Oahu, Hawaii: Speeding down the side of a volcano in a rental-car-colored Chevy Cruze, Honolulu spreading out like a sun-glazed mirage beneath us. Bradley Cooper is eating a salad and driving at the same time. A little white dog noses out into the road in front of us, then retreats. “Can you imagine if we just ran over that dog?” Cooper says, eyes bright and blue, like they’ve been plugged into an invisible outlet. He’s wearing a white Philadelphia Eagles baseball cap, navy blue shorts, flip-flops. In the Cruze with him, you feel the amiable presence of all the on-screen characters he’s played—Phil from The Hangover, say—who might good-naturedly joke about ending a small dog’s life. Who’d probably break down in real, unfeigned tears if it actually happened. Anyway, he swerves in plenty of time. Then sets aside his salad.
Cooper has been here for the past couple of months, starring as a military contractor in a new, as-yet-untitled Cameron Crowe film with Emma Stone and Bill Murray and Danny McBride, living in a temporary apartment, and marveling at his good fortune. We drive for a while, then emerge from a tunnel to see Kailua Bay, all glittery and green in front of us. “Isn’t this beautiful?” Cooper asks. It is.
Just last night, Cooper and David O. Russell got on FaceTime to wrap the final bit of editing on American Hustle, their follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, the screwball romance that provided Cooper with an Oscar nomination and, more or less, the career he’s suddenly in the midst of now, far from the trenches of monster movies and made-for-TV fables and B-list romantic comedies in which he played characters with names like Faceman and Demo. He’s got a sideline in antic dreamers these days: In American Hustle, based on the real-life Abscam FBI operation of the late ’70s, in which the bureau employed two con artists to help bring down a number of dirty congressmen and other assorted government o?cials, Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent burning bright with ambition and self-delusion. David O. Russell has a skill, unique among modern filmmakers, for exalting and adoring people at their worst. And Cooper, it turns out, is wonderful at this, too: playing guys who are ruined but five minutes from realizing it. Guys who want to make it so badly that they undo themselves trying. DiMaso talks as fast as he thinks slow, but you sort of love him for it, and this is because of Cooper—at 39, he has become a master of indignity, hilarious to the degree that his characters have no idea that they’re funny at all.
Cooper parks the Cruze outside a café he likes in Kailua, a few blocks from the ocean. On the way into the restaurant, Cooper—who grew up just outside Philadelphia and has an actor’s eye for the mannerisms of others—points out that I walk like I’m from Philly, too, with a kind of exaggerated limp (guilty, on both counts), and for a while we talk about home. They seat us in the back, under some palm trees, just off the street. Out past the curb there’s a man covered in filth, ranting in the road. “I felt like I was back in Philly,” Cooper says, laughing, watching the guy head down the street. We start talking: about Cooper’s childhood, which was idyllic as childhoods go; about his early days acting in New York City, sweating it out in commercials for Spanish cell phones and in bit parts on shows like Sex and the City; about finally coming to Los Angeles.
Here in Hawaii, where the blue of the sky seems to come right down to the pavement, it’s all a little incongruous, going back through this stuff—the time before Bradley Cooper was Bradley Cooper—and you can tell he’d rather be hours into the future, in civilian mode again, talking after the interview. (One clue: “I can’t wait to talk after we have the interview,” he says.) His past couple of years, ever since 2011’s Limitless proved that he could be a box-office draw sans Wolf Pack, have been the type of years that guys with bit parts on shows like Sex and the City don’t get to have: awards, famous and/or model-y consorts—Renée Zellweger, Zoe Saldana, and current girlfriend, Suki Waterhouse, to name three—prestige directors, saying “no” a lot instead of leaping to say “yes.”
He’s made it to the other side. But now he’s waiting for the rest of the world to realize it. “‘People aren’t going to give it up for you right away,’” Russell says he told Cooper just recently. “They’re going to be like, ‘Well, wait a second, you get to be this guy in this comedy and have these girls, you know, different girlfriends you’ve had, and you’re an actor with great depths and substance and awards consideration? Not so fast.’ ”
Cooper would like it to be that fast. But in the meantime he’ll make due, narrate the story of his past life one more time. He’s just begun to tell me about Alias, the J. J. Abrams show that brought him out to California for good, when he notices the filthy ranting guy is back and zigzagging our way.
Cooper stops midsentence—the first thing Jennifer Garner, his Alias co-star, ever said to him was “Do you want a cookie?” but we will never find out the rest of this story—and interrupts himself.
“I think we’re going to fucking get in a fight, bro.”
Aside from the drug-enhanced novelist/stockbroker/corporate raider he portrayed in Limitless, Cooper has probably never played a guy as smart as he is in real life. At Georgetown, where he graduated with honors, Cooper wrote his thesis on Nabokov’s Lolita, remembers shedding actual tears in the campus library reading Romeo and Juliet, and still speaks with an eerie recall of and sincere affection for the other writers he read in the English program there. In the backyard of the café, I watch him, moved to something close to joy, recall his first encounter with Paradise Lost.
