Whoa, double take. In his latest movie, the 1970s crime caper American Hustle, Bradley Cooper is nearly unrecognizable, his matinee idol looks sacrificed on the altar of character acting. He's a veritable refugee from Studio 54 in double-wide lapels, flared trousers, a Robin Gibb beard and Toni-home-permanent pin curls.
It's the latest step in a mid-career makeover that has catapulted Cooper, 38, from throwaway films like The A-Team to the A list, front and center in the vanguard of a new generation of leading men.
Cooper's dashing good looks led to years of typecasting as cocky cads (notably the conceited, adulterous hothead in Wedding Crashers) and generic boyfriends. Remember him in He's Just Not That Into You? Neither does anyone else. The Hangover series earned hundreds of millions of dollars and made Cooper a bona fide megastar, but it was not much of a showcase for his abilities.
"It wasn't even until Silver Linings Playbook that I realized how many people didn't think I was an actor," Cooper said during a recent phone interview. "Maybe I, like Richie DiMaso," the befuddled FBI man he plays in Hustle, "was in a bit of a delusion."
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More likely, the people who underestimated Cooper were wrong. In 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, he played a man with bipolar disorder who assaults his wife's lover and then moves in with his parents after months in a mental hospital. His performance, which turned this borderline psycho into a lovable romantic mutt, earned Cooper an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Since then, he's earned terrific notices as a naive rookie cop who goes on to become a self-serving politician in The Place Beyond the Pines. He also played The Elephant Man on stage and hopes to repeat the role on Broadway.
Even before director David O. Russell wrapped production on Silver Linings Playbook, he recruited Cooper to star in American Hustle, his follow-up film, which opens Friday.
Cooper, his Silver Linings co-star Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Robert De Niro play schemers double-crossing their way through a back-stabby scheme inspired by the 1978 Abscam scandal.
Cooper's character is an FBI operative who cons two con artists into working for him. The gullible lawman soon finds himself in over his head strategically, ethically and romantically. Cooper and Russell made it their main goal to demolish the stock character of the FBI antagonist in their delirious crime story.
"We wanted to reinvent that archetype completely," Cooper said. "We wanted Richie to be almost as colorful as the Irving character" — a whiny, tubby swindler played by Bale, wearing a Donald Trump comb-over and packing a Santa Claus paunch. Irving's scams include keeping a fake-English mistress (Adams) under the radar of his wife (Lawrence). For a while, anyway. The film morphs into a screwball love story, with the conniving players switching sides faster than a flipped coin.
Cooper calls Russell, who co-wrote the script, an "idiosyncratic," hard-charging filmmaker who treats his projects like all-in sports contests. Every aspect of the characters was thought out in detail, down to the point that the boyish Richie is never seen with his tie properly tied until a smoother character gives him a makeover.
"It was very fun to dive into these characters and see who could they be," Cooper said. "My heart goes out to all of them, especially Richie. There's nothing like watching somebody lose their innocence. It's my job as an actor to make that fresh and personal."
Russell favors colorful, contradictory characters over clear-cut plot lines, and shouted on-the-spot brainwaves to his cast in mid-scene.
"He was rewriting while the cameras were rolling, a process that's unique," Cooper said. "No one really knows what's happening but him. I love it because it gets you out of your head. It makes things easier because it just forces you to react."
Cooper's father, a Philadelphia stockbroker, wasn't convinced that an acting career was a sound business plan for his son. Cooper had his own moments of doubt.
In 1999, he worked as a doorman on the graveyard shift at the fashionable Morgan Hotel in New York.
"One of the guys I took to their rooms was Leonardo DiCaprio," fresh off his superstar turn in Titanic, Cooper said.
"I remember riding down on the elevator after I showed him and about seven of his friends their room. I was wearing the uniform, not a hip look. I remembered reading recently that he and I were exactly the same age. I went down in the elevator thinking I had been 4 feet from the guy and we couldn't be in two more different worlds. He was my age and he had accomplished so much."
Flash forward: Now DiCaprio and Cooper are good friends, attending last year's Super Bowl together. "It's a crazy business," Cooper said.