The film American Sniper has prompted arguments about its depiction of the Iraq War and become a cultural lightning rod. But Bradley Cooper, who plays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and was also a producer on the film, didn't expect the conversation to go that way. Then again, "war is such an emotional subject, so maybe I was a fool to think it wouldn't," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Kyle was a Navy SEAL and is considered by many the most skilled sniper in U.S. military history. He killed an estimated 160 people and was nicknamed "The Legend." After surviving four tours in Iraq, he was murdered near his home by a troubled vet he was trying to help.
American Sniper is based on Kyle's memoir. It alternates between scenes of Kyle in Iraq and at home between deployments. At home, he becomes emotionally detached and uncommunicative, unable to acknowledge what others realize — that the war is taking a terrible toll on him.
And that's what Cooper and director Clint Eastwood were hoping to drive home — that veterans need more care and attention.
"The fact that it's inciting a discussion that has nothing to do with vets — and it's more about the Iraq War and what we did not do to indict those who decide to go to the war — every conversation in those terms is moving farther and farther away from what our soldiers go through, and the fact that 22 vets commit suicide each day," Cooper says. "The amount of people that come home is so much greater because of medical advancement and ... we need to take care of them."
Cooper has been nominated for an Oscar for best actor, and the film is nominated for five other Oscars, including best picture.
Cooper talks about what it was like to "live" with Kyle in order to portray him, including gaining 40 pounds of muscle, as well as the physical transformation he undergoes on stage to play The Elephant Man in the play's current revival on Broadway.
On framing American Sniper like a Western film
I love the idea of framing it as a Western, I thought that could be cinematically viable, ripe for cinema, and that this guy happened to be incredibly charismatic. ...
You have a guy going into a town and there's his equivalent on the other side, another sharpshooter. He's a sharpshooter, and [it ends in] tumbleweeds, a dust storm, there's a showdown, this sort of one man and his pursuit — that idea. Framing this genre within a Western construct was something I thought would be interesting.
On studying Chris Kyle for the role
I basically made this document where I had every single thing he's ever said recorded, and I would just listen to it. And it'd be the first thing I woke up with in the morning — I'd just put on the earbuds right away — and last thing I listened to at night, just to really soak him in. Something about him was just beautiful.
It's just horrible, seeing videos — home videos — where they have the date on the bottom right corner and it would be November 2012 or ... Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then knowing that a month later on Feb. 2, 2013, his life would be ended. I mean it was just a very emotional thing to be watching. I almost felt like I was an alien or somebody from the future doing research coming into this man's life and watching every single thing he did knowing the end of the story. Sitting in his dining room table, in the same chair he sat in a year prior, with Clint [Eastwood] opposite me with [Kyle's wife] Taya and the children, and having watched a video of him in that chair, it was just a very surreal experience — and one that really prompted me to work in a way that I didn't even know I was able to.
On doing a USO tour in 2011
I started to do it a long time ago, before Hangover, right around Wedding Crashers, and the first place I went to was Guantanamo Bay. ... I wanted to go to these places, I was always very obsessed with that culture and I just thought, "What can I do?" ... So I went there, they sent me there, and often I'd be walking into rooms and a superior officer would tell the soldiers, "This is Bradley Cooper from Alias, he's here to just say 'Hello.'" And you could tell they were like, "Whatever." ...
I remember setting up — this is hilarious — at a desk with posters ... these little 5-by-7 cards with your face on it and you can write autographs. And they have like 200 of them. And it was a really windy day and I'm sitting there with my buddy at a little like lemonade stand outside of the local food restaurant. ... And it was very windy and no one was stopping and there was such a wind that the cards kept blowing. So all I did was try to pick up cards with my picture on it to put back on the desk that nobody's visiting. It really was hilarious.
On gaining 40 pounds of muscle to play Kyle
It wasn't at all like a costume. It was like ... this sort of transformative experience to me because there was no going home from it. It was a gradual change that then became my daily life until I started to shed him after we stopped shooting, which actually didn't happen for three or four weeks.
And I remember waking up one morning and knowing that he was gone and I just knew it. He was just gone from me. ... I could just feel it — that he wasn't there. It sounds so crazy, but I'd be lying if I said that wasn't happening. I remember telling somebody, "Yeah, he's gone." And I remember somebody looking at me in the eyes and saying, "Yeah, I don't see him anymore."
On working with Clint Eastwood
With Clint, I always saw a similarity between he and Chris, always: A man of few words, a very imposing physical presence, a levity that was just intoxicating and a larger than life figure who is extremely human the second you talk to them or look into their eyes. That's Chris in a nutshell, for me, the guy I got to know.
So the fact that I was [on set] with a man who had all of those qualities, standing with me, walking down the road together arm in arm was invaluable. I would use him. ...
To me, where it's happening, you want to be right in the center, in the trenches, and Clint is like that. A lot of those sniping sequences, where it's very intimate with Chris and the gun, Clint was four inches away from where the lens is — it felt like we were doing it together. It was ideal. It wouldn't have worked — I know for a fact — I wouldn't have been able to inhabit Chris the way I was able to without Clint there.
