Published: June 9, 2011
This is a beautiful time for Bradley Cooper. Not because he is a movie star. That’s fine. No, this is JFK as senator, a time in a man’s life when the future is unpaved but open. It’s enough to make a guy quite nervous.
On a near-spring Sunday evening, on a forgotten block of midtown Manhattan, two young men in a Szechuan restaurant are talking about food and the world. They are in that early-twenties stage of being politically aware and culturally acute but otherwise kangaroos in pouches. On their table are five steaming plates of silken and brown and diaphanous noodles and meats and a bottle of good white. One young man is curly-headed, wearing plaid flannel, and might invent a social network. The other is overweight in a panama hat with the long singular brow of a samurai. If they have had sex recently, it was hard-won.
“Oh, fuck, this has some serious heat to it. The crispy bits. Fuck. Americans have no clue, dude. Lay’s potato chips — you can’t have just one? This is the shit you can’t stop eating.”
“Look at you.”
“I can’t fucking stop.”
They begin to speak of the documentary Inside Job, the utter mindfuck of it. “You took the words right out of my mouth,” one says to the other. The boy in plaid is using chopsticks to stab crispy bits with one hand and a spoon to shovel lobes of tea-smoked duck into his mouth with the other.
“Oh, I also saw Limitless,” says the boy in the brow. The film has been out a week and has grossed $30 million so far. “De Niro,” says the boy, “was fucktastic.”
They pause to celebrate past De Niro films. A freshman NYU course during which Taxi Driver revolutionized the curly-headed boy’s life. Then they bring up the movie’s other star, Bradley Cooper. The boy in the brow is telling his curly friend about a cool scene where Cooper is licking up blood. Really good tension, he says.
“So I should see it?”
“It’s good for a Monday night. But Bradley Cooper, man — I don’t know.”
“You think he’s got staying power?”
“I don’t know, man. But I bet he gets seriously laid.”
In a great room somewhere in Tokyo, Madrid, or Los Angeles, Bradley Cooper has just read that quote and he is smiling and amused. But he is also unsure of how to feel. He has spent a lifetime trying to become dinnertime conversation, but sometimes you get the custom Corvette only to find they have installed Camaro seats.
He doesn’t need a driver, his publicist says. I mean, we will have one waiting there for him, but Bradley doesn’t need to be driven around. He isn’t like that.
At Whole Foods he’s waiting by the entrance in sunglasses and a scarf and old soft pants and a button-down shirt and sneakers. He is leaning against a door and texting and trying not to look like who he is.
“That’s all right,” he says and he smiles, when I apologize for being late. It’s a drawl, a little throaty and ashy and he leans in close when he speaks and we’re deciding what to make for dinner, which is a strange thing to do with a stranger. I was at the wrong entrance and he tells this story about another writer who wrote that he was late when really she was at the wrong noodle bar, and then he walked her to her door after the interview but she said she watched him descend into a subway. How she made him sound like a douche.
“Do you eat squid?” he says. “Why don’t you get a quarter pound of prosciutto, some spinach, and dried currants. I’ll get the squid, and the rest.”
There is an older woman at the olive bar who stabs her friend with a baguette and then motions with her chin. Bradley Cooper is picking out olives, holy shit!
He makes quick and deliberate decisions in choosing food. He is excellent at tennis, and you can see how he plans steps ahead in his mind. He laughs and asks questions, and is engaged while also surveying the future. He says dude a lot but he also says douche. That one is more important.
Limitless came out six days ago, it’s his first starring role, and he’s not playing a best supporting asshole. It has done better than most expected. If you are him, with his face and his hair and his eyes, and you have spent the last dozen years of your life waiting for a breakthrough, then you, Bradley Cooper, have just found it. Like seeing a unicorn in a clearing you have just rubbed your eyes and holy shit, a woman in a fur scarf cares that Bradley Cooper is picking out olives!
Getting here is not simple. One day in the life of Bradley Cooper doing press is violent. It begins at 7:20 A.M. and does not end until 9:15 in the evening. Twenty-one interviews and a movie screening at night. Howard Stern in the morning saying he wants to sleep with your soon-to-be-ex girlfriend. A series of fifteen phone and video conferences for outlets in Australia and New Zealand. On the schedule it says, Each print interview will last approximately thirteen minutes with a two minute turnaround. 5:24: break… 6:53: interviews conclude. The unasterisked irony of a phone interview with Bridget Jones from the Sunday Star Times. Photo opportunity at the New York Stock Exchange. A car will be on hand to take you to Univision — a man named Jorge in Miami is calling you via satellite. It will be translated later. Please know you will have an hour break at some point in your day.
