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Bradley Cooper Learned To Sing, Direct And Talk Deeply For 'A Star Is Born'

Bradley Cooper talks about making a new version of the film 'A Star is Born.' Bradley also starred in it opposite Lady Gaga. This is the fourth version, one other version starred Judy Garland and James Mason.


Other segments from the episode on December 3, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 3, 2018: Interview with Bradley Cooper; Interview with Samin Nosrat.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bradley Cooper, did very well last week at the start of the 2018 movie awards season. His new film, "A Star Is Born," which he directed, co-wrote and stars in won three top awards from the National Board of Review - best director for Cooper, best actress for his co-star, Lady Gaga, and best supporting actor for Sam Elliott, who plays Cooper's brother.

This is the fourth version of "A Star Is Born." The 1937 version stars Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. In 1954, it was Judy Garland and James Mason, in 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The premise of the story is similar in each. The leading man, a famous performer, discovers a performer who's incredibly talented but not considered conventionally beautiful. He launches her career. They fall in love. And as she becomes more famous, his drinking or drug use gets out of control, leading him on a downward spiral.

In Cooper's version, he plays a guitarist and singer famous enough to perform in big arenas. Lady Gaga plays a singer-songwriter whose music career consists of performing once a week at a bar, which is where he discovers her. Let's start with the first time he invites her to share the stage with him. The song they're singing is called "Shallow."


LADY GAGA: (As Ally, singing) Tell me something, boy. Aren't you tired trying to fill that void, or do you need more? Ain't it hard keeping it so hardcore? I'm falling. In all the good times I find myself longing for change, and in the bad times I fear myself. I'm off the deep end. Watch as I dive in. I'll never meet the ground. Crash through the surface where they can't hurt us. We're far from the shallow now.

LADY GAGA AND BRADLEY COOPER: (As Ally and Jack, singing) In the shallow, in the sha-sha-la-la-la-low (ph), in the shallow, we're far from the shallow now.

GROSS: Bradley Cooper, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And my gosh, congratulations on the National Board of Review awards - best director, best actress, best supporting actor. Wow. So I'm sure you've been asked before, but why did you want to remake "A Star Is Born"? And I'll preface this by saying the Judy Garland version with James Mason is one of my favorite films. Outside of a few, like, cringy moments in it, it's just (laughter) a spectacular movie.

BRADLEY COOPER: First of all, thank you for having me again. Yeah, I know. It seems like an odd choice to do this movie. And I agree with you. The James Mason-Judy Garland-George Cukor version is just a masterpiece. And I grew up - you couldn't help but feel the reverberations of the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson movie. And I was born in '75. And, you know, it was just such an iconic, visual, sonic film.

So - and then I've always wanted to be a director. You know, when I think about being 12 and watching "The Elephant Man," it wasn't so much what Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt were doing. It was what David Lynch was doing. And so I would always spend all my time as much as I could and editing rooms and shadowing directors and asking crewmembers questions and learning about lenses.

And so I did start to think about stories I wanted to tell. And I wanted to examine things cinematically, stories about relationships. What happens if a man and a woman or anybody - they fall in love and love each other? And there's no infidelity. There's true love. And still, how hard it is to endure, given, you know, the plight of life. What it is to find your voice as a human being, your identity within this world.

All of these things - these were things I thought that I could potentially examine cinematically. And it was like hitting me like a ton of bricks that this structure of the property of "A Star Is Born" could facilitate all of that. And the wonderful weapon in order to do that authentically is that your two main characters are going to have to sing. And you cannot hide when you sing. It's impossible. That's how it all started.

GROSS: So in your version, your character has heard Lady Gaga's character sing "La Vie En Rose" at a gay bar that has Friday night drag night. And from what I've heard you say, you decided you really wanted to cast Lady Gaga after seeing her perform "La Vie En Rose" at a benefit. And so is that why you put it in the film, because you loved...

COOPER: Hundred percent.

GROSS: ...Her performance of it?