On portraying the disfigured "Elephant Man" Joseph Merrick shortly after American Sniper
It's interesting to me; I see more similarities between Joseph [Merrick] and Chris [Kyle] than differences and I'll explain what I mean. Chris, if you watch any interview with him — [he's] not very animated physically, it's all in his eyes. He doesn't even move his head that much and he always had a dip in his mouth so his lower lip was always sort of protruded. ... And also the Texas accent, it's a very closed-mouth way of talking. He had to express a lot of what he was feeling and doing through his eyes and his voice — very similar to Merrick, so I actually see a lot of similarities in terms of the approach of the way these two men walked through their lives.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bradley Cooper, stars in the film "American Sniper," which has become a cultural lightning rod with people from the left and right arguing with each other about the film and its depiction of the war in Iraq. We're going to hear Cooper's reaction, but mostly, we're going to talk about how and why he made this film. He's nominated for an Oscar for his performance. The film is nominated for five other Oscars, including best picture. Cooper is one of the film's producers. Cooper plays Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who is considered the most skilled sniper in U.S. military history. He killed an estimated 160 people and was nicknamed Legend. After surviving four tours in Iraq, he was murdered near his home by a troubled vet he was trying to help. Today is the second anniversary of his death. In Iraq, Kyle was usually on overwatch, stationed on a rooftop, preventing insurgents from ambushing Marines. But in this scene, he tells a fellow SEAL he wants to be on the ground, searching door-to-door with the Marines.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN SNIPER")
BRADLEY COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) I'll tell you something. These Marines keep rushing in like they're doing, they're going to have their [bleep] shot off.
LUKE GRIMES: (As Marc Lee) Well, they're Marines. They don't get the training we do. Half these guys were civilians six months ago.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Well, let's coach them up. I'll show them how team guys do it. I'll lead the unit on the street.
GRIMES: (As Marc Lee) No, we can't do that. We need you on overwatch.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Oh, come on. If I'm on the street, Marc, I could...
GRIMES: (As Marc Lee) House to house is the deadliest job here, man. You got some sort of savior complex?
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) I just want to get the bad guys, but if I can't see them, I can't shoot them.
GRIMES: (As Marc Lee) Look, all these guys, they know your name. They feel invincible with you up there.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) They're not.
GRIMES: (As Marc Lee) They are if they think they are. Why don't you just keep banging on the long gun? We'll let these dogs sniff out Zarqawi.
GROSS: "American Sniper" alternates between scenes of Kyle in Iraq and at home between deployments. At home, he becomes emotionally detached and uncommunicative, unable to acknowledge what others realize - that the war is taking a terrible toll on him. In this scene, he's back home in Texas at an auto repair shop where he's recognized by a vet who approaches him. In the course of the conversation, the vet lifts one pant leg to reveal the prosthetic that's replaced the leg he lost.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN SNIPER")
JONATHAN GROFF: (As Mads) Chief Chris Kyle?
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Yes, sir.
GROFF: (As Mads) My name is Mads. We met in Fallujah. You saved my life.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) I did?
GROFF: (As Mads) Yes, sir. We were stuck in a house until you came in with the first Marines. You were the one that carried me out.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Oh, wow. Well, the Marines saved our [bleep] plenty of times. How are you? You all right? You holding up?
GROFF: (As Mads) Great, yeah. I'm just grateful to be alive. It hasn't been - it hasn't been easy, but you know, a lot of guys lost more than just a leg.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) You lose some friends?
GROFF: (As Mads) Well, they too, but I'm talking about the guys who lived. You know, that made it back, but they're just not back yet. They can't seem to get right.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) Yeah.
GROFF: (As Mads) Why don't you come down to the VA sometime? The guys will love it. They all know who the legend is. My family thanks you for your service.
COOPER: (As Chris Kyle) OK, thank you. All right.
GROSS: Bradley Cooper is currently starring in the Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man." We recorded our interview last Thursday.
Bradley Cooper, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm so happy to have the chance to talk with you again. I've got to ask you, were you expecting your film to become this cultural lightning rod?
COOPER: Absolutely not. First of all, it's so great to be here, Terry. Thanks for having me. No, I did not at all. I don't think one could ever foresee something like that happening.
GROSS: So let me just ask you a couple of things about the controversy. First of all, what has it been like for you to be in the center of the culture wars and to have some liberals criticizing the film, Sarah Palin supporting the film? Everybody's talking about it and weighing in. I don't think you've been in that position before, and it's a really strange position to be in.
COOPER: No, I have not - not that I can think of. I feel a bit removed from it just because I'm in New York City doing this play, and my life hasn't changed on a daily basis, you know? People aren't coming up on the street or anything like that, either praising or yelling at me.
But, you know, war is such an emotional subject, so maybe I was a fool to think that it wouldn't. The one great thing I have to say is that what we are watching are whatever people are writing that go to - an audience of - how many? - 1.4 million, or whatever it is on certain television programs - but the box-office results show that millions and millions of people are going out to see the film. And clearly, it's starting a discussion and outside of just the political arena. It's starting a discussion about what vets go through and what men and women in the armed services - what their plight is as they go into theater and what their families have to deal with. And I think that's something that 99 percent of the population, myself included, just had no idea what that is like. So if for nothing else, that this movie could shed a light onto that 1 percent that have sacrificed themselves for our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, you know, that's a wonderful thing.
GROSS: Let me ask you about just, like, a couple of points that critics of the film from the left are pointing out. People say that you don't point out in the film that Iraq was the wrong country to invade and that it had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and that the Iraq War never should've happened. Did you see it as the job of your movie to make that point, or did you intentionally keep politics out of the movie?