There is a clip I have watched a dozen times, it is from Paris in 1985, Bruce Springsteen is about to sing “I’m on Fire” in a sleeveless shirt and blue jeans and he precedes the song with a fraught story about his difficult father. He is sweating and moved by himself and passion and pain and by the middle of the song, you can feel that this moment is not about a woman or his father or even about his art. It is about realizing himself. It is naked fulfillment.
Bradley Cooper is not Bruce Springsteen in Paris in 1985. But he has something of that throttle. The desire and the need to be someone great. Part of getting there involves shedding old things and recasting yourself. Part of it is timing, and an audience that wants to believe in your transformation. Bradley Cooper is making this stuffed-squid dish tonight, even though in the past his mother warned him against it because it’s too difficult to make. He works very hard, he is nearly compulsive. Because he is on the cusp, this very moment, of becoming one of the men that women today could tell their granddaughters about. Or, he is on the cusp of being redolently regular, another attractive but limited face we will blurrily appraise for five more years on TMZ.
It is this moment, this month, this summer, this year, that is more important than Bradley Cooper, for it is the moment that we women crave being near and you men desire more than you have ever wanted a woman — a man who is building himself, evolving himself, realizing himself, like a snake molting and then climbing and arriving at the penthouse floor of a hotel he used to be the doorman at.
In his twenties Bradley Cooper was a film student and at night he was a doorman. He worked the graveyard shift at the Morgans Hotel in New York. There were votive candles just inside the door that would die every time it opened. He carried a lot of matches and each time a new guest was welcomed, he would scurry to the candles and relight them all and hurry back to the door and open it. The fire would die again, the cycle endured. One evening, he ferried Leonardo DiCaprio up to his room and Bradley Cooper thought to himself, We are worlds apart. He says he did not mean that in terms of DiCaprio, you are famous, and I, Cooper, am wearing a doorman uniform. He says he was referring to art. DiCaprio, then in 1998, was riding the Titanic swells, and Cooper, enrolled at the Actors Studio, was still pinking in the audience when De Niro came in to guest lecture.
Like a lot of young good-looking actors, Bradley Cooper spent a great deal of time in Hollywood chasing candles. You are lit high for a moment and you think it’s your chance and then the glow dies and you are back to a housewife network. You are hosting Treks in a Wild World, or you’re on Kitchen Confidential. You are putting yourself on tape for a role opposite Robert De Niro, and your mom is playing De Niro.
He carries all the bags of food back to my apartment, twenty blocks or more, and he is walking very fast, because he is a fast walker and because he has just broken up with Renée Zellweger and he is wary of cameras and being in magazines for the wrong reasons. In the kitchen he connects his iPod and he is excited about the new Radiohead. He slings a dish towel over his shoulder and finds sauté pans in my cabinets. He lays out the ingredients. He delegates tasks like chopping parsley and cleaning squid. He is careful about everything, he watches to make sure I don’t oversalt. He cleans dishes as he cooks. He understands the strength of his appeal. I burn my hand in hot water, and he takes it in his, and inspects it for burns. He knows how to walk by someone on the way to the stove.
“Do you feel famous?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Since Limitless opened, my agent calls me every morning and asks, ‘Do you feel any different?’ And I’m like, ‘Nope. Do you feel any different?’ ”
He worked in restaurants for the first half of his life, so he knows how much to salt a pot of water and he is good at managing a lot of different things at once.
But! There is a sense of urgency. He is very worried that the whole-wheat spaghetti is going to stick while it waits to be dressed in the squid sauce that is not yet ready. Also, you are thirty-six. You are on the cover of Us Weekly not for your work but for breaking up with another celebrity.
“Thirty-six is a great age for a man, perhaps the perfect age,” I say.
“What about my forties?” And then for the second time, “Do you want to add more oil to that spaghetti?”
He roll-calls a few actors he respects whose names sound only a quarter familiar. They are not in tabloids. They play small but cogent roles and they are not known for being handsome.
