Bradley Cooper on Gaining 40 Pounds for 'American Sniper': "He Was a Big Motherf—er"

Illustration by: Matt Herring

The actor, along with 17 other awards contenders from Anna Kendrick to Melissa McCarthy, share the secrets and surprises behind their roles

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

EMILY BLUNT, 31 (The Baker's Wife) INTO THE WOODS

"The transformation was from seeing me as an actress to seeing me as an actress who sings — not just someone who sings privately in the shower. Even getting me through the audition door was a challenge. I find singing a very intimate thing. I trained with Eric Vetro three or four times per week a few months before I started rehearsals. Within those sessions I discovered that I had to sing like this character. Sondheim doesn't want to sound pretty, but to sound real. He wants you to make sense of the material. That was the huge transformation I went through to become a Sondheim singer. What surprised me was that something that previously felt inhibiting to me felt incredibly liberating. And now I have a better range when I go back to singing in the shower. My voice doesn't crack in the high notes."

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MARION COTILLARD, 39 (Sandra) TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

"I had to get into a slight Belgian accent, sure, but the challenge was the personal work because we didn't have much information about who Sandra was and how her depression affected her family. I needed all the past. So I wrote scenes that I used on set. Sometimes we had up to 100 takes, and I needed material to use for those scenes. When you have an emotional scene, you think about the loss of someone and how it affected you, it rises inside of you as you talk. But in Sandra's case, she's having a regular conversation and suddenly she bursts into tears. I needed the ignition for that level of emotion. And the surprise, because we did so many takes, sometimes I ran out of stories. It improved my imagination because on set I needed to create something different, another scene, another memory, another story."

RALPH FIENNES, 51 (M. Gustave) THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

"In my early meetings with [director] Wes Anderson, the most important thing was that my delivery was rooted in 1930s Ernst Lubitsch comedies. For that, I needed to know the lines back to front, inside out, upside down. Wes does a lot of takes to find that moment when it all clicks. After our first day, I asked, 'Can we agree on a loose approach on the first take, let me do it a couple of times your way then give me one or two takes where I can fly and see what happens?' As an actor, you have the tension of the thing you prepared for and the accident in the middle of the take that surprises you."

BRADLEY COOPER, 39 (Chris Kyle) AMERICAN SNIPER

"American Sniper was unique because it became a massive responsibility to honor [real-life Navy SEAL] Chris Kyle after he [was killed] last year. I talked to him when we bought the rights to his memoir, then everything changed. That responsibility allowed me to have endless energy to prepare. One way was to get as big as he was. I was 185 pounds then gained 40 because he was a big motherf—er. We were the same height and frame and shoe size. He was just big. He grew up in Odessa, Texas, and his accent changed according to who he was with. I had to get the size and the voice in order for myself to believe him. People in Texas said you have to have a lot of balls to play Chris. The surprise was that I always felt protected by him, like I was telling the story with him."

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JAKE GYLLENHAAL, 33 (Louis Bloom) NIGHTCRAWLER

"I doubt I could ever go as far as the people I play. What I do is a pittance in comparison. Two months before, I spent a number of nights with stringers and our cinematographer. I wanted to learn how they captured what they captured, their agility and the technicalities of their cameras. I lost weight because I felt that this character was hungry. He had to be off-putting for me as well as the audience. Then I was watching Charlie Rose and I saw this artist, JR, and I got a mind-set that Louis was a real artist. JR wore these sunglasses and I thought, 'Lou needs to wear those sunglasses.' I was almost Lou, I was almost scavenging. At a certain point I was unaware of a lot of things I was doing, and that's where I wanted to get: where the unconscious takes over."

OSCAR ISAAC, 34 (Abel Morales) A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

"Becoming Abel Morales was less a transformation and more a meditation. What was difficult about taking on Abel's psyche was the fact that he is in a constant state of managing disaster all around him and trying to take the long view. Although he is someone who is quite stoic, that is a stressful place to live. Also a stressful place to inhabit, feeling the weight of what's happening on this guy's shoulders. And he's a foot-forward man. He's hurtling forward toward his future. He's also a relatively younger person, but he looks like he was born 45 years old. It was a direction I hadn't gone before, particularly his earnestness, which is a trait that I generally try to shy away from. I looked to his humor; instead he was very direct and earnest and I realized how naked that leaves you, which surprised me."