COOPER: It was always, clearly, to get Chris Kyle right and tell a human story, and quite frankly, in the beginning, Terry, you know, two years ago, I just liked the idea of a character study based on this conflict - that I hadn't seen a war movie or movie of this genre that focused around a human being. It always sort of - "Black Hawk Down" was about an incident. "Jarhead" was about the sort of impotency of that time period. I did not see "Hurt Locker," so I can't speak to that. But I thought, you know, "Born On The Fourth Of July" was the last time I remember seeing a sort of biopic that took us through an experience that we've all sort of observed. So for me, that's what I've enjoyed about it initially, and I love the idea of framing it as a Western. I thought that could be very sort of cinematically viable - ripe for cinema - to have this story. And that this guy happened to be incredibly charismatic, I mean...
GROSS: What do you mean by framing it as a Western?
COOPER: You have a guy going into a town, and there's his equivalent on the other side - another sharpshooter. He's a sharpshooter. You end it in, you know, tumbleweeds. At the dust storm, there's showdown. This sort of, you know, one man and his sort of pursuit - that idea. Framing this genre within a Western construct was sort of something that I thought would be interesting. I don't...
GROSS: I've heard people criticizing you for making a film that's like a Western. That's how far it's gotten (laughter). But so...
COOPER: Well, I mean, having a - to me, I thought it was an interesting idea, and they're free - I mean, yeah, absolutely. They can criticize. I mean, that's what art's about, really. You create it, and then people are going to - and then it's for them to own. It's not for me to own what one feels from whatever product I helped create. But the idea was to have a construct of a Western, but play with it a bit in the way that "Unforgiven" did, you know? I was sort of bowled over by that movie when I saw it 15 years ago. So I like that idea of playing with these archetypes. But then it all changed, Terry. When Chris was killed - that's what interested me in the beginning when Jason Hall approached me with this idea.
GROSS: The screenwriter?
COOPER: The screenwriter, correct. At that point, there was no script. He just had this idea. And I think they had tried to sell it to Warner Bros. a couple of times, and they passed. And he talked to me about it, and we developed this pitch, basically. You go in, and you pitch the studio. You know, you take them through the movie. And that's when we framed it as a Western, and they went for it. But then when Chris was murdered, everything changed. I mean, it completely changed for me. And Taya Kyle, his wife, you know, just a couple weeks after he was murdered, had a conversation with Jason Hall and just said, you know, if you're going to do this thing, do it now and get it right. And he went back, and the movie became what it is, which is a story about this man's experience going four tours and the schizophrenic nature, almost, of going from home to war, and the effect that it had on his family as well. And it really was about their relationship as much as anything else.
GROSS: A lot of the criticism that you've been taking has been coming from the left from people who opposed the war in Iraq and think the film should have been making a stronger this was the wrong war to fight statement. And, you know, a lot of people who oppose the war in Iraq are very, you know, strong in saying, I opposed the war, but I support our troops. I support our men and women who risk their lives. But I'm wondering if you think that there are some people who feel like they oppose the war, they support the troops, but that they draw the line when the troops had to do something like kill someone. You know, like, I support the troops, but this guy here was a sniper. He killed people. You know, some people think, like, he hasn't apologized, so I don't approve.
COOPER: You know, Chris talked about...
GROSS: And I'm not saying I don't approve; I'm saying I think that's the attitude I'm hearing.
COOPER: No, no, I hear what you're saying. Yeah, no, I understand what you're saying. You know, Chris talked about - I remember hearing an interview with him, and he talked about - he was asked that question, a similar question about being over there and the choices and why and, you know, and he talked about how that's not his job. You know, he made a commitment and an oath to his country, and if you have an issue with it, the people that you really need to talk to are those who make the decisions of where to send the troops. And he would wish that that attention was diverted to them, and instead, maybe look at what the sacrifice is. That's how we looked at this movie. Would looked at this movie as, hopefully, igniting a conversation about the lack of care and attention that goes towards vets. And you know, the fact that it's inciting discussion that has nothing to do with vets, and it's more about the Iraq War or why or what we do not do to indict those who decided to go to the war, you know - every conversation that is in those terms, Terry, is moving farther and farther away from what our soldiers go through. And the fact that there's a 22 - 22 people - 22 vets commit suicide each day - that, you know, the amount of people that come home is so much greater than before because of medical advancement and that we need to take care of them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper, who's starring in "American Sniper." He also is a producer of the film. He's nominated for an Oscar, as is the film for best film. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Bradley Cooper who stars in the film "American Sniper," which is based on the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Can we pause for a second and listen to a minute of Chris Kyle?
GROSS: This from an interview that he did at the Fellowship Church. It's called Freedom Experience at Fellowship Church from 2012, which is the year of his book tour. He's being interviewed by Ed Young. And in this part, he's describe - I mean, some of the things he had to learn to be a sniper and to be a long-distance sniper and - so here's Chris Kyle talking about the skill that you need and the analysis - I mean, like, calculations you need to do when you're a sniper.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
CHRIS KYLE: Well, there's a lot of math involved, I mean, especially when you're shooting past a thousand yards, you have, you know, the Coriolis effect, which you've got the curvature of the Earth. The Earth isn't flat, so you have to learn how your bullet's traveling. And they all have a right-hand twist in them. The rifles are all right-hand twisted, so when a bullet comes out, it starts to spin to the right over a period of time. So you have to factor that in, take in effect all the different winds...
ED YOUNG: Wow.
