THE text message arrived shortly before 6 a.m. on a recent morning: “15 mins away. Coop.” Soon afterward, the actor Bradley Cooper — the Coop in question — pulled up outside my hotel in a black Mercedes S.U.V. Despite the hour Mr. Cooper was fresh faced and pitched forward in the driver’s seat, blue eyes twinkling. “Hop in!” he said, proffering an energy bar. With tousled hair, hiking sneakers, ripstop pants and a form-fitting North Face sweatshirt, Mr. Cooper looked less like a burgeoning marquee idol and more like the hot guy who sells mountain bikes at REI.
Mr. Cooper, 36, likes to rise before dawn. He used to take his dogs, Samson and Charlotte, for pre-sunrise runs in the Hollywood hills, but a torn hamstring incurred on the set of “The A-Team” — in which he played the rakish, constantly shirtless Face — made running impossible. This morning he was taking Charlotte, a rescue chow-retriever, for a walk on the beach in Malibu. (Samson died last year.) As he drove, Mr. Cooper’s eyes flicked between road and rearview mirror. Later he explained that he’d been checking for photographers: one of the benefits of getting up and out early, he noted, is the privacy it affords, “but I’ve been followed at 6 a.m., plenty of times.”
Early-bird paparazzi are a relatively recent development in Mr. Cooper’s life. Their appearance can be dated, more or less, to the release of “The Hangover,” the smash 2009 comedy in which he co-starred as the suavely piggish Phil. In the wake of that film’s success — it is the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever — Mr. Cooper was compelled to move from his house in the Venice section of Los Angeles, where the door opened directly onto the street, to a place in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood protected by a gate and a steep driveway. (That his girlfriend is Renée Zellweger doesn’t exactly deflect tabloid attention, either.)
Although he had a two-season stint on the TV show “Alias” beginning in 2001 and delivered an indelibly unsavory performance as the preppie villain Sack Lodge in 2005’s “Wedding Crashers,” it was “The Hangover” that turned Mr. Cooper into a worthwhile target — and into what industry types call a bankable star.
Now he is trying to transition from ensemble player to leading man. While “The Hangover” grossed about $277 million in the United States, last year’s “A-Team,” his most prominent job since, underwhelmed critics and grossed $77 million domestically on a $110 million budget. On March 18 Mr. Cooper’s latest movie, the thriller “Limitless,” arrives in theaters, raising the question: Can he carry a movie on his own? (Not to mention hold his own against Robert De Niro, who shows up in a combative supporting role.)
With “The Hangover Part II” due in May, this is an important moment for Mr. Cooper. With the current crop of male superstars — Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Matt Damon — now in their 40s, studios are looking for younger talent to step up and join Leonardo DiCaprio on the 30-something A-list. Alongside actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and, to some degree, Channing Tatum, Mr. Cooper is on the shortlist of candidates.
In “Limitless” Mr. Cooper plays Eddie, a schlubby would-be writer who discovers NZT, a drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his brainpower (a play on the maxim that most of us only use 10 percent). On NZT Eddie writes a brilliant novel, makes a Wall Street fortune and trades his frizzy ponytail and drab wardrobe for a slicked-back do, spread-collared shirts and the company of gorgeous women.
Mr. Cooper takes evident pleasure in portraying alpha males, and Eddie’s superhuman I.Q. notwithstanding, he is not such a far cry from Phil or Face: same silver-tongued sure-footedness, same lady-killer swagger. Mr. Cooper’s favorite thing about “Limitless,” though, was playing pre-NZT Eddie: obscuring his handsomeness, breaking from type and getting closer to the kind of transformational acting he grew up admiring in heroes like Mr. De Niro, Gene Hackman and John Hurt.
“I’d eat tons of Chinese food the day before we shot, so I’d be bloated,” Mr. Cooper said. “And my face is kind of messed up — my eyes are actually crooked — so if you shoot me from different angles I look like a different person.” For Mr. Cooper what’s at stake with “Limitless” isn’t just a test of his top-liner bona fides but also a chance to prove that he’s adept at playing more than a handsome devil.
Mr. Cooper grew up in Rydal, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, the child of a stock-broker father and a homemaker mother. His father, who died in January, was a cinephile and passed down the passion to his son. His childhood friend, the actor and screenwriter Brian Klugman, recalled: “Bradley used to have sleepovers, and we’d watch ‘Apocalypse Now’ or something. The movie would end, and everyone else would be asleep, but the two of us would be wide-eyed, like, ‘This is sick!’ ”
In Malibu, as the sun rose, Mr. Cooper delivered a barrage of questions, trying to sniff out telltale signs of a fellow movie-geek: Did I like Ernst Lubitsch? Was there a better Tony Perkins performance than “Psycho?” Did I properly adore that shot in “The Fighter” where David O. Russell just crams Micky’s sisters onto the couches?
During this grilling Mr. Cooper retained an air of boyish affability: quick with a fraternal backslap, grinning broadly. At one point he struggled to recall the name of Jack Lemmon’s co-star in “Mass Appeal.” “Great actor … it’s … Zeljko Ivanek!” He raised his palm for a congratulatory high five. “Come on!”
