Bradley Cooper on deal breakers, his admiration for Robert De Niro, the biggest change in his career, becoming a director and working with Lady Gaga in his latest movie a Star Is Born
Will Bradley Cooper be fourth-time lucky in his quest for an Oscar? Going by early predictions, his hugely acclaimed version of A Star Is Born presents him the best chance yet, after being left out in the cold three years running not long ago – for Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), and American Sniper (2014). Pundits are even speculating that he might walk away with the coveted Best Director award for the film, which has since been a worldwide hit.
If the 43-year old does eventually win, it will be a fitting culmination to a career that was mostly nondescript till six years ago, when Silver Linings Playbook provided him with the first opportunity, he says, to play a “…character that was not the opposite of me, but someone who had a different way of speaking or came from a different place.”
In this wide-ranging interview, he talks about his acting process, his admiration for Robert De Niro, the most significant changes in his career, becoming a director and working with Lady Gaga in his latest movie.
Do you need to have ambitions to make it into Hollywood?
Yes, for sure. Movies were a major part of my upbringing and I always knew I wanted to be a part of it, but it was terrifying. I was always scared to speak in front of people when I was a kid. I was pretty shy when I was younger, and so my ambitions came from wanting to conquer those fears in order to be a part of a storytelling community. Curiosity, it grabs me fully. And being a curious individual, I want to try things and I just love storytelling so much. It’s what gave me hope as a kid. It allowed myself to enter into other worlds. I felt a purpose.
In what moment of your career would you say that you noticed your biggest change as an actor?
I think about being a young actor and then where I am now at 43. I remember, the first 10 years of working, I thought just to be natural on-screen, in front of a camera, saying lines that have been written. Can I just breathe them and speak in a place of authenticity? And I felt like I got to a place where I really felt that it was happening. I was really talking to other actors. But I didn’t necessarily go far into a scary place, playing a character that was not the opposite of me but someone who had a different way of speaking or came from a different place. And then I started to have the real opportunity of being able to do that, starting with American Sniper. That’s where I thought, “Other than the fact that I’m a male and we were the same age and we have the same shoe size, I’m not Chris Kyle, so where do I even begin?”
I remember saying to Clint Eastwood, “If I can’t get to a place where I believe I’m him, there’s no way I can do the movie.” And that’s always the thing.
Is there a deal breaker where you would say “No” to a movie?
I remember saying to Clint Eastwood, “If I can’t get to a place where I believe I’m him, there’s no way I can do the movie.” And that’s always the thing. That’s got to be locked, done, so when we show up and do the movie, we can make the movie. When you stretch yourself, it takes more time to prepare. I took like a year to prepare for Chris Kyle. [In] this movie, a star is born. This character was even farther away from me than Chris Kyle, and so I took 3 years. I don’t know where I’m headed. (Laughing) Maybe the next one will take me 10 years, but the truth is The Elephant Man took me… since I was 12 years old, really. Whatever you need to do to get to a place that you believe you’re the character. I find, as I get older, that voice is everything. And when you can tap into the voice of the character and you work on it to such a degree, it then becomes organic. That, to me, is fuel.
Is there any role or a character that you would love to play and you still haven’t have the chance to do it?
It’s funny you asked that. There is. I was sort of oddly thinking there are six characters in my mind that I always wanted to play since I was a kid, and I’ve been able to mark most of them off, but there is this one character that I’ve always felt that I wanted to play, as a profession. And then just recently, like a week ago, it sort of came up that there is a movie that I would get to play that character. I don’t want to jinx it, but that would be great.
How was it that you decided to become a director now?
I’ve had the great honour of working with incredible directors like David O’Russell and Clint Eastwood and Todd Phillips. And I never thought that I should be directing any of those movies I’ve been in, but I’ve always realized that I was a bit different than the other people that were just acting, because I was so obsessed with the storytelling aspect of it: how you film it, how you tell a story. And that’s what always interests me.
And when did you decide that you were going to direct a movie, like A Star Is Born, that’s already a classic, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson?
So [for] A Star Is Born, for some reason, Clint Eastwood was going to do it. We were going to do it together, but I thought I was too young and I was not right for the role. But [this broken love story] kept haunting me. And there were shots that kept coming into my head and I would dream about it, and I realized I just have to sort of purge it in a way. And people were getting sick of me not directing, because I was always talking about doing it. I knew that I had to do it whether it fails or not; I knew that I had to try. And I wound up absolutely loving it. Also, you can’t hide when you sing it. To me, the best way to express love is through singing and music, and I knew that if I could marry that in a way, it could be special. I’ve been editing for a long time because the movie was going to come out in May, and that really was a benefit. I just hope I get to keep doing it because I absolutely love it.
How long did it take to shoot A Star Is Born?
It was 42 days, but I prepared for three years. The last time I actually had a job, besides this movie, was the last performance of The Elephant Man in London. So, August 8 2015 was the last time I worked.
Is Lady Gaga better than Barbra Streisand was in the original movie?
Lady Gaga is just kind of a revelation, I have to say. I love it. I really love it. It’s the movie I set out to make, which is hard to say, but we also had the benefit of editing. Lady Gaga’s name is Stephanie Germanotta, and I’ll just call her Stephanie because I never called her Lady Gaga. She said right from the beginning, “This is going to be a barter, that I’m going to rely on you to get a performance that’s honest out of me” because she’s never done a film before, and she said, “I’m going to make sure that you turn into a musician because we’re going to sing everything live.” And I thought, “Wait, wait.” She said, “No, it’s the only way this is going to work, because I can’t stand when I watch movies that have music and you could tell that it’s pre-recorded and people are lip singing.” And she’s right. So that was terrifying, but I really relied on her.