KYLE: ...And then rotation of the Earth because nothing you shoot is actually a static target. Everything is moving. So if you're shooting a target that's in the East, you know - is it moving East to West? Is it moving West to East? Or is it - depends on where you are on the map and how the Earth is turning.
YOUNG: Tell me about fear. How do you - I should say how did you deal with fear and how do you deal with fear?
KYLE: It is definitely nerve-racking. I guess over time you kind of get hardened to it and in a way you kind of - you accept death. You're there for a reason. You know what the possible outcomes could be, and you're willing to give your life. I mean, every vet who goes overseas, he writes out a blank check to a country and says this is up to the value of my life. And, you know, fortunately for me, mine didn't - I didn't have to give the full amount.
GROSS: So that's a 2012 interview with Chris Kyle. My guest is Bradley Cooper, who stars in and produced the movie. And it's - you know, you knew something playing him and working on this movie that he would never know, which is that he would be killed but not in war. He'd be killed at home by a fellow vet, one he was trying to help. And I'm wondering what it was like for you to know that and play him not knowing him.
COOPER: Yeah, it's so interesting, Terry, hearing that back. I listened to that interview probably 80 times, 90 times.
COOPER: Yeah. I mean, I lived with him. I had his - I basically made this document where I had every single thing he's ever said recorded and I would just listen to it. It'd be the first thing I woke up with in the morning. I'd just put on the ear buds right away and last thing I listened to at night. And just really sort of soak him in. And so, God, I'm just -something about him - it was just beautiful. Yeah, it's just horrible. You know, seeing videos, Terry, home videos, you know, where they have the date on the bottom right corner and it would be like, you know, November 2012, November 23 or 24 - Thanksgiving and then Christmas, then knowing that a month later on February 2, 2013, his life would be ended.
I mean, it was just a very emotional thing to be watching. And I almost felt like I was an alien or somebody from the future doing sort of research coming into this man's life and watching every single thing he did and knowing the end of the story. You know, sitting in his dining room table in the same chair he sat in a year prior, you know, with Clint opposite me with Taya and the children and having watched a video of him in that chair - it was a very surreal experience and one that really prompted me to work in a way that I didn't even know I was able - to give that much energy. But when you're doing it for somebody and you realize that the family, the children are going to have this product, this film, to present their father, their husband, their brother for the rest of their lives, you realize what an honor it is.
GROSS: Had you gotten to spend time with Chris Kyle before he was killed?
COOPER: No, Terry, I talked to him one time on the phone, had a cursory conversation early on trying to sort of soften any fears he had about Hollywood or me. And I just thought, let me just get on the phone with this guy so he can hear my voice, I can hear his. And I just said hey man, I really want to, you know, go on this path with you, and I want to come to Midlothian. And let's really flush out your story and teach me everything you can. And I just want to soak it up and let's try to tell your story. And I just wanted to let him know who I am and that, you know, I mean what I say. And we had a nice conversation and I got right away his sense of humor. Right away, you could just feel it. And you could hear his voice in that interview. I mean, very open guy, very humble, very - just sort of not studied in the way that he responds to questions, you know, a real authenticity. And it's just a wonderful Texas lilt (laughter). And I just sort of loved the guy right away.
GROSS: So what was his reaction to you wanting to do the film and to you playing him? Did he give you his blessing?
COOPER: He did. He did on that phone call with the warning that, you know, that he's going have to strap me to the back of his truck and get the pretty out of me...
COOPER: ...which I took as a joke. I thought he was kidding 'cause that wouldn't go so well. And, you know, I think he also knew that I had been involved with Veterans Affairs and, you know, I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan twice at that point. So he was aware of my past.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that. What were you doing there?
COOPER: Yeah, I did USO tour. I did a couple of USO tours over there in 2011 and I think 2010 - yeah.
GROSS: What did you do on the tours?
COOPER: You know, you just basically (laughter) - that's such a good question everybody would always ask me 'cause, you know, Bob Hope started it.
GROSS: You're not singing and you're not doing standup.
COOPER: Right, right, right so what the heck are you doing? (Laughter).
GROSS: Shakespeare soliloquies.
COOPER: It's true. And you know, Terry, I started to do it a long time ago before "Hangover," you know, right around
"Wedding Crashers" and the first place I went to was Guantanamo Bay. And I remember going in there - and I took my buddy with me - and 'cause I just wanted to - I don't know, I just always felt - first of all, I wanted to go to these places. I was always very obsessed with that culture and I just thought what can I do? What can be my part? So I went there, they sent me there. And often I would be walking into rooms and the superior officer would tell the soldiers, you know, this is Bradley Cooper from "Alias." He's here to just say hello. And you could tell that they were like oh, whatever.
COOPER: And I remember setting up - this is hilarious - at a desk with posters - they make out these little, like, 5-by-7 cards with your face on it that you can write autographs, and they had, like, 200 of them. And it was a really windy day and I'm sitting there with my buddy just at a little, like - I'm going to look like a lemonade stand outside of, like, the local, whatever, food - restaurant there was for people to come in. And it was very windy and no one was stopping. And there was such a wind that the cards kept blowing.
COOPER: So all I did was basically try to pick up cards with my picture on it to put back on the desk that nobody's visiting.
GROSS: That's horrible. That's like a really bad book tour.
COOPER: It really was hilarious.
GROSS: But once you became better known, what did you do?
