Bradley Cooper on 'American Sniper': Chris Kyle 'didn't really leave me'

'He didn't really leave me,' Bradley Cooper says of his role as Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper'

"You've got your back to the window, so you're kind of screwed," Bradley Cooper said.

Cooper was scanning the room from a high-backed chair, his eyes tracking the waiter carrying his breakfast, the guy in the hoodie tapping away on a laptop near the door, the "at risk" reporter staring back at him.

Assessing the potential threats in a space — even in a Tribeca luxury hotel on a sleepy December morning with horizontal rain — was a habit Cooper had picked up while making "American Sniper."

"After that, you're more aware of everything," he said of the experience of crawling inside the mind of the military's deadliest sniper, Chris Kyle. "He didn't really leave me."

The role became imprinted on Cooper in other ways: He gained 30 pounds of muscle, perfected a West Texas twang and learned how to shoot a .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. He also delivered a rugged type of screen stoicism that his "American Sniper" director, Clint Eastwood, made a career of.

For the effort, Cooper, 40, has earned his third Oscar nomination in as many years, after the David O. Russell films "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle," a feat only nine other actors have achieved.

And the movie, a best picture nominee that Cooper produced and championed despite others' doubts about its marketability, has become a box office phenomenon, earning more than $250 million domestically. Along the way, it has also ignited political debate about the Iraq war and the toll on the people who fought it.

The success for "Sniper" comes at a time when Cooper is performing on Broadway in "The Elephant Man" as a very different sort of man, John Merrick, the deformed Englishman who became a celebrity in 19th century London society.

Cooper plays the role without the use of prosthetics, contorting his arm and face and speaking in a labored, high-pitched voice.

"As an actor, [Chris Kyle and John Merrick] were both very similar in terms of what I had to do physically," Cooper said, "the fact that I had to change my body chemistry, the physicality as an entranceway into the roles. Both of them, oddly enough, were also very clear as to who they were. Both men felt very planted in the ground."

Late last year, as "The Elephant Man" had opened to rapturous reviews and "American Sniper" was yet to arrive in theaters, Cooper talked about how the two roles were a culmination of an interest that was sparked when he was 12, growing up in a Philadelphia suburb.

It was then that Cooper saw David Lynch's 1980 version of "The Elephant Man," starring John Hurt as Merrick.

"It crushed me," Cooper said of the Lynch film. "I just felt this real emotional reaction to Merrick's plight, to how he was able to be so positive and joyful, and saw the goodness in stuff when he was afflicted with this disorder."

At the time, Cooper's family said, "'Oh, Brad wants to be an actor. How cute. Go eat some ravioli,'" he said.

But after getting a bachelor's in English at Georgetown University, Cooper studied at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, home of the James Lipton-hosted "Inside the Actors Studio." In a 1999 episode of the Bravo show, an earnest, shaggy-haired Cooper asks guest Sean Penn a question from the audience.

Cooper found early work in television, on series "Alias" and "Jack & Bobby," and in film comedies "Wet Hot American Summer" and "The Wedding Crashers" before his breakout role as a playboy ringleader in the "Hangover" films helped transform him into a box office commodity and a People magazine "sexiest man alive."

After he played a man with bipolar disorder in "Silver Linings Playbook," Cooper learned about Kyle's story from a friend, screenwriter Jason Hall, and came aboard the project as a producer before ultimately agreeing to star to get a studio interested. Cooper never met Kyle. He was killed at a shooting range while helping a veteran on Feb. 2, 2013, just one day after Hall turned in his first draft of "American Sniper."

The project cycled through multiple possible directors, including Steven Spielberg, before Eastwood came aboard in the summer of 2013.

As a producer, Cooper was heavily involved, both in the planning and the editing room, according to Eastwood.

"Bradley was engaged in all aspects of the film and has an unparalleled work ethic and concentration level," Eastwood said. "He was very invested in the overall project, as I was when I was young. Being interested in every detail is what drove me to want to direct, and I would not be surprised to see Bradley wanting to direct in the future." (In fact, Cooper has expressed an interest in directing a dramatic comedy by "Crazy, Stupid, Love" writer Dan Fogelman.)

Critics have praised Cooper's performance for its naturalism and for humanizing a closely guarded character.

"Bradley's basically playing a guy who does not reveal his emotions," "American Sniper" producer Rob Laurenz said. "Emotion is how you connect with an audience, so to not be able to express it in a big way is hard. You rely on subtleties in the eyes and in the face. It's a wildly challenging role."

Cooper said he knew he was taking a risk by playing Kyle, a man so different from him in background, physicality and bearing, and a political lightning rod to boot.

"I knew I could get crushed for doing this role, but at least I know why I'm doing it," Cooper said. "It's so clear to me. I love Chris. That's all I had to work with. Forget everything else. That's a huge anchor, you hold on to that."

Living in New York for the play, he said he still takes the subway and often walks past his old apartment on Barrow Street in the West Village.

Next he plans to bring "The Elephant Man" to London and reteam with Russell on a project with his "Silver Linings Playbook" costar Jennifer Lawrence.

"I get to go to work every day and do something I love to death ... and have people react in a way that I would want them to, that they're affected by it," Cooper said. "That's it, dude. That's why I'm an actor."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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