GQ Magazine UK
Published: April 8, 2013
Self assured. Box-office certified. And now, Oscar nominated. There’s never been a better time to be Bradley Cooper. The Wolfpack’s alpha dog tells Jonathan Heaf about how a big-money bet on an acting career paid off, his unlikely bond with Robert De Niro and the silver lining to his late father’s passing.
Warning: contains The Place Beyond The Pines spoilers
“I’m here to meet Joseph Merrick.”
It’s 4pm in Manhattan, the weekend before Super Bowl Sunday, and waiting in the bar of the Greenwich Hotel for the Elephant Man, sap popping from an open fire, peppermint tea steeping, it’s impossible not to turn respectfully yet undeniably green at how far Bradley “Coops” Cooper has come since his days as a grad student, working the revolving doors at the Morgans Hotel on Madison in midtown for a dime. The distance between the two locations for Cooper – 3.4 miles; 14 years; ten leading roles; £1.1bn in cumulative worldwide box- office earnings – might as well be another universe.
On paper, between the Cooper pre-fame and Cooper post-fame, the divide looks like a scam. The chasm feels too wide. The transformation too complete. Like someone else’s charmed, impossible life. Back in 1999, Cooper owed the bank a lot of money. Well, a lot of money for an out-of-work graduate with little more than a major in English from Georgetown University and a senior thesis about the filmed adaptations of Lolita. Having been brought up in Abington, Philadelphia, the son of Charles Cooper (an Irish-American) and Gloria Campano (an Italian-American), while everyone else was contemplating whether or not the millennium bug would turn their PC’s clocks back to 1900 AD, Cooper Jr – going against his pop’s advice – bit the bullet, took out a $70,000 loan and enrolled into the Actors Drama School Studio MFA programme at New York’s Pace University. He acknowledges that his parents could have, would have, offered to pay for his moonshot but, as Cooper admits, he couldn’t “deal with the guilt” he felt about choosing such an arty-farty, insecure career over, say, stockbroking like his father.
When you want to be a movie star – or at least become a working actor, which is all that Cooper wanted at this point – polishing doors and smiling all day while greasing guests for tips sucks. It sucks hard. Those the rest of us call doormen – the men in dense boiled-wool coats with brass buttons, peaked military caps and rictus five-star smiles, who ask, “Checking in, sir?” as we step out of our cabs on arrival from JFK – aren’t always called “doormen” by those on the shop floor. There’s a more emotive, perhaps more accurate term as far as Cooper is concerned – that of “linkman”. It’s a term that conjures up a myth. Just like Charon, the ferryman of Hades, who delivered the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron, these modern-day linkmen make safe passage for hotel guests from one world to the next, from the cold, dirt and mire of Manhattan’s concrete shores, into the warm, gilded, privileged luxury of a 15th-floor penthouse hotel suite with underfloor heating, white Carrara-marble surfaces, two walk-in rain showers and access to Japanese shiatsu massages 60/24/7/365. All you have to do is pay your way. If not? Purgatory.
One day, while our Philly linkman was busting his lower back lifting Tumi luggage out of limousine trunks, an actor of about the same age as Cooper, he guessed (correctly), pulled up and checked in to Morgans. Cooper knew the face: the tousled blond hair, the dreamy, pinched Aryan features. It was Leonardo DiCaprio. It was roughly two years after Titanic and DiCaprio was now Coca-Cola famous. Cooper had to laugh; nothing like The Most Famous Man On The Planet to make a striving door lackey-cum-wannabe-actor with peroxide- frosted tips feel like a million bucks – or rather a full, watery-eyed $70,000 in the red.