“Do you know him?” he asks of one of the great names I have not heard. “See? And he’s a great fucking actor.”
He is aware of his luck, and of his face, how to use what he is known for to remain lit. Fall in love with my looks, fine, but stay with me for my talent. It’s that awareness that makes Bradley Cooper fearful of his career sticking as it waits to be dressed in something that is not quite ready.
The way we come to love our movie stars is funny. Bradley Cooper’s career is mostly out of anyone’s control, including his own. He was a billboard man you didn’t so much notice, like a girl at the dance on a folding chair in a nice dress, as appealing and forgettable as the rest. He was plucked from that lineup for Limitless because he was inexpensive. Ryan Kavanaugh, the CEO of Relativity Media, which is the distributor behind the film, made a bet. It was a small bet on a small film that would not be huge, that would do well enough. But then The Hangover took off. The highest-grossing R comedy of all time, a $467 million return on a $35 million investment. The sequel, The Hangover Part II, has been executed and rushed to theaters this summer. It can’t come out soon enough, because suddenly Kavanaugh’s bet — Bradley Cooper — is off the folding chair and in the middle of the floor, shaking it, and everybody in Hollywood is turning a tinted head.
Kavanaugh reads a giddy e-mail from one of their foreign partners, they say they have simply never had a movie star so amenable to doing publicity. And then in France did you know that he replied to every single question in French! This is true, he gives his whole body to the human at hand, but the inaccurate thing is when it’s described as though Bradley Cooper is doing everybody else — Relativity, his directors — a favor. The raw truth is that Bradley Cooper knows better than anyone that this is his moment. “There is no off switch for his career,” say three of his friends in three separate conversations. He is willing himself into being a star and the way he does that is by always being on, active, and engaged. Even when he is genuinely connecting with someone, he is using his hair and his eyes and tilting his chin and smiling and nodding at your very interesting story.
We’re about to eat dinner with no wine or water and he was going to make this after-dinner digestive of fennel in olive oil. He starts to say it’s an Italian custom, and I say that yes, I know about it … and suddenly the opportunity to impress is over. “Do you think we need it?” he asks.
But slacking, even with a digestive, is like a small harbinger of failure, so he makes it anyway. He arranges the fennel in olive oil and adorns the dish with olives. He plates the stuffed squid on top of the whole-wheat pasta with a corona of steamed spinach. It looks pretty great and he kind of wants me to take a picture.
I say I’m impressed and he replies, “It takes two.” But in general, in life, he only kind of means this. Even as he is awed by a great director, or the work of another fantastic actor, it is hard to separate his appreciation of that person’s talent from Bradley Cooper’s desire to fulfill his ambition.
Sitting down, I ask him how many times he’s been in love. He says, “But really, what do you think about the squid?” He has learned from past interviews what not to do, he has learned to deflect. But he also understands that being too careful negates the opportunity for experience.
After dinner, on the couch, he asks questions quickly, Do you wear heels often, do you walk or take subways or cabs, do you know this band, and his eyes focus in and he is good at being charming. Even as I am trying hard not to be, I am charmed. He takes up the length of my couch and asks some personal things. He is tactile, and a little goofy. He likes soft material, he says his pants are the softest thing he has ever felt. He does not wear deodorant or cologne, he learned when he hosted Treks that the body self-cleans. He is a little lazy when he is allowed to be.
“Oh my God, I am so fucking lazy,” he says. But even his laziness is moderated, because all is about capitalizing on a moment.
I say something about someone from my past that he reminds me of, and he looks into my eyes, and like a movie scene, he says, “I’m not that guy.” And even as I’m thinking, What the hell is he talking about? I’m also nodding. Hypnosis, eyes hair smile. Yes, whatever you say, Bradley Cooper.
But his charm is not quite a player’s game. There is a barer motive, like a man quietly trying to convince himself of the very same thing he is trying to convince his audience.
He admires his peers, like Zach Galifianakis, he says, for the self-fulfillment they have already achieved. “I like the way he walks through life.” He pauses. “I like that line.”
“Are you imagining the way it will look in print?” I ask. Because we have been narrating the story all day: Cooper reaches for the sauté pan and the sea salt. Cooper crosses his legs, and then Bradley Cooper looks out the window at his rising star in the night sky.
