EXCLUSIVE: You would be hard-pressed to find two more unalike human beings, not to say heroes, than Chris Kyle—dubbed “Legend” by his fellow Navy SEALS—and Joseph Merrick, known throughout late 19th-century London as the Elephant Man: One, a slab of Texas masculinity groomed for the war machine as a sharpshooter in Iraq; the other a specimen of nature gone cruel in the face of a forgiving God, his tortured body a twisted mess of bone and hanging flesh concealing a mind grown acute with wisdom after a life spent observing the worst depravities and greatest kindnesses of Victorian society.
And yet here is Bradley Cooper, now beyond the cusp of stardom yet about to open simultaneously in both roles: On screen as Chris Kyle in American Sniper, the Warner Bros. Christmas Day release, for which he bulked up some 40 pounds and grew out a full beard; and on Broadway as Merrick (named John Merrick in the play), spending two hours onstage—frequently in little more than prim shorts—contorting his face and body so convincingly that he requires no makeup, only the ministrations of a physical therapist to keep him loose for eight performances a week over the next few months.
The box office success of three Hangover movies and the acclaim from his performances in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) have given him license to choose his projects carefully. So here we are in the club room of the downtown hotel where he’s crashing for the duration of his 14-week run, with the inevitable paparazzi hanging off the cars around front. He’s dressed like Rocky before a run, in layers on a chilly November morning, nothing to hide those swimming pool-blue eyes and the alligator smile the camera loves.
I’m still shaken by American Sniper, a true story Cooper and writer Jason Hall developed from Kyle’s autobiography. Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct but amicably departed and was replaced by Clint Eastwood, a personal hero of 39-year-old actor who grew up in Philadelphia loving the post-modern Westerns epitomized by Eastwood’s game-changing Unforgiven. When Cooper decided to buy American Sniper, he wasn’t thinking about playing Chris Kyle; indeed he figured he was all wrong for the part—remarkable, since the film concludes with a photograph of Kyle and his wife Taya, who look almost shockingly like Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. But he wanted the property to mark his debut as a producer.
Jeremy Gerard: You’re thinking of it at this point as a vehicle for yourself?
Bradley Cooper: No, I was thinking producer.
JG: You were?
BC: But it’s all about how can we get the movie made, you know? And I have to be in it to help get it made. My production deal was with Warner Bros. and obviously, they would want me to be in the movies that I want to do. But in the back of my mind, I didn’t really think I was right for him at all. I saw a photograph of him, and I just had bought the book, and I thought, I’m a buck-eighty-five. I’m from Philadelphia. You know what I mean? This 230-pound, Odessa-born, beef-fed Texan…in my mind, I thought Chris Pratt would’ve been perfect.
I had to basically change my complete body chemistry. I had to learn how to talk like him. I had to be pretty efficient with two bolt-action sniper rifles and be able to clear houses with an M4 and carry all that weight—I had about 60 or 75 pounds’ worth of gear. To be able to do all that stuff without thinking about it took a tremendous amount of preparation, but that was a good thing, because by the time I showed up, I was ready to go.
JG: And then?
BC: You never know what’s going to happen. I talked to Chris, and then his negotiations went on for six or seven months, but I got to talk to him on the phone once, and then I was screening Silver Linings Playbook at the Walter Reed Theater. I got the call saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but Chris Kyle just got murdered.” It was such a horrible thing, and it just changed everything.
JG: This was in February, 2013. You weren’t even in pre-production. After four tours of duty and dealing with his own trauma—which the film makes very clear came from the horrors of his particular expertise as a killer—Chris Kyle has finally found some solace in helping fellow vets deal with their physical and mental challenges. Until one of them murders him and another vet.
BC: Jason had just finished the script. Everything was ready to go, but there was no director attached or anything. I started to really read about him even more, the guy himself. Steven Spielberg to want to direct it, and then, all of a sudden, everything went into high gear.
JG: Spielberg said, I want to do this. Why?
BC: We met many, many times, and went down the road with it, and talked to other people that would play different roles. And then, for whatever reason, he bowed out, which I totally respect, and he did it like a gentleman. We still talked, and he talked to Clint, they sort of swap stuff, those guys up in that ether. It’s a whole different game.
JG: What happened to Chris?
BC: He and this guy Eddie drove about two hours to Chris’s buddy’s big open shooting range. He had three weapons with him and he was prone on the gun, he and the other guy. Eddie went behind him, picked up one of his guns and just flagged him and then flagged the other guy. I knew we were going to have to do it, and I told Steven I would do it.
JG: How did your own political sensibility affect this film?
