Published: November 23, 2013
Bradley Cooper’s career was transformed by The Hangover. Now he’s a bona fide leading man, and his new film Silver Linings Playbook is generating Oscar buzz.
One evening, during the filming of Silver Linings Playbook, its director, David O Russell, was waiting between set-ups; freezing rain was falling outside, and he had ensconced himself in the warmth of an indoor set of a family sitting-room.
Over the walkie-talkie came a discombobulated voice announcing that Bradley Cooper wanted to shoot a scene where he goes running at night. ‘It was warm and cosy,’ Russell remembers, ‘and I was like, great, let him knock himself out.’
But the voice came back, ‘No, he would like you to come out and be with him.’ Russell laughs, wryly. ‘So I had to go and run.’
Silver Linings Playbook will wrongfoot any preconceptions audiences may have about Bradley Cooper. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, it tells the story of Pat Solitano (Cooper), a man who assaults his wife’s lover and then suffers a catastrophic breakdown, leading to months spent in a mental health hospital. On his release he moves back in with his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, and determinedly sets about winning back his wife – who has long since moved on.
‘He is very militant and myopic in his approach to life,’ says Cooper, ‘which is, “I have the answer, and the answer is to get Nicky back. And how do I get Nicky back? I lose weight, I stay positive and then my life will be great.” That’s his sickness. If that went away, he would crumble. And that’s what happens, it does go away, and he doesn’t crumble. In fact he becomes richer.’
As Solitano, Cooper spends much of the film wearing grey sweatpants with a bin liner over his top, in which he runs around the neighbourhood in a bid to get fit. It’s a revelatory performance, which helped the film win the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Already there is talk of Oscar nominations. As Russell says, ‘I was conscious I was reintroducing him to people.’
Cooper is probably still best known for his role in The Hangover (2009), where he played one of four friends on a stag night in Las Vegas who wake up the next morning with a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in a cupboard, no groom and no memory of what happened the night before. His character, Phil Wennock, a schoolteacher, was amoral enough to swipe his pupils’ cash for their forthcoming geography trip to help fund his night in Vegas, but decent enough to care about getting the groom back in time for his wedding, and charismatic enough to make cinema-goers forgive him anything.
His performance (plus those in the follow-up The Hangover Part II, The A-Team and Limitless) led to his being crowned People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011 (to the dismay of Ryan Gosling fans). He was initially uncomfortable about the accolade, but now finds it funny.
The night before we met, Cooper had flown from the set of The Hangover Part III in Las Vegas to a rapturous reception on Jonathan Ross’s ITV chatshow, where he looked casually glamorous on the sofa, before being whisked to Channel 4’s studios to make an introduction to a segment for the Stand Up To Cancer appeal (Cooper lost his father to lung cancer in January 2011). The slightly hysterical reaction to his appearance there caused Cooper to look momentarily awkward, his hands gesturing ‘quiet’ – this was neither the time nor the place to acknowledge his film-star status.
Those fans will struggle to recognise the Cooper they think they know in Silver Linings Playbook. The suave assuredness we’re accustomed to seeing on screen is replaced by a haunted, fragile presence. In his best friend’s sister-in-law, Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), Solitano finds another damaged character, whose grief from the death of her husband has caused her to sleep with most of his colleagues. The two of them form a tentative allegiance, which blossoms from initial abrasive exchanges to a friendship that can heal them both.
Solitano is almost childlike in his attitude – ‘in the sense you see what he’s doing when he’s upset,’ Cooper says. ‘It’s on the surface, it’s not subtle.’ He has a tendency to wake his parents at 4am in order to shout about a perceived injustice in a Hemingway novel, and spends hours practising with Tiffany for a dancing competition (‘it’s reflective of who they are, it’s a very bipolar dance’), convinced Nicky will be there and want him back.
It’s a funny, moving film, one that avoids sentimentality and asks its audience to accept its quirkiness and dark overtones, to look beneath the characters’ occasionally irritating tropes and bear witness to them gradually trusting each other and discovering their own place in a world wary of otherness.
We have met early on a Saturday morning, at the central London hotel where Cooper is staying for all of 48 hours before returning to the set of The Hangover Part III. Aged 37, he is looking a bit crumpled and disorientated from jet lag, wearing a navy blue top and khaki combats, his voice slightly husky from a lack of sleep. He wears his father’s gold wedding band on his right hand. But he warms up over a mint tea, hoovering up a plate of mini shortbread biscuits as he talks. He comes across as sincere and engaged, the jet lag only evident when he intermittently plays with the Chinese worry beads around his neck.
Cooper admits that when he first read the script ‘I didn’t think I could pull it off, it scared me, I didn’t know if I could be that vulnerable on film. To be put in all these extreme situations that demand me to really do it. You know what I mean? Not act it, but actually do it.’ He laughs. ‘That’s scary. And thrilling. So I just took a leap of faith with David and we did it, for better or for worse.’