He laughs. I like the way he walks through life. “If you have me saying I like the way that sounds, then yeah, that makes me sound like a douche.”
Back in the nineties, there was a sixty-foot-long crew shell sitting in the middle of Georgetown University’s Red Square, with a few rowers and a coach. When you’re recruiting for crew, you look for build and attitude, you want people with a stride and a fire in their eye. You can tell that from a walk sometimes, the way someone has slung a backpack across a shoulder.
Brad Cooper, as he was known back then, had a ponytail, and he was tall and built and gregarious, but there was something else. People who are happy and content, you probably don’t want them to row. Today the coach who recruited Cooper that day says, “The best competitors I’ve ever worked with have always had something to prove. Like most competitors, Brad had to prove that he was worth something. The reason you’re driven to greatness is because you must prove that you can be great. You don’t get that kind of intensity without a price to pay.”
Cooper was an early riser and he had seen the movie Oxford Blues with Rob Lowe and the shell looked cool and he wanted to come back early the next day to try it. The women’s crew team called him Pretty Brad, because of his eyes, which a male friend describes as 1980s rich-asshole eyes. The coach knew what he had.
Today the coach tells the sort of story that becomes legend after someone is famous, of how Cooper left the team to pursue a play but returned near the end of the season, hoping to compete in the big race, the Dad Vail Regatta. The coach said, No, you have not been training, you are not fit. But Cooper entreated, the coach relented, and put him on a boat of leftover guys. It is a glory-days story all the guys will tell with breathless foreshadowing — no reason we should have been where we were, no way we could have come that close. The coach says Cooper was one of the fieriest, most competitive guys he’s ever trained.
“You could see the incredible effort that the other guys — and Brad, of course — were giving, and they were hurling, hurling, and wow! Minnesota still won the race, but it was so close. Afterward, the guys were completely spent, Brad and Gustaf were crying, I said, ‘Guys, that was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever witnessed in rowing,’ and they were shaking their heads in defeat and I said, ‘But you got a silver medal!’ And they cried and said, ‘Coach, that was the best race we were ever in!’ I said, ‘Guys, that was the only race you were ever in.’
“There is a fierce, fierce, fierce fire in that guy,” he continues. There was no better illustration of that than in the last five meters of that race, because he had never seen pulling like that. Cooper was not rowing fit, so where that came from was purely internal. Almost darkly, the coach adds, “That determination of his — nobody should ever underestimate that.”
This is another thing Cooper cannot turn off, the sense that he must always go all the way, fighting some specter of self-doubt. A few years later, Bradley Cooper is on the set of Wet Hot American Summer, a small cult comedy, a band of no-names, not exactly the sort of film for which you excavate your Brando. There is a scene in an equipment shack where Cooper has sex with Michael Ian Black. It was musty in the shed and they kept applying more and more of the glistening balm, to make it look like they were sweating. Cooper lifted off Black’s shirt, and smelled it deeply.
“I remember saying,” says Cooper, ” ‘What if we wear tube socks, and I’ll go up on the wall, and you’ll come from behind me.’ And I said in the scene, ‘Say my name,’ and Michael says, ‘Ben!’ And I say, ‘No! Say my Christian name,’ and he whispers, ‘Benjamin,’ and that’s when I came.”
When director David Wain was rescreening the scene with the sound mixer, he said he wanted to cut the soundtrack, let the scene play raw. The sound mixer let him hear it raw. The sounds that Cooper and Black were making, the intensity — the moans and the breathing — the sound mixer said, “If you play it like this, you will get an X rating.”
Eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning and Bradley Cooper is sleeping. Russell Crowe is Robin Hood on the television and there has been another day of Limitless publicity in between and Cooper is tired. Five days earlier, Entertainment Weekly declared that “A Serious Movie Star Is Born.” He is on his side and unshaven and not snoring and smiling.
Tomorrow morning he will fly to Berlin, and then to Madrid, Copenhagen, Rome, Paris. He will say that more often than he has heard that he is good-looking, he has heard that he is unfuckable. Asleep on this couch, there is nothing imperfect.