Still, being the sort of man who does his job to the best of his ability – whatever that job might be – Cooper took the young star and several of his friends up to his room with his bags and room key. They shared a lift. He walked him along the plushy, carpeted corridor, let the star in, smiled and went on his way. Nothing more. No pushy, pride-swallowing “Excuse me, Mr DiCaprio, sir, I wondered if…” No ball-cupping “Man, I just have to say – I love your work.” No sycophantic, faux-bromancing “Hey doucheroid! You, me, Baz – how about it?” Nothing. Zip. Not a word between them. All Cooper remembers is this: “We were three feet away, but we were worlds apart.” Did he tip? “I’m sure he did…”
Back in the Greenwich, Cooper has taken off his mid-length pea coat (worn with the oversized collar popped), lost the baseball cap (worn back-to-front and high on his forehead, like, Brian Harvey-high) and ordered a grilled-chicken sandwich. He apologises for talking with his mouth full (Cooper couldn’t be more polite or considerate if he were a rookie cop working the traffic beat in his first week) but having been taping interviews all day – a task that is part of the spray-and-pray campaign that comes with having been nominated for an Academy Award for his part in Silver Linings Playbook – he’s starving. It’s been a good day, nonetheless.
Having risen, as is his MO, at around 6.30 to 7am, Cooper then hit a SoulCycle spin class in Tribeca just round the corner from the hotel. This wasn’t some private VIP-only sweat session where it’s just the actor, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tracy Anderson. Oh, no. It was Cooper and, if reports are to be believed, about ten other regular, Lycra-loving New Yorkers, all there to kick-start the day with some high-energy cardiovascular type s***. (The following day, one of the over-enthusiastic attendees will leak that Cooper, towards the end of the class, threw his shirt off and went at the machine like a howling, bear-chested exercise beast, causing several female attendees to lose their footing and faint off their bikes, panting. This didn’t happen. Honestly. Cooper is adamant that he kept his shirt on.)
The film that Cooper stars in this month, The Place Beyond The Pines, is directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and stars reluctant heart-throb Ryan Gosling and his on-screen/off-screen girlfriend Eva Mendes. Since wrapping The Hangover Part III (out in May), Cooper has been looking to garner something else from his movie-making experiences. He wants to direct, that’s for sure; he wants to go deeper into the machine, into the editing room. As far as acting goes he now has reservations about roles he calls “The Guy” or being “That Man”, terms he uses to describe clichéd or archetypal Hollywood male lead roles, roles, one could argue, he’s been taking – or at least seen to be taking – right up until Silver Linings Playbook.
Cooper’s part in The Place Beyond The Pines is not a role that a young, good-looking actor would take if he were thinking about securing subsequent commercially successful male roles. Chris Pine, for example, would not take this role. For one, Cooper plays a weasel. A conflicted weasel, sure, but a weasel nonetheless. For another, he has to shoot Gosling 45 minutes into the film. Shoot him in the chest. Shoot him dead. “Who would ever want to be in a movie where you’re the guy that kills Ryan Gosling?” stammers Cooper, earnestly. “Ryan Gosling looks sexy as hell in this movie, too. He’s all muscled out, tattooed up; a super-cool outlaw bank robber who gets to hold a baby for most of the movie. And me – my character, this cop who lies and rats on his buddies – is supposed to turn up 45 minutes into the movie and kill Ryan Gosling? I love Ryan. Honour to work with him. He’s one of our greatest actors. Nice guy, too. But still, I wasn’t sure about the part, not at first.”
Cooper needed a word with himself. Or at least his old self. He realised he’d done playing it safe. Done being Mr Handsome or Mr Heart-Throb. “I had reservations about killing that character. But then I thought this is a prime example of the type of role I preach to myself that I should take. I mean, do I really walk the walk?” The director, Cianfrance, also had his concerns: “Honestly, if you’d have told me before I met Bradley that he was the guy for this part, I wouldn’t have believed you.” The linear structure of the movie means that Gosling and Cooper share no screen time, other than for one climactic scene – the gunfight. This was filmed over two days at a house in Schenectady with the two lead actors never actually meeting one another (on or off camera) until the scene had wrapped.
