Q&A: Silver Linings Playbook’s Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell

The actor and director talk Michael Vick, filmmaking as athletics, and the value of going to extremes

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Jeff Vespa/Getty Images For Weinstein

Director David O. Russell with actor Bradley Cooper on Sept. 8, 2012, in Toronto, Canada.

In David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Solitano returns to his childhood home in Philadelphia years after a violent episode that helped end his marriage and earned him a stretch in a psychiatric hospital. Played by Bradley Cooper (best known until now for the Hangover movies), the bipolar Pat traces a jagged redemptive arc that includes a reckoning with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and a flinty flirtation with Tiffany (The Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence), a troubled young widow whose courtship of Pat culminates, naturally, in a ballroom-dancing competition. Silver Linings Playbook won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival—a reliable oracle of future Oscar glory—and Russell and Cooper are already planning their next movie together, about the 1970s Abscam scandal, which will also star Christian Bale and Amy Adams (both veterans of Russell’s 2010 boxing drama The Fighter). On Nov. 13, which happened to be the final day of Cooper’s yearlong reign as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, the actor and director stopped by TIME’s offices in New York City. Excerpts of that conversation are below.

TIME: Bradley, like Pat, your character in Silver Linings Playbook, you’re a big Philadelphia Eagles fan.

Bradley Cooper: You know, we’re having a hard time right now. Michael Vick, our quarterback, was injured with another concussion and an eye injury, and it looks like maybe it’s time for [head coach] Andy Reid to step down. So we’re in a transition. I grew up a huge Eagles fan, just massive. We would move the one television we had into the kitchen to watch football during dinner, back when there were only three stations. And then it was big-time when my parents got PRISM [Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies] and HBO, and we got a box that sits on top of the television with toggles and switchboards. So I felt like I was at mission control. And the sound that it would make was like pssshhh. It was very—what’s the word?

David O. Russell: Satisfying.

BC: It was very satisfying. Psshh. Psshh. And then you would click it. Psshh. Psshh.

Is it hard to be an Eagles fan given Michael Vick’s history, or have fans moved past that?

BC: Eagles fans are so mercurial that when he was accused and convicted, you’d be hearing in Philly, “What a scumbag,” “He’s the worst,” and now you come to Philadelphia and you hear, “What a handsome man. How handsome is Michael Vick?” “Hey, that guy’s a movie star. That guy could be James Bond.” It’s funny. But personally, the guy did his time and he paid his price and came back and made a lot of changes in his life. Much respect for that.

(MORERichard Corliss Reviews Silver Linings Playbook)

So you had a head start on the role, coming from Philadelphia.

BC: Coming from Philadelphia, being Italian-American and being a huge Eagles fan. Having both of my parents come from the inner city of Philadelphia. My grandfather was a beat cop for 35 years, in the fifteenth district.My great-grandfather had a pushcart during the Depression on 9th Street. When I was growing up, any woman over 40 had a tissue in her hand, like Jacki Weaver [who plays Pat’s mother] does. And my grandfather had an Art Deco face of Christ on a necklace and that’s what Pat wears in the movie. These are all very specific Philadelphia things of my life.

David, why did you want to make Matthew Quick’s novel into a movie?

DOR: My son [Matthew, who is 18]. Otherwise I wouldn’t have looked at it twice. He went through a lot of these challenges you see in the film, and he still does. And I know a lot of the parents at his school, the Devereux Glenholme School in Connecticut [a boarding school for children and young adults with special needs]. His school is a lifesaver for many families. So immediately I said, “I love these characters.” Pat is like a grown-up version of my son, and he’s frank and colorful and soulful and trying to do his best. Tiffany is also her own Picasso of a situation, and the father, too. It was personal to me, and to Mr. De Niro as well, because we have both related to this as parents. We’ve been sharing stories for many years about our kids and their various challenges. To play the parent of a grown-up kid who is dealing with these issues and putting it back together—it felt very personal.