COOPER: I did the same thing, but then people started to come by and want the signature. You know, and you get to - then it actually became incredible. We went to all these FOBs, these forward operating bases. You basically piggyback on missions, so we landed on the USS Reagan. We took Chinook helicopters all throughout Afghanistan, Black Hawks, visited the Air Force. And then you go and see these guys that have been out there for six weeks, haven't seen anybody else. And you spend two or three hours with them and eat with them and talk to them. And you see on their faces just relief, I felt, at seeing a familiar face or somebody that they'd seen in the movies or watching a bootleg copy of "The Hangover." That's what many of them had seen - "The Hangover," you know, from a video camera taken in the third row of a movie theater. But it was a - it was amazing. It was incredible. My cousin went with me both times. We piggybacked on Admiral Mullen's mission the second time, and that was just incredible.
GROSS: Bradley Cooper, we'll talk more about "American Sniper" in the second half of the show. We'll also talk about how he's actually spending his time now starring in the Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man," portraying a character who's the physical opposite of Chris Kyle - a man so deformed he spent much of his life in a carnival sideshow, so stay with us. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bradley Cooper. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "American Sniper" as Chris Kyle, the Navy seal who was considered the best sniper in U.S. military history. After four deployments in Iraq, Kyle was killed near his home by a troubled vet he was trying to help. Today is the second anniversary of his death. Cooper is currently starring in the Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man." My interview with Bradley Cooper was recorded Thursday.
Chris Kyle's creed was God, country, family - in that order. And I'm sure there's a lot you related to about Chris Kyle and other things that you didn't. As an actor, you bring yourself to the role and then you do your best to inhabit the character that you're playing. What did you most directly connect with about Kyle, and what was, like, so different from you you had to really use empathy to understand who he was?
COOPER: This was a very particular circumstance for me - playing a real human being. The only time I'd ever done that before was with Joseph Merrick but that was for theater, actually, what I'm doing right now.
GROSS: That's The Elephant Man, yeah.
COOPER: The Elephant Man, correct. I approached it, in a way, Terry, outside-in. I knew that there was no way I was even going to get to a place of relating to him, having empathy for or understanding him at all, unless I got as big as he was, quite frankly, and...
GROSS: You mean physically big?
COOPER: Physically, yeah. And get to a place where I could at least be semi-dexterous with the 338 Lapua, the 300 Win Mag, and the Mark 11, the three sniper rifles he used on those tours. I just knew that I didn't have anywhere to begin. I didn't have a foothold on this guy until I did these very sort of practical things, took these practical steps, because I did recognize that the thing that was interesting to me about him was this massive physical presence with this very gentle inside and humorous demeanor. And that dichotomy is what heightened those aspects of his internal life. So without the aesthetic, I wouldn't be able to see the inner. And I know that I had to adopt that or rather take on that sort of physical presence in order to understand what was going on inside. So that's how I approached it, and that's not really normal, but that's what I did. And I also knew that if I didn't feel what it was like to be him - if I didn't believe that I was him in that way - that I don't think I was ever going to get to the man himself.
And I was terrified, Terry, I have to say. The three and a half months I had to prep, I did go to sleep often thinking, oh, my God, I just don't know because if I show up that first day and I don't believe I'm Chris Kyle, I am not going to make the movie. I won't do it. There's just no way - I just knew - it's my personality, too. I will just say I didn't get there, and I apologize, and Warner Bros. would sue me.
COOPER: So that's how I approached it, and because of that - now granted, as I'm doing the physical work every day and the vocal work - as I was doing that I was also listening to him and doing all of the research, and on weekends training with the rifles. And it just started to happen, Terry, honestly. It just started to happen. And one day I kind of woke up - now my mother was living with me at the time, and it's funny in retrospect. After she saw the movie she said, oh, oh, now I understand why you were the way you were.
COOPER: Like, I guess I didn't really talk to her very much for those three months. Our relationship was a bit stifled at that point. But it was one of the things that it just gradually started to happen, and I started to just talk like him all the time. And I remember as I started to walk down the streets and people dealing with me differently because of the strength and the size. And all of a sudden, reality changed. And when that occurred, I was able to then go inside of him and start to tell the story that was asked for by the script.
GROSS: So you physically put on about 40 pounds of muscle...
GROSS: ...To feel like Chris Kyle and to portray him. But if you put on a costume as an actor, you can take it off at night and go home and then you're yourself again. If you're transforming your body with 40 pounds of muscle and your body is looking and feeling different than it always does as Bradley Cooper and you're physically capable of things that you weren't physically capable of as Bradley Cooper, what happens when you go home at night and you're trying to be Bradley Cooper? Like, did you feel like a different person in ways that maybe were making you uncomfortable ever?
COOPER: No, not uncomfortable, but - what you're describing is a great example of what I experienced. It wasn't at all like a costume, it was like - and that's why it felt - and I'm trying to find the word for it - this sort of transformative experience to me because there was no going home from it. It was a gradual change that then became my daily life until the - until I started to shed him after we stopped shooting, which actually didn't happen for three or four weeks. I remember waking up one morning and knowing that he was gone. And I just knew it - that he was just gone for me.
GROSS: How did you know it?
COOPER: I don't know. I just woke up one day, and I could just feel it - that he wasn't there. That sounds so crazy. But that's the way - I mean, I'd be lying if I said that wasn't happening. I remember telling somebody - I said yeah, he's gone. And I remember somebody looking me in the eyes - he goes yeah, I don't see him anymore. You know - yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So I just want to acknowledge that as we're talking about that experience of trying to, you know, inhabit the character of Chris Kyle - as you speak about this now, in a few hours you're going to be on stage, on Broadway, as we record this, playing The Elephant Man, who is, you know, among the most vulnerable people in history in the sense that he was born, like, severely deformed and so deformed that he was in a freak show for many years. And...
