When Bradley Cooper walked offstage in The Elephant Man, his father Charles enveloped him in a hug. "I remember feeling him shaking," Cooper says of his dad.
Charles had fulfilled the American dream by becoming a Merrill Lynch stockbroker and was wary of his son's artistic aspirations. This performance changed everything. "He said, 'You picked the right profession,'" recalls Cooper.
This moving scene did not transpire at a preview of Cooper's current Broadway star turn at the Booth Theatre, nor was it at his acclaimed 2012 portrayal of John Merrick at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (Charles Cooper passed away in 2011.) This father-son hug dates back to 1999 when Cooper played Merrick for his Actors Studio master's thesis; Charles Cooper knew better than anyone there how long Merrick's character had resonated with his son.
Cooper is earnest and friendly in conversation; we chat about battling sports injuries as we age and about television shows he enjoys like "Boardwalk Empire." When I mention watching movies like "Apocalypse Now" with my teenage sons, Cooper, who turns 40 in January and was raised in the Philadelphia area, says, "movies dictated my life when I was growing up." He recounts spending weekends at the movie theatre across the street from his home and, after Charles Cooper invested in a VHS, watching "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter" and "The Parallax View" with his father. In 1987, his father, excited about this newfangled thing called cable television, subscribed to a sports and movie channel called Prism. The first movie they watched together was "Raging Bull." The second was David Lynch's "Elephant Man."
The 12-year-old was initially disappointed with a second straight black-and-white film but "the movie just floored me — the music, the filmmaking, his story, everything."
Cooper is naturally excitable but when the talk turns to anything Merrick-related his voice revs up further. "Oh my God, that's when I knew I wanted to be an actor," he says, adding that while it sounds hokey, "I feel like he has always been there inside me since then."
He connected so strongly for several reasons beyond Lynch's masterful storytelling. As a volunteer a nearby school for disabled children, he says, "I knew what it was like for children who don't quite look like other kids."
Additionally, while Cooper has become a sex symbol, he says he never thought that way. One "odd connection" is that Cooper's issues with posture (one hip lower than the other) and the hole he has in his right ear are milder parallels of some of Merrick's problems.
Cooper didn't know about the Broadway play of The Elephant Man. "I knew nothing about theatre," he says. "The only plays I saw in my teens were Les Misérables and Cats — one of the cats was really hot, but that's all I remember."
At Georgetown, where he earned honors as an English major, Cooper began acting onstage but he only started attending theatre after arriving in New York. At the Actors Studio he discovered Bernard Pomerance's play of The Elephant Man and asked if he could tackle Merrick. "They laughed at me at first," he says, but his reading changed his teachers' minds. He loved Pomerance's version of Merrick because "he was not as much of a victim." Cooper dug into historical research and found Merrick had solicited help from the carny who showed him off as a way to make money. "This guy just blows my mind — how he has all this against him, and yet he survived and fell in love like any other human being," he says, getting excited all over again.
Cooper knew someday he'd perform a full production of The Elephant Man. Patricia Clarkson says when she met him in 2006, "the first words he said to me were, 'Someday when I do The Elephant Man I want you to play Mrs. Kendal.'"
In 2012 Cooper told director Scott Ellis he wanted to do it before he aged out of the part. (Merrick died at 27.) Before staging the show at Williamstown, the cast did a week of table readings. "By the end I was getting a little nervous because he was just reading the words," Ellis says. "Then Bradley came into my office and I gently asked, 'How are you going to approach this part?' the subtext being, 'Can you do this?'"
Cooper stood up and instantly transformed himself into Merrick, a fully formed, living, breathing character. "It took my breath away," Ellis said. "He just channels him."
Early in the show the audience sees an actual picture of Merrick while the doctor describes his symptoms; the barely clothed actor internalizes each deformity until he becomes Merrick. "You're asking the audience to go along with the illusion and you're completely naked in your soul," Cooper says. "It's almost a ritualistic experience."
As Merrick, Cooper speaks and even breathes differently. "I go away and he goes in. There's not one thing similar about us, so my brain goes, 'Oh, that's Merrick in here now.'"
It is, however, is excruciating physically. "I'm contorting my body for an hour-and-a-half," Cooper says. "You have to be utterly relaxed or you'll pull a muscle in five minutes. It's an exercise in being completely loose. But I still go right on the table for treatment after every performance."
The pain is worth it to finally be sharing his love of The Elephant Man with audiences. "If I'm successful, people will feel like they were in a room with Merrick for a little while."