‘A Star Is Born’: Bradley Cooper isn’t really into talking to me
In his first film as director the star wrangles with the celebrity industrial complex. So you can imagine how this interview goes
Bradley Cooper is not not happy to be on the press tour for A Star Is Born, the film he specifically, exactingly, meticulously, perfectionistically, obsessively directed, cowrote 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 has learnt, something he has seen, something he knows for sure. It’s such hard work to try for something true and to get it right, and maybe he has succeeded.
What a huge bet this was; what a long haul it has been; what a full-on occupation of the past four years – years in which, after an Oscar nomination for American Sniper, he 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 says. 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 film-maker himself. Cooper likes that. He likes 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 likes that it was a love story above all those things.
Cooper created Jackson Maine as an earnest rock star whose substance-compromised heart can’t bear to see the star-making machinery overtake a sincere, poetic message
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. 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.
MAYBE YOU’VE GUESSED 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: 2½ minutes of such electricity that it immediately became the subject of 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, long-haired, 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 on stage, a conversation about songwriting – She doesn’t sing her own songs! She thinks she’s ugly! He thinks she’s beautiful!
He tells her to come on stage – 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, Cooper is very excited to finally reveal this labour 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 obliged 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 in New York, a corner booth, him fingering his Porsche Carrera aviators on the table in front of us, where he is willing to say a lot about his movie, where he is willing to share the same set of facts about its making that he has 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’ve just seen.
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 tell him. “It’s different,” he says. “This is because you’re creating content.” “But it’s your story,” I tell him. “But you’re doing it,” he says. “I’m going to write your story,” I say. “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 says. “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 sits back and tells me the same things he has told everyone else, and I take notes and then speak to some people who know him. Here’s what I come 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 Philadelphia Phillies baseball banners and Philadelphia Eagles American-football banners, and a ton of toys. He’d lie on his stomach with the little army guys he loved placed across his rug, putting objects beneath the rug and changing its topography for their battles – his first directing gig.
He got to the point where he understood the machinery. 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
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 master’s degree 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 Kemp, 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.
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 as if he had 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 utilising all of myself,” he says. 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.
In 2011 A Star Is Born belonged to 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. Eastwood talked to Cooper about the role, but 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 says. 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. Cooper had been caring for him in the year before leaving for Thailand for filming, and now it looked as if it was the end. He went home, took his father to an Eagles game and, two weeks later, held him in his arms as he took his last breath. When he tells me that, his arms are in the formation they had been in when his father last lay in them. Right then he looks down at where his father had been, and then back up at me.
In that moment everything changed for him. “It’s a new reality,” he says. “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 says. “I could see it on my face. I just felt it.” But Eastwood had moved on. Then, one evening, 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 still needed to find his born star, his Ally. Then he saw Lady Gaga perform La Vie en Rose at a party. His mind was blown, he says
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 – 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 says. 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 says. 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.
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 afterwards. Not Jackson. He’s vulnerable only 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 rigours 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 Kemp, his mentor. He created rituals for his character by tapping into his subconscious. In the film Jackson smashes an OxyContin tablet with his boot, an idea that came out of just this method.
THIS IS ALL GREAT, I tell him. It’s good information. But now I have 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 say. I suggest that people like to know the artists behind the art. 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 says. 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 film 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?”
Okay, I say. Okay. But what are we healing from? What was the wound? What was your wound? All he’ll say is: “The wound was just the wound of being a human being.” Once again I try to draw the lines. So time is breathing down your neck and you realise you must do something hugely ambitious? No, he says, not really. Or is there some catharsis in acting out demons? Not exactly. I have a story to write, I tell him. I’m not sure what to do. Coming back with a good story is my thing, I say.
He sees I am dismayed, and again, I seem nice, so he tries 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.”
We watch the whole five minutes of the Midnight Special video with Lady Gaga. Cooper’s face is smiling and giddy while he sees it for the thousandth time
I tell him I am going to see the movie again. He gives me his number and says to call if I have any questions about the movie or the songs in it. He is nice, too. He just doesn’t want to be known the way I want to know him. It is time to go. He takes out his phone and asks me to stop my tape recorder. He plays 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, Todd Phillips, the director, tells me that, about two years ago, he was meeting with some Warner Bros executives and 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.)
We watch the whole five minutes of the video. Cooper’s face is smiling and giddy while he sees 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 see the movie again, and then I reread my transcript, and this time I understand. The movie is about all the things above, but mostly it’s about the way 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.
Here is his movie, 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 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. Although it is consistently pronounced dead, the celebrity profile can be a real tool for understanding ourselves and the world we occupy. It accomplishes exactly what it was that 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 speak, Cooper goes to film festivals in Venice and Toronto. He continues his press tour. He attends his premiere. He doesn’t yet fully know if his gamble has worked; he doesn’t read reviews. He watches those audiences – the crying, the laughing, the seat-dancing – and he takes their questions about how much he loves Lady Gaga and about how hard it was to change his voice, but they are all beside the point. His hat is back on by then. – New York Times
A Star Is Born opens on Wednesday, October 3rd