COOPER: He wasn't born deformed, but yeah. He...
GROSS: He grew deformed.
COOPER: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: And we'll talk more about that later. But - so you're going to go on stage tonight and twist your body as much as you're capable of because he had a, you know, a twisted spine and a contorted body - a very deformed body, and you're going to be as vulnerable as you can express, and it's just exactly the opposite of what we've been talking about.
COOPER: Is it? It feels exactly the same thing.
GROSS: In what sense?
COOPER: Well, I'm playing another person who has a physical body that is much different than my own normally.
GROSS: Sure. OK, sure.
COOPER: So I go through this physical transformation and vocal transformation. He was someone who lived - who grew up in Leicester, who was British and lived in London. So it doesn't sound like a guy from Philadelphia. So I have to make those two transformations in order to then let him in. So it's funny, Terry, it's actually exactly the same process.
GROSS: It's exactly the same process to get to an exactly opposite place (laughter) because instead of being, like, the sniper who's so well-trained and is such a kind of physical specimen, you're playing the person who was in the freak sideshow in a carnival. And let me just read from the script of the play, and this is how Dr. Treves who rescues him from the freak show and gives him a home and shelter for the first time and treats like a human being which is so unusual for him - so this is Treves, you know, medical description.
(Reading) The most striking feature about him was his enormous head. Its circumference was about that of a man's waist. From the brow, there projected huge bony mass like a loaf, or from the back of his head hung a baggy sponge fungus-looking skin, the surface of which was comparable to brown cauliflower. The osseous growth on the forehead, at this stage, about the size of a tangerine, almost occluded one eye.
And the description goes on, after that. But anyways, that's who you're portraying tonight.
COOPER: Yeah. And, you know, it's interesting. To me I see more similarities between Joseph and Chris than differences, and I'll explain what I mean. You know, Chris, if you watch any interview with him - not very animated physically. It's all in his eyes - doesn't even move his head that much. And he always had a dip in his mouth, so his actually lower lip was always sort of protruded. And when you have a dip in your mouth you don't tend to, you know - and also the Texas accent, you know, it's a very sort of closed-mouth way of talking. So he had to express a lot of what he was feeling and doing through his eyes and his voice - very similar to Merrick. So I actually see a lot of similarities in terms of the approach of the way these two men walked through their lives.
GROSS: Since John Merrick is long dead - he lived in the 1800s - how did you figure out what your voice should be for him?
COOPER: Well, in doing research I learned a couple of things. Number one - he was very well read. He knew the Bible by heart and the book of prayers. And that was because before 1900, there was no Education Act but if you grew up religious, and they were Baptist, you could be schooled. And his mother was Baptist and so he was put into school as a young boy and learned that. And then he - you know, he basically escaped into reading, which makes a lot of sense. Jane Austen was his favorite author. He had a very high, flutey voice - these are all just facts - you could barely understand him because his voice was at such a high octave. So when we do the play, we play with that idea. I go up into a high register, but I don't live in that all the time. But I do go up in a sort of lyrical, melodic way up to the top.
He was also somebody who was completely awestruck by high society - by well-read people that sort of he saw that lived in these Jane Austen novels. So the choice that I made was to have him adopt this very sort of aristocratic way of speaking - a sort of highbrow way of speaking rather than a sort of Cockney accent. And so those are the choices that I made.
GROSS: Could you give us a sense of how you speak it in that...
COOPER: Oh, boy, I can't do that.
GROSS: That's fine. That's fine.
COOPER: (Laughter) Only because, you know, yeah, it just won't work.
GROSS: Yeah. I guess turning it on. I get it. No, I understand.
COOPER: You know, and it's not and - you know what? - I wish I could do it but - you know, and I even tried it with - as a joke, and I couldn't even do it the other day. It's one of those things - it's interesting, Terry. In the play, I go out there in the beginning of the play as myself and then he describes, Treves describes - and part of what you read is what he's describing - to The Pathological Society. And then as he's describing it, I then morph physically into Merrick. And then he puts the cane and says please, for me to turn around, and I take a breath, and that breath is when I finally give over me, Bradley, the actor, to Merrick, and then he's alive. And without doing that, it's hard to summon him.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper. And he's starring on Broadway in "The Elephant Man." He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance as Chris Kyle in "American Sniper." The film is nominated for an Oscar for best picture. He also is a producer of the film. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper. He stars as Chris Kyle in the new film "American Sniper." He is also a producer of the film. The film is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and he is nominated for Best Actor. Clint Eastwood directed the film - and very well. He directed it very well, I think. In so many ways he's like the perfect choice for the film because he's done a series of films about the consequences of violence and the consequences of war, films like "Unforgiven," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Flags Of Our Fathers" - even "Million Dollar Baby." It's about the consequences of being a boxer - fulfilling your dream to be a boxer. It's about more than that, but that's part of what it's about. But I'll tell you, after he interviewed the chair at the Republican National Convention, I thought, wow, I'd be scared to work with him after that. And I'm wondering if you had any reservations about, you know, having him direct the film knowing that he could interview the chair.