MICHELLE MONAGHAN, 38 (Maggie) FORT BLISS

"The time I spent with the female veterans and mothers of Fort Bliss enabled me to form Maggie's emotional experience. I saw the conflict between wanting to serve their country and being devoted parents. The double standard: If a woman leaves her home to go to work, she's a bad mother. If a man does that, it's an honorable thing. … While I personally wear my heart on my sleeve, I recognized that these women who combined pride and stoicism and vulnerability and yet are very feminine were also emotionally suppressed. I felt that it was important for me to convey that combination, a matter-of-fact tone to what they are sharing, even if what they are sharing is traumatic or dramatic. That really struck a chord because I wanted to react with great emotion as I was acting the story, but I needed to access their restraint."

SIENNA MILLER, 32 (Taya Kyle) AMERICAN SNIPER

"The prep was thorough because I was playing a real person — Chris Kyle's widow, Taya. There was so much source material and [Taya and I] spent a lot of time together in L.A. She's been through an unspeakable tragedy, so the person she is now has been irrevocably changed. She was my beacon to the story. She'd kept every email between her and Chris from his time in Iraq. These hundreds of emails gave me a sense of their relationship and love. The challenge was that there was always this weight over telling this story, knowing the outcome. That was always emotionally draining, especially when you're talking to someone in deep mourning. We both cried a lot. It was surprising for somebody to be that willing to be so open."

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ANNA KENDRICK, 29 (Cinderella) INTO THE WOODS

"A lot of my preparation for this role was vocal since it's such a musically challenging film. I had just finished filming The Last Five Years and needed to get myself away from that broader, bigger sound to find Cinderella's voice. I wanted my voice to feel sweet and light; not saccharine, but warm enough to show her kindhearted nature. The biggest surprise was the degree to which finding her voice informed my overall sense of her as a character. Working backwards with a Stephen Sondheim song is always a treat; he lays out a map of your emotional journey in melody and your job is to bring truth to that journey. It makes sense that finding the right color and tone for Cinderella's vocal sound helped me find the range of her vulnerability and strength."

MELISSA MCCARTHY, 44 (Maggie) ST. VINCENT

"I didn't think it was the kind of thing I had to 'prepare' for. I'm a mother, and Maggie is, too. So I thought about the struggle over divorce: What makes a good person and a good mom behave erratically? That was my prep, and to not be too judgy on her. I approached it the same way I approach every movie. I try to be true to the character. I fall in love with their faults just as much as what makes them heroic: all the dings and nicks and quirks of people that make it so interesting. If anything tested me, it was my nerves. I was intimidated to work with Bill [Murray]. It was nice to be reminded to keep it simple. Bill's work is a master class in subtlety, playing the negative moments. He doesn't feel the need to fill every moment with everything."

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JACK O'CONNELL, 24 (Louis Zamperini) UNBROKEN

"The physical trans-formation was ongoing and demanding. At one stage Louis is fit, then emaciated. Before the shoot, I improved my stamina with early morning runs and weight training and refueling with food, using the exercise to help me cut calories and weight, and then I wasn't refueling. By the time we were shooting, I was feeling very weak. I was certainly broken, but with projects like this I have to feel at least the effects of what it was like to be Louis, otherwise I'm not acting. I wasn't in real danger. I always knew I was going home to an apartment. Whatever I went through didn't hold a candle to what Louis survived, but it had to hurt a little. [Director] Angelina [Jolie] kept me honest about the whole thing. I didn't expect it to be a holiday."

