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

The actor goes through dramatic physical transformations in his latest roles
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Allow me to take a moment to talk about Bradley Cooper.

Why? Because the 39-year-old star of Clint Eastwood's American Sniper — a harrowing portrait of the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who was the most effective American sniper during the Iraq War, which Warner Bros. will release on Dec. 25 — is not available to talk much about himself at the moment, being in the midst of starring in The Elephant Man eight times a week on Broadway. (The production officially opened Sunday night at the Booth Theatre, where its original incarnation premiered 35 years ago, and where I caught a preview performance last week. THR's theater critic David Rooney writes that Cooper gives a performance "staggering in its physical discipline, its piercing emotional transparency and, most surprisingly, its restraint.")

In a year in which more great leading performances are clamoring to land one of the five slots in the best actor Oscar category than any other in recent memory, inability to campaign could keep Cooper out of the running — but it shouldn't.

Few film performances this year required as much commitment and talent than Cooper's. That much was obvious just from watching the film, as I did at its AFI Fest world premiere back on Nov. 11. But when I sat down with Cooper in New York last week, the extent to which he went to achieve such a powerful performance made me appreciate it even more.

Read more Bradley Cooper in 'The Elephant Man': Theater Review

Cooper first learned about Kyle from their mutual friend, the actor-turned-writer Jason Hall. Hall had penned a script about Kyle — who had not yet even written his autobiography — but Warner Bros. had passed on it. Subsequently, Cooper and his Hangover director Todd Phillips had formed a production company, 22nd & Indiana, which had a first-look deal with the studio, so Hall wanted Cooper to consider it. He did.

"I really loved this story and this idea, the way that he framed it," Cooper recalls. "I saw it as a Western, almost like [Eastwood's 1992 best picture Oscar winner] Unforgiven, about this guy who has this special skill that happens to be killing people. And then the idea with the enemy? That there's another sniper? There was a whole structure of how to frame the movie that I felt could be new and compelling."

Cooper got Warner Bros. to go after the rights to Kyle's life autobiography. Negotiations were dragging on endlessly, so in 2011 the actor — who was also officially signed on to the project as a producer — decided to ring up the veteran to make his case. "I just wanted to call him," he remembers, "and say, 'Hey, I know it's Hollywood and you probably have a lot of trepidation, and you don't know me, but I'm telling you, I'm giving you my word, we're gonna do everything we can and we're gonna work with you.' "

(Cooper meant what he told Kyle — but, he confesses now, "At that time, I didn't really think, honestly, that I was right to play Chris, but it was the only way that I was gonna get the movie produced. [Guardians of the Galaxy star] Chris Pratt was the guy in my mind — always — to play him. But I didn't tell anybody that!")

A deal with Kyle was completed 20 months after negotiations began, "and then," Cooper says quietly — do not read the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film — "all of a sudden, I get a call from Jason Hall that he was murdered."

Read more Clint Eastwood's Oscars Challenge: Getting Liberal Voters to Love 'American Sniper'

Steven Spielberg, who had been attached to the project, withdrew from it, citing budget-related concerns, and throwing its future into some question. But, very soon thereafter, the producers approached Spielberg's close friend, Clint Eastwood — who Kyle had identified as his first choice to make the film, and who happened to be reading Kyle's autobiography when he was offered the gig. The octogenarian finished the book and then signed up.

Before filming began, Eastwood and Cooper took a trip together to Midlothian, Texas, to visit Kyle's family and try to better understand his life. Cooper describes the chance to visit this "sacred ground" as a "privilege," rolling off the names of Kyle's entire family from memory. "We spent three days with Taya, Kyle's wife, and McKenna and Colton, the two children, and then Wayne and Debbie, his parents, and Jeff and Amy, his brother and his brother's wife. It changed us for the rest of the shoot. It was the thing that sort of concretized it for us and really made us both realize just how important a responsibility we had. And we also got tons of material from it — a lot of what's in the movie came from that weekend," including "hours and hours of footage."

