With Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Bradley Cooper earned star status, now on display in the Broadway revival of The Elephant Man. But with American Sniper, opening this month, Cooper reaches a whole new dimension, playing Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who was murdered in 2013. Buzz Bissinger discovers what a huge challenge the role represented. by: Buzz Bissinger
Every day before going on location Bradley Cooper recited the six pages of exercises. They had been pieced together by his speech coach, Tim Monich, to further reinforce a Texas accent and dialect that Cooper knew, if it didn’t come to him automatically, would rob all credibility. In a film such as this, and a role such as this, the most challenging of Bradley Cooper’s career, there was no margin for error.
Don’t get it right, don’t do the movie. There are many Texas accents in Texas. This particular one, because of all the places the real-life character once lived, had parts West Texas and country Texas and home-on-the-range Texas, a little bit southern, a little bit western, a little bit shitkicker, with idiosyncratic inconsistencies, and yet poetic in its truncation.
Cooper started with the song “Feelin’ Good Again,” by Texas singer Robert Earl Keen. He did several variations of “Peter Pi per” tongue twisters in dialect as fast as he could, like gargling while still enunciating.
Then the “thing” exercise: There’s nothin’ you can do about innything a cat will or won’t eat.The “pin-pen” exercise: I mean who the fuck does he thenk he is, the fuckin’ Imperor of Kinya? The “are” exercise: You’ll smoke a few cigars, play a little guitar, and you’ll be like Hedy Lamarr. The “git” exercise: Now you git your guitar and git down to business.
Bradley Cooper has shown remarkable range in his film career. He has been nominated for two Academy Awards. But there has always been something effortless about Cooper’s performances, a testament to how good he is, but also the feeling that he never quite bleeds for them. As the director and his close friend David O. Russell observed, Cooper is used to not being taken seriously.
Whatever the reactions to his latest role, in American Sniper—directed by Clint Eastwood and opening in New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, before nationwide release on January 16—a lack of seriousness will not be among them. The subject matter alone, dark and deep and complex, makes that impossible. But maybe that is the problem. Maybe this particular role is too serious. Too out of his range.
All actors have a comfort zone. American Sniper is based on the best-selling book of the same name by navy SEAL Team Three sniper Chris Kyle, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. Kyle served four deployments in the Iraq war and is credited with more confirmed sniper kills than any soldier in American history. The film is anything but comfortable. Not only does it portray Iraq’s most dangerous hot zones with Kyle smack in the middle, it also balances Kyle’s war experiences with his trying to adapt at home as a father to his two children and husband to his wife, Taya, played by Sienna Miller.
There is also the tragedy that, in the middle of the development of the project, Kyle—a national hero and military legend who had had a bounty placed on him by insurgents—was shot to death on February 2, 2013, along with another man, on a shooting range near Stephenville, Texas. Kyle had co-founded a nonprofit called FITCO Cares Foundation, which supplied at-home fitness equipment for emotionally and physically wounded veterans. He was 38 years old. The alleged shooter, an ex-Marine named Eddie Ray Routh, who had served several deployments and was said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, has been charged with capital murder. Kyle, according to reports, had taken Routh to the range at Rough Creek Lodge as a show of camaraderie. It was something he had done before.
Cooper had talked to Kyle on the phone, but he never had a chance to meet him in person. “The terrible beauty of the story is how he died and his death,” Cooper tells me. “If you take that away, it’s a much different story.”
Cooper knew he had to reach a point where his belief in the role he was playing was absolute. To do that he had to inhabit it; learning the accent was only one of the requirements. “I have to believe it,” Cooper says several weeks before the opening of the film. “If I believe it, then there’s a chance you’ll believe it. If I don’t believe it, I’m fucked.”
The best actors all risk failure. But the risk in Cooper’s case is still enormous. Not in terms of career, which is thriving more than ever before, with not only American Sniper opening in December but also the Broadway revival of the Bernard Pomerance play The Elephant Man, in which Cooper plays the grotesquely disfigured John Merrick. But in terms of whether he can reach a new dimension in his acting career.
Whereas so many of his characters have been outward, manic in the midst of manic surroundings, this is a role that was almost completely inward, the tightening of his chin as important sometimes as anything he says. It has to be subtle, textured without histrionics.
So maybe he is fucked.
Bradley Cooper turns 40 next month. He doesn’t look it when you first meet him. There is a disarming boyishness. There are also those Coral Sea eyes that you try not to look at, because you know you will be immediately sucked into the vortex of his eminent and instant likability. He peppers his sentences, sometimes at the beginning and sometimes at the end, with the punctuation of “bro” and “dude” to the point where he should just trademark it.
