Bradley Cooper is not not happy to be on the press tour for “A Star Is Born,” the movie he specifically, exactingly, meticulously, perfectionistically, obsessively directed, co-wrote and stars in. In fact, he’s very not not happy! He worked so hard on this movie.
Every detail of it comes from a true thing — something he’s learned, something he’s seen, something he knows for sure. It’s such hard work to try for something true and to get it right, and maybe he’s succeeded.
What a huge bet this was; what a long haul it’s been; what a full-on occupation of the last four years — years in which he, after an Oscar nomination for “American Sniper,” had his pick of just about any role he wanted. Years in which his heart was consumed by little else. How could he not be excited for people to see it?
“This is the joyous period,” he told me.
This is the third remake of the movie, the story of the big male star who plucks the little woman from obscurity and watches her celebrity and relevance rise above his, to tragic consequences. Each one is slightly different, a reflection of the filmmaker himself — the way different chefs can make a roast chicken at different levels of transcendence. Mr. Cooper liked that. He liked that there was an opportunity to reflect himself in there: his romantic view of creativity, his despair of what commerce can do to art. He liked that it was a love story above all those things.
He created Jackson Maine in that image: an earnest, rootsy, behatted rock star whose weary, substance-compromised heart can’t bear to see the star-making machinery overtake a sincere, poetic message — a character from another time who is reminiscent of Neil Young or John Fogerty or Cher-husband-era Gregg Allman, but is none of those guys exactly. Could a musician like Jackson really draw giant crowds in 2018 the way he does in the movie? It doesn’t matter. It’s taken on with such grand, Hollywood sexiness that it’s easy, when you’re watching it, to just round up.
Jackson is not so much jealous of Ally, the character Lady Gaga plays, like in previous incarnations of the movie, but he bemoans how the industry strangles her ability to say the kind of things she did when he found her singing “La Vie en Rose” in a drag bar.
Now, maybe you’ve guessed at all this because you are one of the more than nine million people who have seen the trailer (or one of the people who has seen the trailer nine million times). Yes, the trailer, which was the closest thing we’ll ever get to a trailer song of the summer: two and a half minutes of such electricity that it immediately became the subject of actual think pieces and social media obsession and maybe a meme or 12. If you haven’t watched it, let me see if I can conjure some of it from memory.
Let’s see, let’s see: Sultry, longhaired, slightly unwashed Bradley Cooper singing into a mic, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” then walking off the festival stage in his big, brown hat, and into a car and drinking. More lyrics: “It takes a lot to change a man; hell, it takes a lot to try,” then tinnitus tones come in like an alarm. Shirtless hearing test, Dave Chappelle, nightclub, more shirtless hearing test, more Dave Chappelle, walking into what may be a recovery meeting, following Ally onstage, a conversation about songwriting — She doesn’t sing her own songs! She thinks she’s ugly! He thinks she’s beautiful! — then:
Falling in love quick takes, he tells her to come onstage — No way, man— and he says, “All you got to do is trust me!” then she does and oh my God! Songwriting, motorcycle, private jet, single tear, Sam Elliott head grab, rocking, face in hands, crescendo: “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I’ll never meet the ground!” Punch, sex, blackout, him and her walk off the bus, she puts the hat on, he puts his arm around her.
If I remember correctly.
So yes, Mr. Cooper is very excited to finally reveal this labor of love, this Everest of accomplishment. The things he’s not so excited about — the things that maybe if he had his way he wouldn’t do — involve the ways a person is expected and obligated to share it. Meaning, he’s not really excited to sit down and explain the thing.
Which brings us to a hotel in the West Village, a corner booth, him fingering his aviators on the table in front of us, where he is willing to tell me a lot about his movie, where he is willing to share the same set of facts about its making that he’s shared with many, many, many other reporters, but he is not willing to go much further. He doesn’t like my questions about the particular inspiration for certain details in the movie. He doesn’t like questions about his personal life and how it might relate to the big, sexy music movie I’d just seen.
These were typical interview questions. I wanted to talk about Mr. Cooper’s own sobriety, and how it was reflected in Jackson’s drug and alcohol addiction. I wanted to talk about fatherhood — how Mr. Cooper has both lost his father and become a father in the last few years — since fathers haunt the movie. I wanted to talk about love. But he wasn’t having it.
Listen, he said to me. I seem nice. He gets that I’m just doing my job. But he’s not going to get personal with me. He has to promote his movie — he wants to promote his movie — but beyond that? What would telling me anything truly personal really do? “I don’t necessarily see the upside of it. You know? I don’t.”
