‘Silver Lining Playbook’s’ Bradley Cooper Goes Mental

The "Silver Linings Playbook" star on Robert De Niro, anger and some performances he's been impressed with this year

Patrick James Miller

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a frequently hilarious, often poignant romantic comedy about two deeply damaged people. At the center of it is Bradley Cooper, who strikes notes of despair not previously explored in his more mainstream films like "The Hangover" and "Wedding Crashers."

While his co-stars Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Jacki Weaver are all past Oscar nominees (or, in De Niro’s case, Oscar winners) whose work has been celebrated, Cooper’s biggest kudo to date was being named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. On Wednesday, he won best actor honors from the National Board of Review for "Silver Linings Playbook."  It’s not belittling his work in the "Hangover" films to say that we didn’t know he had this in him.

In David O. Russell’s sharp, smart film, Cooper is a revelation as a bipolar man struggling to readjust to life after a stint in a mental institution.

Also read: Robert De Niro on Finding 'Silver Linings' in Mental Illness – but Not in Football

This film and this role are a challenging mixture of comedy and drama. Was that intimidating?
I was very nervous starting out because nobody had ever given me the opportunity to do something like this before. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do it, and I certainly know that if it’s David O. Russell directing, I can’t fake it.”

Was there a lot of rehearsal?
No. It was very much, Show up having done your work. Without the rehearsal process, the exploration occurs on film. There is no, “Let’s nail the scene.” With David it’s all about, “Let’s explore the scene.” There are these emotional buoys to get to, but there are many ways to get there.

This is your second movie with Robert De Niro. Why do you like working with him?
It’s the safest place you want to be on the field. It’s like saying you’re going to do this two-on-two basketball game, and Michael Jordan’s your partner.

Also read: 'Silver Linings Playbook' Review: Mental Illness + Ballroom Dancing = a Madcap Surprise

Was De Niro helpful during filming?
I was trepidatious about many aspects of this film, and Robert De Niro was a big part of the reason that I thought that I could possibly do it. He allayed any fears I had by saying, “Don’t worry. You’re from Philly, you know this.” He said, “Your mother should play your mother. We should screen test her. Let me talk to David.” I said, “Bob, hold on, I don’t think my mother needs to play my mother.”

David said he saw a lot of anger in you. Did you know that was there?
He’s talking about the character I played in "Wedding Crashers," that he saw a lot of real anger in me, not acting anger. We talked about our past. I’m 37, and I’m a lot different than I was at 25 and, yeah, there are parts of my life that I was ruled by anger, I guess. I never thought the first thing you get from me is anger. But you know what, he’s a very sensitive guy, and he might not have been wrong.

There is such a strong sense of place in the film. This Philadelphia suburb is almost a character in the movie, no?
Very much like "The Fighter." He’s in a real sweet spot with that, David O. Russell. It’s something that interests him and inspires him, stories about specific cultural entities. The house also is almost a character in this movie, and one almost believes we’re living in that house. David had people cooking as we were shooting so you could smell the food.

Football culture dominates this movie. You grew up in Philly, were you an Eagles fan?
Huge Eagles fan.

Is it as violent a culture as it is in the film?
Philly is notorious. Philly is the town that throws batteries at the opposing team and famously threw an ice ball at Santa Claus.

Have you experienced that culture at all?
My father was old school, and he would take us to games all the time. When he grew up, the idea of stadium was a huge deal and we would wear ties. Man, oh man, that’s asking for trouble, because I had this bowl haircut and blond hair and looked like a girl with a tie on. As I got older I took him to Eagles games, and that was kind of wonderful. Right before he died — the Sunday before he died — I took him to the Green Bay-Philly playoff game.

The movie has a lot to do with fathers and sons. Did you draw on your own relationship with your father?
You draw on everything. In this film, Philadelphia, that house, the smell of the gravy, the creaking of the stairs just like my grandparents’ house helped. All of that makes the imaginary feel very real.

Did you research what it’s like to be bipolar?
What I’ve learned about bipolarity is that it’s like snowflakes: No two are the same. It’s about how do I find that in my life, by using my experience and what I’ve observed. That meant exploring things in my life and people I know, and that also meant looking at documentaries, footage, tons of stuff.

You don’t want to overpower the audience with the condition, because they’re not going to come on board. We found that in the first week of shooting. I tried some things that felt real, and David thought it’s just too much, we needed to dial it down a bit.

One thing you seemed to do was alter your speech to signal that something is a bit off about this guy.
This guy doesn’t have a filter when he speaks because things are processed differently.  He speaks in a completely different pattern than the way I talk, and that pattern was guided by David O. Russell and the way it was written.

Is the film trying to remove the stigma associated with mental illnesses?
It’s not for us to say. I remember watching Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson being interviewed after a screening for "There Will Be Blood," and they were asked, “Is this an environmental indictment?” And they said, “Uhh, it’s about this guy.” From knowing David and going through this process, he had one objective and that is to tell an authentic story about people who are very dear to his heart. The more specific you make it, the more things that can be extracted. If you try to start with a big idea, it could become pedantic.

You seem to be doing personal projects after appearing in more mainstream fare. Are you enjoying the rewards of being bankable?
I never was like, “I’m going to make three movies like "The Hangover" which will finance my friends’ movies and then work with the directors I’ve longed to work with my whole life.” It’s really simple: I just want to work with great directors.

From De Niro to co-star Jennifer Lawrence, you have frequent collaborators. Are you trying to create a sense of community through your work?
I’m always looking for a sense of community in life and work. There’s a reason why Martin Scorsese works with Robert De Niro for six movies and then Leonardo DiCaprio for six movies. Because when it works, cinema is a collaborative art form.

To that end, you are working with David again. What is your next project about?
It’s an untitled project about Abscam. In the late ’70s in New Jersey and Delaware, there was a takedown of politicians through an FBI sting operation. It’s not a good guy/bad guy thing. Just like "The Fighter" wasn’t really about fighting, it’s the same thing. It’s about this world.

What about directing. Is that in the cards?
Oh yeah, dying to. If I had a project, I’d be doing it right now. There’s one that me and my friend are writing. We’re adapting this series of books by Dan Simmons called "Hyperion," but it’s a massive story. It’s like saying, “There’s this thing called "Avatar" that I’m looking to get my hands on.”

What does it mean to you to be in the Oscar conversation?
If I’ve learned anything from the 10 years I’ve been in this business, it’s don’t ever listen to hype. I remember doing "Kitchen Confidential," this TV series. After shooting the pilot and that got picked up, someone said, “Sit back, your life’s about to change. You’re going to get an Emmy.” I said, “Really?” Three episodes aired. They canceled it after three.

What do you think about awards?
They are ridiculous, in the sense that, How can you pick the best of a subjective art form? That said, I grew up watching the Oscars. I don’t think I’ve ever missed an Oscars show. I’ve definitely succumbed to the pageantry of it all as a lover of film, while at the same time recognizing that it means nothing. If you ask somebody do you know what was the best movie the year that "Goodfellas" came out, I would be reluctant to think that people would say "Dances With Wolves." Yet that won Best Picture.

Are there any performances this year that you’ve been impressed with?
Yes, Sam Rockwell in "Seven Psychopaths." I know that he’s had a lot of success, but I still think he’s under appreciated. I loved what Tom Hardy was doing in "The Dark Knight Rises." I wish I could have seen his face more, because I think it was so clear that he was tapped in.