Although a creature of Hollywood, he spends a significant amount of time in the Philadelphia region where he is from, still hanging out with friends (he calls them “buddies”) he grew up with and went to school with, the home where he was raised in the suburb of Rydal—across the street from the movie theater—still in possession of the family. He grew up in comfort as the son of a Merrill Lynch stockbroker. He went to high school at one of the area’s most prestigious private institutions, Germantown Academy.
He talks with wonderment about the first time he saw the David Lynch film The Elephant Man, at the age of 12—on a red couch in the living room, sobbing and in touch even at that age with the dignity and humanity of John Merrick—and knew he wanted to be an actor. He talks with similar passion about the Philadelphia Eagles and motorcycles. (He has five, and if you didn’t nip it in the bud, he would still be talking about them.) His mind is one of those in a constant state of engagement, obsession over there, obsession over here, curious about this, curious about that. He loves food. He loves the combustion of family gatherings, with his mother’s side of the family Italian and his father’s side Irish.
He talks with quiet pain about the death of his father, Charles, at the unfair age of 71, in 2011. But also with quiet beauty, the “privilege” he felt as he cradled him in his arms one final time and felt his last breath. He wears the wedding ring that his father wore and Cooper never saw him take off.
When asked to describe his mother, he just laughs, the clear suggestion that she is one of those sui philadelphius characters thinking she is six feet tall when she is only five and tiny next to the frame of her six-foot-two-inch son. She is a ham. She is a vintage character.
He got those eyes from his father’s Irish roots. He is obviously good-looking, but at a certain point in his career he was told after an audition that those casting the role had found him “not fuckable” (only in Hollywood . . .). His looks do not exude carnal sex appeal. But, as Russell observed, they have enabled him to “look leading-man-ish in a little bit of a Gary Cooper way” but also to “look weird,” depending on the angle of the shot. Which has made the roles he has gotten, in particular under Russell—Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle—more than one-dimensional hunkfests.
He has benefited from the considerable miles he traveled before stardom, the valley of addiction (he has been sober since 2004), the gnawing restlessness of a career not fulfilled, and the wrenching loss of his father after his horrible bout with lung cancer. They have given him experience and perspective, the equivalent in Hollywood of finding uranium underneath your table at the Ivy as you look for your napkin and wait for the egg whites.
“Losing someone close to me. Going through love and loss . . . knowing what’s important,” Cooper says. “Realizing that the bottom line is that all I got is me, so it’s about time to stop trying to be something that I think you would want me to be. Or that would give me what I think I need. As you get older, thank God, your body deteriorates, but your soul sort of flourishes.
“I see life much more gray as I get older,” he continues. “I was so sort of black-and-white in my late 20s. There’s right and there’s wrong and that’s it. That’s a tough way to live. . . . It’s rare that I judge somebody, really rare. I think people feel that, so it’s sort of easy to get close to somebody if you don’t feel judged by them.”
“Bradley isn’t perfect,” says Todd Phillips, who directed him in the Hangover trilogy, which catapulted him to stardom and a reported $15 million payday for 2013’s final installment. “What I will say about Bradley is how evolved he is. I think it’s because he’s gone through a lot of stuff and a lot of struggle. People respond to that in different ways. The way he responds to that is by constantly evolving. He internalizes it in a way and turns it into evolution.”
There is an I-still-can’t-really-fucking-believe-it aura that suffuses him. “I think there is a part of him that can’t believe this has quite happened . . . this boy from Philly,” says Sienna Miller. “He can’t quite see himself as the world sees him.
“He’s been up and been down,” she goes on. “He has really lived, for sure, but he also has managed to hold on to his child-like innocence. There’s something about him that is very pure.”
There seems to be nothing about Cooper that remotely reeks of actor imperialism. To get to rehearsal in Times Square for The Elephant Man, he took the subway. With the cap on his head ducked down and sunglasses and a backpack containing pumpkin soup, to lose the weight he had gained for American Sniper, he looked like a cross between somebody auditioning for a part on Portlandia and an overqualified courier who has been reading Proust since college.
He didn’t participate much in drama at either Germantown Academy or Georgetown, where he graduated in 1997 with an honors degree in English. Nor did he brim with innate confidence. He played high-school basketball and was good at boxing out opponents with his self-described “big ass.” But he never had the confidence to be the one to get the ball and take the shot. “I was too fucking nervous,” he says. It did not begin to change until college.
He decided to apply to the master’s program at the Actors Studio Drama School, in New York, almost as a lark. He had to audition, so he brought as his acting partner a professor from Georgetown who had no experience. The audition was doomed to imperfection. But James Lipton, who sat in on every applicant audition and was then the dean of the school, was drawn to Cooper’s performance.