Russell (who was nominated for an Oscar for The Fighter in 2010) had first seen Cooper in Wedding Crashers in 2005, in which he was almost unrecognisable as an arrogant heavyweight jock. ‘He seemed like a truly angry person,’ Russell says, ‘which was good for this character, someone who people are very uncomfortable with. He had a scary intensity.’
The shoot was short, 33 days in total, plus a week for rehearsals, ‘which was insane,’ Cooper says, laughing. He was especially excited to be working with De Niro again (‘he was one of the major reasons I wanted to become an actor’), having made Limitless with him last year. De Niro plays a compulsive gambler who is convinced his son is his lucky charm. ‘He helped me a great deal, because I know him so well,’ Cooper says. ‘He’s wonderful to act with, it’s like being injected with fuel.’
Russell admires Cooper’s determination and commitment. ‘He has an incredibly positive, willing and open attitude but he’s also relentless about getting what he wants – “Let’s go, let’s not stop, let’s make this the best it can be” – while looking out for everybody on set. And that’s an amazing thing, and you hope that he stays that way.
‘And,’ he continues, ‘Pat Solitano has a real hunger to be seen in different ways, and I think Bradley has that same drive right now.’
Bradley Cooper’s father was a lifelong cinephile who delighted in introducing his son to films from an early age; together they watched classics such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and, for Cooper, the most memorable of them all, The Elephant Man.
‘I was 12 years old when my father showed it to me and it floored me, I became obsessed with it.’ It was devouring these films that made Cooper want to be an actor, and having made the weighty decision, aside from a memorable turn in Around the World in Eighty Days when he was eight (‘That was like ecstasy’), Cooper then didn’t set foot on stage again until he enrolled at the Actors Studio in New York after graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
‘I always say it was because I was scared,’ he admits, ‘but maybe it was also to do with… it’s like saying I want to be a tennis player, so why am I not playing ping-pong in the basement?’ He pauses. ‘That’s a stupid example, but it was also because I was very ignorant about theatre, because what made me want to be an actor was movies. I’d never seen theatre, I couldn’t tell what was good acting in theatre at all.’
Cooper thinks the acting gene may have come from his father (‘he was such a goofball’), but his parents were initially unsure about his career choice. Growing up in Abington, Pennsylvania, ‘there was no theatrical background, my ancestry was all workmen, who wanted just to get out of the neighbourhood.’ His father, Charles, an Irish American, was a stockbroker (‘his father was a fireman, he was the first one from his neighbourhood to go to college, he lived the American dream’), while his mother, Gloria, is Italian American. Bradley’s older sister, Holly, works for a mortgage company.
Having studied English at university, Cooper believes his parents ‘ideally, would have wanted me to do something in finance’. He says it wasn’t until they saw him perform at the Actors Studio that ‘I saw something switch’. He played the part of John Merrick in an excerpt from Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play The Elephant Man. ‘I thought, “Oh [my father] believes it’s possible now. He was always supportive, but probably thought, “How did this happen? We provided this great education for him and this motherf***er wants to be an actor!”’
Cooper’s passion for The Elephant Man has bookended his career to date. This summer he played Merrick on stage at the renowned Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. It was a critical success and he hopes to transfer it to Broadway next summer. The Pomerance play allows for no prosthetics: the actor has to show Merrick’s deformities through speech and movement. Cooper admits that age and experience have shaped his approach this time around. ‘In grad school I remember every night before I would go on stage I was in character half an hour before, which was taxing,’ he says, laughing, ‘but I’m more relaxed now and this time I could think more moment to moment, and [Merrick] felt alive in a substantial way.’
The only other time Cooper has taken to the stage in a professional capacity was in 2006, in Three Days of Rain, in which he starred with Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd. He confesses to having been so terrified that he lost 17lb during the rehearsal period. ‘This was eight shows a week, on Broadway, with Julia Roberts. It was a big deal for me and I desperately wanted to do well. And I did do it, I remembered my lines, thank God.’
Cooper took various jobs throughout his three years at the Actors Studio – he was a doorman at a hotel and he taught inner-city children drama with an organisation called Leap (Learning through the Expanded Arts Program). He also filmed commercials and fronted a television series, Treks in a Wild World. He had a small role in Sex and the City, playing Jake the Downtown Smoker, who kisses Sarah Jessica Parker in his Porsche, and missed his graduation ceremony in 2000 because he was filming what is now considered a cult comedy classic, Wet Hot American Summer. Set on the final day of summer camp in 1981, Cooper played Ben, a gentle character neatly dressed in pressed white shorts and pastel tops, whose gay sex scene in a sports shed still causes ripples on the internet.