Then, back in Los Angeles, it came time for Cooper to get down to work. Kyle had a very specific look (a hulking mass of muscle) and sound (a twangy Texas accent), neither of which Cooper possessed at that time, and without which the portrayal could be deemed an insult to Kyle's memory — Cooper's worst nightmare. The actor had only three months with which to work, but he vowed to put on 30 pounds of muscle within that short timeframe (without any supplemental help, since, as he has discussed publicly, he is a recovering addict and didn't want to get hooked on anything).

"I mean, it was a make or break thing," he says now. "One thing I knew was that if I couldn't achieve it, I was gonna have this really, sort of, come-to-Jesus moment with myself and tell Clint we can't shoot, because there was really no way of getting around it. Especially because I can't tell you how many people came up to me during the preparation and said, 'You've got a lot of balls to be playing this guy' — including his father, by the way. And I was like, 'I- I- I- Just give me a few months.' "

How did Cooper accomplish his objectives? "Every weekday from 6 to 8, I'd go to the gym with Jason Walsh and Kristen O'Connor [all heavy weights, no cardio, 6,000-calories diet]; 10 to 12, I would work with Tim Monich, who's an amazing dialect coach; then 2 to 4:30, I'd go back to the gym; and then 6 to 8, I'd go back with Tim. So I'd do that five days a week and then basically sleep and eat on the weekends — and the weekends were also spent learning how to use those three weapons. Rick Wallace, who trained Chris, and Kevin Lacz, who was in SEAL Team 3 and was a sniper with Chris — and who is in the movie and plays himself — were invaluable in the process of making the film."

Once production commenced, Cooper was ready, confident and says he felt as if Kyle had possessed his body. He says that, contrary to some people's assumptions, the mood on the set was usually light, and he actually had a lot of fun during the making of the film. After all, it was a chance to celebrate and make more people aware of a life well-lived and full of service to others.

It was also "life-changing in every way" for the actor. He elaborates, "Personally, to set a goal and actually achieve it, which I had a lot of fear that I wasn't gonna be able to do; the honor of being able to walk — pretend to walk — in this man's shoes; to have the trust of his family, having his father look me in the eyes and trust me to do this; being able to walk the path with Clint Eastwood, who is one of the reasons why I wanted to become an actor and get involved with film; getting to make a great friend with Sienna Miller — all of those things."

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If Cooper is able to emerge from the crowded pack to land a best actor Oscar nomination, that would make three Oscar nominations in a row — something only nine male actors have ever achieved: Spencer Tracy (1936-1938), Gary Cooper (1941-1943), Gregory Peck (1945-1947), Marlon Brando (1951-1954), Richard Burton (1964-1966), Al Pacino (1972-1975), Jack Nicholson (1973-1975), William Hurt (1985-1987) and Russell Crowe (1999-2001). That's not bad company for a man who, for quite some time, was widely known as "the guy from The Hangover," if at all, before his work in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) made moviegoers — and the members of the Academy's acting branch — sit up and take notice. For my money, his work in American Sniper is easily his best yet on the big screen and could certainly take him back to the Oscars in February.

In the meantime, though, Cooper's focus is on Broadway and the revival of The Elephant Man, a 1977 Bernard Pomerance play, for which he quickly shed all of the weight that he had gained to play Kyle — going from 230 to 185 — all for the privilege of putting himself through another grueling physical ordeal. As John Merrick, the eponymous 19th century Englishman whose severe disfigurements made him a human curiosity in a less politically correct time, he literally morphs each night, before the audience's eyes, into a contortion that he then maintains for two hours, while also humanizing a man who was so cruelly dehumanized in his own time.

Cooper first became aware of The Elephant Man when, at the age of 12, he saw David Lynch's 1980 film of it. "That," he says, "is was what made me want to be an actor." After graduating from Georgetown University, he decided to pursue that dream at a graduate program, but his parents, whom he describes as incredibly loving and supportive, weren't so sure about that move. "I'm from a family of practical people," he explains. "My father came from North Philly, and his father was a fireman and a window-washer, and money was a huge thing. He was very nervous that I wasn't going to be able to make a living, especially since he paid for a Georgetown education. So he said, 'Look, man, you can go to grad school for acting, but that's on you.' So I took a loan out."