A double espresso he ordered arrived at the table.
“You know, here’s the thing,” he said. Then he smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile, more like a resigned one. “The experience was so incredible, it was such a wonderful, wonderful experience, that it can only go downhill.”
What can I say to this? It’s fair. He’s just spent four years with seemingly total control over a product. Every word, every image, every shirt, every song, every typeface for the credits, all signed off by him. I spoke with his co-stars and associates, they all used very glowing words to describe his assiduous attention to detail, his commitment to authenticity and all the other words we have that mean “control freak.” Now he’s going to relinquish that control to me?
People want to know, I tell him. People want a deeper sense of where the movie came from. He wanted to show a piece of himself in the movie. This is an extension of that, I told him.
“It’s different,” he said. “This is because you’re creating content.”
“But it’s your story,” I told him.
“But you’re doing it,” he said.
“I’m going to write your story,” I said.
“I won’t have any control, and it really isn’t a collaboration.”
Sure it is. That’s why I’m asking questions.
“You have all the say,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going to show it to me and say, ‘Let’s work on this section.’ You know what I mean?”
So he sat back and told me the same things he told everyone else, and I took notes and then spoke to some people who know him. Here’s what I came up with:
He grew up loved, in Philadelphia, in a house full of music: Tom Waits and Bob Seger and Billy Joel and Mario Lanza and Led Zeppelin and Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky and Prince. His father was a stockbroker and his mother worked at an NBC affiliate and then raised her family. He had a bedroom full of Phillies and Eagles banners and a ton of toys. He’d lie on his stomach with the little army guys he loved placed across his area rug, putting objects beneath the rug and changing its topography for their battles — his first directing gig.
He always liked performing. He played the upright bass, its neck sticking out of the window of the family Cadillac as he was driven to school. He was 12 when he saw “The Elephant Man” and knew right then he wanted to act.
He was a good student. He graduated from Georgetown cum laude. He went to the Actors Studio for his M.F.A. in acting and received a special commendation as the star question-asker of “Inside the Actors Studio” — of many actors whom he’d go on to star alongside. It was there that he met his beloved mentor, Elizabeth Kempli, who died in 2017 and to whom “A Star Is Born” is dedicated. He felt that once he met her, he was finally able to relax, for the first time in his life. He gave those classes everything he had. It reminded her of something her mentor, Elia Kazan, had once told her, which was that he’d only wanted to work with people who make their work the most important thing in their lives.
He moved to Los Angeles in 2000 after he landed his role on “Alias.” He asked J.J. Abrams, the show’s creator, to send over VHS copies of the dailies to Mr. Cooper’s home. He wanted to see how people like Carl Lumbly and Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin approached screen acting. He’d shadow Ken Olin, one of the show’s directors, and sit in the editing room, trying to learn how TV and directing work.
He tried to find the truth in every character. “Once you get that fire inside you to tell the story, everything’s personal. So, you have to bring up everything. Whenever you create a character, at least for me, you have to find anything you can to tell the truth, right? So, yeah, you’re always working off of yourself.”
He did it in his first film role in 2001, “Wet Hot American Summer.” He did it in a small part in 2010’s “Valentine’s Day.” That same year, he did it when he played Face in “The A-Team,” a character that is so superficial that he’s called by a body part. Even then, he dug.
Ms. Kemp had told him, “All that stuff you’ve always been ashamed of, you’re now going to turn that into your art, and it’s going to heal you, and also make it meaningful, and a productive thing.’” Everyone could heal him — Face could heal him!
All the while, he got to learn under his directors: Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” trilogy) and Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper”) and David O. Russell (who directed him toward his other two Oscar nominations, for “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook”). All the mundane stuff about directing, he loved it. He got to the point where he understood the machinery. He was ready. People told him to direct a pilot or a commercial to get his feet wet, but he didn’t want to. He needed skin in the game.
After the blockbuster success of “The Hangover,” he never had to do a movie he didn’t want to again. He took all the work seriously. Directors saw him as someone who worked in the tradition of a 1970s actor, like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and John Cazale. But by the time he finished “American Sniper,” he had been feeling like he’d done enough acting. He loved it, he loves it. He still plans to do it. But it was time to do more.
“I guess I felt like I wasn’t utilizing all of myself,” he said.