The television series Alias swiftly followed, and Cooper decamped to Los Angeles to play the journalist Will Tippin, ‘the nicest man in the world’, in love with Jennifer Garner’s CIA agent. ‘I was only working two days a week, and I would be in two scenes an episode, asking Jennifer how her trip went, which was not fulfilling at all. I was losing my mind.’ Disillusioned, he was briefly tempted to walk away from acting altogether, but he persuaded JJ Abrams, the series’ creator, to beef up his role – ‘I said, could I kill a character, sleep with Jennifer and have my own mission? And he said yes!’
Concerned he was never going to shake off the nice-guy image – ‘I would constantly go to auditions and they would say, “He’s just not edgy enough”?’ – Cooper’s chance came when he was offered the role of Sack in Wedding Crashers. ‘The director, David Dobkin, took a huge gamble on me, hiring this guy no one knew. And it gave me confidence.’
Wedding Crashers paved the way for roles in ensemble comedies such as Yes Man, All About Steve and He’s Just Not That Into You. But aside from playing the lead in the little-seen horror film The Midnight Meat Train, Cooper’s career threatened to plateau. Until he was cast in another low-budget film. ‘The Hangover,’ he says, ‘changed everything.’
Directed by Todd Phillips, and starring Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha, The Hangover was made on a relatively modest budget of $35 million, and astounded everybody involved by grossing $467 million. It was the surprise global hit of 2009, and made stars out of its lead actors, catapulting Cooper on to the A-list. (The Hangover Part II, released last year, was set in Bangkok and had a distinctly darker tone. It wasn’t so well received by the critics, but still managed to gross $581 million.)
When Cooper first read the script, ‘I loved the character,’ he says of Phil Wenneck, ‘but I didn’t know if I could play it, just because he had to be the really cool alpha guy. I was very nervous.’ He found his inspiration in the director: ‘I actually realised, oh, all I have to do is pretend I’m Todd, and I basically play the director in the movie. If you meet him, it’s like meeting Phil.’ The project appealed, he says, because ‘I loved the idea that you’re telling a crazy story, but only the aftermath of it. It’s not about a night out in Vegas, but the next day. And I thought, Vegas in the daytime? When have you ever seen that? It felt very new, and read like a hoot.’
It redefined Cooper’s place within the industry, ‘because you’re part of a big success, and it was not foreseen’. No longer viewed as a reliable contributor to ensemble films, he was now someone who could open a movie. He momentarily faltered with a bombastic big-screen version of the TV series The A-Team in 2010, playing the ladies’ man Templeton ‘Face’ Peck opposite Liam Neeson’s Col ‘Hannibal’ Smith, and is honest in his disappointment. ‘I thought it was a no-brainer. I prepared like crazy, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. And it hurt, I care about things I do. Not that it was a huge bomb,’ he adds, ‘but we didn’t do a second one.’
If Hollywood noticed, it didn’t show it, as he was cast as the lead in Neil Burger’s thriller Limitless. He played Eddie Morra, a wannabe writer defeated by his first novel, who was giving up on life in general, until he is introduced to NZT, a black-market drug that promises to access the 80 per cent of the brain that supposedly lies dormant. Morra writes his novel in four days, learns languages in an afternoon and then proceeds to scale the New York financial world, under the wing of Robert De Niro’s kingpin, before it all starts to go horribly wrong.
It was shot in the spring of 2010, mostly in Philadelphia, so Cooper was able to remain near his sick father. ‘He had lung cancer five years prior,’ Cooper says, ‘but then this stage-four cancer happened. I got the call from the doctor when I was doing the press junket for The Hangover.’
He talks of his parents’ influence on him: ‘God, in every way you know, I’m not divorced from anything of them.’ He jokes about their differences: ‘My father was a huge Irishman, my mother a very small Italian woman. He was very guarded, she was an extrovert, It was an interesting combination.’ He claims his personality suits acting: ‘I enjoy people, that makes this profession a lot easier, and I can sleep anywhere. That’s a skill.’ He laughs.
Others may cite his loyalty, his having just made a film directed by Brian Klugman, his ‘best friend since I was 10’. The Words is about a writer who steals another man’s material and passes it off as his own. ‘I was in a place to help him get it made,’ he says simply. It was while filming The Words that Cooper met the actress Zoe Saldana, with whom he is rumoured to be in a relationship.
He has set up his own production company, 22 & Indiana, named after the street on which his father grew up in Philadelphia, and has various projects on the go, including working with Russell again on a true story set in the 1970s, about New York’s criminal world and the FBI. But having taken charge of his career, and proved himself a leading man, Cooper has now set his sights on directing. ‘No question,’ he says with a smile. ‘It’s just finding the right thing. I don’t think like an actor at all. What turns me on is the storytelling process, much more so than, “what’s my character?”’
© 2012 The Telegraph | Written by Vicki Reid | No copyright infringment intended.