Before he cast her in his thrilling and resonant version of A Star Is Born, the fourth incarnation of the classic cinematic tale of doomed romance, Bradley Cooper was only vaguely aware of Lady Gaga. “I didn’t really know who she was,” Cooper told me at 8:30 in the morning at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan this past summer. In his uniform of jeans and a navy zip-up sweatshirt, Cooper was energized well before his coffee arrived; he is a morning person and had been up for hours. He and his longtime girlfriend, the model Irina Shayk, and their baby daughter, Lea, recently moved from Los Angeles to New York, and for days Cooper had barely moved from our cozy table, scheduling all his meetings there. “It’s become my office,” he said, laughing.
I have known Cooper, who is 43, since his Academy Award–nominated performance in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, and he has always had a kind of contagious, boundless, puppylike enthusiasm for all aspects of his profession. But this morning there was a different level of engagement. Cooper directed A Star Is Born, cowrote the script and several of the songs in the movie, and oversaw every detail of the production. He even learned to sing and speak like a country-rock music star, lowering his vocal register an octave to sound raspy and worn. From the beginning of his professional acting career, Cooper has been intrigued by more than whatever character he’s playing, and there was a sense that his ambitious dreams were coming true with this movie.
His first big break came in 2001, as the “nice” friend in the TV show Alias, where he spent as much time in the editing room as he did acting. Cooper would obsessively study all the different performances, as well as the lighting and camera work. “I was fascinated by all things connected to film,” he said. “I was the one asking questions all the time. The thrill for me has never been in just acting.”
Which brings us back to Lady Gaga, or, as Cooper calls her, Stefani. (Her given name is Stefani Germanotta.) “I was at a cancer benefit with my mother,” Cooper recalled. “I really did not know Lady Gaga’s music. They had a surprise musical guest, and Stefani came out with her hair slicked back, and she sang ‘La Vie en Rose.’ I was blown away, like in that old Maxell cassette commercial where the guy’s hair is blown back.” Cooper saw her not as a world-famous star but as a stripped-down woman, and immediately envisioned her as his leading lady. “I called her agent the next day and said, ‘Can I go to her house and meet her right away?’ I drove to Malibu, and we sat on her porch, and the next thing I know, I’m eating spaghetti and meatballs, and I said, ‘Can we sing a song together?’ ”
Cooper still looked shocked at his nerve, and took out his phone. “I have a video of us doing the song,” he said with pride, trying to locate the clip. “Remember, we had just met. I asked her if she knew the song ‘The Midnight Special,’ because I had memorized it, and she said no. But we downloaded the sheet music, and I sat next to her at her piano.”
The video is fascinating: As they begin to sing, Cooper looks nervous, and Gaga, with short bleached blonde hair, seems confident but wary. “It’s awkward,” Cooper admitted. But after one verse, Gaga stops singing and stares at Cooper. “Has anyone heard you sing?” she asks. The acknowledgement of Cooper’s raw talent seems to embolden him. They start to harmonize on the chorus, and by the end of the song, Gaga has turned it into a bluesy, Janis Joplin–esque anthem.
“Surprisingly, I was not nervous or scared about the prospect of acting in A Star Is Born,” Lady Gaga told me on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I had heard about the project through the grapevine, and I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was a child. I even took sense memory classes at Lee Strasberg when I was very young. So when Bradley came over, he immediately felt like a kindred spirit—we ate leftovers on my patio and started singing together. When I heard how soulful his voice was, I knew the movie would work.”
As the clip ended, Cooper looked at the screen. “I was so happy at that moment,” he said. “I’m from an Italian background, and so is she. We were immediately comfortable with each other. We made a kind of deal: I believed in her as an actress, and she believed in me as a musician. I wanted there to be a meta aspect to the film, and Stefani gave me that. Also, no actress can do musically what I needed Stefani to do in 42 days of shooting: I needed plutonium. And the plutonium in A Star Is Born is Stefani’s voice.”
Unfortunately, Warner Bros., which was financing the film, did not agree. Cooper had to shoot several screen tests with Gaga to convince them she could play Ally, the undiscovered singer who is the “Star” of the film. In Cooper’s retelling of the classic story of an older, established, messed-up performer falling in love with an unknown newcomer who shines while his light dims, the protagonists are both already in the music world. Cooper, in fact, had been thinking about A Star Is Born for some time. Clint Eastwood, one of his mentors, had suggested that he star in a remake he was considering. “That was five years ago. I was 38 at the time, and I felt I was too young for the part,” Cooper explained. “Pretending I’d lived more than I had wouldn’t have worked. Saying no to Clint Eastwood was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had put myself on tape for every Eastwood film. He was my hero!”
In 2014, Eastwood and Cooper worked together on American Sniper, which made over $500 million at the box office and garnered Cooper his second Academy Award nomination for best actor in a leading role. He followed up with The Elephant Man, the play that had inspired him to become an actor when he was a child. “I saw the film adaptation of The Elephant Man when I was 12,” Cooper recalled. “That story changed me. It stayed on my skin and left an indelible mark. That’s when I consciously thought, I want to do this job.”