But it wasn’t easy to get someone to hand him a project. Some people told him that he was an actor and nothing else. Even in acting, people would just try to cast him in roles that were exactly like the ones he’d just played. People don’t really know how to look at a person. “Because you’re like, ‘I have these big dreams, and I feel these things.’ Is that all wrong? Like, shame on anybody that’s going to tell you who you are. That angers me. It’s like, someone’s going to tell you who you are, what you’re capable of. Like, what?” Then he pitched “A Star Is Born” to Warner Bros., and whatever happened in that room made the Warner people hand over $38 million before marketing costs.
That’s why you have to believe in yourself, he decided. That’s why you can’t let people tell you who you are. They aren’t even trying to be malicious. They just truly believe that each person gets one dimension.
He’s intense and smart and named four books I hadn’t heard of within three minutes of sitting down, including “Cain’s Book” by Alexander Trocchi and “Beware of Pity” by Stefan Zweig. He talks about 5 percent faster than my personal processing speed. He wore a long chain around his neck and the things that hung on it were: his late father’s wedding ring, a cooking talisman that he wore in “Burnt,” Jackson’s ring and a little flower that his partner, the Russian supermodel Irina Shayk, gave him. He wore a Stand Up to Cancer shirt that I could barely see in the glare of his irises, which are the blue of a swimming pool in a tropical vacation brochure. (Do you know that they Photoshop the blue to make it bluer? Do you know that they do that to fill you with longing?)
In terms of the pantheon of Mr. Cooper’s movie characters, he seems most like Eddie in 2011’s “Limitless” after he takes the first pill that makes him a model of efficiency, intelligence, erudition and culture, but before he begins taking two a day and starts falling off a cliff. The intensity manifests itself mostly through a precision of speech and memory and also by him refusing to make a joke, or to acquiesce to one, lest I misuse a quote from him, though people who know him well told me he’s funny. (“I think with interviews, actors and directors, everyone has been burned before,” Mr. Phillips told me, as Mr. Phillips himself taped our conversation, lest I misuse any of his quotes.)
“There’s always been, like, six characters I’ve always thought I can play in my life,” Mr. Cooper said. “And one of them is a musician.” The others are a soldier, which he played in “American Sniper;” the Elephant Man, which he played onstage from 2014-2015; and a chef, which he played in “Burnt” and in “Kitchen Confidential.” The other two he won’t tell me.
In 2011, “A Star Is Born” belonged to Mr. Eastwood, who directed “American Sniper.” Beyoncé was attached, but then her first pregnancy reportedly delayed filming and ultimately, there were too many scheduling conflicts to proceed. Mr. Eastwood talked to Mr. Cooper about the role, but Mr. Cooper was hesitant. He was 36; he didn’t think he could play someone that weathered.
“I knew I would be acting my balls off to try to be what that character was, because I was just too — I just hadn’t lived enough, I just knew it,” he said.
On the last day of filming “The Hangover Part II,” in 2011, he flew home to take care of his father, who was dying from lung cancer. Mr. Cooper had been caring for him in the year before leaving for Thailand for filming, and now it looked like it was the end. He went home, took his father to an Eagles game, and two weeks later, he held him in his arms when he took his last breath. When he told me that, his arms were in the formation they’d been in when his father last lay in them. Right then, he looked down where his father had been, and then back up at me.
In that moment, everything changed for him. “It’s a new reality,” he said. “Everything, everything. It’s not even one thing, it’s a whole new world. And it was instantaneous. It wasn’t like, months later. It was like, his last exhale, and I was holding him, and it was like, everything changed.”
Instead of taking as many good roles as he could find, he decided to apply an even more stringent standard of perfection to his work than before. He signed on to do “The Elephant Man” on Broadway and in London.
By 2015, he felt ready to play the role in “A Star Is Born.” Now he looked in the mirror and saw it. “Honestly,” he said. “I could see it on my face. I just felt it.”
But Mr. Eastwood had moved on. Then one evening, Mr. Cooper watched Annie Lennox sing “I Put a Spell on You” on TV. That night he had a dream about the opening scene of the movie. The actual beginning of the movie is not what he dreamed, but he won’t tell me what it was because maybe he’ll use it if he’s ever allowed to make another movie. Anyway, he pitched his “A Star Is Born” to Warner Bros. the next day.
He wanted to make a version of the movie in which the man isn’t jealous of the woman. He wanted it to be closer to the truth of the way things generally go with people: They fall in love and begin to heal, but eventually it becomes clear that love cannot heal you completely.
He still needed to find his born star, his Ally. He attended a celebration for the opening of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Sean Parker’s house in Los Angeles — Mr. Cooper has been involved in cancer benefits since his father died — and that’s where he saw Lady Gaga perform “La Vie en Rose.”
“My mind was blown,” he said.