“It was imperfect, but I recognized something within him,” Lipton says. “Something discernible . . . a kind of accessibility to himself.” As well as a willingness to dare. “What do you like in an actor? My answer is one word: risk.”
When Cooper, for his master’s thesis, performed four scenes from The Elephant Man for a week, his mother took Lipton aside at one point.
“What do you think? Is he going to be all right?” she asked.
“ ‘He’s going to go all the way,’ ” Lipton responded. “I never predicted that for any other student.”
He had no problems getting jobs after drama school. He had a recurring role on J. J. Abrams’s Alias, played a gay camp counselor in the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, and had a scene-stealing supporting role in 2005’s Wedding Crashers. But something was not right in his late 20s. He devolved into alcohol and drugs. His friends would find him just waking up at two in the afternoon. He ignored his dogs when they needed to be walked. When he went out to dinner he talked only about himself. In August of 2004 he became sober, and he has stayed sober; in the physical transformation for American Sniper he refused to use any stimulants. “I did it naturally because I’ve been sober for 10 years and didn’t want to do anything,” he tells me. “I had a realistic conversation. Can I do this in three months naturally? Can I gain 30 pounds of fucking muscle? I didn’t know if I would be able to do it or not. Thank God—luckily—my fucking body reacted fast.”
In 2006 he appeared in Three Days of Rain on Broadway with Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd. It was “an amazing opportunity” and also a pivotal point in his career. “If this doesn’t work, then I’m not supposed to do this for a living,” he told himself. He contemplated going back to school and getting a Ph.D. in English and teaching literature.
Roberts was the marquee, and the play did not get particularly good reviews. But Cooper had a sizable role that included a roughly 10-minute monologue. It sustained and energized him. A few years later came the same nagging sensation of lack of fulfillment.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the trenches with a director making the movie,” he says. “I always felt that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I always knew deep down that if I’m not going to do that then I’m not too long for this business.”
He turned to the theater again, this time in Williamstown, Massachusetts, starring in The Understudy. On the second-to-last day in Williamstown, he and other potential cast members got an e-mail from Todd Phillips. Six months earlier they had talked about a movie project called The Hangover. But then Cooper heard nothing. Until the e-mail.
“Let’s do this already, bitches.”
The role of Phil, dissolute and cool and careless but fundamentally a good man, launched him. Cooper also got his chance to be part of the process far beyond his own role, diving into the editing room; he displayed a willingness to drop a scene, no matter how good he had been, if he thought it slowed down the narrative. “It’s why he is going to be a great filmmaker,” says Phillips, and Cooper told me that the next stage of his career will be to direct.
Eastwood saw the same thing during the shooting of American Sniper. “He loves to participate,” he told me. “He loves to know everything that is going on. He likes the whole process. I see a lot of curiosity in him. I see a lot of my early self in there.”
“He’d be brilliant, but he’d be a nightmare [as a director],” said Sienna Miller, with the kind of laugh that doesn’t conceal truth. “He won’t let anyone get away with anything.”
Good roles with wonderful actors came in after The Hangover. Limitless, with Robert De Niro. The Words, with Jeremy Irons. The Place Beyond the Pines, with Ryan Gosling. Then, in 2011, David O. Russell, a director as quirky as he is brilliant, came into Cooper’s life with Silver Linings Playbook. He liked Cooper’s prior work but still had the sense that he “wasn’t hitting his range.” Russell remembers them meeting at the Greenwich Hotel, in New York. They talked about the role of Pat Solatano. But Russell remembers that they also talked about “things he had gone through or how he had been guarded or not happy at times in his life.
“He showed me many sides of himself when we discussed my impression of him,” Russell told me. “His response was very open and real. There was a mineshaft of experiences and emotions that he had not put on the screen yet.”
He cast Cooper as Solatano, sweet, mixed up, and mismatched in his bipolarity, yearning for love but looking in all the wrong places. It was by far his most multifaceted role.
“They really took a chance, a big chance,” says Cooper. It resulted in his first Academy Award nomination, for best actor, in 2013.
Following that came another collaboration with Russell, on American Hustle, and another Academy Award nomination, in 2014, this one for best supporting actor, in the role of F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso, beating up his boss one day and wearing hair curlers the next.
He had mastered his artistic niche, a little bit comedic, a little bit terrifying, a little bit off-center. Then he decided to orbit the earth twice.
Cooper loved the American Sniper project when it was pitched to him by the screenwriter Jason Hall. Warner Bros. had previously passed, but on the basis of Cooper’s attachment, the studio purchased the rights to the book in partnership with Cooper’s production company, 22 & Indiana Pictures (named after the corner his father had grown up on in North Philadelphia).
