Published: May, 2009
With the physique—and appetite—of a prizefighter, impeccable comic timing, and a breakthrough role, the bully from Wedding Crashers has Hollywood by the balls.
“Is death or mortality something you think about or you’re fearful of?” Bradley Cooper, the star of The Hangover, asks as he crosses the parking lot of a Ralph’s supermarket in Venice, California, in April. Cooper, best known for playing “Sack” Lodge, the summer-house bully who body-slammed Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers, likes mixing in conversational drop shots like this. Last night, for instance, between his first and second order of steamed clams, he asked, “Do you like people? Do you have an interest in people?”
It’s easy to fall for his big servings of brotherly love, equal parts laid-back L.A. and Philly Italian. According to his mother, this amiability made his schoolteachers so suspicious they used to ask her, “Is your son trying to pull something?” But the thing you forget—at least I did—is that the 34-year-old Actors Studio grad has arrived at the brink of superstardom thanks primarily to his dead-on comic timing. As I launch into a story about a talk I had with my dad on his deathbed a few years ago, Cooper stands by the door of his Mercedes truck listening, unwrapping his recent Ralph’s purchase, and flossing. Halfway through my story he starts moaning: “Oh . . . mmm . . . Wow, was that great!”
He gets into the truck and starts it. “You’re talking about your father’s death!” he laughs, then begins Take 2 of the flossing scene. “‘Oh, man—that clam I just got out. Jesus Christ, Kevin. Oh, that’s bliss!'”
Hollywood careers can start in unexpected places—John Wayne’s first (uncredited) role was an Ivy Leaguer, George Clooney made his film debut opposite an animatronic bear—but Cooper is genuinely surprised that he’s coming in via the comedy entrance. “I’m not even funny at all,” he says. “That’s what’s so ironic.” He leans over the console in his truck. “I’m kidding. I have my reel. I’ll show you.” Then, after a beat, “I’m kidding.” He grew up idolizing Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis, not Bill Murray and Steve Martin. If anything, he says, he felt suited to “Harrison Fordish” real-guy action roles. But the instant he admits this, he sends himself up again. “Just because when I was a kid, I would fake-fight all the time. I was really good at the sound effects. That’s the reason why I thought I could be effective in this business.”
The Hangover, which opens right in time for wedding season, is a departure from the man-boy comedies of recent vintage: Three guys at a Vegas bachelor party wake up on the floor of their Caesars Palace fantasy suite to learn that they’ve lost the groom, along with any memory of the night before. The unlikely trio of leads—Ed Helms (Andy from The Office), Zach Galifianakis (a veteran of the stand-up circuit who has played a bunch of homeless guys), and Cooper—are perfectly mismatched: Helms plays the flustered romantic, Galifianakis the tagalong misfit, and Cooper the instigator with buckets of bad advice. Or as Helms puts it, “the uptight nerd, the weirdo, and the alpha-male cool guy.” Warner Bros. feels so confident about the movie’s box-office prospects that, even before the opening, it signed on for a sequel.
Not bad for a project that most people thought had no bankable star when it went into production. But director Todd Phillips knew better. He expects that after The Hangover people will start seeing Cooper as a leading man instead of just “the asshole boyfriend of the girl,” the sort of part he’s been getting so far. Phillips sees Cooper moving into the kind of territory inhabited by actors named Grant (Hugh, Cary). “The key with any comic actor is the willingness to fail and make a fool of yourself,” he says. “A lot of times, guys that look like Bradley think, ‘Ah, I don’t have to do that. I have this other thing.’ But Bradley doesn’t give a fuck.”
For now, Cooper claims, he never gets recognized anywhere. “I don’t have to curtail my life at all,” he says the morning after our clam feast. “Zero. Zero. Zero.” To the extent that’s true, it’s probably thanks to his hair, which can be completely distracting. In person, his features, a grab bag of wicked good looks—the road-trip scruff, the sniper’s blue eyes, the thin and curling lips, the pointy Shakespearean chin—are pretty much what you see onscreen, but he keeps the hair so operatically disordered that you barely notice the movie star beneath it.
One other reason he never gets spotted: He’s up before anyone else. So that we can burn off some of that seafood by hitting one of his favorite mountaintop runs, Cooper and his G 55 come by my hotel at 6:30 A.M. At that hour, you might bump into a few nature photographers, but not a paparazzo.
In the back of the truck, his two dogs, Samson and Charlotte, bark at empty buses as Cooper zips through the curves on Sunset Boulevard. He got the mutts from a shelter in the Valley seven years ago. “Nobody rescues older dogs,” he says. Cooper was 27 at the time, a newcomer to L.A., just a year or so into his role as Will Tippin, Jennifer Garner’s best friend on Alias. Middle-aged dogs weren’t the only thing in need of rescue. It was a “debaucherous” time in his life, he tells me, and when I point out that the word is a combination of debauched and lecherous, he laughs and says, “Exactly. That’s very specific.”