She was plutonium, he thought. She would be the thing his movie had that no other movie had. He called her agent and asked for a meeting. He went to her home in Malibu and there was a piano in the living room.
“She was so open,” he said. He asked her if they could sing a song, and he began to sing “Midnight Special.” They downloaded the sheet music and sang it together, with her on piano. After one verse, she stopped him and began to record a video on his phone.
Mr. Cooper spoke about how much he admired Lady Gaga and how close they became. They spent months preparing and building their relationship, building heat and connection together. When I spoke with her on the phone, she referred to a scene in which Jackson and Ally get into a fight while she’s taking a bath. He’s drunk and calls her ugly — a soft spot for her character, and as anyone who has followed Gaga’s career knows, herself. The moment isn’t in the script, and her devastation is real. “We left a space for there to be both love and hurt at the same time,” she told me.
Mr. Cooper made it his goal to create a world inside the movie as authntic as Ms. Gaga was. “The world had to match her, because if the world’s not authentic, and then you have this authentic person in it, it’s going to, like, destroy the whole film. So, I just knew that I had to literally become the real guy, and the movie had to be, had to look like the real thing.”
He learned how to play the guitar. He learned how to play the piano. Not just enough to be convincing onstage — enough to be a professional musician.
Now he needed to find a sound for Jackson Maine. He didn’t want it to be too country. He didn’t want it too exactly anything, because he didn’t want to isolate Jackson in a genre. One thing he did want: The Jackson of his dreams was a particular kind of guy, “an archetypal guy, an indelible guy,” and he didn’t really sound like Bradley Cooper. He realized he had to drop his voice by an octave, so he went to work with a vocal coach.
“Your voice is everything as an actor,” he said. “It’s everything. It’s everything. And if you’re not connected to your voice, it’s over. It’s impossible. It’s like plugging in the electrical cord to truth, right?”
At first, Mr. Cooper was only able to use his new, deeper voice if he hunched his neck forward. Then it became easier, but man, it hurt at first. He began to listen to Sam Elliott interviews — this was the voice he wanted. This even before he had Mr. Elliott over to dinner to ask him to play his brother, Bobby.
When his voice was truly ready, he filmed at the Glastonbury Festival in England, right before Kris Kristofferson, who co-starred in the 1976 “A Star Is Born.” He filmed at the Stagecoach Festival, and onstage at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. His mission throughout was this: Be authentic. Tell the truth. A musician (naturally, he won’t tell me who) told him, “‘You better create a character that meets the standards of what it is to be a rock star because no one’s ever gotten it right.’”
He wanted to make a movie about a man who wears his hat all the time except for when he’s singing — usually musicians wear their hats to sing but take them off afterward. Not Jackson. He’s only vulnerable on a stage. He wanted to make a movie about a man who had something to say and held himself and the people in his life to the rigors of that ethic. “What he says in the bar is, you know, ‘Talent’s everywhere, you know, everybody’s talented at one thing or another, but having something to say and a way to say it, that’s a whole other bag.’ I believe that, you know what I mean?’”
He learned to understand his characters through his dreams, particularly the dream workshop he learned from Ms. Kemp. He created rituals for his character by “tapping” into his subconscious. In the movie, Jackson smashes an OxyContin with his boot, an idea that came out of just this method.
This is all great, I told him. It’s good information. But now I had follow-up questions, ones based on clues from the movies and biographical information I know from previous interviews — was anything inspired by a specific relationship? What was he thinking in that final devastating scene?
These are the questions that annoy him. Do I really want to know about his love life? Do I really want to know what specific thing he was thinking in that scene? Do I really want to know about his sobriety, and the events that led to it?
Uh, yes, I said. I suggested that people like to know the artists behind the art — my job hinges on this notion.
He thinks that’s silly. “Any time you do anything, you have to find personal things of yourself, but no, I mean, I felt like I was him. I wasn’t, like, going, like, back to a moment of my life in that scene.”
The movie isn’t about him in that way, he said. It’s just by him and of him. There’s no one-to-one correlation of events in his life to events in the movie. There’s no one-to-one correlation of emotion, either, and in the parts that are specific, well, they’re for him to know. He made the movie to contribute to humanity, to speak to a viewer in the audience. He made it because creating art helps us heal one another. “That’s the whole point of creating art, trying to somehow deal with the desperate reality of being alive, you know?”
O.K., I say. O.K. But what are we healing from? What was the wound? What was your wound?
All he’ll say is this: “The wound was just the wound of being a human being.”
