Published: June 2010
With his rakish charm—and a seriously ripped body—on full display this summer in The A-Team, the star of The Hangover is about to become America’s next A-List action hero. He can’t believe it either.
“A DICK IS HARMFUL. A DICK IS hurtful,” Bradley Cooper says, walking down 10th Street in New York’s East Village and pondering the kind of roles he’s become known for since 2005. That was the year he broke out as the archetypal American dick, Zachary “Sack” Lodge, the maniacal frat-boy villain in Wedding Crashers, a role Cooper seemed born to play. He has the look for it: the piercing blue eyes, the lupine grin, the chin of a Shakespearean villain. If nice guys finish last, a Cooper character is out in front of the pack. This summer he’ll get to flash that roguish smile again in The A-Team as Face, a.k.a. Lieutenant Templeton Peck, a suave con man and lovable dickhead.
“Now, a douche,” Cooper says, continuing the theme, “he’s just an idiot. He’s lame. A dick is a hurtful douche.”
A year ago, in He’s Just Not That Into You, Cooper played a cheating husband. A few months later he starred in The Hangover—now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time—as Phil, an unreconstructed playboy whose outgoing voice mail said, “Leave a message, or don’t. But do me a favor, don’t text me. It’s gay.”
“And then there’s the asshole,” Cooper says, his grin curling with amusement. “He’s a dick with some serious issues.”
Cooper, who is 35, has embodied these sarcastic bastards so seamlessly it’s almost jarring to find him so pleasant on this balmy spring day. Thinner and more sinewy in person than he has appeared onscreen, and dressed in a finely made loose sweater and jeans, he could be any laid-back artist or writer from the neighborhood. He’s carrying a book (Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir) and has three days’ worth of scruff.
He swings into a secluded coffee bar and orders a decaf macchiato. At the counter he banters with the young barista, whose name, we find out, is Weston. Weston has absolutely no idea who Bradley Cooper is.
“My assistant’s name is Weston,” Cooper says, waiting for his drink. “He goes by West.”
“Too country,” the kid grumbles as he grinds the beans.
“I don’t mind it. But I don’t like Westie.”
“Mmm. Too canine.”
“What about Wes?”
“Why not just Weston?” the server finally snaps.
“I like it,” Cooper says, grinning again. “Thanks, bro,” he adds as he’s handed his beverage.
If Cooper was trying to be a dick, his timing was impeccable.
He sits at a table by the window strewn with newspapers, which he thumbs through. Asked what issues of the day he’s concerned about, he says, “Literally, I was just thinking, Do I care about anything?” Now he’s just being a dick—for fun.
“I expected Bradley to be more like his character in The Hangover,” says Sharlto Copley, the South African star of last summer’s District 9 who costars with Cooper in The A-Team. “He’s still a guy. He’s got that man’s-man, I-like-football thing. But he’s way more gentle and has more heart than you might think watching him in some of his roles.”
Joe Carnahan, the director of The A-Team, goes one step further.
“Bradley’s one of the guys I’d go to war with,” he says. “If I’m in a bad way, I’m calling him, saying can you help me out?”
Apparently Cooper isn’t really a dick—he’s just really good at pretending to be one.
Behind the cocksure public persona is a different kind of guy—one driven by a childhood experience growing up in Philadelphia that he says was at times painful and difficult. His adolescence engendered in him an insecurity that made him self-critical to the point of becoming a perfectionist, and that’s partially what fuels his ambition, he says.
“I never lived the life of ‘Oh, you’re so good-looking,'” Cooper says. “People thought I was a girl when I was little, because I looked like a girl—maybe because my mother would keep my hair really long in a bowl cut. I was in a coffee shop once and the waitress was like, ‘What do you want, Miss?’ I was 10 or 11—the worst age to have that happen. I had a jean jacket on and a Metallica pin. I thought I was really cool.”
His parents—Charlie, formerly a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and Gloria, an Italian-American homemaker—were perplexed when their son developed a tendency toward self-flagellation. “My mother’s always asking me”—Cooper puts on a mom voice—” ‘Bradley, why are you so hard on yourself?’ ” He’s the type, he says, to get down on his hands and knees and scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush.