COOPER: Two reasons - one that - and I love that song. And I love the way she performs that song. And the other thing is that's actually how I first saw her in that way. When you co-write something and something is personal, I mean, it's rampant throughout the entire film. Anything I could do to make it as real as possible for me or the other actors so we don't have to act, it's actually something very real and old and deep within us that we have a lived experience or a memory or an emotion attached to it in a real way that we don't even have to manifest but can utilize for this story to me is gold.

And so I thought, well, I can't trump the "La Vie En Rose" scene. Why - she can just sing "La Vie En Rose." And how can I make that work within the story? So I thought, well, they're all doing covers. It's a drag show. And she's covering "La Vie En Rose." But, yes, the answer is I completely stole it from real life.

GROSS: Let's hear a little bit of that. When your character first sees the Lady Gaga character sing, he's stumbled into this bar. And she's going to sing "La Vie En Rose." Let's hear a little bit of that.


GAGA: (As Ally, singing in French).

GROSS: One of the basics of the story of "A Star Is Born," of all the versions, is that the man performer is kind of on the way down, and the woman performer who he helps discover and turn into a star is on her way up. And that creates a lot of tension between them. Also, the guy's always addicted to something - cocaine for Kris Kristofferson, alcohol for James Mason and Fredric March. And those things apply in your version, too. I'm wondering if you wanted to change anything about the gender politics of the story.

COOPER: You know, it really came from a place of, what interests me? What kind of story am I excited enough about to investigate, to spend all the time and energy that it takes in order to do something like this, which for me was about four years? The thing that always amazed me is how much - how I could feel so much for the James Mason character when the movie has told me literally nothing about him. And the only thing we really learned by - at the end of the movie is the studio head tells the publicist, you know, you have no idea what a good man he was, you know? But other than that, I don't know if he was married, where he's from. I know nothing about the guy. He's an actor.

That's it. I knew right away I wanted to explore where these characters come from for the audience to know. What is their family situation? Who could potentially be siblings, parents, parental figures, how that would work into their makeup as to where they are today in the world that we meet them.

And I always wanted to meet the female character after the ingenue stage. She's 31. What happens? Because I just think about people that I know and what it's like to be through this business. I'm much more interested in somebody who's 31 who has a magical, God-given talent, and they haven't been able to quite allow that to flourish for many reasons.

I also was interested in somebody who had success early and found their voice early but had never had the ability to cultivate the rest of their world. And now they're - they find themselves at 44. And they only have one thing. And they can't live off of that anymore. And so these were two characters I was very interested in.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more? If you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper. And as you know (laughter), he co-wrote, he directed and stars with Lady Gaga in his production of "A Star Is Born." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bradley Cooper. And he co-wrote, he directed and stars with Lady Gaga in the new version of "A Star Is Born."

So you deepened your voice for...


GROSS: ...The movie. You really changed your voice. Let's just hear an example of you speaking in the film.


COOPER: (As Jack) Can I ask you a personal question? Do you write songs or anything?

GAGA: (As Ally) I don't sing my own songs.

COOPER: (As Jack) Why?

GAGA: (As Ally) I just don't feel comfortable.

COOPER: (As Jack) Why wouldn't you feel comfortable?

GAGA: (As Ally) Well, 'cause, like, almost every single person that I've come in contact with in the music industry has told me that my nose is too big and that I won't make it.

COOPER: (As Jack) Your nose is beautiful. Are you showing me your nose right now?

GAGA: (As Ally) Yeah.

COOPER: (As Jack) You don't have to show it to me. I've been looking at it all night.

GAGA: (As Ally) Oh, come on.

GROSS: So that's Bradley Cooper in "A Star Is Born." You've said you modeled your deepened voice on Sam Elliott, who - after deciding to model your voice on him, you convinced him to also play your brother in the movie.

COOPER: Correct.

GROSS: So what is it about his voice that you were so taken with?