Cooper is rarely reticent, but he’s a grown-up and maintains a grown-up silence on certain topics. On his short-lived marriage—for four months, ending in 2007, to Jennifer Esposito—he says, “It was an experience.” In most conversational scenarios—jogging, driving around, sharing a meal—he’s very active: He bumps, he gestures, he pivots, he leans in, he throws his head back. It’s all eminently watchable. But when I ask him about dating, he stops the nonsense and pulls up to his full height. He squints, purses his lips, and orders a general shutdown of charm. He says that he’s single and sober but that he’s not going public on these subjects any more than he’d give me Julia Roberts’ phone number (in 1996, the two worked together on Three Days of Rain, the Broadway debut for both of them). Except, as he slaloms down Sunset, to say this: “I was driving here about 3:30 one morning. And these cars flew past me. My instinct was to go and chase them. But it was a time—thank God—when I was sort of changing my lifestyle. And I said, ‘No, man. Let that happen.’ Then, as I’m coming around the bend, I see all this smoke. And one of these poles is down. One car had rammed into it and the other took off. I pulled over and this girl was in the car, and I said, ‘You okay?’ And we called the police. A month before that, I never would have stopped. And I definitely would have chased them.”
The dogs pile out when we reach his canyon trail off Mulholland Drive. Cooper is six feet three, 185 pounds, and none of that is fake-out movie-star muscle: He rowed heavyweight crew at Georgetown. He starts off at an easy, conversational jog on the gravel ridge road, but about a mile and a half later I’ve run out of conversation and he’s just getting warm. “Want to try the mountain route?” he asks, pointing at a steep billy-goat path crisscrossing the peaks on either side of the road. Soon he’s racing away, with his happy rescue dogs, each with 98 dog years of hard living, pacing him over the hills.
“It’s an unusual situation,” Ed Helms says of his Hangover costar. “Bradley is a highly intelligent being wrapped in a hot, studly body.” Zach Galifianakis sees a different side. “He likes to nap,” he says. “He’d come over to my trailer and ask if he could nap near me. It was weird. The first time he did it, I was in my trailer, running my mouth about how my sneakers looked like something Paula Poundstone would wear. After 12 minutes of monologue I look over and I’d bored Bradley into the cutest nap face the world has ever seen. Twenty minutes later he woke up and we chewed tobacco.”
After the run, we drop by Cooper’s house—an indoor-outdoor Craftsman-style one-story that he recently finished renovating. Now that he has a number of projects in the pipeline, he’s finally splurged on some real estate. In addition to The Hangover, this year he’s starring in New York, I Love You and All About Steve, opposite Natalie Portman and Sandra Bullock, respectively. The bathroom has those black meditation pebbles; the front and back yards are stocked with flowering vines and ficus trees, a koi pond (minus the koi, which raccoons got), a Japanese-style hot tub. Except for the two flat-screen TVs, above the fireplace and in the converted garage out back, it’s the kind of L.A. bachelor pad a samurai might live in between shoots.
The walls are hung with art photographs, but half of what he’s got up are old family black-and-whites—of his mom, Gloria, and dad, Charlie, a Villanova basketball star turned Merrill Lynch stockbroker (now retired), of his grandpa Angelo Campano retiring from the Philadelphia Police Department. “Beat cop the whole time,” Cooper says. “Never shot his gun—he was always proud of that. I still have his billy club.” He pulls a scuffed wooden nightstick out of the closet and hands it over. I ask whether his grandfather ever used it on him. “Never hit me,” he says. “But there was a lot of belt threatening.”
Even his appetite is old-school. Every Saturday his grandma Assunta used to make southern-Italian specialties for the following week—handmade pasta, ravioli, cavatelli—and Cooper cooked right along with her. According to his older sister, Holly, cooking was how Bradley spent vacations as a kid. “He’d get up in the morning and make himself a huge breakfast,” she says. “Eat it, clean it up, start making something for lunch, pasta or stromboli, that he’d make himself. Then he’d clean that up and start working on a snack.”
After Cooper inhales a breakfast of two prosciutto-and-egg hoagies (he eats like Roberto Durán after a weigh-in), we talk more about how his big-hearted homemade quality has started to show up onscreen. In some respects, Phil, his character in The Hangover, is right in line with any number of scamps and dickweeds on Cooper’s IMDb page. But, according to Phillips, his star pushed to make an addition to the script—something his character would do at the very end. It’s not spoiling anything to tell you that, like every comedy for the past 500 years, this one has a happy ending: Everyone winds up safe, wedding bells ring, the guys look back at cell-phone shots of it all and laugh. I ask Cooper about the scene. “Yeah, my character says the most horrid things in the movie,” he says. “And I thought, The last scene, I gotta have my kid with me. He’s got to be asleep on my shoulder when we’re looking at photographs.” It’s an everyday gesture, but it makes Phil retroactively likable—the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind seeing in a sequel, in fact. “I know those guys,” Cooper says. “My uncle’s a Phil. He talks this game. You know, he’s Italian. It’s eating, fucking, shitting. That’s my childhood. That’s all people talked about. But the way those men handle the children—it’s just amazing. They pick them up like a chef handling a piece of poultry, but it’s with utter love and care and dominion. It breaks my heart. I thought, I want to be that. You get up, brush your teeth, your kid’s on your fucking shoulder. Don’t make a big deal about it. Then, when my kid’s asleep, I’m drinking a beer, talking about somebody banging chicks in Vegas. You know what I mean?”
© 2009 Details | Written by Kevin Conley | No copyright infringment intended.