Chris Kyle himself was excited when he sold the rights and learned that Cooper was going to play him, although he did have a caveat: “I’m going to have to tie him to my truck, drag him down the street, and knock some of the pretty off of him.”
Then Kyle was killed without ever meeting Cooper or knowing that his top choice to direct the film, Clint Eastwood, was actually going to make it.
At the end of January in 2014, Cooper and Eastwood flew into the Midlothian area of Texas, near Dallas, to meet Kyle’s wife, Taya, his parents, Wayne and Deby, and his brother Jeff and sister-in-law Amy. Taya Kyle was open and generous, willing to give Cooper anything and everything of Chris’s to make the film as accurate as possible. Wayne Kyle was friendly, but he was also guarded. According to Eastwood, “He was a little bit reticent. I just don’t know whether he knew what to make of it all, kind of going, ‘Who are these Hollywood assholes.’ ”
They also could not have picked a worse time, since it coincided with the first anniversary of Chris’s death. “It’s a year after his son was murdered, and two guys from Hollywood show up and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make a movie about your son,’ ” Cooper remembers. “What the fuck? How surreal is that?”
Typical of Wayne Kyle, a former telecommunications manager with Southwestern Bell and as no-nonsense a person as you will find in a state legendary for no nonsense, he sat across from Cooper and Eastwood at the dining-room table in the house where his son’s wife and children still lived. “I took the bull by the horns and I said I did not like a movie being made about my son,” Wayne says. “I really didn’t like a movie being made about my son when he was not there to have direct control.” The body of Eastwood’s work gave Wayne Kyle reassurance. But, as he put it, “Bradley was a pretty boy and a citified kid. He is an excellent actor, but we really didn’t know much about him.” He also minced no words in saying that if “you do anything to dishonor my son I will unleash hell on you.”
“I knew this was sacred ground that I was on and it was a very special gift that Clint and I got to be there in this house and meet these people,” says Cooper. “It wasn’t lost on us.” Nor was Cooper’s sincerity lost on Wayne Kyle: “I’ve been around livestock all my life. I can smell bullshit.”
It probably wasn’t necessary for Cooper to do the six-page exercise by the time shooting on the film started, last April. During three months of prior preparation, he had temporarily relocated Tim Monich from Connecticut to Los Angeles so they could have two face-to-face sessions of two hours each day except for Saturday and Sunday.
The sessions were in the morning and early evening, sandwiched around two workouts a day of two hours each to gain the 40-odd pounds of pure muscle to resemble Kyle physically. Ideally, Cooper would have had a year. But Eastwood wanted to start shooting in March, before Morocco became too hot.
During his workouts, Cooper listened to the exact playlist that Kyle had when he worked out as a navy SEAL in Iraq in between shifts, sometimes as long as eight hours, enveloped in his own urine because there was no opportunity to take a break when they were targeting insurgents bent on killing American soldiers and suspected collaborators. Kyle is credited with at least 160 confirmed kills.
Cooper bulked up from 185 to around 225. He started eating 5,000 calories a day. He was able at the end to do dead lifts of 415 pounds, five sets of eight reps each.
Former navy SEALs Rick Wallace and Kevin Lacz (he had served two deployments with Kyle) also trained him on how to hold and shoot the various weapons that Kyle utilized. Cooper never equaled the shot from 2,100 yards Kyle once made in Iraq, but he was able to hit targets from 600 yards. Lacz responded the way navy SEALs often respond to superb performance: he said nothing.
Cooper kept in character during the entirety of the shoot. He talked to his girlfriend, the 22-year-old British actress and model Suki Waterhouse, in character. He ordered food at a restaurant one night with dinner companions Miller and Eastwood in character: “Y’all got any red meat?” He argued over another film with producer Harvey Weinstein in character: Harvey, I just gotta tell ya, man, there’s no way that it’s gonna be possible for me to do this.
But it still doesn’t necessarily add up to a great performance. Maybe the expectations are too high. Maybe Bradley Cooper really is fucked.
In November, I saw a 95 percent completed version of American Sniper in Screening Room 5 on the Warner Bros. lot. With the exception of those directly associated with the production, I was the first to see the film. So my response was not influenced by any critical reaction, or for that matter the reaction of anyone.
There were times I squirmed because of the violence and sound and heat of war. There were times I felt physical dread. There were moments when I looked at my watch. There was also a moment when, despite my being staunchly unsentimental, tears came to my eyes.
Whenever Cooper was on-screen, I felt I was in the presence of something absolutely astonishing, not simply one of the best performances of the year but a performance for the ages, the kind that creeps into your soul at all hours of the night.
So maybe he isn’t fucked after all.