During the promotion for American Sniper, Eastwood and Cooper were at an industry event at the Chateau Marmont hotel, in Los Angeles, where Annie Lennox was performing “I Put a Spell on You,” her song from the 2015 film 50 Shades of Grey. Cooper was mesmerized. “As she sang, I saw the veins in her neck pop, and I said to Clint, ‘Let’s do A Star Is Born.’ He replied, ‘That ship has sailed.’ I went to bed that night and saw the whole beginning of the movie in my mind, and I knew I had to direct it.”
After twisting his body to play John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway and in London for several months, Cooper definitely felt he had lived enough to play Jackson Maine, an alcoholic, charismatic, world-renowned country rock star. In earlier versions of A Star Is Born, the male character is famous but down on his luck due to addiction and reckless behavior. Cooper wanted to tweak that narrative. “I didn’t care about a guy who is envious of someone else becoming famous,” he said. “I liked the idea of a real love story, two people who are broken in different ways, find each other, but can’t really be fixed.”
In many ways, that’s the power of Cooper’s film. The characters are lost, yet their love is believable—until their bubble is burst by the realities of the music business and the cost of success. It’s interesting that Cooper, who is more like Gaga’s character, Ally—an eager, brilliant student enthralled with what’s possible—is so heartbreaking as Maine, a man who is no longer motivated by the spotlight or the roar of the crowd.
In order to play Maine and coordinate all aspects of production, Cooper set up a kind of boot camp for six months in his Los Angeles home. As a kid, Cooper played the upright bass (“Because of Tom and Jerry, the cartoon—the cat played the bass and it looked so cool”), but he had to learn how to play guitar and piano, and how to sing like a seasoned professional.
“We mapped out my entire schedule, day by day,” Cooper said. “I’d wake up and work out, followed by two hours of guitar practice and two hours of piano lessons. Lunch. Then Lukas Nelson [Willie’s son], my collaborator, would come over, and we’d write music for one and a half hours. I’d write the screenplay for the rest of the day. Irina was pregnant, so it was kind of perfect. Lea was born a week before we started shooting.”
They started production at the Coachella music festival. Although Lady Gaga was headlining, she still managed to shoot her scenes between sets. Cooper even sang live with her, as Jackson Maine, and realized that his preparation had paid off. “At first, I was terrified. You forget everything when you’re onstage in front of 30,000 people. I almost couldn’t breathe. But then I looked at Stefani and relaxed: Her belief in me as a musician gave me courage.”
Later that day, after meeting in that same restaurant booth with writers to discuss what might become his next writing-directing project, a biopic about the brilliant, complex conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, Cooper arrived at a photo studio in NoLIta to have his portrait taken for W. Although he is very handsome, with Windex blue eyes, and easygoing about every part of the filmmaking process (including the exhausting task of promoting his movies), Cooper has always resisted photo sessions. He is clearly more comfortable being seen in the context of his work, rather than, for instance, as “the sexiest man alive,” which is what People magazine famously anointed him in 2011.
That’s maybe why Cooper insisted on having a small set and on wearing the same suede shirt that he sports throughout A Star Is Born. No hot-actor stuff anymore: It was time to be serious. He stressed that even though his performance is key to the movie’s success, he was mindful of being seen as a writer-director, rather than just an actor. Having a mentor like Clint Eastwood, who wears many hats and was also a major heartthrob in his day, has taught Cooper a lot. He not only respects his elders, but also studies how they’ve successfully conducted their careers.
Cooper grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and was in awe of his father, a stockbroker who had lung cancer for five years before he died, in January 2011. “I wanted to be my father,” Cooper told me. “When I was 8 years old, I wore suits to school and carried a briefcase.” He now wears his father’s gold wedding band on a chain around his neck, and his memory seems to motivate Cooper in some unconscious way: He has an intuitive feeling that time is short and there’s a lot to accomplish. Sometimes, that sense of carpe diem means that Cooper seems to be in the right place at the right time (yes, that was him sitting next to the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles when the team won the Super Bowl last February). And although he won’t go into specifics, it also clearly means that he has a plan for the future that involves a lot more than acting. “I always thought I had six characters in me, and I’ve already played a few of them,” he said. “I’ve been a soldier [American Sniper], a musician [A Star Is Born], a chef [Burnt], and a disfigured person [The Elephant Man]. I still want to play a conductor. And then who knows?”
Cooper paused. “I’ve always been an underdog,” he said. “I was always operating under the lens of not really being seen as the ‘main guy.’ ” I suggested that after A Star Is Born, it would be impossible for anyone to underestimate him again. “Maybe,” he said, smiling slightly. “But who knows? I’ve heard it all in my career. Early on, I didn’t get a role because they said I wasn’t ‘fuckable.’ ” He paused again. “In the end, you have to reserve your attention for the work and not listen to anyone. People I care about, who care about me, told me not to direct A Star Is Born, said that it would be too difficult and I should start with something easier. Luckily, I didn’t listen. I loved that it was really, really hard to make this film. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have the same value. And that’s always been my goal: to make something, no matter how challenging, that will be remembered.”