Tara Reid was just 21 years old when she booked the role of young trophy wife Bunny Lebowski. The New Jersey native spent her childhood appearing in over 100 commercials, and with only one film credit to her name, 1987’s little-seen A Return to Salem’s Lot, even just auditioning for The Big Lebowski was a coup, considering this would be the highly anticipated follow-up from filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen to their Oscar-winning classic Fargo. The Coens’ résumé and the fact that more established starlets like Charlize Theron and Liv Tyler were also in the running for Bunny should have tipped Reid off to how big a deal this opportunity was. But, being new to Hollywood, she was, admittedly, completely oblivious — which turned out to be the perfect mindset for Bunny. The carefree troublemaker has no idea that her sudden disappearance causes such turmoil for her rich, wheelchair-bound husband, Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a professional slacker and amateur bowler with the same name, who goes by the Dude (Jeff Bridges), and a colorful cast of characters.
Reid appears in just four scenes, making quite the first impression when the Dude visits the Lebowski compound and stumbles upon Bunny suntanning and painting her toenails green. After asking the Dude to blow on her toes, she offers to perform oral sex for a thousand dollars, prompting the elder Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to awkwardly laugh and declare, “Wonderful woman! We’re all very fond of her.” Bunny vanishes soon thereafter, seemingly kidnapped for ransom by her nihilist friend Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare), who sends back a cutoff toe as a threat. The Dude is put on the case, only to discover Bunny’s past life in the porn industry, her origins as a Minnesota runaway, and that she actually just went on a little getaway to visit friends.
The Big Lebowski opened in the spring of 1998 and failed to reach the same critical, commercial, and awards success as Fargo. But it would eventually become a cult phenomenon, with a yearly festival celebrating the film for the last two decades. Meanwhile, Reid’s stock exploded in the years after the film, with memorable turns in Cruel Intentions, Josie and the Pussycats, Van Wilder, and the American Pie franchise. Now, on Lebowski’s 25th anniversary, we chatted with Reid about landing the role of Bunny, the character’s “innocence,” and brainstorming her own spinoff.
Let’s begin with the most important and pressing question: How good of a bowler are you?
Honestly, not that good.
When reflecting back on The Big Lebowski, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
I remember my first scene, my notorious scene, was by the pool, and Jeff Bridges takes a photo book and he makes you do one happy face, one sad face, and he takes some footage off the side. I was painting my toenails green, there was a break, and all of a sudden I look up and all the men from the studio were staring at me. I’m like, “What’s on me? Is there something in my hair?” [Laughs.] But it was just really fun. I got to know Jeff, the Coens, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and everyone in the whole movie, and there couldn’t have been kinder people in the absolute entire world.
Where in your career would you say you were when you booked Lebowski? Did you feel like there was already some momentum, or was this a much-needed job to kickstart things?
If I never got The Big Lebowski, I think I would’ve never gotten another role again.
Why do you say that?
Because when I got The Big Lebowski, every girl was fighting for it — and I didn’t know that. I remember going to the final test and I saw Liv Tyler and Charlize Theron, and I thought to myself, “I am never going to get this movie.” Three days later, I got it. I was just in shock, and everyone was screaming, like, “Yay!” And I still didn’t understand it yet. Then, when I was on set, I got it. And after that, all these movies started coming to me; my whole life changed. So, if it wasn’t for the Coen brothers, I would’ve never had what I made in this career.
What was your initial reaction to Bunny Lebowski?
Bunny was one of a kind. I thought that Bunny was just this trophy wife, and she didn’t really pay a lot of attention to things. And I thought that her comedy timing had to be really good to get everyone to laugh and to go with the character. Shooting the scene, you would hear the Coens laugh behind the screen, and I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m doing a good job.”
The Coens were just coming off of Fargo, which was a commercial hit and a major awards player. Going into Lebowski, how familiar were you with their work?
I watched Fargo, I thought it was amazing. But I still didn’t understand that … I was young, and I’m not from here, and I didn’t know how big it was. So, Lebowski came out, and it wasn’t even a big box-office hit, but then, years later, it became this cult film and I realized, “Wow, this was so much bigger than I ever thought it was.”