Earlier, he sat back in a chair at the kitchen table and asked, “What else do you want to know?” He ate two or three bagels quickly. He spread cream cheese on half of one and handed it to me. There’s a warm vulnerability. His father passed away this year. He moved in with his parents in his hometown, Philadelphia, for his final five months. He took his father to an Eagles playoff game on a Sunday and he died the following Saturday. On Cooper’s right hand he wears his father’s wedding ring. He has brought his mother to live with him in his new home in Los Angeles.
“I love having her,” he says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He was very close to his father, and now he is closer than ever with his mother. He asks her to go everywhere. He is going to spend a month in Paris with her. He gets depressed, he has anxiety. He used to be afraid of death, mortality, until his father died.
When he speaks about his family, he is serious, he does not smile as much or make eye contact. He looks inside refrigerators. His hair is short-long, and he has the beginnings of a beard and some of the hairs are gray. There’s a wall, because there’s a fear of showing the side of the man that we have not yet seen on the screen.
But right now he knows, more than anybody knows, that he is in transition. That he can make it one way, or another way. The desire to please is not because he is afraid of being disliked. He has always been popular. It comes, rather, from wanting it so badly. Stanley Kubrick is his favorite director. He wants to act in stark things, like Blue Valentine, which he saw yesterday. Instead he is in Us Weekly for having broken up with another celebrity. But that people care who he is dating or who he is not dating, surely this is a sign that people at least care.
No, he says. “Being in Us Weekly does not make you famous. Paul Thomas Anderson does not read Us Weekly and go, ‘Hey, look at this guy! I want this douchebag in my next film.’ ”
So when Bradley Cooper is self-deprecating — when he refers to himself as unfuckable — there is truth to his fear that it is, indeed, the truth. In his acting, the striving that skitters beside the winking confidence is real. He is afraid of being unfuckable by great directors, and by audiences and critics who matter. This fear is an aged thing. His mother says she doesn’t understand. She asks him why he tells the media that he wasn’t popular or attractive growing up, and he’ll say, “Mom, that’s how I feel.” As a child, she says he was always stared at. Everywhere he went, people thought he was gorgeous. Today, she continues, CNN loves him, people on the street love him. He has hung out now with two presidents, and they want to have lunch and dinner with him.
Still, there is a nervous ego. He takes praise like someone who needs it while he tries to make you feel like he needs you.
“I’m really glad you said that about Ben,” he says, when I tell him his character in He’s Just Not That Into You was likable. He is really glad I said that about Ben.
This is a beautiful time as much as it is a hard time. This is JFK as senator, a time in a man’s life when the future is unpaved but open into forever and limitless. It is somewhat up to him, and he is doing everything to run it his way, but for the part that is not up to him, he has to wait and watch, on couches and from covers of tabloids. He must still carry matches.
“So how does this work?” he asks. “Like, how are you going to write this? Are you writing what I’m doing right now?”
He just did another interview with someone and they talked about music for four hours, but none of that went into the story. He laughs and says, “Dude, where the fuck was the four hours of music talk?”
When he leaves my apartment, he’ll return to the Greenwich Hotel, to sleep more, unless he can motivate to go to the gym. I say he has been on hidden camera this whole time, and he says had he known, he would have gone to the gym sooner. The hotel, which is De Niro’s hotel, is his favorite in the world. He has not been to all of them yet, and he loves what he knows. He watches Morning Joe and has been on it a few times. Obama, he says, is my boy. He is like other newish celebrities like this. The political puppyishness, the wanting to appear on Bill Maher but not having been asked. No matter how great and high a man gets, there is always a higher tier. There is always a skill set to desire. Actors want to be directors and directors want to be CEOs and CEOs want to write screenplays. But beyond that, Bradley Cooper wants to realize Bradley Cooper, fully and irrevocably. That much is sure, the dedication is naked, but the question is, what level of a man and a star will the name Bradley Cooper mean?
After the bagels he retires to the couch, to watch television. He is almost longer than the couch but he is good at getting comfortable, and he falls asleep for a little while and when he wakes up, his inaugurated eyes focus on the screen. His friend’s band is playing from his iPod in the other room, and Russell Crowe is silent but acting.
Half asleep but self-aware, Bradley Cooper whispers, “Russell Crowe. Shit. He is. Next level.”
© 2011 Esquire | Written by Lisa Taddeo | No copyright infringment intended.