“Remember, this was a crew that had spent the last 22 days with Ryan and a crew that, for the most part, had worked with me on Blue Valentine. They love Ryan,” explains Cianfrance. “And then Bradley Cooper shows up. I’m vouching for him, but still, there’s a feeling, you know? Ryan is in this room upstairs with this blue jump suit on, smoking cigarettes, terrified, and here’s Bradley as the cop on the other side of the house. They haven’t even met. They don’t talk to each other – not at all – Ryan sitting down smoking cigarettes against the wall and Bradley owning this house. They’re both terrified because of what’s at stake in the scene. They’re representing these two different tribes of man, and it’s about this collision that happens. It was like seeing two alpha wolves sizing each other up and glancing at one another, but not maintaining eye contact. It was f***ing intense. And you know what? By the end of it Bradley had won the entire crew round. Just like I knew he would.” Did Gosling and Cooper eventually speak? “Yeah, when we were done it was all respect and love and whatever. Then we sent Ryan off into the sunset and started down into the Heart Of Darkness with Bradley.”
Right now, Cooper, 38, is a sponge. He wants to suck everything in. And he wants people around him – on-set, off-set – who are willing to collaborate and teach. He’s hungry. The interview Cooper did right before we meet in the Greenwich is with an American anchor named Charlie Rose. In America, Rose is a broadcast journalist akin to Sir David Frost – a man with longevity and integrity, someone who is going to give the work the respect it deserves without asking whether Cooper is sleeping with his latest co-star (he’s not) or if it’s true he recently got dumped by a model girlfriend because he has a foot fetish that she found weird (the jury is out on that one).
Cooper had wanted to go on Charlie Rose since he was a kid growing up in Philly. “It was one of those goals in life,” he says. “First, because he reminds me of my father. It was a ritual that my father and I had – watching endless Charlie Rose interviews. It was the old PBS schedule back then: we’d watch The Benny Hill Show, Are You Being Served?, Wall Street Week and The Dick Cavett Show – I’m ageing myself here – and Charlie Rose.”
Cooper’s father was a committed cinephile – they lived opposite a movie theatre – and it wasn’t long before that rubbed off. Cooper spent most of his youth trying to emulate his father, after all; he’d even go as far as dressing the same as his old man – same hat, same coat, same gloves. The film that sparked the acting bug for Cooper, in fact, was The Elephant Man (hence the alias at the hotel), a movie that his father brought home from work one day, and a film that Cooper couldn’t “stop watching or crying to”. But the Charlie Rose tele-marathons were a tradition that carried on even after Cooper began landing significant roles, the first of which – the part that got him some real industry heat – was Wedding Crashers with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in 2005. Before then, Cooper had been scrapping down in the dustier end of the cable schedule: an episode of Law & Order, vanilla TV movies like I Want To Marry Ryan Banks, and a walk-on in Sex And The City.
“I remember Owen Wilson went on [Charlie Rose] to promote Wedding Crashers and he mentions my name.” As Cooper recounts this tale, the joy in his face is as fresh as if we are back in that room together with his father ten years ago. He’s giddy. “I couldn’t f***ing believe it. And when I did Limitless they asked me to go on with the director, Neil Burger. Again, I simply couldn’t believe it. More recently, I went on by myself and me and Charlie, I don’t know, we just clicked. We just got on. He asked me if I would come back. And then, well, we just became… friends!” At which point Cooper looks at me – the Italian blood from his mother’s side frothing to the surface, half laughing, his palms turned up apologetically – with an expression that can only be described as “Hey, who f***ing knew?”
I know what you’re thinking. So what, right? These are showbiz pals. DiCaprio. Gosling. Neil Burger. And who the hell is Charlie Rose anyway? Sounds like being friends with Jonathan Ross. Or Graham Norton. No big deal. Well, maybe you’re right. But what about another of Cooper’s so-called new BFFs – Mr Robert De Niro? Heard of him? De Niro and Cooper first worked on Limitless and, more recently, on David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, a movie that not only landed Cooper his Oscar nomination, but also got the rest of the world to see Cooper as someone other than just the suave, good- looking dude with a fast line and a quick smile from the Hangover franchise.
