Bradley Cooper Applauds the "Joy and Curiosity" of 'The Elephant Man' on Opening Night

Joan Marcus
Bradley Cooper in 'The Elephant Man'

"I can't just sit there and stare at myself in the mirror for a half-hour before I go on — I'm going to go out of my mind"

The Elephant Man premiered on Broadway 35 years ago at the Booth Theatre, and when the Bradley Cooper-led production opened at the same house on Sunday night, the headliner wouldn't have had it any other way.

"It was the only one to do it in — it was [the Booth] or nothing, so we got lucky," Cooper told The Hollywood Reporter on opening night. The actor cites the 766-seat space's intimacy as perfect for Scott Ellis' production of Bernard Pomerance’s play, and the exterior of the theater boasts no photos of the production's stars. Instead, it's an homage to the freak-show intrigue generated by the title character, John Merrick, based on the real-life disfigured Joseph Merrick, who lived during the Victorian era. Said Cooper: "We hope that the theatergoing experience starts as you go into the theater."

Read more 'The Elephant Man': Theater Review

And on Sunday night, the cast's friends and admirers came out to enjoy that experience — including James Lipton, who remembers when Cooper performed the role as his thesis project at the Actors Studio Drama School. Though the star noted that he first fell in love with the part (and acting) when he saw the 1980 David Lynch film based on the same story.

"It actually feels like the oldest character I've done — I got to grow up with him, and as I've gotten older, he's changed within me," explained Cooper, who played the role in 2012 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in largely the same production that’s now on Broadway. He loves evoking Merrick's "joy and curiosity" each night. "It's just about infusing the guy that I've gotten to know through doing research into the words that Bernard wrote, and it's all there. Good writing is open to interpretation. There are so many different ways you can go with those scenes, and some nights it changes."

On opening night, the audience — including John KrasinskiEmily BluntEmma StoneJon Hamm, John LithgowJennifer Westfeldt, Bobby Cannavale, Hilary Duff, Alyssa Milano, Ruth Wilson, Danny Masterson, Bryan Batt and Harvey Weinstein, who is also a producer on the show — was warm and receptive of Cooper’s dream project finally making it to Broadway, and they flocked to Gotham Hall to celebrate afterward.

"It’s just a dream come true," said Patricia Clarkson, who was also at Williamstown and plays the actress Mrs. Kendal, who found a kinship with Merrick. She had never met Cooper previously, but he approached her at the premiere of Whatever Works in 2009 and asked her to take the role if he ever had the chance to do the play again. "Deep kindness, that's what ties [the characters] ... They are innately kind and generous people and they are kindred spirits. I hope the best part of me is the kindness in Mrs. Kendal."

Read more Bradley Cooper on How He Brought 'American Sniper' to the Screen and 'The Elephant Man' to Broadway

As evidenced by the glowing support at the opening celebration, the experience has been a communal one. (Cooper doesn’t even take a star bow at the end of each performance, but instead bows hand in hand with his cast.) He even shared a dressing room at Williamstown with Alessandro Nivola, who first worked with Cooper on American Hustle and now plays the doctor Frederick Treves, who examines Merrick.

"I thought it was a terrible idea," Nivola recalled when Cooper asked to do so again on Broadway, after two years of talking constantly about the show. "I have a lot of weird rituals that I do before the show that I don't really want anybody else to see, and so I thought it was just going to be embarrassing and that I wouldn't get any privacy. Instead, I just gave over to this idea that we were going to just be around each other the whole time, and it's been a godsend. He said to me, 'I can't just sit there and stare at myself in the mirror for a half-hour before I go on. I'm going to go out of my mind.' I realized that I felt the same way."

So now that they're roommates, do they share any rituals? "Yeah, but we'll keep it a secret," Nivola said with a laugh. "We don't make out or anything."

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