“Milton, bro? Milton. Fuckin’—that was the end of it. Motherfucker’s 57 or whatever, blind, dictating it to his fucking daughter-nurse—Paradise Lost? I mean, I just couldn’t… That poem fucking killed me. Satan? That character was un-fucking-believable. I could taste him in my mouth, dude, reading that. I really, really, for some reason, connected with that poem.”
It probably helped that he was out of the Irish Catholic home he grew up in. His father, who died in 2011, was a stockbroker; his mother worked for the local NBC affiliate. Cooper’s love of cinema comes from his dad, a guy who, if not for the place and time he came from, might have ended up a lot like his son did. “He had to carry a knife to fucking school, so he just wanted to get the fuck out of there and make money,” Cooper says. “In another world, my father would be doing the same thing I’m doing.”
After Georgetown, he moved to New York and worked nights as a doorman at the Morgans Hotel while he studied acting at the New School with celebrity-whisperer James Lipton. He skipped his graduation to “get fucked in the ass by Michael Ian Black” in 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer—his first-ever film role—and, that same year, landed a supporting role on Alias as Will Tippin, a journalist but more fundamentally the best, most understanding friend and possible romantic interest that Jennifer Garner could ever have.
Alias was an education; it also nearly ended Cooper’s career before it began. His part, full of promise at the beginning of the series, grew less substantial as the show progressed: “I would only work three days a week. And then for the second season, I got even more sidelined. I was like, ‘Ugh.’ And then next thing you know, I was like, ‘I want to fucking kill myself.’ ” So against the advice of nearly every single person he knew, and despite having exactly zero future jobs lined up, he asked to be written off the show. “J.J. was like, ‘Okay.’ He probably would’ve fired me, anyway.”
Two weeks later, he tore his Achilles playing basketball and spent the next year on a couch, swallowing Vicodin, watching the Tour de France, and fantasizing about quitting acting altogether: “At some point, you have to come to terms with The business just doesn’t want you, you know what I mean?”
But he healed, and then, in 2004, he got cast in Wedding Crashers. “A fucking tyrant” is how he describes the character now. His very own Satan, from Paradise Lost.
Cooper has attempted many, many different characters on-screen—film agents, community-radio-station DJs, geologists, novelists, cameramen, child psychologists—but to this day he is primarily known for just one of them: Sack, from Wedding Crashers, Rachel McAdams’s shotgun-toting fiancé, a frat bully with emotional-vulnerability issues. This character type, a villain in that film, recurs in Cooper’s subsequent movies, most famously as a hero in The Hangover, in which Cooper—playing a more warmhearted though equally retrograde Sack—became an inspiration to millions of men, some significant percentage of whom are on the Las Vegas Strip right now, behaving badly.
Back then, whether by intention or happenstance, Cooper was putting together a catalog that detailed a universally recognizable species of American manhood: khaki-clad, open-shirted, bestubbled, improbably charming. He has sported more cargo pockets and worn more nylon, usually in the form of track pants, than any other male actor in the history of cinema. For a while on-screen, Cooper seemed less aspirational—yet another movie star we admired from a distance—than simply someone we knew or had once met, possibly at a fraternity. (This, perhaps, was never exactly true: “I’ve just never seen him as a frat boy,” his American Hustle co-star Amy Adams says. “I understand how people could perceive that. But he’s a very soulful person, a very open person. I think that people can mistake a sort of laid-back quality for that frat thing.”)
Cameron Crowe says he cast Cooper for this exact approachable quality: “You want to be able to find somebody that makes you go, I feel like him.”
It’s that persona—Uncomplicated Complacent American Man—that Cooper is now busy subverting and humanizing, with the help of guys like Crowe and Russell, who’ve lately been turning Cooper’s easy likability against itself. The Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance cast Cooper last year as a cop whose very American ambitions curdle everything good around and inside him; the first time you see him on-screen, he’s putting a bullet in Ryan Gosling, an act that took him about as high up the unlikability index as you could go in 2013. Russell, in Silver Linings, dressed the actor in an actual trash bag, and it changed Cooper’s life.
Now that he’s an Oscar nominee and working with directors he never thought he’d even make it into a room with, there’s a temptation to tell his story as one of redemption, as if Silver Linings Playbook and all that’s come after it bailed him out of the purgatory of his earlier roles.
But in Cooper’s case, before and after are inseparable: Some significant part of why he’s so good in Silver Linings—as a guy whose stint in a mental institution has left him with nothing but lingering rage issues and a potentially misplaced faith in the power of positive thinking—is the weird electricity that comes from watching a guy known for playing jerks with all the answers suddenly realize that he was, in fact, a jerk and that all his answers were wrong.
And anyway, it was Wedding Crashers that got Cooper the Silver Linings role in the first place. “He was to me a palpably angry person in Wedding Crashers,” Russell says. “And then when I met him, his answer when I said that to him revealed so much dimension and depth from him as a human being. [Cooper] said how he had been someone who was thirty pounds heavier. He had been someone who tended to be not as happy. He had used sarcasm or anger to hide behind some of his fear. He was more afraid and less happy, so he had used that bristliness to hide that. Which was such an amazing answer that I just felt a real soul connection to the person, you know?”
