Bradley Cooper has barely grazed his chair at a Beverly Hills French bistro when he pulls out his smartphone. He wants to show you something: a photo he took of himself the other day wearing a bushy, curly wig. He's considering getting his hair permed to play an FBI agent in a film about the 1970s Abscam sting operation, and when he saw this wig on the set of the movie he's currently shooting a little comedy called The Hangover Part III he figured he'd try it on. It's not the most flattering look imagine Seth Rogen's unruly locks Photoshopped onto Cooper's head but the actor is clearly excited about it. ''I think it's f---ing awesome,'' he says. ''It's different, right?''
Cooper knows you might have a certain preconceived image of him: as the cocky alpha male Phil from the Hangover movies, as People's Sexiest Man Alive, as someone whose love life has periodically been splashed across the gossip pages. But at 37, he'd like to wipe all that away with a performance that's deeper, more serious, and, well, different. His new movie, the romantic dramedy Silver Linings Playbook (rated R), marks a major step in that evolution. Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a former teacher with bipolar disorder just out of a mental institution who's struggling to put together the pieces of his broken life when he meets a damaged kindred spirit, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). The role required Cooper to run the gamut from manic joy to rage to desperation to unbridled love. ''I was scared,'' he says. ''I thought, 'F---, am I going to go to those places emotionally and be that naked?''' Judging from the critical raves and early Oscar buzz his performance has received, the answer is an emphatic yes. ''I've become aware that there was a little bit of 'He's not really an actor he's just the guy from The Hangover,''' Cooper says. ''I guess people were surprised that that's the same guy.''
For his part, Silver Linings director David O. Russell (The Fighter) was excited by the idea of reintroducing Cooper to audiences. ''The opening shot in the film was specifically designed to be on his back while he's talking, so you'd have a sense of anticipation or mystery,'' Russell says. ''Then we come around and you see his face and think, 'Wait a minute that's Bradley Cooper?'''
The fact is, an offbeat indie like Silver Linings isn't the kind of project you'd typically expect to find in the playbook for an actor in Cooper's position. Nor is his next film, a gritty low-budget crime drama called The Place Beyond the Pines, due next spring, in which he plays a small-town cop opposite Ryan Gosling. But as Cooper sees it, the clout he's gotten from the Hangover films and even more so, the surprising $79 million box office success of last year's thriller Limitless, in which he starred as a writer whose brain is turbocharged by an experimental drug has given him some running room to take chances. ''Limitless bought me a couple of years of being able to go in these directions,'' says the actor, who got his first big break more than a decade ago on the ABC series Alias. ''The goal is not to do bigger box office. The guidepost has always been working with great filmmakers.'' Looking further out, he says, the ultimate goal is actually to become one. ''If I had my druthers, five years from now I'd primarily just be directing movies,'' he says. ''I'm like a nightmare for agents.''
Watch old episodes of Inside the Actors Studio and you can see clips of Cooper, back when he was an acting student, intently asking Sean Penn and Robert De Niro questions about the craft. Now he's shared the screen twice with De Niro, in Limitless as well as Silver Linings, where the two-time Oscar winner plays Cooper's dad. ''To be able to have that arc with Robert De Niro is some once-in-a-lifetime s---,'' says Cooper, who displays the same earnest enthusiasm he had when he was just starting out.
He traces his passion for acting to age 12, when he watched the heart-wrenching 1980 drama The Elephant Man. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, the son of a stockbroker dad and a homemaker mom, Cooper felt like a misfit people often told him he looked like a girl and the story of the severely deformed Joseph Merrick struck a deep chord. ''I became obsessed with the movie,'' he says. ''It just really hit me.'' This past summer, Cooper played Merrick in a revival of The Elephant Man at Massachusetts' Williamstown Theatre Festival, and he hopes to bring the play to Broadway next year. It may be hard to square Cooper's hunky image with his desire to play a seriously disfigured man. But consider his reaction to being named Sexiest Man Alive. ''Oh, that was hilarious!'' he says, laughing. ''I called my agent and said, 'Gosling must have said no.'''
Cooper is grateful that fame came when he was old enough to handle it. He spent part of his 20s feeling adrift, overindulging in drugs and alcohol he's been sober for eight years and says mixing his personal demons with public acclaim would have been toxic. ''In your mid-30s, you realize how irrelevant [''fame''] really is, how it has nothing to do with you,'' he says. That extends to having his love life scrutinized in the tabloids (he was married to actress Jennifer Esposito from 2006 to 2007 and has since been linked romantically to Renée Zellweger and Zoë Saldana). ''I don't ever talk about that part of my life, but it doesn't matter because they just make up s---,'' he says. ''I remember they said I was dating Jennifer Aniston and she had a candlelit dinner at my Bel Air home. I don't live in Bel Air. I don't have any candles. And I wasn't dating Jennifer Aniston!'' He laughs. ''The best was I read one time that the reason my marriage broke up was that my ex-wife found me in bed with another guy.'' He rears back in his chair. ''Wow! That was really specific!''
As for the Oscar talk surrounding Silver Linings, Cooper is trying to maintain a similar healthy detachment. ''I remember when we were shooting the pilot for this [''2005''] TV series Kitchen Confidential, they were like, 'Bro, this is it. Your life is going to change forever,''' he says. ''Then they aired four episodes and canceled it! This town is all about hype.'' That said, his movie nerddom is far too strong for him to turn cynical like Joaquin Phoenix, who recently called the idea of actors competing for awards ''total utter bulls---.'' ''I grew up watching the Oscars and loving them,'' Cooper says. ''The idea of one day being in a group of actors I admire and being spoken of in the same breath...'' He pauses. ''That would be insane.'' And, better yet, different.The Wolfpack Returns
Bradley Copper talks about his eagerly awaited comedy The Hangover Part III
Since the first two boozy Hangover films grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, it's no surprise the Wolfpack is coming back. The third installment, due May 24, 2013, is now shooting in Arizona, Las Vegas, and L.A. While Bradley Cooper is mum on details of what kind of mayhem awaits Phil, Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), he says the film departs from the blackout-night formula that some felt became repetitive in the second movie. ''I liked the idea of maintaining certain things: the ticking clock, a lost night,'' he says. ''But now we've earned the ability to veer away from the structure. And three is just a better number. It feels right to be back.''