By Carrie Rickey
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA – As he tells it, Bradley Cooper in 1999 is just another awestruck theater student in the audience of James Lipton’s interview show “Inside the Actors Studio.”
Then the hunk with the laser-blue eyes seizes the chance to ask a question of Robert De Niro, his idol, his lodestar, the guy who inspired him to be an actor. De Niro tells him it’s a good one. It exceeds Cooper’s wildest dreams.
Considering what happens next, those dreams are pretty tame.
In “Limitless,” opening Friday, Cooper, the heartthrob from the Philly burbs best known for “The Hangover,” not only holds his own opposite De Niro, but also in two scenes his character wipes the carpet with his idol’s.
The dark-comic thriller stars Cooper as Eddie Morra, a writer who gets hooked to a drug that lets him use 100 percent of his brainpower.
Before long, Eddie gets the attention of a Wall Street titan (De Niro), the Russian mafia and some long-stemmed socialites. Given the spectrum of Cooper’s performance, not only is “Limitless” the title of the movie, it’s also the career forecast for a certain 36-year-old from Rydal.
As a student he wasn’t exactly stalking De Niro, Cooper says with a laugh during an interview Monday in the conference room of WMMR. But the Four Degrees of Robert De Niro is one way to tell his story.
See the 11-year-old Rydal Elementary schooler who watches “Raging Bull” and “The Elephant Man” on cable in his parents’ bedroom, and decides to pursue acting as a career.
Fast-forward to the apprentice who asks Mr. “You-Talkin’-to-Me?” about his technique in “Awakenings” at the Actors Studio taping.
Enter, screen left, the journeyman, riding the bounce from “Wedding Crashers” and “The Hangover,” who sends De Niro a homemade audition tape to get cast in the actor/director’s “Everybody’s Fine.” (The tape earns Cooper a brief audience with the monosyllabic mumbler, who tells him, “Not gonna happen,” and then dismisses him.)
Behold the actor infamously caught between a tiger and Mike Tyson in “The Hangover” and between Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johansson in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
This player gets the lead in “Limitless,” a part coveted by Heath Ledger and Shia La Beouf, and billed above De Niro.
Cooper and the laconic actor become peers, and more. During production, much of it shot in Philadelphia (doubling for Midtown Manhattan), “we send each other mozzarella every day.”
“I’ve been so fortunate to work with him,” says Cooper, who can’t quite grok that though he’s lost an idol, he’s gained a friend.
Rare is the actor who looks better in person than on screen, but Cooper is that uncommon guy. He’s very present, a good quality in an actor and a man.
At WMMR on Monday morning as he charms Preston & Steve, a flock of young female interns coo outside the studio. “You’d think there was a Beatle here,” a producer quips. The joke of “Limitless” is that this 6-foot-2 Adonis would need the help of drugs to be catnip to women.
Cooper “practically lived” at the Eric Baederwood movie theater. “I loved what films did to me emotionally.” Emotional is the operative word. Recently, he told an interviewer that he grew up in an environment “where being emotional was not something that was seen as honorable.”
Movies let him go there. They took the self-described “shy kid” out of himself.
If watching De Niro loosened the tight lid that was the pubescent Bradley Cooper, Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt opened him up. “I was watching ‘The Elephant Man’ when I was 11,” Cooper recalls. Something clicked.
“When I saw Treves” – Hopkins, the Victorian surgeon who sees the humanity in disfigured sideshow freak John Merrick – “look at Merrick, I thought, ‘I want to do that.’ It felt wonderful knowing what I wanted to do.”
He deeply identified with the sideshow freak: “I felt that Merrick and I were so similar. The way we both hold one hip higher.” Cooper’s thesis project at the Actors Studio was on Merrick and Bernard Pomerance’s play “The Elephant Man.”
The fledgling actor played the role of Inspector Fix in the Rydal Elementary production of “Around the World in 80 Days.” But in high school, the stagestruck youth had stage fright. “I was not at ease with who I was,” he recalls.
“Fortunately, I always had a lot of love from my family and was blessed with great friends.” One of them, Brian Klugman, the screenwriter of “TRON: Legacy,” has completed a script called “The Words” in which Cooper hopes to star.
After transferring from Villanova University to Georgetown, Cooper appeared in a Hoya production of “Dangerous Liaisons” and was a member of the medal-winning crew team. He enrolled at the Actors Studio, where while a student he won parts in “Sex and the City” and in “Wet Hot American Summer” (2001). Recurring roles on television’s “Alias” and “Nip/Tuck” followed. On Broadway, he co-starred with Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain.”
Unlike the parade of sharks and instigators and adulterers he so incisively plays, Cooper is without visible cockiness or swagger. He is soft-spoken and unassuming, the opposite of Eddie Morra, who announces, “I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I have a recipe for it!”
Despite, as he calls it, his “history with chemicals,” if he had a chance to take NZT, the drug that makes Eddie omnipotent, Cooper says, “In a heartbeat.”
Actors speak of their instrument, of how to tune face and body to express emotion. Cooper relies on his translucent eyes, both to disarm and to discomfit.
The eyes beam when he talks about food. Friends describe him as a terrific cook and a prodigious eater. But, he confesses, he has been too busy working (he made “Limitless” and “The Hangover 2,” which he refers to as “the ‘Apocalypse Now’ of comedy,” back-to-back last year) to spend time in the kitchen.
The eyes beam when he describes his best date: “One with a lot of laughter, where I’m amazed at how relaxed I am, where I have a sense of time changing.”
But ask after actress Renee Zellweger, with whom he has kept company for nearly two years, and it’s as if the eyes have retractable steel doors that slam shut. Graciously, but firmly, he says, “I can’t answer that.”
Monday marks another milestone on the road to his own personal Cooperstown: He is the first graduate from the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University to be invited as James Lipton’s guest on “Inside the Actors Studio.”