Once again, I tried to draw the lines: So time is breathing down your neck and you realize you must do something hugely ambitious? No, he says, not really. Or maybe there’s some catharsis in acting out demons? Not exactly.
I have a story to write, I told him. I’m not sure what to do. Coming back with a good story is my thing, I said. He saw I was dismayed, and again, I seemed nice, so he tried to explain it. “It’s wonderful that people want to ask me questions. I just find that no matter how much time we spend together, it’s only by spending time and doing something with somebody that you start to get to see how they work and how they interact with other people and who they are, you know? You couldn’t get to know me in this scenario just as much as I don’t know who you are.”
I told him I was going to see the movie again. He gave me his number and told me to call him if I had any questions about the movie or the songs in it. He was nice, too. He just didn’t want to be known the way I wanted to know him.
It was time to go. He took out his phone and asked me to shut off my tape recorder. He played me the “Midnight Special” video with Lady Gaga. In it, his voice is not yet as good as it would become, but he was reaching far down into his body for it. Later, Mr. Phillips told me that about two years ago, he was meeting with some Warner Bros. executives and Mr. Cooper walked into the office. He asked if anyone wanted to hear him and Lady Gaga sing, and he sat on the floor and played this very video to show them how excited he was to cast her. They watched him watch the video, the way I did, seeing that he had become an organ of his own movie — its heart and its skin.
We watched the whole five minutes of the video. His face was smiling and giddy while he saw it for the thousandth time.
“A Star Is Born” is a portrait of self-destruction. It’s a story of love between two superstars and the codependence that festers between them. It’s about being cruel to people you love. It’s about the lure of the drunken haze and the way people can enable you. Ally’s rise doesn’t diminish Jackson’s star; he is the agent of his own ruin.
I saw the movie again, and then I reread my transcript, and this time I understood. The movie is about all the things above, but mostly it’s about the way that commerce interferes with art — how people who aren’t artists pretend to know what art is, and how an artist has to protect himself from what the machine asks of him. Meaning that, in its own way, it’s also about this profile.
Maybe what he was saying was that the movie tells me everything I need to know about him and what he values and who he trusts. It tells me what happened to him in the past to make him reticent about being open with someone who is trying to make her own art out of his story — so that she can heal her own wound on her own terms, and, well, he’s the director now. He told me all of this. I just didn’t know how to hear it.
He had told me, “The stories that exist in this story, it comes from a very deep personal place and that’s the only way that I know how to communicate with many people.” And I took it as avoidance.
He told me: “I don’t know who Martin Scorsese is as a human being, but I don’t actually want to know, but I feel that his movies feel very, very personal and they affect me and my hunch is he’s working out of a very personal place.” And I took that as a rebuke for wanting information.
He told me: “And my hope is that — and that’s the thing about art — in creating this story you did learn a lot about me.” And I took that as a half-assed apology for not really talking to me about his life.
But he wasn’t rebuking me. He wasn’t avoiding me. He definitely wasn’t apologizing to me. He was just telling me that I’m asking the wrong questions. He could tell me about his sobriety. He could tell me about what his father’s death meant. He could tell me about his baby and his relationship. But that’s just information. If you really want to know him, you can’t sit with him and ask him. You have to watch his movie. You have to feel it. You have to be willing to accept answers that are spiritual and not literal.
Here is his movie, Mr. Cooper was telling me. Here is the out-of-the-past character who is a shout-out to a time when an artist could take himself seriously, like the actors he so admired. Here is the allegory of the chokehold of marketing. The not explaining himself to me is the message. The not explaining to me is who he is.
And yet. I can’t help but think that there’s value to having been more forthcoming. People read these kinds of stories for the same reason they go to the movies — because they’re curious about how a person shows up in a performance or a script or a shot. They read these so that they can find themselves in someone else’s story, and feel a little less lonely in the world. Though it is consistently pronounced dead, the celebrity profile, when done well, is a real tool for understanding ourselves and the world we occupy. It accomplishes exactly what it was that Mr. Cooper set out to do with the movie. Some people are forthcoming. Some aren’t. Look carefully, though. The people who aren’t are telling their own particular story with their reticence. Like I said, coming back with the story is our thing.
After we spoke, Mr. Cooper went to film festivals in Venice and Toronto. He continued his press tour. He attended his premiere. He doesn’t yet fully know if his gamble worked; he doesn’t read reviews. He watched those audiences (the crying, the laughing, the seat-dancing), and he took their questions about how much he loves Lady Gaga and about how hard it was to change his voice, but they were all beside the point. His hat was back on by then.
Source: New York Times
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