COOPER: (Laughter) You got to ask him about that one time (laughter) if you ever get a chance to.
COOPER: You know, I put myself on tape for I think every single Clint Eastwood movie since I started acting. I remember putting myself on tape for "Flags Of Our Fathers."
GROSS: Oh, you mean you play the role on tape?
COOPER: Yeah, like the audition. Like, you put yourself on tape at home...
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
COOPER: ...And then you send it in, and then you hope that someone sees it, and then it gets to Clint Eastwood. And then I put myself on tape for "Gran Torino" to play the Irish priest, and then I put myself on tape for "J. Edgar" to play Hoover's lover. And I remember at that we got a callback - or not a callback 'cause he doesn't meet actors. He hires off tape only. And they said it's between you and two other guys, and I thought, oh - because I always had this thing in my head, Terry, that I was going to work with Clint Eastwood. Really, honestly, when I was younger, and as I even got older into my early 20s, I thought it's going to be Clint Eastwood and Robert DeNiro. I just felt like I was going to work with these two men. I don't know why. I just really felt it. And then I remember I did not get "J. Edgar." And then we were going to make this movie with Steven Spielberg. That's quite honestly why it really started to all get into full gear, because when Steven Spielberg says he wants to do your movie, people want to make that happen. And then he dropped out. Clint Eastwood happened to be reading "American Sniper" recreationally while he was directing "Jersey Boys." And Greg Silverman at Warner Bros. called me and said, what about Clint? And I thought right away, well, he's the perfect director. And oddly enough, Terry, Chris said - when we were sort of developing the script - you know, Clint Eastwood would be the guy that he would want to direct the movie. So I called Clint on a Friday, and he said (imitating Clint Eastwood) yeah, let me - why don't you call me Monday. And I said, OK, I'll call you Monday. And I called him on Monday, and he said, (imitating Clint Eastwood) yeah, yeah, let's make this [bleep]. And that was it.
COOPER: And then that was it. So I mean, I understand what you're saying. But for me, I mean, it was the dream to work with Clint Eastwood - the dream. And with Clint I always saw a similarity between he and Chris - always - a man of few words, a very imposing physical presence, a levity that was just intoxicating and a larger-than-life figure who's extremely human the second you talk to them or look into their eyes. That's Chris in a nutshell for me, the guy I got to know. So the fact that I was there with a man who had all of those qualities standing with me, walking down the road together, arm in arm - playing Chris, it was invaluable because I just would use him. I mean, there would be scenes - first of all, I always want the director to be right next to me. I love that. I can't stand when they're back in video village. Video village is basically a place where you have, like, a tent around the monitor, and the director's back there barking out direction. And to me, where it's happening - you want to be right in the center, in the trenches, and Clint's like that. So a lot of those sniping sequences, you know, where it's just very intimate with Chris and the gun, you know, Clint was, you know, four inches away from where the lens is. And it felt like we were doing it together. So it was ideal. It was - it wouldn't have worked - I know for a fact I wouldn't have been able to inhabit Chris the way I was able to without Clint there.
GROSS: So your dream comes true. You get to work with Clint Eastwood. Do you feel like you learned things from working with him that you wouldn't have known before?
COOPER: Oh, yeah. Oh, oh, oh, yeah. First of all...
COOPER: Number one would be just don't sweat anything too much. I mean, that's - if there's one thing you learn, it's like, you know what? Just don't take everything too seriously - number one. Number two - never - always shoot rehearsal. If I ever get a chance to direct a movie - which I hope I do - I will definitely shoot the rehearsal because we're basically trying to pretend that we're saying the words for the first time. Well, there is a first time, so why don't you put it on film? And outside of that, economy of choices, you know. The wonderful thing about "Sniper" I think is, you know, the filmmaking doesn't get in the way of the story. It's a very sort of nuts-and-bolts character study, and he doesn't let his ego ever get in the way of what he's trying to accomplish. He's a guy who's very comfortable with himself.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper, who is starring in "American Sniper." He also is a producer of the film. He is nominated for an Oscar, as is the film for Best Film. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "American Sniper." He's also a producer of the film. The film is nominated for an Oscar for best picture.
You know, the last time you were on our show in 2013 when you had already signed on to make "American Sniper," but hadn't actually started shooting it and it was just a couple of months after Chris Kyle was murdered, you told me that one of the reasons why you wanted to play Chris Kyle was that when you were young, you wanted to go to Valley Forge Military Academy.
COOPER: (Laughter) Did I say that?
COOPER: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, that's true - the Yellow Pages, yeah.
GROSS: You talked about how your father had taken you to see a lot of war movies and shown you war movies on - I guess it was a VCR back then - things like "The Deer Hunter" and "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now." And you said, and I quote, "the men in the movies felt like they understood something about life that others didn't, and I wanted to go through that experience so I would have that knowledge. And I remember articulating that to my father and that's why I wanted him to allow me to go to Valley Forge Military Academy." And your father said over my dead body (laughter).
GROSS: So you didn't go. But can you talk a little bit more about how you wanted to have - to go through that experience and to have that knowledge and how you feel about that now having met so many vets who went through that experience and have that knowledge and who have lost limbs and who have lived through post-traumatic stress disorder and who, you know, have really suffered as a result.
