They’re not exactly campaigning. But they’re not exactly not campaigning either.
Bradley Cooper, who is nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for his winter stint as the title character in The Elephant Man, is out of this loop. The entire production transferred to London, where it opened June 1 and is playing eight performances a week.
The three-time Oscar nominee—including one for “American Sniper” this year—is philosophical. "I don’t see anything wrong with it [campaigning for an award]," he said, "because awards can help the visibility of a project. But I couldn’t campaign for “American Sniper” because I was in Elephant Man in New York, and now I can’t campaign for Elephant Man in New York because I’m in Elephant Man in London."
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Cooper plays a real-life individual named John Merrick, a severely disfigured man who was treated as a figure of horror and derision in Victorian London, but who recovers some of his humanity when he is taken under the wing of a research doctor studying his case. The doctor is one of the first people to treat him as a human being, and he blossoms under the care. As written by Bernard Pomerance, however, the actor playing Merrick must use no makeup or prosthetics to play the part. A photograph of the real Merrick is shown to the audience, but thereafter the character's disabilities must be indicated by the actor contorting his body. Cooper spoke to Playbill.com moments after coming offstage from the show's second regular London performance and signing autographs for fans outside the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
So what is the most challenging part? The twisted arm, the dragging leg?
"The main thing is the breathing," Cooper said. "I stand on that stage next to the photographs, and as [the doctor] describes his ailments, I morph a bit, and then a bit more. I hope that the contrivance has occurred and the audience has superimposed those photographs over the actor. Finally, when I'm holding the cane, I take a breath and say, 'Please….' And with that 'Please…,' I exhale and just sort of jump off a cliff."
Cooper has a long history with the role of John Merrick. Although Cooper did not get to see the original Broadway production, which opened in 1979 when he was four, he did see the film version when he was 12, which, he said, had a profound influence on his decision to become an actor. He told Playbill in a previous interview about playing Merrick for his Actors Studio master's thesis when he was 19. In 2012 he recreated the role professionally in an acclaimed production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. That version was remounted on Broadway in 2014 and opened in London this week.
Now age 40, Cooper said that when he first tackled the role he concentrated on the obvious physical side of the performance. "Back then I was trying to work out how the fact that there was a flap of skin covering his buttocks prevented him from sitting down. He had pus dripping from his back. I worked on all the things you do in acting school to make things real for yourself through your imagination."
But now, he said, "I've certainly changed. I try to be more specific with him, to make deeper observation of how he would think and how he would conduct his relationships."
Cooper said, "A lot of people ask me about the physical part of the role, but if the only thing you get out of the show is watching an actor suffering, I'm not doing my job. I hope I'm able to convey a modicum of the essence of who this guy was in real life. What it would have been like to sit with Merrick in his room. His childlike curiosity about the world. His sense of optimism. He's a guy who had fears, who was vulnerable, who could be petty—but who had a real love of life."
Cooper said he's constantly asked if he's exhausted each night after nearly three hours contorted on stage. "Actually," he said, "I feel cleansed. It feels amazing."