As an English major at Georgetown, Mr. Cooper rowed crew, acted in a theater troupe and wrote a senior thesis about the filmed adaptations of “Lolita.” From there he enrolled in the Actors Studio M.F.A. program at the New School, during which he appeared in a “Sex and the City” episode and briefly hosted a Lonely Planet travel series. Mr. Cooper’s breakthrough came after graduation when J. J. Abrams cast him as super-spy Sidney Bristow’s reporter pal, Will, on “Alias.”
“Originally Will was on the outside of what was going on in Sidney’s life, but it became clear that Bradley’s range went far beyond sidekick,” Mr. Abrams said in a telephone interview. “We realized we needed to bring him into the main plot.”
A common thread uniting nearly all of Mr. Cooper’s performances is that his characters have been defined by ample smoothness and sex appeal. Even portraying a journalist on “Alias” he peeled off his shirt in the very first episode, flaunting a physique more Muscle Milk than Murrow.
“The camera loves him,” said Liam Neeson, who starred with Mr. Cooper in “The A-Team” and appears briefly in the coming “Hangover” sequel. “He reminds me a bit of Paul Newman, particularly around the eyes and in the way he has this suaveness but also this quick intelligence.”
Smoothness and sex appeal, however, cut against Mr. Cooper’s foundational acting ambitions. He pinpoints the moment he knew he wanted to act as the first time he saw David Lynch’s “Elephant Man”: “John Hurt made me cry.” For a project at the Actors Studio, he starred in a 30-minute version of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 “Elephant Man” play. “It says in the script that no prosthetic can be used, no makeup,” he said. “So I had to find a way to deform myself. I twisted up my right hand. I spoke a different way.”
Mr. Cooper said he doesn’t share the supreme self-assurance — you might say smugness — of characters like Phil or Face: “I’m comfortable in my own skin, but whatever that thing is that you see in them? I wish I had that. That’s something I have to put on.”
He added that he grew up feeling awkward about his looks. “I was raised in this Italian family” — his mother is Italian-American — “where I didn’t look like anybody else. They all had black hair. My cousins were tough. I had blond hair, blue eyes. Everybody thought I was a girl.”
While Mr. Cooper denies having a career strategy more calculating than “keep getting better,” one can discern a certain savvy at play in the wide range of films he’s done. “It’s not easy to jump from R-rated comedy to action to drama, but Bradley can move through so many things, because he’s got raw talent,” said Todd Phillips, the director of “The Hangover.” “And he has all this potential he hasn’t shown anybody.”
Mr. De Niro, who signed on to “Limitless” partly because he liked what he saw in Mr. Cooper, said: “He has the same commitment as other young, serious actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn, even if Sean’s a little older.” Mr. De Niro added that he and Mr. Cooper, who struck up a friendship on set, are looking at “a couple other projects that would be good for us.” (Mr. Cooper said he just can’t believe he gets to call Mr. De Niro “Bob” now.)
Even portraying a character as proudly uncomplicated as Phil, Mr. Cooper tried to add complexity. Shooting the final scene in “The Hangover,” he proposed having the character carry his sleeping son, an image inspired by the tender way Mr. Cooper’s Italian-American uncles had held their children. He’s good at making his slick roosters likable. “Phil’s got this arrogance, but there’s also a humanity to him that Bradley brings,” Mr. Phillips said. “When I’m casting, I ask, ‘How much can this guy get away with?’ You look in Bradley’s eyes, and you say, ‘He can get away with a lot, because he’s got this warmth.’ ”
After Charlotte’s beach walk Mr. Cooper drove to the minimalist, canyon-side palace of glass, steel and granite he calls home. This is the house “The Hangover” bought, and memorabilia from the film lines the walls. Cooking egg-white omelets for breakfast, Mr. Cooper talked about future projects, expressing his desire not to run from his current image but rather to dive in head first and deepen it.
First there’s “The Hangover Part II,” which takes place in Bangkok and mirrors the first film’s forgotten-night structure. (He declined to spill any further beans.) Down the line he is set to star in “The Words,” a drama co-written by Mr. Klugman about a writer who achieves success after stealing another man’s work.
Mr. Cooper became most animated, though, discussing the role he was hoping to land in Baz Luhrmann’s coming “Great Gatsby” adaptation: Gatsby’s cocky, blueblood rival, Tom Buchanan.
“To me, he’s the best character in the book. He’s so complicated,” Mr. Cooper said. “He’s xenophobic, he’s an alcoholic, but he also understands some profound stuff about class. Whoever plays it has to take a gentle hand, because it could so easily be stock, where he’s a rich jerk you don’t identify with at all.”
He paused, dialing down his enthusiasm. “I don’t even know if I’m on Lurhmann’s radar,” he said. “Maybe he’ll read this article after the role’s cast and say, ‘Oh. Ha. Yeah, that guy was never going to get it.’ ”
By JONAH WEINER