Did Lady Gaga finally turn you into a musician?
I had the benefit of time, and I spent about a year and a half taking vocal lessons and working on it and singing in front of people. One of the great things that I love about the movie is we shot everything from the stage and we actually went to real concerts, real venues, and just jumped on for four or five minutes. We were at the Stagecoach [Festival], where I got to sing in front of 20,000 people, and then we got to jump on the stage at Glastonbury, which is the largest private open-air music festival in the world and I was there, on this pyramid stage, singing in front of like 80,000 people. That was crazy. Kris Kristofferson, who was in the original ‘70s version, just happened to be performing in Glastonbury last summer, and he was the one that allowed [me] to be there because you have to go into somebody else’s set, somebody who had 12 minutes or 24 minutes, and he let me take four minutes of his set. And I got to do that.
I think that I took from Bob De Niro more than anything, and it really flourished on American Sniper, and that is: “Don’t push.” You never have to push, wherever you are, if you’ve done the work in the scene.
Is there anything during your process of directing a film that you felt like you kind of adapted from other directors you worked with before?
Yes. I remember watching a Q&A with Mike Nichols right before he passed away, and he talked about when he directed his first movie which was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I believe he had been an actor and he talked and I realized that directing is just like acting, where you prepare; you prepare to prepare but when you show up, you have to throw it all away. I was so glad I saw that before the first day of shooting, because I know that I’m at my best as an actor when I do that. I think I’m my best as an artist in general when I do that. I really took that and I observed that [while] doing movies with David O’Russell, who is constantly watching what’s going on and able to take and be inspired by a moment and then fuse it to marry the story that he wants to tell. So, I really took a page out of his playbook for my movie.
Has the perspective of being a director made you a better performer as an actor?
I definitely find that if there are other tasks that are involved other than the acting, I’m a better actor. I feel like [that’s] why I was so nourished by [The Elephant Man] as an actor. His physical state took up so much of my brain and body that the actual emotional place I had to be in, that the story called for, was easy because I wasn’t really living in my head. And as a director, there’s so many things you’re thinking about that I just forgot about the acting. And I was able to just do it, and it was very exciting because I kept surprising myself all the time. When I don’t see something coming, that’s the goal.
What was the most important lesson that you learned as an actor?
I think that I took from Bob De Niro more than anything, and it really flourished on American Sniper, and that is: “Don’t push.” You never have to push, wherever you are, if you’ve done the work in the scene. And then, when you get in the editing room you realize, “Oh wow, I didn’t even see that colour when we were shooting it.” And I remember I really took a page of that, first with American Sniper. In the script, there were scenes where Chris got emotional and I always knew that there was going to have to be a moment in the movie where he breaks, there has to be, but I didn’t know what was going to come when he was calling her from the bar. I remember that moment very well and I was so terrified, and I actually put my hand over my head [so] the camera [wouldn’t] see me crying because I don’t think Chris wanted the camera to see him crying. And [I only did that] because I really allowed myself to know that wherever I am in a scene, it’s okay. And I learned that from Bob. It’s a privilege to work with Robert De Niro, because he’s a master.
I think about being a young actor and then where I am now at 43. I remember, the first 10 years of working, I thought just to be natural on-screen, in front of a camera, saying lines that have been written.
What was it like that first moment, when you met Robert De Niro?
Robert De Niro really changed my life. He’s somebody that impacted me in a way that he never even knew, twice. I was a grad student in New York, at the Actors Studio. And I asked him a question, because I was in the audience. I was terrified, because I thought the question was too odd. It was about the movie Awakenings, when he was interviewing and the drug wasn’t working anymore and the tic started to come back. My question was, “Is that something that was in the script or something just happened?” And then he said, “That’s a good question.” It was like a light shot through my stomach, honestly, because he [went through] the whole interview and he never said that to anybody but me. “That was a good question.” And I kept playing that videotape to everybody, “Look what happened: Robert De Niro said, ‘That was a good question,’” and that really kept me going for like three years. I’m not kidding.
Did you ever tell him that story?
Yes, yes. Then, I’m in New York and he’s doing this movie called Everybody’s Fine, and there’s a role for his son that Sam Rockwell got. I put myself on tape for it and somehow, miraculously, it got to him, and I get a call from my agent saying, “Robert De Niro wants to meet you.” I was like, “Oh, my god.” And the tape I did, I made it in my house and [my mom] kept doing this Robert De Niro impersonation, although I said, “Mom, no, just talk like yourself. Don’t try to be Robert De Niro everywhere.” It was hilarious, but he saw the tape, and then I went to his room at the Bel Air hotel. I remember it was 2008, because it was when Hillary Clinton was on CNN during the Democratic primaries, and I still remember I couldn’t believe I was seeing Robert De Niro in person, because I’d only seen him within that theater. He said, “You’re not going to get the role, but I wanted you to come because I saw something and I see it now, and that’s it. Give me a hug.” And he hugged me and I left. (Laughter) That’s what happened. And then I was a juror at the Tribeca Film [Festival] and we were there and he totally forgot, which is great because he didn’t even realize what he had done for me. It changed my entire life.
And then you end up filming four movies together?
Yes, we wound up working together four times. Remember the movie Limitless? I had that obviously to dream [about working] with Robert De Niro, and he agreed to do it. Then, I met Bob, as my dad was sick. They’re the same age and he was sick during Limitless. Then he passed away in between Limitless and Silver Linings Playbook, and I think Silver Linings Playbook is probably the reason why I grew so close to Robert De Niro and loved him so terribly as a friend. It’s because I got to say that word ‘dad’ all the time, after my dad had passed away, and I got to say it to him.
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