Bridges, Lithgow get personal in action-thriller ‘The Old Man’

The first episode of Hulu’s hit series “The Old Man” features an extended fight between a government hit man and a former CIA operative. The scene has 73-year-old Jeff Bridges, as onetime CIA man Dan Chase, rolling in the desert dust in the middle of the night in a sequence running nearly 10 minutes.

“Most of that was before, while I had this 9-inch thing in my stomach,” Bridges tells The Envelope. “Imagine getting hit like that! But it didn’t hurt. I had no idea what was going on inside.”

What was going on inside was lymphoma. Bridges and his on-screen frenemy, John Lithgow, were on hiatus, with the former looking forward to months of relaxation in Montana. Before leaving, he noticed a firm object in his stomach area. His wife suggested he have it checked, but Bridges shrugged it off. During his trip, he found his shins were itchy and he experienced night sweats, clueless they were symptoms of lymphoma. Once diagnosed, rigorous chemotherapy eliminated the tumor, but before he could celebrate he learned he might have been exposed to COVID.

“It turns out that COVID made cancer look like nothing. I had no immune system to fight,” he recalls. “It’s a terrible thing, but, gosh, I’m kind of grateful that I went through that. I never would have experienced things spiritually, philosophically, scientifically, had I not. The main thing is the preciousness of life, the gratitude for everything that life gives you, whether it’s cancer, COVID, your wife loving you so much, supporting you. It’s the corny ‘L- word,’ love, man. But then coming back to work in ‘The Old Man’ two years later, it’s like a long weekend, man! I felt like saying, ‘I had the most bizarre dream, you guys.’ I got to work with John, that was a big plus.”

And Lithgow’s happy to have him back, effusively welcoming him via Zoom from New York where he’s directing “Everything’s Fine,” starring Douglas McGrath in a one-man off-Broadway show.

In “The Old Man,” Lithgow plays CIA officer Harold Harper, Chase’s former friend and comrade. The two have acted in some capacity as father to Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat), who works under Harper. The past catches up with them when Faraz Hamzad (Pej Vahdat), whom they supported in the Afghan war against the Soviets, reemerges with a singular and unexpected demand.

Based on the 2017 novel by Thomas Perry, “The Old Man” is an action-packed thriller as well as an examination of the personal cost of lives lived in emotional isolation. To get into the headspace of their characters, the two actors consulted with real-life CIA operative Christopher Huddleston.

“Stoicism, as Christopher pointed out, is the favorite philosophy for guys in the military,” notes Bridges. “I consider myself Buddhistly bent, but I find a lot of parallels between those two philosophies. I look inside myself and see what I have in common with these guys. CIA operatives, those are the best actors in the world. As Marlon Brando says, ‘Hey man, we’re all actors.’ We all have hidden agendas and that’s how we roll as a species, man. But CIA operatives, that’s all heightened, man. A lot of possibilities for paranoia.”

Lithgow nods in agreement. “The most fascinating thing about the CIA foreign agent version of acting is pretending nothing is happening, as inconspicuous as you can possibly be, almost unnoticeable. For me, I’m an actor who wants to be noticed in a serious way all the time.”

The most critical scene in the series comes in the seventh episode when Chase and Harper, who until then have been in a chess match from opposite ends of the board, find themselves side by side in a car for the first time in 30 years. It’s a 12-minute, subtext-loaded scene that required six days to shoot.

“We’d been waiting two years to play that scene,” Lithgow says with a laugh. “Between COVID and Jeff’s medical issues, we were not allowed to act together. It was all that anticipation. And when we got together, it just happened!”

With the first season behind them, work on the second season begins in February. Based on new material by showrunner Jonathan Steinberg, it’s rumored to be a prequel examining Chase and Harpers’ early careers and friendship while on assignment in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been asked whether I’m comfortable on the back of a horse” is all Lithgow would reveal about the new season. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting 30 years for somebody to ask me to ride a horse in a movie.’ Tommy Lee Jones put me in a movie and that son of a bitch put me on a mule. I’m excited about the new season for no other reason than I get to ride.”

Also exciting is the coming awards season. Bridges holds a soft spot for Emma Thompson in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” while Lithgow gushes about Apple TV’s “Slow Horses” starring Gary Oldman.

“It mixes John le Carré with the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. Gary Oldman is wonderful,” says Lithgow, who recently wrapped work on Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated “Killers of the Flower Moon.” “Checked off a box on my bucket list,” he said, laughing. “I finally worked with Marty.”

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