Bradley Cooper would be happy to hail a taxi for you.
Having been a doorman at New York's Morgan Hotel at 38th and Madison, People's current Sexiest Man Alive paid his dues as a struggling actor by calling cabs and helping guests get to where they needed to be.
“I’m lucky that I get a lot of thrill out of simple things," he says. "I was like a pig in shit working the graveyard shift and just doing auditions and getting callbacks."
The actor reminisces about those good ol' days during a press conference for his new film, The Words (in theaters September 7), in which he plays a struggling novelist named Rory who happens upon an old manuscript during his honeymoon in Paris and turns it into a bestselling book that catapults him to the top of his career.
However, living with the guilt of plagiarism, Rory has an encounter with an old man (the magnetic Jeremy Irons) who claims ownership of the material, which consists of love letters and personal entries written during World War II.
The film, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal -- both boyhood pals of Cooper's from Philly -- takes place throughout a trio of time periods: Rory's present-day life in Manhattan with his newly wedded wife (Zoe Saldana), flashbacks to war-torn Paris with a young man (Ben Barnes) who meets the love of his life, and glimpses of a veteran writer named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), who exchanges flirtations -- and secrets -- with woman named Daniella (Olivia Wilde).
Rejection is something Cooper could relate to while getting into character. After all, it's something all artists face while trying to make a name for themselves. Long before Hollywood knew his name or plastered his ruggedly handsome mug on the covers of glossy magazines, Cooper saw rejection as a constant companion of sorts. While approaching the role, he had to refamiliarize himself with the Big R. "I did relate to the rejection aspect of it," he says. "And I just followed [the directors] lead. They brought me to places I never thought I could get to.”
He continues his stroll down memory lane: “When I first started auditioning, I didn’t realize – and I’m not even kidding – that you could actually book a job. After a week, I was hanging with my friends and was like, ‘Yeah I got a couple of callbacks,’ and that was a very successful weekend because I always had another job. So when I actually booked Sex and the City, I was very frightened because I actually had to do the job. I didn’t really understand that concept…so I came at [the role] from the other side where rejection was normal and getting [a paying gig] was odd.”
Then there's the pressure, as a successful actor, to keep at it, to move on to the next project and hope that everything goes well. Cooper recalls some words of wisdom from a particular Oscar-winning actress: “I remember being at school, and Meryl Streep came and said that the easiest thing is to do your first good movie, but to do your second, that's the hardest…You know, I don’t really look at it that way. I guess it’s more about what your goal is. If it’s your goal is just grow as actor, then everything is an opportunity. So that’s how I look at it: everything is an opportunity. I don’t want to act or create in a bubble. I care very much about how things are received and want them to be enjoyed, but I don’t see anything more pressuring than not.”
Cooper, usually known for playing "smarmy" characters in the past, doesn't think Rory could ever be lumped in with those roles. In The Words, he turns Rory, a man who commits a dishonorable act, into a sympathetic character. When one journalist has the gall to call the character "a slimebag," Cooper is quick to defend his alter ego:
“I don’t see Rory as a slimebag. I see him as a man who’s not really a man and grappling with what it means to be a man, and I think his Achillies heel is his impatience. And the thing that I really liked about the script, and the hook for me, was that he is actually a good writer. He’s not just a poor writer and looking to get success. He’s a writer that has talent...but he’s just so preoccupied with living up to some idea of who he thinks he should be, and that’s his fatal flaw. I don’t think that makes him a slimebag.”
While the film boasts an impressive ensemble, many of the actors never had the chance to directly work with one another. However, working with the incomparable Jeremy Irons was "a dream" for Cooper, who felt as if he struck the acting jackpot sitting face to face with the Borgias star.
How did he feel about exchanging dialogue with the one and only Irons? “I think excitement superceded any nervousness. Sometimes you have a feeling about somebody, and I don’t know if you’ve met him or not [no, but we'd very much like to], but he is a very welcoming individual. Like a lot of great actors, he makes you feel comfortable. The most nervous I’ve ever been was meeting Christopher Walken during Wedding Crashers, and talk about a guy who puts you at ease. I just kind of fell in love with him. The same thing with Robert DeNiro, and Jeremy Irons follows suit completely. And Liam Neeson. All these sort of icons that I’ve had the honor to work with have all had one thread, which is normalcy. He’s a very normal guy. You know, as normal as a very awesome-looking guy – I mean his voice is like God – could be. And everybody felt that way.”
Feeling comfortable on the set of The Words was key since production had 25 shooting days scheduled. No time was wasted, especially when there was tons of dialogue, particularly for Irons, to nail down. However, costar Ben Barnes had an entirely different experience. Playing the younger version of Irons's character, he had minimal lines in those emotional flashbacks.
“It was initially a concern for me," Barnes admits, "when I first read the script along with a note from my former agents saying the character doesn’t speak – Pass. And I thought, ‘Well, it’s such an ambitious title: The Words.’ I’ve gotta sit down. So I made a cup of tea and read it, and by the end of it, I thought ‘I’m doing this, regardless of how much I have to say.’ And I thought it would be a problem, because as an actor, you have your expressions and you have the words on the page. That’s one of the few tools that we have, so that was a concern for me. But then Brian and Lee called me up, and they said, ‘Look, we’ll improvise these scenes and if we find something magical along the way, we’ll keep it in, and if it’s terrible [imitating Jeremy Irons] Jeremy Irons will voiceover the entire thing.” He laughs. “It was actually very freeing in the end because I didn’t have to worry about what the next line was at any given time. I could just do whatever I wanted…so it was actually a very freeing, earnest, sort of organic feel.”
Then the conversation turns to real-life plagiarism...
HIH: Have you guys ever felt like somebody ripped off something you did?
BC: I always feel like I’m taking from something when I do something else. I think that’s a part of creativity. I’m only using what I see and feel from the world I’m a part of.
BK: That’s the anxiety of influence. We have so much around us, influences us, it’s hard to know what your influences are and where they’re coming from…when Lee and I work together we use references all the time. It’s a great shorthand.
LS: When I steal, I call it paying homage.
BB: I completely cheated on my homework on this one. They showed me what Jeremy Irons did before I started. So I completely copied him. Plagiarism!
One final admission from Cooper: “I was very scared that I was going to fail these guys when they asked me to do [the movie]. I said yes because I would do anything for them. Brian’s my best buddy. And it was a week before shooting when I was reading the script one last time – and he knew I was worried that I didn’t get Rory – and I called him and read it one last time…and I loved the fact that he [Rory] was just impatient. That’s what I like about the script; it’s complicated. It’s not like he set out to plagiarize at all. The only reason why he downloads [the manuscript] to his computer is because he wanted to feel what the words would be like washing over his fingers, and it’s not until his wife looks at him in the way he wants her to look at him for the first time, that he is seduced by that. And he’s not man enough to say ‘That is not me.’”
Despite Rory's conscience telling him to right his wrong, he is inevitably forced to keep up the charade, and that's something the film's star found fascinatingly challenging. Then again, Bradley Cooper finds most things fascinating. And nothing is more so than him sitting in a room in Beverly Hills, waxing nostalgic on simpler times when he used to greet hotel guests night after night as a New York City doorman.
“You guys need a taxi?” he asks the room. When everyone laughs, he turns to the panel. “Still got it!”