COOPER: Well, the main thing I knew is I wanted to start with the voice. I wanted to change my voice 'cause I knew that I wouldn't even believe it as an actor if I kept hearing my voice. I just hear this guy from Philadelphia. So what voice could be wonderfully iconic without being geographically limited? And Tim Monich, an incredible - dialect coach who I met with on "American Sniper" - we started very early on, maybe two years prior to filming, sitting down, listening to tons of voices.

And at some point, I asked him, where's Sam Elliott from? 'Cause I can't quite place his accent. And I had no idea he was from Sacramento, Calif. And then I learned that his mother is from Texas and was a huge influence on him. And so his voice - he has this accent that you can't quite place. So it felt perfect for the character. And then the journey began. How the heck am I going to get that voice?

So I just - it was just hours and hours and hours. We developed a whole series of exercises, and then we would listen to tapes. We met four hours a day, five days a week for about six months steady. And at first, it was very difficult. Actually, I could only do it with my head down. And at night, I would go to sleep, and my - I felt like my esophagus was lowering into my chest. I had to, like, forcefully do it.

But then after a while, it just became so natural. And I could breathe and talk to you and do everything, live my life within that voice. And that was a hurdle that I was terrified I wasn't going to be able to get over. And once I got over that, in that process, I was reading Bruce Springsteen's autobiography where he was talking about stealing his father's voice when he was young in order to find an identity because he loved his father. And I thought, oh, I can really relate to that.

And I thought, what if he literally was so enamored with his brother and wanted to - and idolized his brother, and he stole his brother's voice? And Sam Elliott is his brother. And there's this connection. And then I asked if I could meet him. And we met. And I played him a tape from an interview he did at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 I think. But it was me answering all the questions as him on the tape. And he thank God was moved by it, or - I think he certainly felt like, wow, how much time this guy must have spent.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COOPER: And then we just started talking about the movie and the character. And so we just discussed it for about three hours one night. And then he said - we left that dinner, and he said, if we can make it work, I'm in.

GROSS: So you said you used a lot of vocal exercises to...

COOPER: Oh, yeah, tons. And I would do it every morning.

GROSS: ...Deepen your voice and learn how to - can you demonstrate one or two of them?

COOPER: I wish I had the paper with me. But, you know, you do these weird things where you do exercises like 11 benevolent elephants, 11 benevolent elephants, 11 benevolent elephants and do, like, what - like, to get your voice open and your lips relaxed and where - it's so - it's actually kind of crazy. But, you know, it's like, does a person breathe through their nose or their mouth? And where does their tongue lie in their voice? And all those things - it's actually very sort of practical.

And then - so once you get to that place where you can create a voice box basically that is similar to - that's the voice that could make that sound, and then you start literally listening to audio of him and then just repeating what he's saying and trying to get the manner, the melody, the way that they - he speaks, the breathing in between words, all of those things. So it's really dissecting how someone speaks in their life.

GROSS: Was your voice coach worried that you would hurt your voice by taking it out of its actual normal range and speaking in a bit of a raspy voice?

COOPER: No, because it did not hurt my vocal cords at all because it was completely relaxed. I could yell in that voice. I could whisper in that voice. I never felt strained ever. It's a voice that has a lot of bass to it. So I - it felt supported. You know, the process of getting there hurt. But once I got there, it was - it's a voice that's supported.

GROSS: Hurt physically or just like it was...

COOPER: Yeah, physically, meaning in terms of, like, you know, I felt like I was physically sort of trying to muscle my way through it.

GROSS: Now, you also took singing lessons because your character is a singer. Was it the same vocal coach for the speaking and the singing or two different people?

COOPER: Totally different. This guy, Roger Love, who thank God I met, who was incredible. I remember the first thing he said to me 'cause I would meet him at 7:30 every morning. And he said, you're the only person who's ever taken a singing lesson at 7:30 in the morning because, like, no one starts till, you know, after 12 normally. He was incredible.

