Ask anyone about Bradley Cooper, and the reaction is the same: "There's nobody who's better liked," says his childhood friend Brian Klugman, who co- directed The Words. Robert De Niro has invited Cooper to stay at his house several times; colleagues including The Hangover's Justin Bartha and Cooper's then-girlfriend Renee Zellweger showed up for his Inside the Actors Studio taping; and demanding directors like David O. Russell (The Fighter) are eager to work with him again and again.
All this is heady stuff for a 37-year-old who gained global recognition almost overnight with 2009's Hangover and its 2011 sequel, was dubbed People's Sexiest Man Alive last year and has become the epitome of cool.
And yet, like so many of the great stars who preceded him -- the George Clooneys and Brad Pitts -- Cooper is more complicated than he appears. The Georgetown graduate has identified with Joseph Merrick (a deformed 19th century Englishman better known as the Elephant Man) since he was a teenager; wrote his college thesis on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and favors such books as Milan Kundera's Immortality; loves films like the French classic Hiroshima Mon Amour; and abandoned Hollywood for Philadelphia when he moved back to his childhood home while his father was sick with cancer. (He died in January 2011.)
And now, improbably, this poster boy for frat boys finds himself at the epicenter of Toronto's awards-season rush thanks to two films debuting there: Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, in which Cooper plays a bipolar former teacher who becomes involved with a troubled young woman; and The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he's a cop-turned-politician whose conflict with a criminal (Ryan Gosling) spills over two generations.
The budget for Pines was about $10 million -- a bit more than the roughly $6 million for Words and the $1.5 million for Cooper's current release, Hit and Run. Together, they total fractionally more than the $15 million he's receiving for Hangover Part III, which starts shooting in mid-September in Los Angeles.
At a point when Cooper has a plethora of offers, he has opted for the challenging and provocative, the small and interesting, risking the laid-back image that propelled him to fame -- an image that amuses Hangover director Todd Phillips.
"He is ridiculously different in real life," says Phillips. "People think he is just playing a version of himself, and that couldn't be further from the truth. He is very vulnerable -- insecure is not the right word -- and that character is just straight-up confident. And there's a warmth to him you would never know."
Sitting with him this late-August evening, it's hard to reconcile this sweet, exceptionally open man with the defensive, insecure person he and his friends say he once was. Over dinner in the garden of New York's Greenwich Hotel, he unburdens himself of something fans never would guess: his struggle with addiction, which ended, ironically, half a decade before Hangover.
I don't drink or do drugs at all anymore," says Cooper, noting he gave them up at 29, when their toll was unbearable. "Being sober helps a great deal."
Once, he relates, "I was at a party and deliberately bashed my head on the concrete floor -- like, 'Hey, look how tough I am!' And I came up, and blood dripped down. And then I did it again. I spent the night at St. Vincent's Hospital with a sock of ice, waiting for them to stitch me up."
He adds: "I was so concerned what you thought of me, how I was coming across, how I would survive the day. I always felt like an outsider. I just lived in my head. I realized I wasn't going to live up to my potential, and that scared the hell out of me. I thought, 'Wow, I'm actually gonna ruin my life; I'm really gonna ruin it.' "
Friends repeatedly cautioned him, yet he didn't listen. "Part of me believed it, and part of me didn't. But the proof was in the pudding: I'd always gotten up at the crack of dawn, and that was out the window. I remember looking at my life, my apartment, my dogs, and I thought, 'What's happening?' "
It was then he decided to change, and the effect was transformative. In addition to the Sept. 7 release of Words, in which Cooper stars as a successful novelist who secretly has committed plagiarism, he has been mentioned to co-star with Beyonce Knowles in Clint Eastwood's A Star Is Born (he won't talk about it), has wrapped Susanne Bier's drama Serena and even has started writing his own projects, co-authoring an adaptation of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos sci-fi book series.
Once he completes Hangover Part III, he plans to take another break from Hollywood and bring the stage version of Elephant Man to Broadway in the fall, after performing it to acclaim at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Then he will reteam with Russell for an untitled movie about the Abscam scandal of the early 1980s, taking the role of Mel Weinberg, a con man hired by the FBI in a sting operation that targeted members of Congress.
Through his Warner Bros.-based 22 & Indiana Pictures, Cooper also is developing another movie with Russell, based on American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. And he passionately wants to direct.
"I'm always thinking about the story and the shot and the actual doing of the scene," he says. "I don't think like an actor at all."
His friend De Niro (who co-stars in Linings) questions this and notes of Cooper's acting: "He is very smart and sincere and can try all sides of the spectrum. He is very good and is going to get better and better."