Or to train like a maniac to handle a gun for The A-Team. “He worked really har—and I mean really hard,” Carnahan says. “He was training with the M4 machine gun and he got proficient really fast. Scary fast. There was a part of Bradley that wanted to deploy to some far-off point in Yemen and do battle with Al Qaeda.”
“I fuckin’ loved it,” Cooper says. “I rowed crew in college, and it’s very much the same thing—you feel like you’re part of some other mechanism.” He jumps up from his chair and pantomimes gunplay in the middle of the coffee shop, changing rounds on an imaginary M4, leveling the nose of the gun at targets. The other customers look up from their laptops and David Foster Wallace novels.
“It’s very powerful,” Cooper says, taking a seat again. “And there’s so much in it that’s symbolic, for a boy, for a man. I never felt more safe and calm than when I had 300 rounds of ammo and a fuckin’ M4 around my neck.”
It’s telling that as a kid, he says, he was such an outcast that he actually felt a kinship with Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man—the victim of a horribly disfiguring disease who made his living as a sideshow attraction in Victorian England.
“I became obsessed with this motherfucker,” Cooper says. After he watched David Lynch’s production of The Elephant Man on television, he adds, “I was crying. I couldn’t move. He was a beautiful guy, fuckin’ beautiful. He had tremendous hope. He struggled to be a man—because he was a man.” Cooper says he would look in the mirror and imagine himself as the Elephant Man. He says it’s what made him want to become an actor—and he’s not being a dick. “I literally went to London and saw the cloak that Merrick wore,” Cooper says, laughing at the absurdity of the revelation. He played Merrick on stage for his graduate thesis at the Actors Studio, which he attended after graduating from Georgetown in 1997. He went to London just to research the part, rather obsessively.
For all the attention to craft and the ugly-duckling self-doubt, casting agents tended to peg Cooper as the pretty boy. His first professional role, in 1999, was as one of Sarah Jessica Parker’s endless series of bedmates on Sex and the City. In 2001 he landed his first part in a film, as a camp counselor in Wet Hot American Summer, which involved a sex scene in a shed with Michael Ian Black. Played for comic effect, the torrid make-out session has become an Internet favorite, sparking the inevitable gay rumors. “Welcome to the movie business,” says his friend Paul Rudd, who also starred in the eighties satire.
Five years later Rudd and Cooper worked together again, with Julia Roberts, in Three Days of Rain on Broadway. “We would sit around laughing,” Rudd says, “saying if we had had a crystal ball when we were shooting Wet Hot American Summer and it had told us we were going to be the two guys opposite Julia Roberts in a play, we would have thought that was crazy.” Actually, Rudd was already becoming one of the biggest comedic male leads of his generation, with Cooper just a few steps behind. “But movie stars used to be dashing, masculine, and mysterious,” Rudd says, “and we’re the kind of guys that laugh at our own farts.”
Now Cooper is starring as an action hero—a standard turn for any actor with his eye on Hollywood superstardom. “I think he’s going to get offered everything under the sun because of the way he is in this film,” Carnahan says. “He’s funny, charming, effortless—these are movie-star qualities. But this has happened to him because of a lot of hard work. Those are always the best stories.”
Cooper, blinking his long, dark eyelashes, says the shock of it all hasn’t worn off. During one shoot for The A-Team in Vancouver, he says, “me and Liam Neeson were supposed to be helicoptering down into Baghdad with fucking guns and the wind machines blowing. So I’m hanging on and there’s fucking Liam Neeson and I got a gun and there’s music playing and it’s as if I’m making a movie. But actually I am making a movie. It was so fucked-up. It was very surreal.”
It’s a word he uses a lot. It was surreal to see himself turned into a brick-house hunk for The A-Team, which features lots of shots of his sweaty, bulging biceps and concrete pecs. “I had to literally transform my body,” he explains—for six months prior to filming and during the shoot, the already fitness-obsessed actor cut out sugar, salt, and flour and underwent grueling two-hour workouts with a trainer every day.
