After years of supporting roles in films like Wedding Crashers and Yes Man, Bradley Cooper came to the fore in the 2009 breakout hit The Hangover. Cementing his leading man status a year later as ‘Faceman’ in the reboot of The A-Team, he now gets to flex his dramatic chops in Neil Burger’s fascinating Limitless. Adapted from the novel by Alan Glynn, Cooper, 36, plays Eddie Mora, a blocked New York writer who comes across a miracle new drug, NZT – a pill that allows you to unlock your full potential and access unused parts of the brain. Co-starring Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro, as Eddie literally becomes a new man overnight, Limitless asks the question: what would you do with such power? Below, Cooper talks about showing De Niro around his beloved Philadelphia, where Limitless was partly shot, how he feels about his rise in Hollywood over the past two years and his upcoming projects, including the much-anticipated sequel The Hangover Part II.
Q: You partly shot Limitless in Philadelphia, where you’re from. Are you a big fan of the city?
A: I fell in love with it later in life. Growing up, I never loved it. I loved it because my Dad came from there. My mum came from there. Their parents were fireman and policeman. So I definitely had a lot of pride for Philly. But it was a violent city when I grew up. At least I felt the violence. You always had to walk in the middle of the street. I grew up in the suburbs of Philly but still it wasn’t…I always felt…you could get into trouble when you went out at night as a teenager. When I came back, this past year, I really fell in love with it. The restaurant scene…there’s a lot of great places to eat there. I don’t know, the city just had a different feel to it.
Q: Did you show Robert De Niro around?
A: He was in search of the best mozzarella in Philly, so each day we would go out and try and find where the best, fresh mozzarella was.
Q: Was it a lifetime ambition of yours to act with De Niro?
A: Yeah, you said it. It was surreal. What was so surreal about it – and continues to be surreal – is how normal and natural it’s felt to work and become his friend. It was a true dream come true, in every essence of the word. He’s the kind of guy that I could only dream he would be – as a person as well as an actor.
Q: Was it hard not to plug him for anecdotes about his old movies?
A: What’s hard is not to act like him when you’re with him! That was hard! I’m sure that happens to him a lot. There were a lot of moments where I’m acting and I thought ‘He knows I’m just doing him to him’- and I’m not even coming up with an original approach.
Q: Were you nervous working with him?
A: I got over it. I auditioned for him a couple of times for this other movie [Everybody’s Fine] a year or two ago. I put myself on tape, at home with my mother actually reading his role. I just thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to put myself on tape.’ And Bob had seen it. Somehow…I guess somehow it got slipped to him, this tape I’d made at my house – with my mother doing De Niro!
Q: Does she do a good De Niro impression?
A: The worst! What’s great about her, it’s impossible for her to do anything false. So she wasn’t really doing De Niro. She was doing her. That’s what great.
Q: How would you describe your character in Limitless?
A: Yeah. He’s a guy…he had a book contract at 25, living in the East Village in New York, for his novel. That’s kind of the coolest thing he could imagine – or anyone maybe, at that age. That’s pretty great. But it’s not as cool when he’s 35. It’s the same contract and he hasn’t delivered on the book at all, so that’s where you meet him at the beginning of the movie. So I guess an ‘intellectual slacker’ is appropriate.
Q: And how would you explain NZT, the drug your character takes in Limitless?
A: Yeah, basically it opens up…it changes your synapses in your brain to a point where you’re able to – I’d say in a rudimentary way – remember or recall anything that you’ve ever seen or heard, from the moment you came out of the womb. So you have a lot at your disposal, and that is just the beginning. And they really don’t know what it does, the more you take it. It’s a mind-opening drug.
Q: Is it a morality tale about responsibility?
A: I’d say…more than the responsibility, it’s definitely not something that’s readily available. It’s more about a reality tale in the sense of ‘What does power mean?’ Thematically. What is it to have power in life over other people in order to get what you want? What is it that you want, if you have that power at your disposal? What are the ramifications of it?
Q: What would you use it for?
A: To make an unlimited supply of food! I would eat myself to death!
Q: Would you like to do more of that?
A: It’s really just about…reading something, or liking a piece of text, and then doing whatever you can to help see that be realised on film. If that means that you have to produce in order to make that happen, then yeah.
Q: At what point did you know you wanted to become an actor?
A: It wasn’t even a question. I knew from when I was a kid – ‘What do you want to be, Bradley?’ – ‘I want to be an actor.’
Q: So did you start acting in school?
A: I didn’t do a damn thing until college. I always wanted to be an actor ever since I was a kid, just too scared to do it. I did one play – but when I went to school they didn’t even have a theatre programme. So just when I graduated, I applied to a theatre school to do a Masters degree in fine arts. I applied to one school – the Actor’s Studio at the New School and got in – and moved from DC. I was at Georgetown University, and drove to New York and did that for three years.
Q: Would you go back to the theatre?
A: Yes, I love theatre. Everything is different. It’s like boot camp for acting. It’s just tremendously different. For me, it’s a hundred times harder than acting in film or television. It’s so much anxiety. I did this play on Broadway called Three Days of Rain, with Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd, and I lost 17lbs in rehearsal.
Q: Still, now it seems like you’re a leading man?
A: That would be nice!
Q: You’re being modest…
A: I’m not, honestly. Anything that would allow me to…I love being a part of the storytelling process. Unfortunately, that could be my downfall. I really am interested in being in the trenches with the director all the time. To be seen as a leading man, that would be wonderful because it would allow me the ability to be in large chunks of a movie.
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