DAVID OYELOWO, 38 (Martin Luther King Jr.) SELMA

"What I tried to do in preparing to play Dr. King is take a gamble and do all the prep — the physical research, weight gain, talk to everyone, read everything, watch everything and then position myself in a way that I get inhabited by something other than myself. This was the first time for me as an actor where I felt the technical side of my brain got taken over by something other than what I had prepared to do in any given scene. … The biggest work was a spiritual availability to the man I was playing. … I knew the one thing that I did not want to be accused of was that I did not plumb the depths of who this man was spiritually. King just felt led by God, a force bigger than himself, and that was my gamble: 'Help me, please, Dear God.' "

GUGU MBATHA-RAW, 31 (Dido Elizabeth Belle) BELLE

"I visited Kenwood House in London, where the character lived. For the period language, I relied on my classical Shakespearean training. The language has such a structure to it that it gives you something to fight against. And then working in the corset, being mindful of how that undergarment changes you as a modern woman, the idea of feeling repressed in every literal way. Suddenly you put the corset on and you feel that restraint viscerally. It changes your posture and how you breathe, so that lingerie and the formal language tested and informed me. The surprise was seeing through the eyes of a woman of color in high society. How rare it is to find a story like this: You just don't see period dramas with a woman of color as the lead, front and center of the story, playing an articulate and educated lady of the Georgian era."

J.K. SIMMONS, 59 (Fletcher) WHIPLASH

"The major prep here was mental and musical. Since I had some musical background, I wanted to really conduct those jazz pieces. I wanted to play that piano in that bar. So the time-consuming part was studying those charts, listening to them, looking at the scores and then practicing that piano piece. Since I don't play piano well, that was a challenge to pull off and was really fulfilling. It was surprising to me what level of music we were making live on the set. Even more, it was surprising in that jazz club playing with the quartet, three old-time jazz musicians, and there were moments when I settled into the pocket and we were really making music at a level I had aspired to when I was younger and, frankly, for which at the time I didn't have the talent."

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ANDY SERKIS, 50 (Caesar) DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

"When you're taking on a character like Caesar, there is obviously a tremendous amount of research done on ape behavior. After playing him all the way through, the challenge here was Caesar's emotional, linguistic and intellectual journey. He's now a leader of a community. He carries the weight of an ape that now has a family, a council, and the responsibility of an egalitarian leader who also wants to hold on to some of the tenets that he respects from humanity. Pitching all those things together, plus the journey from expressing himself in ape vocalization and sign language to articulating in words, was tricky. The biggest danger was when the apes started speaking words that they could have been laughable and fallen off the tightrope of believability. We spent a lot of time improvising, almost finding the language as we went along. That was the biggest challenge."

TILDA SWINTON, 54 (Mason) SNOWPIERCER

"The first consideration when approaching Mason was the element of the surreal. Mason was — and is still — referred to in the script as 'a mild-mannered man in a suit.' When looking at images and footage of bombastic leaders, from Hitler to Idi Amin to Thatcher and on, I noticed that it would, in fact, be hard to top their grotesque posturing and self-created delusions of grandeur. I wanted to mess with and disguise my appearance. I wanted to invent a clown. I started by taping my nose up, which pulled my lip up over my teeth and somehow made my eyebrows lift. A strange attitude of 'surprised innocence,' which felt useful for the kind of senior official who cries when the chips are down, 'I was just following orders.' "

BILL HADER, 36 (Milo) THE SKELETON TWINS

"This was the first time I got to go in depth with a character, in contrast to being on Saturday Night Live. Sketch comedy is by definition pad and pencil. Because Milo attempts suicide, I reached out to a good friend from high school who had attempted suicide freshman year at college using a razor blade in a bathtub. We had a blunt conversation where he said he didn't consider himself depressed — he was just feeling like he had no other way to turn. He said the minute you start doing it, this weird, primal switch clicked in his head and he started screaming for help. What surprised me about playing Milo was that he really came to life. I'd never had that moment before in acting, where the character was leading me instead of the other way around. I wasn't behind the wheel anymore. Milo was."

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ELLAR COLTRANE, 20 (Mason Jr.) BOYHOOD

"It was different for me because I began the project as a 6-year-old. Then, it was less craft than making a place where I could feel comfortable. As I aged, the challenge was establishing the balance between who the character was and what part of me was reflected in Mason, and what's not. This process is how I learned to act and collaborate and throw myself into a project for a greater cause. I began as an amateur. Playing Mason forged me as an actor rather than testing me. The skills that I needed to play him I learned over the course of the process: It was teaching me and testing me simultaneously. I enjoyed acting when I was young. What surprised me was how ultimately therapeutic it was — both working on Boyhood and watching it."

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