BC: Oh, that’s interesting. I never looked at it like that, and I don’t think Steven ever looked at it as anything but story that we ever talked about. Same thing with Clint. It’s a pretty apolitical movie I think, and he was a pretty apolitical guy. If you ever read an interview with Chris talking about whether he thinks we even should’ve been in Iraq, he’d tell you, “That’s above my pay rate. What I did is kept it very simple. I was hired, and I am in the service to protect Marines, and SEALs, and other soldiers. That’s it, and that’s what I do.” And that’s the way the movie treated him.
But I love the idea of the Western, and when I got to research this guy, much like Joseph Merrick, I just fell in love with him. There’s something about playing real people. Taya just gave her whole life. I had all of their email exchanges, home videos. She took so much video of him because she never knew if he was going to come back.
JG: The intimacy must’ve been almost unbearable.
BC: It was emotional. I mean, yeah, I would be lying if I say I didn’t cry a bunch of times just…it’s such a weird thing. It was February, 2013 that he died and I’m watching videos from November 21 and I know that this guy’s going to be dead in three months.
JG: And working with Clint Eastwood?
BC: Once Clint came aboard…well, he’d been Chris’ first choice and I think even Steven would tell you he’s the best choice, because Chris’ sensibilities are very similar to Clint’s. Clint’s not a big talker, Chris was not a big talker. Clint’s like jazz, even as he lives his life, stoic, very funny, doesn’t take anything too seriously. So, for me as an actor, it was wonderful having that.
JG: There’s a scene fairly early on when Chris is on a rooftop, focusing on a boy who may or may not be about to blow up a group of American soldiers. He hesitates a bit, but shoots the kid, and Kyle’s buddy slaps him on the back, it’s his first kill. And you turn around and curse him out, tell him to keep his hands off of you. It’s a defining moment for Chris and it’s all there in your eyes.
BC: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s not going to hoot and holler for what he just did like these other guys. It’s the beginning of the dilemma, right? I mean it’s that, oh, man this road is going to have consequences.
JG: Has Chris’ family seen the film?
BC: Taya saw it, and she was…
JG: That must’ve been terrifying for you.
BC: You know what? It was terrifying all the way up until [co-producer] Andrew Lazar called me. I was in London shooting a movie, and he had just seen a cut of it and he just said, it works, and when he said it, I knew that…you know when you don’t even know what you’re holding inside? I broke down for about 10 minutes. It felt like, no matter what, even if the movie doesn’t work, Chris is going to be served well.
JG: The last time you appeared on Broadway was in 2006, opposite Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd in Richard Greenberg’s Three Days Of Rain. That was well before you were as well known, not to mention sought-after, as you are today. And the play was not very well-received, by critics or audiences, despite the star power on stage. When you made the commitment to do Elephant Man, did you have any idea that it would coincide with all this going on?
BC: No. No idea. In fact, we were supposed to do Elephant Man last fall,.God bless the cast that they were flexible enough. It actually wound up being perfect because this is the best time to do it, actually. This time period in New York is amazing.
JG: You probably have agents ripping their hair out saying, what the heck is he doing on Broadway right now?
BC: No, I’m very lucky. My agent, David Bugliari at CAA, was a junior agent when I signed, and now he’s a bigger agent there, and no, he loved it, and by the way, my agency’s very happy I’m doing this. At least they tell me that. But you know what? The truth is, I’ve never been in it for the money. And they know that. We hit the jackpot with Hangover, you know what I mean? That was an amazing thing that we never saw coming.
JG: How do you prepare for the show each night? We hear you, grunting and moaning, before we even see you.
BC: Before I go on stage I’m literally a blank slate, and I’m open, and I’m completely open is how I feel. Not anywhere else, just open, and then I’m just waiting for him to come in, and I do it in a very sort of clinical way, the interpretation of his physical dilemma, and then the minute he says Please!, that first breath, to me, the way I experience it is almost like I go away. It feels very out of body in a way, but very cleansing.
Yes, it’s hard physically, but I feel so light all the time. It’s a very wonderful thing to inhabit him. He’s a beautiful soul for two hours, you know? I don’t feel like I’m in this other place. I feel very into the ground, very connected to everybody in the theater. It doesn’t feel like I’m somewhere else. I feel it’s very present.
JG: So you’re at peace with this convergence of Chris Kyle and John Merrick?
BC: As I’ve gotten more successful, I’ve definitely had the luxury of being able to do things that I produce. For example, The Elephant Man and this movie, it’s the ideal situation. Two things that I love very much. But no, of course it wasn’t always like that. Doing this play every night, I mean, I can’t believe it! At the Booth Theater where it originated, playing a guy that is the reason I became an actor. I mean, it’s like, I can’t believe it!
JG: Say that again—the reason you became an actor?
BC: Oh, it was that movie, when I was a kid. The Elephant Man. John Hurt. That was the crystalized moment, where I thought, Oh, I really need to do this for a living.