There are events in Cooper’s life during the years after Wedding Crashers that he’ll talk about openly and others that he won’t. This is understandable: Cooper spent a good amount of the past decade being stalked by photographers and plagued by tabloids, in part because of a high-profile relationship with Renée Zellweger and in part because he was otherwise single, handsome, and maybe being confused a bit with some of the Lotharios he was playing on-screen. He also made mistakes—mistakes that made him as a man and as an actor, but mistakes nonetheless, ones he’s not too eager to revisit. Questions about his personal life
in this period tend to be met with a glare. And yet if you want to understand why Bradley Cooper is so happy to be where he is now, it helps to understand where he was before and how he’s still, in some ways, dealing with it.
In 2006, he got married—to the actress Jennifer Esposito—and then divorced, four months later. A year or two before that, he’d gotten sober after a bad run with alcohol and drugs, the varieties of which he declines to specify. He was 29, confronting the fact that “if I continued it, I was really going to sabotage my whole life.”
Did it ever have any effect on your work?
“I mean, it has to have. And to this day, of course, because it’s a life experience. And all I do is bring life experience. That’s all anybody really does. It’s inescapable.”
But it was never like, “Oh, I didn’t show up on set.”
“Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, no. No, never. No. You mean like, in a logistic point of view, like: ‘He’s late?’ No, no, no.”
So it was more of a personal thing—it wasn’t like work was getting fucked up?
“No, I think work was getting fucked up.”
In what way?
“In the way that if—the one thing that I’ve learned in life is the best thing I can do is embrace who I am and then do that to the fullest extent, and then whatever happens, happens. The more steps I do to not do that, the farther I am away from fulfilling any potential I would have. So the answer to that question, then, is: Yes, of course it hindered the work.”
Emma Stone, who also worked with Cooper on 2008’s The Rocker, says she’s asked him to pinpoint the moment he feels like he improved as an actor. This period of drying out, and what came after it, is what Cooper invariably refers to. Says Stone: “He has been very clear he’s gotten more and more present in his life as he’s gotten older.”
Cooper says that afteffr getting sober, he took the roles he could get and felt grateful to have them. Six episodes on Nip/Tuck. A quickly canceled sitcom based on Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential. He got his first proper lead in a horror film called The Midnight Meat Train (Wikipedia plot excerpt: “They fight in between the swinging human meat, Leon’s knives against Mahogany’s meat hammer”) and played opposite Sandra Bullock in a Golden Raspberry–winning turn as worst couple in 2009’s All About Steve.
The work wasn’t great, but it was constant. Plus, he was happy, basically, arriving at a kind of self-acceptance. “I was doing these movies, and I got to meet Sandra Bullock and meet these people and work with them. And I’m sober, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m actually myself. And I don’t have to put on this air to be somebody else, and this person still wants to work with me? Oh, what the fuck is that about?’ I was rediscovering myself in this workplace, and it was wonderful.”
He pauses. “Now, in the back of my head, or in a place of my heart of, like, creativity, did I feel utterly fulfilled? Absolutely not. But I was grateful and happy to be working, and filling that void in smaller moments.”
It’s dark now, out in the backyard of the café. The ranting guy is gone; our fight ended up being with each other, not with him. Mostly because I keep asking about the things Cooper enjoys talking about least: his marriage, getting sober, the years of playing jerks on film—characters whom he came to love and so resents the suggestion that they were just frat guys with no redeeming value. “We’re obviously both from Philadelphia,” Cooper says to me at one point, mid-argument, kinda laughing, kinda not. Mostly not.
As the light fails, Cooper and I hop back in the Cruze, drive back up through the mountains in the twilight air. We talk about what his life’s been like lately, since Silver Linings Playbook changed it. He says being nominated for an Oscar was cool but never felt entirely real: “Did I want to win it? I never thought that I would ever win it. So it wasn’t even a question of that.”
In the car he pulls out his phone, shows me a picture he’s got saved on it. It’s a still from the set of American Hustle. Cooper is in full ’70s regalia, kneeling in a stairwell, talking to Russell. They’re conferring about the scene where DiMaso—well, let’s just say he fully cracks up. The scene where you love the character the most for the terrible choices he’s making.
In the Cruze, Cooper looks incredulously at the photo for a minute, like it’s confirmation of something he knows but doesn’t totally believe: This is his life now, working daily with guys like David O. Russell. Then he hands it over, still marveling at what it contains. “That’s us in the stairway. Me and David.”
We come down into Waikiki, where my hotel is. Cooper is quiet the last few blocks, like he’s said what he’s gonna say, and in the deepening, awkward silence, I think again about one of those tense exchanges in the backyard of that café. We were talking about his life before sobriety. I asked if there was anything he did specifically where he felt like, Damn, I regret that. He said no.
What about that phase of your life in general?
So it’s not a time you look back on with sadness.
“With sadness? Sad parts of it.”
But not as a whole, like, “If I could go back and do it again, I would do it differently”?
He smiled—one of those smiles that aren’t really smiles at all.
“I’m glad I don’t have to.”