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.”)