At the Actors Studio Drama School at The New School, Cooper's abilities impressed his instructors, including dean-turned-TV host James Lipton. But when, in 2000, it came time for his senior thesis — for which he had to pick a play and perform three scenes from it over the course of a half-hour — and he suggested The Elephant Man, he recalls, "To be honest, it was not well-received as an idea; they were like, 'Why don't you do something else that's a little more attainable?' But I said, 'Can we just do a reading?' And I remember I tried it out for the first time — what I felt he was like — and then I did a reading, and they approved it, and I was so over the moon that I got a chance to dive into this."

His commitment to the endeavor was so total that, despite working as a doorman and being tens of thousands of dollars in debt, he vowed that he was going to find a way to go to England to do some preparatory work. "I saved up some money, I booked a round-trip ticket and I slept on the couch of [a friend]," he remembers of the trip, during which he visited the London Hospital where Merrick had stayed, tracked down his birth certificate, checked out the clothes he had worn and much more. When he returned to the states, he delivered his performance over the course of eight performances. At one, his father was in the audience and, when it was over, approached his son. "He hugged me, and he was crying and shaking and he was like, 'You're doing the right thing.' It was a pretty massive moment." (Cooper's father died of lung cancer in 2011.)

Cooper dreamed of doing the full play one day, but assumed it was not in the cards. "I remember Billy Crudup was doing it right when I graduated and I thought, 'Oh, there's no way that they'll do it again — nor will I probably ever get to do Broadway, for that matter.' " Still, it was always on his mind. "I met Patty Clarkson about eight years ago, and the first thing I said to her was, 'God, if I ever have the opportunity of doing Elephant Man, you have to play Mrs. Kendal.' Isn't that crazy? Literally, it was the first thing that I said to her."

That opportunity for him — and for Clarkson, poetically enough — came about in the summer of 2012. "Scott Ellis [a six-time Tony-nominated director] and I were talking about Williamstown, which is a great venue to try stuff out where you're not gonna get reviewed, and you don't have to get crucified, and I said, 'Scott, can you please indulge me? Let's do The Elephant Man. I want to try to talk Patty into it.' And we got her and Alessandro [Nivola], and we did it, and we weren't laughed off the stage, and Jimmy Niederlander [president of the Nederlander Organization, which oversees nine Broadway theaters] came, and he said, 'Guys, I'll back this if you guys want to bring it to Broadway.' And it all worked out."

Cooper previously appeared on Broadway once before, in the 2006 production of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, opposite Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd, but it was a very different experience than he is having now with The Elephant Man, which will run for 110 performance. "You can't even compare the two," he says, noting that he was ready to quit acting at the time of the former, but has never enjoyed it more than he does now, getting to play a part that has meant so much to him for so long. "This is something I love so much," he says. "When I first did it in grad school, it was all about the breathing and the physicality, and I gotta tell you, I didn't even know what the fuck I was saying, honestly, when I look back at how I delivered the lines." He continues, "At Williamstown I was more at ease with it, but I think it was me just being in love with the fact that I was doing it again. But this time, I don't think about the physical, the voice, the accent — nothing. It's all about being him." (Even so, the part does take its toll on the actor, who sees a massage therapist daily, but says the best therapy is walking from the subway to the theater before a show and back again after it and "just breathing and walking it off.")

It's an interesting moment for Bradley Cooper, as he realizes his dreams on film and stage, promoting the product of the former and producing the product of the latter almost overlappingly. For instance, the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who were in New York last week to see American Sniper during the day, were also invited to come see him in The Elephant Man at night. Many did, and several with whom I have spoken have told me that it reinforced to them what an impressive range he has and made them more inclined to support him for Sniper on their Golden Globe nomination ballots.

Cooper seems to be taking it all in stride and actually having fun. He could be a politician — he has the looks, the smarts, the smoothness and the humility to appeal to a lot of people, plus he certainly knows how to act — but I wouldn't expect him to change course any time soon. Acting is what he lives and loves to do. "I think I love it as much as anybody," he says. "I don't know if it's going through Chris, honestly, and then this, but I want to enjoy everything."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg