Bradley and his “The Elephant Man” Broadway co-stars Alessandro Nivola, and Patricia Clarkson are featured in Vogue’s December 2014 cover (with Amy Adams on the cover). We have added the photoshoot outtake and magazine scans in our gallery.
Bradley Cooper—in the role that inspired him to become an actor—leads an ensemble production of The Elephant Man on Broadway.
Extreme beauty and extreme ugliness have a similar effect on us: We can’t seem to turn our gaze from either. Perhaps that has something to do with why it’s become customary for unusually handsome actors to play disfigured historical characters, from Daniel Day-Lewis as the cerebral-palsy sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot to Eddie Redmayne as the wheelchair-bound Stephen Hawking in the recently released The Theory of Everything. Onstage, the go-to part in this category for the last 35 years has been John Merrick, the horribly deformed Victorian Englishman at the heart of The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s durable 1977 biographical drama. This month, Bradley Cooper follows in the lurching footsteps of a long line of easy-on-the-eyes leading men, including David Bowie and Billy Crudup, to don a white loincloth, contort his features, and—without the help of makeup or prosthetics—bring to life the benighted, misshapen man who became the toast of 1880s London society, as The Elephant Man returns to Broadway.
Cooper has the requisite star power (The Hangover) and acting chops (Silver Linings Playbook) for the role. And coming off playing Navy SEAL Chris Kyle under the direction of Clint Eastwood in the upcoming American Sniper, he has an affinity for playing real-life heroes. “It’s the most fulfilling feeling as an actor,” Cooper says. “You’re taking responsibility toward this other guy’s life. It frees up so much energy to pursue it, because it’s not about you.”
The role has special meaning for Cooper, whose connection to Merrick goes back to his boyhood in Philadelphia, where, after seeing a VHS of David Lynch’s version of the story at age twelve, he decided to become an actor. “I was entranced by the filmmaking and the performances and just crushed by the plight of this guy,” he recalls. Years later, as a graduate student at the Actors Studio, he discovered Pomerance’s play and, after obsessive research—including making his own chart of Merrick’s physical maladies and traveling to London to walk the halls of the hospital where he spent his final years—put on an excerpt as his master’s thesis. And while Cooper concedes that his performance “might have had some room for improvement,” he remembers it as “cathartic” because his father—a working-class Irish kid from North Philadelphia who had made good and put his son through Georgetown—was in the audience. “I remember him hugging me afterward and sort of shaking in my arms,” Cooper says. “And he just said, ‘You picked the right profession.’ That meant the world to me.”
When we meet Merrick in the play—which was staged at Williamstown two summers ago under the direction of Scott Ellis (You Can’t Take It with You), with Cooper and the same sterling cast that’s coming to Broadway—he is a freak-show attraction. After his horrifying looks almost spark a riot in the streets, Merrick is taken in by Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), an ambitious young doctor who cares for him at the London Hospital and introduces him to an actress, known only as Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson). Kendal, who manages to hide her initial revulsion, develops a tight bond with him, discussing Romeo and Juliet and, in a moving act of compassion, taking off her blouse to give him his first and only glimpse of a woman’s body.
Though the play itself is filled with neo-Brechtian conceits and barbed attacks on Victorian hypocrisy and cant, Ellis is less concerned with social commentary, and his stripped-down production aims to remove a distancing layer of theatrical artifice. “I want to make it almost a kitchen-sink drama, as if you’re right there in the room with them,” he says. “And I really want to make it a chamber piece, because it’s a triangle—a love story among the three of them.”
As Treves, an up-and-coming paragon of the English gentleman, Nivola (last seen on Broadway in The Winslow Boy) is both Merrick’s savior and his rival. “It’s hard to believe that Treves is sexually jealous of the most deformed man in history, but he is,” Nivola says with a laugh. “Merrick and Mrs. Kendal have this profound connection that’s very upsetting to him—they’re both part of this alternative society of circus freaks and theater people—and he’s in love with Merrick, platonically, as well. It’s a sort of Victorian Jules et Jim.”
The smashing, sultry-voiced Clarkson, returning to Broadway after 25 years, is known for both her impeccable craft and a willingness to give herself over to a character. “I think that Merrick awakens something so deep in Kendal, something so vulnerable—a true, real love for another human being,” she says. “And it’s a very personal journey: I have to bring my own depth and sadness onto the stage every night. Like her, I’m a woman of a certain age; I’m an actress; I’ve had and lost love. All the things that life has and hasn’t offered me, all the things that I have had to come to terms with—that’s what I have to bring onstage.”
Though this production may be an ensemble piece that focuses on human relationships over stage tricks, our experience of the play will depend on Cooper’s ability to reveal the inner life of this broken man, and on his gift for self-transformation—especially in the scene when, as Treves outlines the symptoms of Merrick’s malady, he becomes the Elephant Man before our eyes. “You start out watching a normal man—me—becoming this freak, and then once you’ve given yourself over to the illusion, you slowly start to see him as a normal man beneath the skin,” Cooper says. “And from there, you start to identify with him, to see him as yourself. It’s a very interesting ride, and we’re asking you to suspend your disbelief in a very stripped-down, nuts-and-bolts way.” And that’s pretty much the essence of theater, isn’t it?