for me that looked solid but had a netting in it so I wasn't blind on one side," explains Catlett, in a drawl as Texas as a tumbleweed.
As a stand-in, Catlett watches Jeff Bridges' every move. "I basically mimic all of his movements in the style of character that he's got going."
Bridges will rehearse a scene while Catlett watches, marking every gesture. Then when the actor goes to the make-up trailer, Catlett steps in and reenacts Bridges movements and reads his lines. This allows the crew to set up the lighting and the cinematographer to perfect any complicated shots.
This doesn't happen quickly, and Catlett says it can be taxing, especially if it's a fight scene, or one that involves the horses. "It gets intense and it's grueling and it's redundant because you go over it and over it and that whole process would wear down the talent. But this keeps them as fresh as possible."
When Bridges returns to the set, the camera is ready to roll.
Catlett and Bridges met on the set of one of my favorite films, Peter Bogdonavich's 1971 masterpiece "The Last Picture Show," which was filmed in Catlett's home state of Texas. The two became fast friends. Bogdonavich asked Catlett, who had a small role in the film, to hang out with Bridges and Timothy Bottoms so they could pick up his accent.
After Catlett moved to Los Angeles, Bridges extended an invitation that changed Catlett's life.
"I was working at a gas station to pay the rent and he said why don't you come work on the shows with me and we'll move you around and get you little parts. And that's how it all started and we've been together ever since -- 41 years."
He adds with a hint of wonder in his voice, "It's been a lifetime. It's been a blessing."
Catlett resembles Bridges. But each time the actor changes his appearance for a role, Catlett has to do the same. "I've had to fluctuate the weight. I've had to go up and down constantly."
Bridges tells Catlett what the character should look like a couple of months before shooting begins so that he can make the adjustments. "He tells me, 'Yeah, this one's a thin role. Maybe with short hair, or I may have a beard, I may have a goatee, or I may do a mustache.'"
When Bridges signed on to do "Iron Man," he was toying with the right appearance for the villainous character of Obadiah Stane, and he floated an idea past Catlett one day on the phone.
He says, 'Now for the hair. I think I'm going to do this one bald.' I said, 'Well, have you shaved your head yet'? And he said, 'I'm sending you a picture.' And so he sent me one and he was bald. So I just went out and shaved ALL my hair off and took a picture and sent it to him. And he goes, 'Oh, wait. I didn't know you were going to react so fast on this because that was a bald cap!'
Last year, when Bridges won the Golden Globe for his lead role in "Crazy Heart," he thanked Catlett in his acceptance speech. It was the first of a string of "thank-you's" as Bridges went on to win the Best Actor Oscar, among others, and mentioned Catlett in each speech.
"Yeah, I didn’t expect him to say that. All of these years we've been in cahoots and it's just been he and I in the traveling troupe. But I thought it was very touching."
Catlett has a ranch in Idaho and he's looking to buy another home in San Diego. He says there have been times when he's longed for meatier roles, but he chose a path that would pay the bills. "I could starve and do a lot of dinner theater and a lot of the plays around town, but you kind of have to go with whatever your lucky star gives you."
Catlett hopes that lucky star appears this weekend as "True Grit" competes for the Best Picture Oscar at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.