“Yeah, that’s still very weird,” he says of his relationship with De Niro. “The Bob thing is so unique. It’s life-changing for me. But for me to speak to him and text him once or twice a week and to see him probably once a month, and have him as a man I love and would do anything for? To not see him as this icon but to have him as a friend? And it’s not like a one-sided relationship, like I’m this pup in awe and he’s like, ‘Who’s this dumb kid?’. It’s a real f***ing friendship, you know? That is unbef***inglievable.”
You know what, Bradley? It is a little unbef***inglievable. Well, that is until after our interview, when I get De Niro on the phone. “He’s a great guy,” explains the star of Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull. “He has tremendous gifts. His timing, his dedication to the work. He’s a smart, smart man. Maybe he was a little underestimated before, but you are only judged by the work that you do. I mean, I always knew he had it in him. There were never any doubts from my side.” I ask De Niro whether it’s true that the two will work together again, perhaps next time with Cooper directing – the actor’s next great wish. “Yeah, sure. We found a script but, you know, maybe I liked it; maybe he didn’t like it so much. He told me maybe he’d want to direct and I said, sure, why not?” Bradley Cooper directing a movie starring Robert De Niro. Sure, why not?
“Come on b****es.” That’s all the e-mail said. And it was to change Cooper’s life forever. The Hangover was never a done deal, and certainly not for Cooper. It wasn’t like one of those scripts that are closely guarded secrets. Like a Woody Allen movie. Or when director Kathryn Bigelow was approaching actors to be involved in Zero Dark Thirty, names such as Jessica Chastain and Mark Strong, who were required to log in to a secure server just to read one or two pages of dialogue. The original Hangover script was not like this; not one bit. Around 2007, every male actor in Hollywood between the ages of 25 and 35 seemed to know about this bachelor-party-gone-wonky film that director Todd Phillips was trying to get made. The overall feeling? Why would any serious actor want to be involved in a frat-boy-sounding movie called The Hangover? Sounds like one for the bloated ghost of John Belushi.
Cooper had to audition for Phillips at the Chateau Marmont in LA. Back then, the script read a little differently. “Yeah, my character was originally called Vic. He was a car salesman,” explains Cooper. “He spoke exactly like Vince Vaughn. Todd had a couple of different versions knocking around and I only read the first 50 pages of the first draft. Ed Helms was the first to get cast; then, Todd was looking for a Phil [the part Cooper would eventually secure], an Alan [Zach Galifianakis] and a Doug [Justin Bartha]. I went in with my buddies to the casting that day; we were just thrilled to be there. I don’t understand those actors who think that if you see your friends succeed it’s somehow bad for your career. It’s the same with agents. I mean, my agent also represents Ryan Reynolds. That can only be good for me. There’s plenty of room at the top.
“Anyway, I think my agent had to strong-arm Todd into seeing me that day. Todd and I hit it off in the room, but I could see that I wasn’t ‘The Guy’. You know? They had very specific actors who they wanted to do the movie with – those actors weren’t interested. And they were unknowns. And when a studio is giving you $15m to make a movie and you want to use three unknowns? No way. So then it just went away. I forgot about it. I had just done a movie called He’s Just Not That Into You and I had hosted Saturday Night Live but all that was coming my way back then were roles which were rehashes of the guy I played in Wedding Crashers – I could have played that same part for the next ten years. I never did it again. So I had nothing going on. Not really. I went up to Williamstown to do a play, The Understudy, thinking that at least it would help fulfil me creatively, but I had no real idea where my next pay cheque was coming from. Then I get this e-mail from Todd. It was 2pm and we were just doing the matinee performance and then ‘ping’… ‘Come on b****es.'”