COOPER: Oh, yeah. You know, I'm very blessed with a tremendous amount of curiosity and a love of human behavior. And I remember early on seeing those movies and having some men in my life - my math teacher was a Vietnam vet who was the football coach. My friend's father was a Vietnam vet who came to our school and talked about his experience. And it was the beginning - those were the two examples. I remember that these men were sort of - first of all, to me, just sort of iconically male to me, and they had this sort of understanding - this deepness in their eyes that I thought - that was very intoxicating, and it was sad, and it was cold, and it was dark, but there was something that I thought was wise and sage about it. And I thought wow, I want to be able to have that. That is what I felt. And then watching these movies over the years that I felt - you know, especially "Deer Hunter," when De Niro comes back home when he starts to try to re-assimilate back into the culture. Yeah, that was something. And then as you get older - yeah, I mean, maybe that's what drew me to do those USO tours.
GROSS: Do you think your father did the right thing in not allowing you to go to military academy?
COOPER: Well, the truth is it's up to me. It has nothing to do with my father. When I was 18, I could've enlisted in the army or the Marines, and I didn't. I stayed in college. So I feel like my father - I owe everything to my father so, yeah, I guess I am glad because I wouldn't be where I am now if he hadn't have done that. I probably would be somewhere else, but if I would be in a place where I was sacrificing my life for my country, that's pretty amazing.
GROSS: Do you think when "The Hangover" came out and you became, like, you know, the hunk and everything that a lot of people had a misunderstanding of how you saw yourself as an actor and where you wanted to go?
COOPER: You know, I didn't really think about that. I was just so happy to be working. And if you sort of look at the trajectory or the kind of work that I've been able to do over the years, it definitely has been more and more substantial in terms of nourishing roles. So all I ever wanted to do was just having the opportunity to work with people that I admire and on material that I find to be challenging. And I've been very lucky that way. And so it's the reason why I want to - I feel like it's such a privilege to be a part of it now in my life. The fact that I get to do this - the fact that I got to tell this man's story with Clint Eastwood and Jason Hall and Sienna Miller and Warner Bros. - I mean, I have to tell you something without it sounding like, you know, a puppet, but it's really the truth. I mean - you know, when we pitched this movie, Terry, it's not - you know, a $60 million-R-rated drama about a character in the Iraq War. This is not a movie the studio wants to make.
GROSS: Most of the Iraq War movies have done terribly at the box office, while you're breaking box office records.
COOPER: I mean, this is not like a oh, there's a money factory for us. You know, there's a thing that's going to - you know - not at all. And yet, you know, they did it because Clint has that kind of power and - but then when they saw the cut of the movie, the first cut, I mean, you could just tell they just said oh, there's something really, really special here.
GROSS: So as we record this, it's 3:30 in the afternoon, east coast time as we record this. You're on stage at 8 tonight as the...
COOPER: Today's Thursday, right?
GROSS: Yeah, you have a 7 o'clock show?
COOPER: Yeah, Tuesdays and Thursdays they have 7 o'clock shows.
GROSS: Yes, we're recording this on a Thursday. I'm recording this Thursday, January 29.
COOPER: (Laughter). Yeah, sorry (laughter).
GROSS: Wow, OK. So in three and half hours, you're on - less than three and half hours - you're on stage as the very vulnerable, very physically deformed but very kind of - but with a beautiful soul, you know, Joseph Merrick. So what are you going to do in the next three and half hours to prepare to be that person?
COOPER: Well, I'm right near the theater...
GROSS: ...And this is in "The Elephant Man" on Broadway.
COOPER: Yeah, this is in "The Elephant Man." I'm going to leave here. I'm probably going to go to a coffee shop and read and get something to eat. And then at about 6 o'clock, I'll go over to the theater, and then we do a vocal warm-up on stage with everybody in the cast, which is one of my favorite times of the night. And we all do this sort of vocal warm-up together and get loose for 15 minutes. And we'll just hang out until they say places. And I'll - the first scene I have underwear on. I have, like, this sort of diaper-like thing on. And then I'll just go there and you know - oh, I have a picture of Merrick right before he died in 1889, right before 1890. He died in the spring. And I sort of give a kiss to him and just look in his eyes for a second. And then I go down there and then I wait until they, you know, they call me to go on. And then I'm still me. And that's the great thing about this play is I don't become Merrick until I go onstage - and that Philly just came out of me - go on stage - before I go on stage.
COOPER: Yeah, Terry, I go on stage and then the audience is out there and then I - (laughter) and then I become Merrick with the audience.
COOPER: You can appreciate that.
GROSS: So one other question - after contorting your spine on stage every night in "The Elephant Man" on Broadway, do you ever feel like your body is saying to you what are you doing to me? First, you put on 40 pounds of muscle, then you make me twist my body every night and contort it to portray the Elephant Man?
COOPER: Well, I think my body's saying hey pal, if you're going to do it, you better do it now 'cause you just turned 40.
COOPER: I think that's what it said to me. You better log it all in right now 'cause you're not going to be able to do this much longer.
GROSS: (Laughter). Bradley Cooper, it's been so great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
COOPER: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Bradley Cooper stars in "American Sniper." He's nominated for an Oscar for best actor. He told me a great story about his role in "American Hustle." There wasn't enough time for it in our broadcast, but we have it for you with an extra on our podcast. We've made some changes to our podcast that were really excited about, so I hope you'll check it out. You can subscribe on iTunes or your mobile phone app. It's free and easy to download. Tomorrow on our show, we'll talk about why sex is pleasurable and why bruises hurt. My guest will be neuroscientist David Linden, author of a new book about the sense of touch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.