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I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the actor Bradley Cooper for an extensive interview about his life, career and acclaimed performance opposite Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver in David O. Russell‘s dramedy Silver Linings Playbook. You can watch highlights of our conversation at the top of this post.
It’s hard to think of many people in Hollywood whose stock has risen more this awards season than Cooper. For his performance as a man suffering from bipolar disease who tries to put his life back together after being institutionalized for a violent outburst that broke up his marriage, Cooper has been voted the year’s best actor by the National Board of Review and has been nominated for Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, Indie Spirit and Satellite awards. He is widely expected to receive a best actor Oscar nomination, as well, when the Academy announces its picks on Jan. 10.
Cooper first acted in grade school and loved it, but didn’t act again until he was an undergraduate at Georgetown, where his girlfriend signed him up to audition for a play, which led to him winning that role and a few others. Having caught the bug again, he ultimately decided to audition for a spot in the Actors Studio MFA program at the New School in New York City. With the blessing of dean James Lipton, he was accepted, and recalls his experience as a graduate student as life-changing. Indeed, he still reviews every script that he takes on with one of his Actors Studio instructors.
Cooper never struggled to find work. Before he even finished at the Actors Studio, he had booked a pilot, albeit one that wasn’t ultimately picked up. His first part in a project that did come to fruition was Jake, “the downtown smoker,” opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a 1999 episode of Sex and the City. And the part that first put him on a lot of people’s radars came just two years after that when he began a three-year run as Will Tippin, a friend of Jennifer Garner‘s character on ABC’s Alias. For that series, he relocated from New York to Los Angeles, which he says also afforded him the opportunity to audition for many other interesting projects.
Coming out of acting school, Cooper assumed he would work mostly as a dramatic actor. “For some reason I didn’t think I would ever be able to make people laugh,” he tells me. But when he worked on his first film, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), he realized that he had the same sort of sense of humor as his comedically gifted costars, which “was a huge sort-of confidence builder.” In the coming years, he would apply his comedic talent to two veritable modern-day classics, David Dobkin‘s Wedding Crashers (2005), in which he played the heavy, and Todd Phillips‘ The Hangover (2009), in which he played one of three hapless buddies. The latter film became an international blockbuster, spawned two sequels (the second of which Cooper is now shooting) and left many surprised that Cooper was ever anything but a comedic specialist.
Though many may have come to see him as the goofy guy from The Hangover films and the hunk featured in People‘s Sexiest Man Alive issues and a few throwaway movies like All About Steve (2009) and Valentine’s Day (2010), Cooper’s own focus has steadfastly remained on the craft of acting.
In March 2006, he challenged himself to “a do-or-die moment” and took a part opposite Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd in the Broadway production Three Days of Rain, the preparation for which he describes as “the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, by far.” He tells me, “I remember thinking, ‘If this doesn’t work, maybe I’m not right for this business.'”
Then, in 2011, he was offered the chance to break out of his big-screen typecasting and play a dramatic lead in Neil Burger‘s criminally underrated film Limitless. After he became attached to the project, he heard that one of his childhood heroes, Robert De Niro, was a fan of the script, and actively pursued him, even endorsing the idea of combining two key supporting parts into one meatier one so that it would be more appealing for De Niro. Cooper was granted a meeting with De Niro, who is 31 years his senior; pitched him on the project (“I spoke without stopping for about 30 minutes,” he recalls); and eventually convinced him to sign up.
The two quickly hit it off, so much so that Cooper recently said that he now regards De Niro as “family,” and De Niro recently described their dynamic to me as something like father-son or even older brother-younger brother. And, just a year after they first met, it was De Niro who recruited Cooper for a film project. The older actor was attached to play a key supporting role in David O. Russell‘s first film after The Fighter (2010), and the actor who had originally been attached to play his son, the lead character, dropped out. De Niro strongly advocated for Cooper to replace him, and Russell was wise to heed his advice, which Cooper says “means nothing short of everything” to him, adding, “The reason I became an actor was the hope of one day working with people like David O. Russell.”
Last winter, the three men, along with the firecracker Lawrence and understated Weaver, went off to Cooper’s hometown of Philadelphia to shoot a film that most of them realized was something special even as they were making it. Cooper and Lawrence had never met before, but were immediately thrust into dance rehearsals for the film, immediately clicked and, despite a 15-year age gap, display electric on-screen chemistry. (The two have since shot another film together, Oscar winner Susanne Bier‘s Serena, and Cooper cracks, “I did two movies already with her because I’m not stupid.”)
Additionally, Russell’s unconventional directing style — which involves keeping the camera rolling and in the middle of the action and shouting fresh directions at actors in the middle of a scene to encourage spontaneity — might have freaked out lesser actors, but seems to have brought out the best in these ones. “I almost forgot there was a camera,” he says. “You kind of forget it’s there, because it’s so incorporated into the reality you’re playing.” He adds, “You just get into the frame in the morning, and you’re in it, and you let loose, and then you come out of it at the end of the day.”
For Cooper, the future looks as bright as ever. Silver Linings Playbook, which won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to earn rave reviews from critics, couldn’t be going over much better. He’s got a busy awards season ahead of him. And next year, he will appear in a highly anticipated comedy (the aforementioned The Hangover Part III) and drama (Derek Cianfrance‘s The Place Beyond the Pines, which I saw at Toronto back in September and thought was outstanding). “This is the dream, of course, to be able to make movies with people like this,” Cooper says to me as we get ready to part. “And, in terms of the recognition, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
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