That three-word call-to-arms e-mail from Phillips threw Cooper. “Last time I saw Todd, we both went to see There Will Be Blood and I never heard from him again. So I just thought that movie called The Hangover wasn’t happening, or at least not with me in it. So I rang him and was like, ‘Todd what are you talking about?’ He said, ‘It’s on. The Hangover. We’re going to do it.'” And those suckers who passed on the part? The part in one of the most successful comedy franchises ever? Cooper laughs: “Ha! Well, let me tell you about actors. Back then, I had a couple of high-profile actor friends who were pretty successful and they were saying, ‘Why are you doing that movie called The Hangover? I read the script and I passed.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. Well, I’m doing it.’ Something I’ve learned: other successful actors love telling one another they’ve passed on a script. And then it turns out the script was sent to them but wasn’t offered to them. Actors are a crazy breed. I feel honoured to be a part of this profession, but I also feel a lot of gratitude that I am not a typical actor. Not at all.”
Looking at Cooper, you’d never think that confidence had ever been a problem. Not true. In fact, his own insecurities, and the fact that he felt a need to prove himself to both his father and to an older crowd, landed Cooper in a whole heap of trouble as a teenager growing up in Philly. “There was always this duality with me,” he explains. “On one hand, my father used to call me Two Shoes, because I was always the goodie-two-shoes. Then puberty hit and I fell in with a bad crowd and I seemed to find a sense of self-worth by hanging out with these older kids and doing whatever these older kids thought was cool. From the age of 12 I did a lot of stupid s***.” This “stupid s***” came to the fore when Cooper got busted for underage drinking, aged 15. “Yeah, what a drag, man. It meant I couldn’t get my driving licence until I was 17 – talk about a buzzkill with the ladies. Imagine all your buddies are driving around, picking up their women, and there’s little old me having to wait for a lift from my mom. Or saying to some girl, ‘Hey, you want to get a train ride? It’s romantic!'”
The partying didn’t stop until Cooper was nearly 30. Then came the wake-up call. Staggering up one day in a haze, in his flat, he just knew it was one blurry night too many. And he got scared. In 2009 he stopped it all – no more drinking, no more taking drugs. “I had my reasons and I don’t like getting into it too much. I’m not going to say I’ll never drink ever again. I mean, who knows what will happen in the future?” Was he an alcoholic? “I just consider…” He stops and takes a breath. “What I will say is that my life was going in one direction and that terrified me. It scared the s*** out of me. I knew I had to make some changes if I ever wanted to fulfil whatever potential I had as a human being. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to my parents, especially to my father. When I took out a loan to go to grad school to act I could see that deep down he was f***ing terrified. He didn’t think I had it in me.” When did that change? ” He came to watch me do The Elephant Man as my thesis. I saw a light go on behind his eyes, like, ‘Yeah maybe my son does have a shot at this.’ Something switched in him. That meant a great deal to me.”
Cooper has always described his relationship with his father as somewhat complicated. His father passed away in 2011 after battling with lung cancer, and just as Cooper felt his influence through life, he would feel it at his father’s deathbed. “For the first seven years of being in this industry, I had no confidence whatsoever. It wasn’t until I stopped caring about things, about two years ago when my father passed away… You can be one of those people who says, ‘I have perspective,’ but then, all of a sudden, oh no, motherf***er, this is perspective. Death became very real. And very tangible. Because my father – someone who had been in my life for 36 years is just f***ing gone. I watched him dying and I was there by his bed watching him, breathing with him, and then I saw his last breath and he was gone. I experienced the whole thing. And that was a watershed moment that I was privileged to experience. And it changed everything. Nothing has ever been the same since.”
