Bradley Cooper: The Serious Evolution of a Leading Man
This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ask anyone about Bradley Cooper, and the reaction is the same: "There's nobody who's better liked," says his childhood friend Brian Klugman, who co- directed The Words. Robert De Niro has invited Cooper to stay at his house several times; colleagues including The Hangover's Justin Bartha and Cooper's then-girlfriend Renee Zellweger showed up for his Inside the Actors Studio taping; and demanding directors like David O. Russell (The Fighter) are eager to work with him again and again.
All this is heady stuff for a 37-year-old who gained global recognition almost overnight with 2009's Hangover and its 2011 sequel, was dubbed People's Sexiest Man Alive last year and has become the epitome of cool.
And yet, like so many of the great stars who preceded him -- the George Clooneys and Brad Pitts -- Cooper is more complicated than he appears. The Georgetown graduate has identified with Joseph Merrick (a deformed 19th century Englishman better known as the Elephant Man) since he was a teenager; wrote his college thesis on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and favors such books as Milan Kundera's Immortality; loves films like the French classic Hiroshima Mon Amour; and abandoned Hollywood for Philadelphia when he moved back to his childhood home while his father was sick with cancer. (He died in January 2011.)
And now, improbably, this poster boy for frat boys finds himself at the epicenter of Toronto's awards-season rush thanks to two films debuting there: Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, in which Cooper plays a bipolar former teacher who becomes involved with a troubled young woman; and The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he's a cop-turned-politician whose conflict with a criminal (Ryan Gosling) spills over two generations.
The budget for Pines was about $10 million -- a bit more than the roughly $6 million for Words and the $1.5 million for Cooper's current release, Hit and Run. Together, they total fractionally more than the $15 million he's receiving for Hangover Part III, which starts shooting in mid-September in Los Angeles.
At a point when Cooper has a plethora of offers, he has opted for the challenging and provocative, the small and interesting, risking the laid-back image that propelled him to fame -- an image that amuses Hangover director Todd Phillips.
"He is ridiculously different in real life," says Phillips. "People think he is just playing a version of himself, and that couldn't be further from the truth. He is very vulnerable -- insecure is not the right word -- and that character is just straight-up confident. And there's a warmth to him you would never know."
Sitting with him this late August evening, it's hard to reconcile this sweet, exceptionally open man with the defensive, insecure person he and his friends say he once was. Over dinner in the garden of New York's Greenwich Hotel, he unburdens himself of something fans never would guess: his struggle with addiction, which ended, ironically, half a decade before Hangover.
"I don't drink or do drugs at all anymore," says Cooper, noting he gave them up at 29, when their toll was unbearable. "Being sober helps a great deal."
Once, he relates, "I was at a party and deliberately bashed my head on the concrete floor -- like, 'Hey, look how tough I am!' And I came up, and blood dripped down. And then I did it again. I spent the night at St. Vincent's Hospital with a sock of ice, waiting for them to stitch me up."
He adds: "I was so concerned what you thought of me, how I was coming across, how I would survive the day. I always felt like an outsider. I just lived in my head. I realized I wasn't going to live up to my potential, and that scared the hell out of me. I thought, 'Wow, I'm actually gonna ruin my life; I'm really gonna ruin it.' "
Friends repeatedly cautioned him, yet he didn't listen. "Part of me believed it, and part of me didn't. But the proof was in the pudding: I'd always gotten up at the crack of dawn, and that was out the window. I remember looking at my life, my apartment, my dogs, and I thought, 'What's happening?' "
It was then he decided to change, and the effect was transformative. In addition to the Sept. 7 release of Words, in which Cooper stars as a successful novelist who secretly has committed plagiarism, he has been mentioned to co-star with Beyonce Knowles in Clint Eastwood's A Star Is Born (he won't talk about it), has wrapped Susanne Bier's drama Serena and even has started writing his own projects, co-authoring an adaptation of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos sci-fi book series.
Once he completes Hangover Part III, he plans to take another break from Hollywood and bring the stage version of Elephant Man to Broadway in the fall, after performing it to acclaim at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Then he will reteam with Russell for an untitled movie about the Abscam scandal of the early 1980s, taking the role of Mel Weinberg, a con man hired by the FBI in a sting operation that targeted members of Congress.
Through his Warner Bros.-based 22 & Indiana Pictures, Cooper also is developing another movie with Russell, based on American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. And he passionately wants to direct.
"I'm always thinking about the story and the shot and the actual doing of the scene," he says. "I don't think like an actor at all."
His friend De Niro (who co-stars in Linings) questions this and notes of Cooper's acting: "He is very smart and sincere and can try all sides of the spectrum. He is very good and is going to get better and better."
At first, Cooper wasn't even sure about Linings and was afraid he couldn't play Pat Solitano, the antihero of Matthew Quick's novel who returns home from a mental institution and moves in with his parents before meeting the quirky Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). But he was keen to work with Russell and had hoped to make Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with him before that project fell through.
When Mark Wahlberg pulled out of Linings, Russell asked Cooper to step in. "I watched a bunch of DVDs, including one where this guy made a documentary chronicling his depression," Cooper says. "I realized that I could completely relate to him."
Combining forces with Russell thrilled him, he adds: "He will push you to where you don't think you can go, which is what you want as an artist. I watched every single actor come on set and be taken out of their comfort zone immediately."
Linings was shot in a breakneck 33 days, on the heels of the grueling 47-day shoot Cooper experienced for Pines.
Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance had rewritten the Pines part for Cooper after the latter expressed concerns that his character seemed somewhat stock; but by the time the rewrite was finished, Cooper had other commitments. Undeterred, the director drove from Brooklyn to Montreal (where Cooper was shooting Words) for a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m.
"We had an epic four-hour dinner where we just talked about this guy and about working together, and he decided there and then to do it," recalls Cianfrance.
In preparing for the job, Cooper spent a month with the police, "going into these domestic disturbances, which are about 80 percent of the calls. There was one house with a fish tank that a shoe had been thrown through. Dead fish were everywhere -- and kittens were eating the dead fish as we walked by."
The experiences with the cops paled beside a hurricane that swept through Schenectady, N.Y., while the movie was filming. Cooper was visiting De Niro when the storm hit and immediately drove back. "Everything was flooded," he says. "They had to go in with rowboats to take film from one place to the next." Even so, he and the crew were right back at work within 24 hours.
The film means enough to him that he wears his character's chain with its image of St. Michael, patron saint of the police -- just as he does a chain from Linings, with an art deco face of Christ copied from his grandfather's necklace.
Born in 1975, Cooper grew up with one sister outside Philadelphia, the son of a stockbroker father and a homemaker mother. He was Italian through the latter, Irish through the former and Catholic through both. "I'm Catholic in my bones," he notes, and still prays daily.
Soon after his birth, his parents discovered he had cholesteatoma, a growth in the middle ear that can cause deafness, which required an operation. "Then I started diving very young, and I punctured it and had four or five operations from 5 to 18 years old," says Cooper. "I have a hole in my eardrum now and can't swim without earplugs."
At 15, he knocked over a glass lamp that hit him and "crashed, and blood was squirting out. I couldn't move part of my face for six months. I had to get plastic surgery." The scars from that and other collisions remain all over his face, and he shows them off without vanity.
While close to his parents (he even wears his late father's wedding ring), his relationship with his dad was nonetheless "complicated," says a friend.
"I was ashamed of so many things," reflects Cooper, without elaborating -- the least being when he moved to a private school. "I didn't want kids to see the house I grew up in, which seems maybe minor now but was a very huge, massive thing."
Cooper was 12 when he saw David Lynch's 1980 movie version of The Elephant Man on television and was overwhelmed. "The film haunted me," he says. "I could not stop crying. To be moved by anybody to the extent where it causes you to take action [he later would go to London to see Merrick's personal possessions], there must be some sort of identification."
After studying at Villanova then Georgetown, he borrowed $70,000 in student loans to join the Actors Studio Drama School at The New School in New York, where Cooper would attempt Elephant Man for his master's thesis. The founding dean of the school, James Lipton, still remembers telling Cooper's parents, "Your son will go all the way."
While there, however, he worked ceaselessly for his living, serving as a doorman at the Morgans Hotel, then joining LeAp (Learning Through an Expanded Arts Program), a nonprofit organization that took him to inner-city schools, where some of the kids begged to go home with him.
Acting was a revelation. The pain he experienced growing up was channeled into his work, and for the first time, he says, he learned to relax. Beforehand, "I tried to will everything to happen in my life. I tried to control everything. And acting was the beginning of learning to let things go."
Cooper found success early and was the first of his group to get an agent, recalls a friend, soon hosting TLC's travel series Globe Trekker, which took him to such places as Peru and Croatia, and appearing on such shows as Sex and the City, Nip/Tuck and, most notably, Alias.
He broke out with 2005's Wedding Crashers, playing Rachel McAdams' arrogant boyfriend, and other roles followed in 2006's Failure to Launch and 2008's Yes Man. But Hangover lifted him into a different league.
"I met Todd six months prior to shooting at the Chateau Marmont," remembers Cooper. "Everybody knew about this movie, and a lot of guys didn't want to go in. They were like: 'It's called The Hangover? What the f-- is that?' "
Cooper's character, Phil, initially was named Vic. "He was Vince Vaughn-like and was a used-car salesman," he says. "But Todd said, 'I have this idea that I want him to be a teacher, and here's 50 pages [of the rewrite].' I read it and loved it."
So did audiences. The film earned $467 million worldwide, followed by a sequel that grossed $581 million. Overnight, the actor who once had earned $5,000 an episode for Globe Trekker became a household name.
Cooper's every action now is scrutinized -- from his four-month marriage to actress Jennifer Esposito in 2006 ("She's a wonderful woman," is all he will say) to whomever he's dating, including his current partner and Words co-star, Zoe Saldana.
He won't discuss her or confirm they're together (though he gushes about her work). "It's not for me to say," he notes.
Despite the demands of his A-list status, Cooper has retained a loyalty and decency that impress his friends (and he recently started working with the Paul Newman-founded Hole in the Wall Gang Camp).
"He is such an honest and straightforward guy; there's not an ounce of duplicitousness in him," says Phillips.
He has gone past the dark days of his youth and is moving toward a bright future, staking his reputation on movies he believes in -- like Words. "He made a lot of calls for this movie," notes childhood pal Klugman, adding it never would have gotten off the ground without him.
The director marvels at how the boy who attended his bar mitzvah has remained grounded and true. "He has so much chaos swirling around him. He goes from one movie to the next. It is a very surreal lifestyle. But look at the choices he is making -- these are not the choices of a typical movie star. None of them are just paychecks."
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