I had no idea how to breathe. I knew nothing about singing - nothing. And it's such a difficult art form to sing in front of people because you lose your breath right away when you're nervous. And I just again had great teachers. Lukas Nelson, Promise of the Real, is Jackson's band. He's an incredible musician who I worked with, he and his band, for hours and hours and hours and hours. And I think it's because I was a good student and listened to great teachers I was able to do it.

GROSS: Had you sung before? Had you ever been or...

COOPER: No, I sang in gospel choir. I sang in gospel choir at Georgetown. And, you know, I did - here's another little crazy story in terms of a full circle in a weird way. Liza Minnelli came to our grad school to do a sort of master class. And I was one of the people, students that she would hear sing a song and then - you know, in front of the class - and then dissect and talk about it. And it was "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John. And I remember I sang in front of the whole school, and then she came up and critiqued it.

GROSS: Not realizing that you would one day make a remake of her mother's movie.

COOPER: (Laughter) No, I knew it back then. I said, you know...

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: Someday (laughter). So when you were on our show after you made "American Sniper," which was directed by Clint Eastwood, I had asked you what advice Clint Eastwood gave you about directing or what advice he gave you, period. And you said two things that you could remember. One was, don't sweat anything too much. And the other was, always shoot rehearsal. And then you said, if I ever get a chance to direct a movie - which I hope I do - I will definitely shoot the rehearsal because we're basically all trying to pretend that we're saying the words for the first time. Well, there is a first time. So why don't you put it on film? So did you do that?

COOPER: Hundred percent, yeah. First of all, I don't even like to rehearse scenes, meaning, like, we all sit around and read the sides and then figure it out. To me, that kills it. I expect all the actors to have done their work, and we show up. That's the way David O. Russell works. You know, you better be prepared because the minute you land on that set, you better be ready. That - he may want to do the scene in the trailer with everybody or in the van or on the way, you know? So I expect a lot of the actors. And I expect that I could shoot at any time and we can explore it.

GROSS: What about the first piece of advice that Clint Eastwood gave you, don't sweat anything too much?

COOPER: I need more years to get - to master that one.


GROSS: Yeah.

COOPER: But that, to me, reminds me of what Mike Nichols said about directing when asked. And he said, I approach directing the same way I approach acting, which is I prepare, prepare, prepare. And I show up and throw it all away.

And I've watched - the great directors that I've worked have been dextrous to the point of wonder. It just amazes me, their level of confidence to be able to pivot and, if an idea comes, reorganize and do it in the moment. And hearing Mike Nichols say that about a week before I'd watched this interview with him gave me such license to do that because that is the way that I like to direct. And I think watching Clint Eastwood - and what he meant by that, I think, was also - like, not being precious about anything allows for that.

GROSS: Who did you have to ask - was I good enough in that scene?

COOPER: That's interesting. The things that I asked mostly were to Steve Morrow, who is the sound mixer, who's incredible, and Matthew - with Matthew Libatique, it was really about - did I lose the voice? Sometimes I would ask that. Did I lose the voice? And then Steve Morrow, I would say - you know, after I sang a song, I thought - gosh, was that horrific?

And also, we went to real venues. We went to Glastonbury Music Festival (ph), Steve Morrow, myself and Glastonbury Music Festival. And we had four minutes on the Pyramid Stage, which is in front of 80,000 people. And Steve Morrow wound up being my sort of therapist on set in a way because - every time we - well, the two times we did it at Stagecoach - the opening of the movie is also live, meaning, like, we jumped onstage for eight minutes at Stagecoach in front of 30,000 people and sang that song. And both times, I thought, there's no way I'm going to be able to do this. I should just mouth it, and I can record it later - literally, both times. And both were bookended by the film.

The Glastonbury was, like, the last day of shooting almost. And he said, stop it. Stop. I said, no, I'm going to forget the lyrics. So I'm just going to - we'll put the camera so you can't really see my face. And each time he said, no, you've done all this work; I've heard you sing this song a hundred times. Just go do it.