You mentioned those heavy hitters that were also going out for the role, so what do you think it was about how you approached Bunny in your audition that made you the pick?
I just think that I played her as this innocent, cheeky, sexy girl that was not innocent at all. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was fun and she wasn’t trying too hard. Like, when she’s driving the car and singing, “Viva Las Vegas.” I think that Bunny was a little bit clueless — but kind of smart. She just loved to have a good time.
Either ahead of production or while filming, what types of conversations did you have with the Coens about Bunny and what direction they wanted you to go with her?
They really wanted me to have that innocence about me, which I didn’t realize at the time. I think that’s what made them laugh, because everyone else was so serious about getting the part. If it was now, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the role. But I look back and all I have to say is, thank you so much to the Coen brothers for believing in me.
I interviewed Jeff Bridges earlier this year, and I was so delighted to feel like he is the Dude. Back then, was that also your experience?
He was the Dude. [Laughs.] He was always, not just the Dude, but a kind man. Probably one of the kindest actors I’ve ever worked with. He really cared, and I really appreciate that I got to work with some brilliant people on that film, all around the cast. I was lucky.
The third person in your notorious first scene was one of the greatest actors we’ve ever seen, Philip Seymour Hoffman. He kills me every time with that awkward laugh he does.
Yeah, he’s like, [Philip Seymour Hoffman voice] “Ha, ha, ha!”
What do you remember about working with him, and how he played that moment?
He played it like, it’s okay, but so uncomfortable. He could pull off any character, at any time. And when he passed, it was a tragic loss, on so many different levels. That guy was one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever worked with.
We later learn that Bunny’s pre-Lebowski life included a career in porn, which we get a glimpse of via a scene from an adult film she made with “Karl Hungus,” a.k.a. Uli Kunkel. What was it like shooting that with Fargo veteran Peter Stormare?
We actually shot it on a porn set, I believe. So, I was like, “What’s going on with the music?” He was so funny. I mean, the movie didn’t have a moment where we didn’t stop in between takes with people laughing. It was a movie that truly had comedy, vulnerability, family, friends, and characters. It’s a well-written character ensemble that no one will ever forget.
At what point did you realize that this movie had become the massive cult classic that it is today?
The Lebowski Fest.
Have you been?
No, but I’ve been invited so many times; I was always shooting. They’re like, “Tara, girls are dressed as Bunny, they have green toes cut off.” I know Jeff Bridges goes to it a lot, and I haven’t gone yet, but I would love to.
Where does Lebowski rank on the list of projects that people bring up to you?
It depends what kind of fans, but I would say this is probably the movie that’s brought up the second most.
Number one being American Pie?
Yes, American Pie, and then Big Lebowski. I mean, the fans for Big Lebowski are definitely more hardcore than the fans from American Pie.
Twenty-five years later, what do you think Bunny Lebowski would be up to?
Well, she’d definitely be running the house. She’d probably make it like the Playboy Mansion, with hot girls running around — maybe with all green toes. I have no idea, but it would be fun.
A couple years ago, John Turturro starred in his own Lebowski spinoff, The Jesus Rolls, a longtime passion project of his that he also wrote and directed. How do we get one of those for you? Maybe, The Bunny Rides? I’m picturing an Odd Couple–like two-hander for you and Julianne Moore, as Bunny and Mod are forced to live together in the Lebowski mansion.
That would be amazing! [Laughs.] I love that. You can start that rumor.
Sam Elliott narrated the Dude’s story. Who would be the right fit to narrate a Bunny vehicle? Jennifer Coolidge is the first person that came to mind for me.
Oh yeah! I love Jennifer Coolidge; I’ve done four movies with her. She’d be perfect. She has that sexy voice, she’s beautiful, she’s fun. I was honored to work with her.
Even if it’s not Big Lebowski 2 or Bunny Rides, we need to find a way to get you back into the Coen Cinematic Universe.
I think that’d be really fun. I would do any movie with them. Come on, let me know! And I’ll do the first interview with you, like, “What’s up?! We did it!” [Laughs.]
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