“As the movie progressed, I got in increasingly better shape,” he says. “There’s this one fight scene with Liam Neeson toward the end, where it’s, like, the apex of the work. We finished and Joe’s like, ‘Brother, come here, look at this,’ and he played it back, and I swear to God, it looked like my head was digitally superimposed onto someone else’s body.
“I was like, ‘This cannot be me—that’s the way I look?’ ” Cooper says. “It was so fucking surreal, ’cause as a kid I only fantasized about looking that way. Remember Soloflex commercials? That was huge when I was a kid. It was like, ‘I wanna be the Soloflex guy. Mom, can we get the Soloflex?’ ”
And yet, even toned and trained into superhuman shape, Cooper still fixated on his physical imperfections—or at least those he perceived. “Even in that body I’m in,” he says, “I still saw them, absolutely.” He still felt a bit like the Elephant Man. “Oh, shit,” he says, laughing again. “This is going to be like, ‘What a fucking asshole. Oh, really, you feel like fucking Elephant Man?'”
The delicate self-image is an odd disconnect for a guy who has dated Hollywood beauties, including, reportedly, the Oscar-winning actress Renée Zellweger since 2009. Cooper says he can’t talk about that—he’s strictly mum on the subject: “I just can’t.” He was married to the actress Jennifer Esposito for four months between 2006 and 2007, something he also won’t talk about in detail, although he has said, “It was an experience.”
In mid-2009, the tabloids went to town with stories of him romancing America’s Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston. “I’m reading about me taking Jennifer Aniston to my Bel Air mansion”—he lived in a modest home in Venice, California, then; he has a bigger house in Los Angeles now—”and having a candlelit dinner, and I was like, ‘That’s crazy. Never happened.’ ” He says the next time he saw Aniston, who is a friend, he joked, “Hey, we should hang out—the other dates that we never had went so well.”
But seeing complete bullshit written about himself was, oddly enough, one of the things that made Cooper realize his star was on the rise. “I still can’t fuckin’ believe all this,” he says. Nor, apparently, could execs at Warner Bros., who allegedly failed to anticipate The Hangover’s runaway success—or to contractually obligate its stars to a sequel. Now Cooper is reportedly set to earn $5 million and 4 percent of the gross box-office earnings on The Hangover 2—A-list money.
“In an industry that is desperately low on real nuts-and-bolts leading men,” Carnahan says, “I don’t think it’s a surprise that Bradley has rocketed to the top of all the lists. Because he is that guy.”
This summer, Cooper gets to act opposite one of his heroes, Robert De Niro, in The Dark Fields, a psychological drama about a failed writer who starts taking a drug that gives him special intellectual powers. Cooper’s character is a loser and a former cocaine addict and, well, a dick.
That last part doesn’t really matter to him, just as long as he nails the performance. Above all else, Cooper wants to be a great actor. “That’s the only reason to do it,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.” Working with De Niro on a serious project puts him in another league. “De Niro’s one of the reasons I became an actor,” Cooper says. “For some reason, since I was a kid, I felt very connected to him. He reminds me of my grandfather.
“I put myself on tape to play his son a few years ago,” Cooper says with a grin. Putting oneself “on tape” for a casting agent is something aspiring actors—not big stars—do to land a part. “I was at home and we filmed it in my parents’ basement. My mother played De Niro’s role.” (He didn’t get the part in 2009’s Everybody’s Fine; Sam Rockwell did.)
But if a sophisticated indie drama like The Dark Fields—or for that matter, a big-budget popcorn movie like The A-Team—does well, Cooper will never have to put himself on tape again. “I’d love not to have to do that,” he says. “I did it for this movie about UFC fighters a few years ago, and I didn’t know anything about UFC fighters. I wore biking shorts. I was outside in my back yard in Venice, and I was, like, kicking the trash cans and shit. I didn’t know what I was doing. I would love to fucking see that tape.”
He laughs at himself and says good-bye, then walks across the East Village to the subway alone and, for what could be one of the last times, unnoticed and unrecognized, even as a dick.
© 2010 Details | Written by Nancy Jo Sales | No copyright infringment intended.