GROSS: My guest is Bradley Cooper. He directed, co-wrote and stars in the new remake of "A Star Is Born." We'll talk more after a break. And Samin Nosrat will talk about the four elements of cooking - "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


COOPER: (Singing) Black eyes open wide, it's time to testify. There's no room for lies, and everyone's waiting for you. And I'm gone, sitting by the phone. And I'm all alone by the wayside.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Bradley Cooper, who won the best director award last week from the National Board of Review for his remake of "A Star Is Born." His co-star Lady Gaga won best actress. And Sam Elliott, who plays his brother, won best supporting actor. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a famous guitarist and singer who discovers a talented singer-songwriter at a bar - that's Lady Gaga's character - and helps her become a star while he's falling apart from his addictions to alcohol and opioids. Other movies Cooper has starred in include "Silver Linings Playbook," "American Hustle" and "American Sniper."

One similarity between yourself and your character Jackson Maine in "A Star Is Born" is that you and he were both born with some kind of inner ear problem that I don't really understand what it is.

COOPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: But I know he talks about it in the movie. And I read that you had it when you were born. Is it like a little tumor or something in your inner ear?

COOPER: Again, here's an example of using anything real so you don't have to act.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COOPER: That's why half the crew's in the movie, literally. And that dog is my dog. I mean, a lot of things you just make real.

GROSS: That dog is cute.

COOPER: Aw, he's wonderful - Charlie. And that's my father's name, just Charlie - was my father's name.

I had a cholesteatoma, it's called, in my eardrum when I was born. And I had tons of ear infections, and I had to have it removed. And then it kept - back then, they did a skin graft. So they would actually cut a part of the skin around your ear rather than a synthetic piece that they would put on your ear drum. And there was so much scar tissue that it never healed. So I've always had a hole in my eardrum.

So I - there were - there was whole summers when I was growing up that I could never go in the water. And it - the ear hearing - I could have easily lost my hearing in my right ear. All of those things were very present for me as a child - feeling ashamed, not being able to go in the pool with the other kids, all those types of things. So there was very - something I could really relate to.

Also, tinnitus - even though I don't have tinnitus, I certainly know what the ringing sounds like 'cause when you have an ear infection, it's that - very similar. It can be that similar tone. So I felt like, oh, here's something I could really not act but just completely dwell in.

And it came out of me spending time with various musicians. And I believe it was - I think I was up in Seattle with Eddie Vedder. And I was telling him, I want to find something physical for this character that you can - that the audience can understand the toll that it's taking on his body. And I believe - I think it was Eddie who said, you know, hearing loss could be something you could deal with.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, from those loud monitors, so many musicians have that.

COOPER: Oh, yeah. Oh, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It's - I mean, I even feel - mixing a movie is very deafening. I mean, when you...

GROSS: While you're listening really loud?

COOPER: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's the only way you can mix the movie 'cause you're in a mixing stage. And you have to hear it at volume. And it wasn't till about four months in that I realized all the guys at the board have - wear something in their ears (laughter).

GROSS: Really?

COOPER: Yeah, or a couple of the guys did. Yeah.

GROSS: So you're mixing on a mixing stage as opposed to in a studio?

COOPER: Mixing the movie.

GROSS: That's what I mean. Yeah.

COOPER: Yeah, when you mix a movie - yeah, you're in a huge mixing stage. And there's a whole - there's the - you know, there's the special effects. There's the - all the vocal mixers. There's the - there's a whole team, and you spend months and months and months mixing every single sound in the film.

GROSS: Oh, wow. I didn't have that image in my mind.

COOPER: Yeah. Then you color a film, too. Then you go into another, you know, space, and then you color the whole movie. Yeah, so it has all these wonderful components that are very exciting to do as a filmmaker.

GROSS: So getting back to the fact that you had to have several surgeries when you were very young - like, how young? How old were you?

COOPER: I think the first one I was about 5, and then, like, 15. And then the last one I had, I was 18, I think, or 17. And then after that, they said, you know, you're just going to have to wear an earplug the rest of your life when you go in the water, but we can't - there's nothing to cover up; there's too much scar tissue; nothing will grow there.

