Not just a pretty face

HELEN BARLOW
Last updated 05:00 04/10/2012

Trailer: The Words

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Last year, People magazine named Bradley Cooper the ''Sexiest Man Alive'', while Britain's GQ awarded him the grand-sounding ''International Man of the Year''.

A year on, Cooper remains at the height of his fame - and appeal.

For women, he's still cinema's reigning stud muffin. For men, he has the kind of physique most could only dream about. His Hangover movies make gazillions so Hollywood remains at his feet. Humble protestations about being ''an actor first'' and a movie star second sound suspiciously like false modesty. But in an interview the blue-eyed boy conducted with his one-time dean, James Lipton from the Actors Studio, he revealed how painstaking he is about his craft. If we could ignore his looks - which in fact were a problem early in his career - it could have been his idol Robert De Niro sitting there.

In fact, since Cooper and De Niro co-starred in Limitless (2011), the great American-Italian actor has had considerable influence on the younger man. They became close friends: Cooper regularly stays over at his friend's house and the older actor has become a mentor and also provided comfort following the death of Cooper's beloved Irish-American father, Charlie.

They also appeared together as father and son in the Toronto International Film Festival's prizewinner and now Oscar hopeful Silver Linings Playbook, in which our own Jacki Weaver plays his mum.

Weaver, who was far more worried about portraying De Niro's wife, reported favourably on Cooper's down-to-earth nature, as did his co-star Jennifer Lawrence, who suggested Cooper co-star as her husband in Susanne Bier's Depression-era Serena (due out next year).

Cooper has even been secure enough in himself to appear opposite Hollywood's other man-of-the-moment, Ryan Gosling, in The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to Blue Valentine.

With The Hangover Part III under way, I ask if the 37-year-old had dared to dream of such success.

''No, I felt like I'd hit the jackpot when I got cast in Globe Trekker for the Discovery Channel,'' Cooper responds, laughing. ''When I booked a Wendy's commercial I called my dad and said, 'Dad, I'm in a hotel room and there's a balcony!' But I opened the window and it was looking out on a bar!''

The bar is something Cooper was all too familiar with - and that's not because of The Hangover. The actor has confessed to past addictions, telling The Hollywood Reporter he gave up his biggest vices at 29: ''I don't drink or do drugs at all any more,'' he said.

So he did The Hangover from memory? ''Yes, I did a lot of research. For many, many years. I started too young.''

How did he give up? ''It was a f---in' miracle,'' he says. ''Now I drink water. Very boring. Oh, coconut water! A great LA drink.''

Cooper hails from outside Philadelphia, and proudly so. When his father was struggling with cancer, Bradley returned home for the summer. While at the aforementioned Actors Studio tribute, his dad and his feisty Italian-American mum Gloria were in the audience, as was his then-girlfriend Renee Zellweger. He was close to tears several times during filming and the program was ultimately dedicated to his dad. Cooper has worn his father's wedding ring ever since his death and when he came to make The Words, filming a scene with J.K. Simmons as his father was genuinely affecting.

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''That scene is really powerful,'' the film's co-director, Brian Klugman, says. ''They have something in their eyes that they could actually be father and son.''

Klugman and Cooper met at a difficult time in Cooper's youth. He had grown used to being called ''a girl'' at his previous school and wasn't prepared for the nastiness he countered when, in the fifth grade, he transferred to the private school that Klugman attended.

''I got made fun of because I transferred to a private school and those kids are brutal,'' Cooper says.

It didn't help that he dressed like a dork and went through a ''pretty'' phase: ''Yeah, I dressed different and I got made fun of a lot. It was a hard year. Me and Victor Yavikoff [were bullied] ... I remember everything.''

Cooper confesses he felt deeply ashamed about his humble family abode, and it undermined his confidence. ''It mightn't sound like a lot but it was a huge thing back then,'' he says.

In his youth, Cooper had a series of ear operations for cholesteatoma, a growth in the middle ear that has left a hole in one eardrum.

At 15, he suffered facial scars so bad after knocking over a lamp at home that he needed plastic surgery. The scars are still visible.

This past unease with his physicality is why Cooper has long empathised with The Elephant Man to the point of obsession - remarkable when you consider how celebrated his appearance is now.

Cooper cried as he watched David Lynch's film at age 12. It was then he claims he decided to become an actor. He later played The Elephant Man's lead character, John Merrick, on stage for his graduate thesis at the Actors Studio. Shirtless and hairless, he reprised the role at the recent Williamstown Theatre Festival. Cooper hopes to bring the show to Broadway next year.

Given his real personal challenges, it's ironic that a shot of his chest is almost obligatory in his movies, I suggest. ''In Limitless my character was supposed to be out of shape,'' Cooper says. ''Well, I can't change my DNA. I bulked up for The A-Team. [That] was treacherous but the truth is I really haven't been in shape for any other movie. I think people just think that!''

So to the hullabaloo over his sexiness. What does he make of it? ''The only question is, can it help the movie?''

You can bet that it will.

Bradley Cooper aspires to direct movies and was very much a hands-on producer when he came to make The Words with his best friend Brian Klugman.

''The Words began for us 12 years ago when we were stuck in traffic, and talking about writers losing their work and what happens when you've put so much into it.''

Cooper plays writer Rory Jansen, who happens across the manuscript for a novel and he can't resist passing it off as his own. His seemingly perfect marriage to Dora (Zoe Saldana) suffers as a result. That said, their chemistry on screen (especially the sex scenes) is so strong that it's no surprise the pair are dating. ''The whole point is, you want to really feel this love story,'' Cooper says. ''And then it's broken by this betrayal.''

''I think that's the big tragedy of the movie,'' Klugman says.

The Words opens on October 11.

-Sydney Morning Herald

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