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How Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence found the ‘Silver Linings’

When Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence met for the first time before shooting the new David O. Russell movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” they didn’t opt for a conventional encounter. There was no leisurely table read of the script, no tell-me-your-hopes-and-dreams lunch with a director.

Instead, they rendezvoused at a dance studio.

The pair’s new dramatic comedy, which the Weinstein Co. opened nationwide on Wednesday, has a significant ballroom dance subplot. So the actors entered an intense two-week session in which, for four or five hours each day, a choreographer had them spinning, lifting and dipping. It was a crash course that left little room for artifice.

“If you ever really want to get to know someone, take a dance class with them,” Cooper said, making particular note of his prolific sweat glands.

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“Silver Linings” is a rarity in this drama-heavy season, a richly human movie that can swerve from heartbreaking to uproarious. Centering on a bipolar man prone to outbursts (Cooper, as the recently hospitalized Pat) who awkwardly explores a connection with a quirky woman (Lawrence, as the recently widowed Tiffany), it inhabits the worlds of mental illness, Philadelphia Eagles fandom and, of course, twinkletoe-ing. Russell wrote (and rewrote) the script based on an obscure literary novel, channeling his experiences with a teenage son beset by emotional difficulties.

So far, reviews have been glowing. (The Times’ Kenneth Turan called it “dramatic, emotional, even heartbreaking as well as wickedly funny.”) Art-house audiences in cities such as Los Angeles and New York came out in packs (a strong $28,000 average on 16 screen)s. And the movie has been pegged a best picture Oscar front runner by those paid to forecast such things.

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For the actors, exhaustive physical preparation was a fitting prelude to working with Russell, who — forget Baryshnikov — shoots films the way Shaun White rides the half pipe.

Absent were the languorous takes that have actors slightly tweaking their delivery each time out, or the director who sits removedly at a monitor squinting at the framing. For most scenes, the film’s producers said, Russell would stand next to the actors as the camera rolled, giving commands between — and over— their lines. “Ask her about her late husband,” he’d prod Cooper, or “Make him talk about his estranged wife,” he’d tell Lawrence. (Russell’s comments were later erased in postproduction.)

“There’s almost no structure to working on this movie, no shell you can go into,” Lawrence said, speaking in a joint interview with Cooper. “Bradley and I were completely vulnerable the entire time.”

Added her costar: “We didn’t think in terms of takes. We thought in terms of interactions.”

Russell’s method is evidence that a good movie both demands actors eager to stretch and a director willing to push.

And there is much career-stretching in “Silver Linings.”

Cooper, 37, arrived on set last year fresh from the success of “The Hangover Part 2,” the latest in a string of pretty-boy roles that includes “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Wedding Crashers.” In “The A-Team” reboot a few years ago, his character was named, fittingly, “Face.”

But Russell said in an interview that he recognized something more in the actor. “Bradley as a person has an appetite that mirrored the Pat character, a huge drive to say, ‘You don’t know me. You think you know me, but you don’t.’”

Cooper admitted he found the role “scary.” If he couldn’t hit the right key, there was no stunt tiger or dopey Zach Galifianakis expression to rescue him.

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Lawrence is pushing in new directions too, adding a far more comedic and expressive side than in her breakout “Winter’s Bone” — and, in her small human moments, keeping a mile away from the big production values of her blockbuster “The Hunger Games.”

The actress was also a gamble for the filmmakers; she is, after all, 15 years younger than Cooper. (She covered that up during her Skype audition, delivered from her parents’ house in Kentucky, by donning ample amounts of black eyeliner and mascara.)

Russell, who said Lawrence came off emotionally as “30 or even 40" in the audition, was struck by her as “at once very vulnerable and very confident, which is exactly what Tiffany is.” The film’s lead producer, Donna Gigliotti, described seeing in the actress an emotional intelligence, “something that suggests she just knows what a complicated person like Tiffany would do at every moment.”

Still, Lawrence, who in an interview has trouble opening her mouth without blurting out a joke or a loud laugh, tried to keep things light on set; at one point she stuffed marshmallows from a props table into her mouth and wore them as teeth.

Lawrence said she was moved to work with Russell because she held what is perhaps not the prevailing view of the director’s “I Heart Huckabees” as “the funniest movie I ever saw in my entire life.” That belief, she said, prompted her to “instantly want to be a part of this. It made me obsessed, and I continued to hunt him.”

“Silver Linings” has an indie vibe — it was made in a quick 33 days for $21 million — and sought to preserve authenticity in various ways.

The film was shot mostly in the working-class Pennsylvania suburb of Upper Darby, the cast and crew piling in vans from their downtown Philadelphia digs to spend marathon days in a tackily tricked-out 700-square-foot house. (Much of the action takes place at the suburban Philly home of Pat’s parents. His on-screen mother spends much of her time in the kitchen whipping up the working-class Philly staple “homemades” while his father, played by Robert De Niro, superstitiously watches Eagles games, which he also bets on.)

Cooper, who has Italian American ancestry, grew up a few towns over. During filming, his Uncle Ernie, a local air-conditioning repairman, came to the hotel and gave De Niro tips on how to sound and act like him.

In fact, the film’s setup was close enough to Cooper’s own upbringing that the actor suggested casting his own non-actress mother in the role of Pat’s mom. (Russell smiled, then cast Jacki Weaver.)

Earlier in his career, Russell had a reputation for intensity, particularly on the set of “Huckabees.” A previous version of David O. Russell might have let some of those impulses — much like Pat himself — get the better of him. But he says he’s in a mellower place.

It’s an assessment the actors agree with. Russell might tell actors that a take was terrible, as Lawrence recalled, but when he told her to “go deeper,” they both would break out in a baritone.

Cooper acknowledged that he didn’t know what to expect from the director. “I looked at David O. Russell movies and I thought, ‘No one really seems to be acting.’ But what I learned working with him is that he helps you get out of your own head. And as an actor, that’s the best place to go.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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