At this point, Cooper has angled his face so his eyes seem to be the closest part of his head to mine. His voice has dropped an octave; his hand is flat and sharp and signposting directly to my chest, to my heart. “You know William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence? Well, right there, in that moment, the innocence was gone. Done. Never to return. The beauty is that I just don’t sweat s*** any more. My father gave me two gifts – having me and dying with me. I used to be the kid that got the shakes if I had to talk in public; now, I just don’t get nervous about stuff. I can’t control everything. I watched my father die and I realised that is the way we are all going to die. For me, it was a switch from knowing something intellectually to knowing it by tangibly experiencing it. It rewired my neurological system. It almost did the opposite of motivating me. It was about keeping the main thing the main thing.” Is winning an Oscar part of the main thing? “I don’t want to win an Oscar. It would change nothing. Nothing. The things in my life that aren’t fulfilled would not be fulfilled. Career-wise, right now, it’s better that I don’t win one. I don’t want to win. I don’t.”
Another gift that Cooper gleaned from his father is the ability to laugh the hell out of a situation. Like, really laugh. I tell Cooper that I’d e-mailed Jennifer Lawrence, his co-star in Silver Linings Playbook and forthcoming Serena, in an attempt to gain an insight into what it’s like working with the handsome actor. I asked Lawrence what she thought was “typical Cooper behaviour”. Here’s what she had to say: “Bradley has a gift of finding humour in inanimate objects. One time, he pointed to a pair of boots that had these wooden things in them to keep their shape and he screamed at them like they were legs. It sounds stupid, but it was very Bradley and hilarious.”
“I know the moment she’s talking about,” responds Cooper. “I love Jen to death. Finding humour in every occasion is something I tend to do, rightly or wrongly. One of the first people I called when my father died, for example, was Zach [Galifianakis]. We were on the phone laughing and crying at the same time. My pop was like that, truly. You know, when he was dying, I slept with him in a room for weeks. They had one of those hospital beds and I was desperately trying to make him more comfortable, but these beds with those goddamn remote-control buttons! I press one and his legs go up in the air, I press another and his whole body moves up so it’s like the bed is eating him or something! I mean, the guy is f***ing dying!” At this point, both Cooper and myself are laughing. Laughing like hell. If we laughed any harder, we’d be crying. “It’s just so f***ing sad!”
Right now, there is nothing wrong with being Bradley Cooper. Nothing at all. Even the rumours that he’s to play Lance Armstrong can’t taint his aura. “Even my mom thinks I’m going to do it. I would love to do it. I would love to do it with JJ [Abrams]. I phoned him [Abrams] and we were supposed to get together in LA, but we never did. Armstrong is an intense guy. Very in the moment. I watched some of that interview with Oprah [Winfrey] – he was very present. Not like some of those a******s that go on 60 Minutes and that you know are lying. But then I’ve watched interviews with Lance before, when he has, we now know, been lying, and he has precisely the same mannerisms. It’s like his heart doesn’t skip a beat. Crazy.” Cooper’s eyes are wide open. He’s waiting. Learning. Texting De Niro and looking for that script to direct. Is this a charmed life? “Are you kidding me? I’m sitting here talking to you about a movie I’ve just made with Ryan Gosling. If my answer is ‘No’, then you have my permission to take me out the back of this hotel and put a gun to my head. The answer is 1,000 per cent yes.”
The weekend after my meeting with Cooper, 14 years after that lift ride at the Morgans Hotel, Leonardo DiCaprio is papped, via long-lens, standing on the balcony of another penthouse apartment with his shirt off, this time in Miami. He’s there to watch the Super Bowl with some close pals, half-time oranges courtesy of Beyoncé in a leather negligee. In a couple of the blurry pictures that go five times global the next day, there’s a familiar man standing next to the actor. It’s our linkman. The luggage-hauling grad student from Philly. Our door guy. Shirt off. Grin on. Admiring the view out across the beach to the Atlantic Ocean: kings of the world. Sure, why not? Totally bef***inglievable.
© 2013 GQ Magazine UK | Written by Jonathan Heaf | No copyright infringment intended.