GROSS: But can you hear in that ear?

COOPER: I have no problem hearing, thank - which is kind of miraculous. But I wear earplugs every time I go in the water.

GROSS: Right, right. So did all of that make you feel, like, vulnerable when you were growing up or that...

COOPER: Oh, completely.

GROSS: ...You had to be very self-protective?

COOPER: Oh, completely. Oh, yeah. Well, it's - well, less than, I'd say, that something's wrong with me. I can not like other people. But more than - and the other thing is just what - I know what it feels like to feel like you have a nail being drilled into the middle of your head, which is what those ear infections felt like.

GROSS: So, you know, you said that the ear problems made you feel a little, like, vulnerable and self-protective. When we spoke after "American Sniper," you talked about how you'd wanted to be a soldier. You were obsessed with Vietnam and with movies like "Platoon" and "The Deer Hunter." You'd wanted to go to Valley Forge Military Academy...



GROSS: ...Which is near Philadelphia.


GROSS: But your father refused.


GROSS: Your grandfather had been a beat cop in Philadelphia.


GROSS: You played a Navy SEAL sniper in "American Sniper." So I'm wondering if you had this idea of masculinity when you were growing up that you felt like you couldn't quite achieve because of, for instance, your ear problems that limited the kind of activity that you could do.

COOPER: Well, I certainly had ideas of masculinity growing up, no question, and recognized early on things that, oh, I'm not quite up to that. I grew up in an Italian household, and I had blond hair and blue eyes - blond hair all throughout my childhood and adolescence into my early 20s. And so I always felt like I was a black sheep. I always wanted curly black hair and brown eyes. And just whatever my makeup is, I always found that I was never good enough in my own mind as to what I thought I should be.

That's one element, but I think that's sort of - isn't that sort of, you know, aging and growing up and finally, hopefully - the one positive thing about getting older is you come to terms with who you are and to learn to love that person as opposed to trying to be somebody else. In terms of a war and a soldier, again, you know, the reason why I thought I could play Chris Kyle, even though all roads were not leading to that conclusion, and also with "A Star Is Born" is I felt something very deep - there was some reason that the plight of a soldier - that selfless profession moved me as a kid.

GROSS: Did you feel like, in a way, you were performing the people who you kind of wanted to be but weren't?

COOPER: That's interesting. Well, that's a very interesting question. I mean, I love Jackson Maine - absolutely love him. And I love Chris Kyle. So there are definitely parts of them, but the thing that I love about exploring them is you explore all the parts that you would never want to be, too. You get to explore the full human being, and you take away this sort of iconic version of who they may be and who you would want to be. And you turn them into human beings. And instead, you're just empathizing with them and relating to them as a human being and everything that that word connotes. So that is the - that's the beautiful journey. They stop being these mythical figures to you.

GROSS: So your dog is now a movie star because you cast him...

COOPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...As the dog with his own name, Charlie. So did you give him the speech that everybody gives in all the versions of "A Star Is Born" and, like, be yourself; don't let it go to your head when you become a star?


COOPER: You know, I wanted them to have a dog. And it was not something that other producers thought was a good idea just for time and all this stuff and dealing with a dog on the set. And - but it was really important to me. And I - it clearly - to me, it's a huge part of the movie, at least their story together, you know, the fact that they come together. Then they want to - they want to have something else that they can take care of. And also dogs are just a huge part of my life. I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. I think they're essential to my well-being, and I just - I love their spirit. So Charlie was beyond - delivered in a way that I could never imagine. It was really kind of crazy.

GROSS: All right. Well, Bradley Cooper, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much and congratulations on the success of "A Star Is Born."

COOPER: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Bradley Cooper directed, co-wrote and stars in the remake of "A Star Is Born." After we take a short break, Samin Nosrat will talk about the four elements of cooking, "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is also the title of her best-selling cookbook and her Netflix series. This is FRESH AIR.


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