The dude -- actually the Dude -- was lost.
Actor Jeff Bridges had been talking on a cell phone, missed his exit and was doing another long-distance interview while trying to return to Santa Barbara, Calif. Now, he sounded like a refugee from "The Big Lebowski" or his reclusive penguin surfer in last summer's animated "Surf's Up."
"I'm lost, but that's an interesting place to be. You don't get to be lost all that often. Unless you don't realize you're lost. We're probably lost all the time, we just don't know it," Bridges said, certain at least he hadn't crossed the state line.
However, the actor wasn't on the line to discuss finicky freeways with signs tucked in the shade but "Iron Man," opening in theaters on Friday.
Robert Downey Jr. plays the title role. and Bridges is Obadiah Stane, his right-hand man and top executive of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries. Jon Favreau directs the long-awaited adaptation of the Marvel Comics books.
If the world seems hungry for comic-book movies -- Iron Man will be joined by the Hulk, Batman and Hellboy this summer -- credit the early cultivation of fans and association with childhood.
"I remember spending a couple of summers just locked in my room reading comic books. I loved it. And then, when you grow up, or even if you're still a kid, you're interested to see how they're either going to make your favorite superheroes look better than you think or they're going to screw it up, so there's a natural curiosity to it."
Bridges, 58, sacrificed his signature thatch of brown hair for his first comic-book character.
"I asked Favreau if he wanted me to shave my head bald. He said that's not necessary. We don't want to get locked in, we want to have some artistic freedom. That's kind of up to you."
But Bridges decided to be faithful to the character, a blue-eyed bald man who lost his hair from the trauma of watching his drunken father kill himself while playing Russian roulette.
Although that's not in the movie, the Andy Mangels book "Iron Man Beneath the Armor" recounts how Obadiah was sent into foster care and ridiculed by the other children. He retreated into games of strategy, especially chess, and vowed he would never lose at anything.
"Just myself, personally, I wanted to be faithful enough to the comic book so we wouldn't disappoint people ... but at the same time, we wanted to be pleasantly surprising them."
At one point in the movie, Bridges looks like he's about to rake his fingers through his hair -- and then realizes he doesn't have any. "Bald people touch their heads, too," he said with a laugh. "It's quite nice to touch a bald head."
For those who care about tonsorial matters, Bridges' locks have grown back, enough to require a couple of haircuts.
In those halcyon summers, Bridges doesn't remember picking up Iron Man -- he was more a Superman sort of fan. However, he got a crash course in Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist and genius inventor, a k a Iron Man.
"They sent me comic books and outlines of the story, but Jon Favreau was at the helm and Robert was playing the main guy. Those are two folks whose work I admired.
"It's very interesting where different directors come from, whether they were editors or directors of photography or whatever, and then they bring that to the project. In Jon's case, he's not only an actor but a great writer. He wrote one of my favorite movies a few years ago, 'Swingers.' "
Bridges loved the improvisational yet real feel of the sweet, funny and affecting 1996 comedy. It spawned the Vince Vaughn line, "You are so money and you don't even know it."
The actor says of Favreau, "To put that kind of talent and those kind of gifts into doing a comic-book movie was intriguing to me." Add the chance to work with Downey for the first time, and Bridges was in.
As he's done on other projects, the Oscar-nominated actor took behind-the-scenes pictures with his Widelux camera. Bridges is an accomplished photographer whose work has been exhibited at galleries, published in the book "Pictures by Jeff Bridges" and shared with a project's cast and crew.
"I think they are going to paste a book together. I was kind of disappointed because I was in the movie not very consistently, so it's not a great representation of the whole movie," but he captured Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and others on the set.
Asked about the weight of launching the summer of 2008 and possibly a lucrative film franchise, Bridges sounds almost laid-back. He feels the press of publicity although, like many actors plugging movies they made months ago, he is involved with new projects.
"I'm rooting for it, sort of like you have a horse in the race," said Bridges, who memorably played the entrepreneur who nurtured Seabiscuit in one of 2003's best movies. "The horses are getting in the gate, and here they come, and they're off and running and it's 'Iron Man.' I'm rooting for the horse, but I'm into other stuff."
Bridges, also busy with the End Hunger Network, which he helped to found, just finished a movie called "Open Road," in which he and Justin Timberlake play father and son baseball players. Mary Steenburgen and Kate Mara are also in the cast.
Although Bridges is in the thick of an evolving business -- with computer-generated wizardry, motion-capture performances and movies that can be watched on handheld devices -- he's old-fashioned in how he likes to see movies.
"I love watching a movie in the theater. I don't really like to watch movies on TV too much. Something nice about being in that big dark room with a bunch of people watching a film together."
In fact, an hour earlier, he had seen "Iron Man" with a select audience that included his mother and sister. He was impressed by "how everything polished up so nice," he said.
"I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a lot of fun."
Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment are banking on millions of moviegoers thinking so, too, come Friday.
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1632. First Published April 27, 2008 4:00 AM