Pat has so much passion and energy and exuberance that it’s almost enviable. He doesn’t know how to channel it, and it’s obviously a source of a lot of problems and pain and heartache, but it can be weirdly inspiring at the same time. Did that draw you toward him as well?

BC: I felt that every day when I showed up as Pat. I was happy that he had such a zest for life. It was intoxicating. It’s almost as if every moment that he exists is somehow fueled with more energy than anyone else. Sometimes people who are dealing with those issues—the minute they enter the room, you feel it, and it changes the energy in the room. It’s like a vibration.

DOR: Pat is someone who was a little bit asleep at the switch and everything collapsed. So now that he’s had a new chance at life, maybe that’s where the energy comes from. When you have that much energy, you have to find a way to run it out of your system.

(MOREThe Early Films of David O. Russell)

One of the ways the characters do that is through ballroom dancing—did either of you have any dancing experience before this movie?

DOR: Just the five good moves I developed in college, which are an amalgam of the jitterbug, the waltz and swing.

BC: But he’s an ex-gymnast.

DOR: Easy with that. Easy with that.

BC: I would be screaming it from the rooftops.

DOR: I did the pommel horse. That was my thing.

But I can tell that you don’t want to talk about the pommel horse.

DOR: What are we going to say about the pommel horse?

You might have great stories about the pommel horse and we would never know.

BC: Honestly, I think part of his athletic makeup finds its way into how he makes a movie. Filming a movie with David O. Russell is an athletic endeavor. You are utterly drained at the end of the day because you have to be present at every turn, just as if you’re on a sports field. That kind of high-octane rhythm demands that you stay in the moment and get out of your head. It’s the only way you can be successful as an athlete. That’s very scary for an actor. He is very open to what’s going to happen in the moment, and he’s not interested in a result. We’re excavators, and we don’t know what we’re going to find. Never once in 33 days of shooting did he go, “Yeah, we nailed that scene.” You just explore until, you know, “We’ve lost the light.”

DOR: You have a zone of choices for when you get into the editing room. Bradley played Pat much more extreme when we started shooting, in terms of his awkwardness, his intensity, his darkness, his edginess. But it was useful, because he had lived that intensity and it left an important print on the character, even though I said, “This is probably too extreme.” A similar thing happened with Jennifer Lawrence—I originally conceived of Tiffany as a very goth girl. So we camera-tested and costume-tested her for the Weinstein Company with black lipstick and piercings and those plaid dresses that the punk girls wear with the boots. And we were all very excited about it, and you know, Harvey Weinstein was not excited about it.

Was he only “not excited” about it?

DOR: That was an understatement. I think he said, “No, I want her to be elegant and beautiful.” But it was important that she got to go through a kind of adolescence as a goth girl in the camera tests. So she retained the nail polish, the cross, the eyeliner, the way she wore her hair.

(MOREJennifer Lawrence to Model for Dior)

David, you’ve presided over a couple of exciting sets in your time. [Russell clashed with George Clooney on the set of 1999’s Three Kings and with Lily Tomlin on 2004’s I Heart Huckabee’s; the latter conflict is preserved for posterity on YouTube.] Has anything about how you make movies changed over the years?

DOR: Having had things that didn’t come out the way I wanted them to only gave me a chance to focus better and harder. So now I feel like I’m in a good zone. Since The Fighter, I feel very clear about how the set needs to be. I want it to be happy, respectful, everybody pulling together, everybody understanding the rhythm. I feel like the script is a song and if everybody hears the same song, more or less, then everybody can share that excitement. I like to have a warm, good feeling, but it’s also a no-nonsense feeling. I do not want chaos. I do not want discord of any kind.

BC: You talk to any actor who was on the set [of Silver Linings Playbook] and they’ll say it was the best experience they ever had. Any actor. And these are great people who’ve done a lot of movies… David is with you all the time. He’s not back in his lair. Some directors are back with their monitors, sort of conducting from afar. David is right next to you, going through it with you, sweating—like an athlete, like a coach, who’s in it with you.

DOR: But you like that, right?

BC: Not only do I like it, I don’t know a better way to do it.