Each Hollywood generation must have its Smarmy Handsome Guy, the role for a good-looking, overly confident, sort of douchey alpha-male whom viewers respect and/or envy, but don’t necessarily like. It’s a type Bradley Cooper has come to know well, thanks to several SHG performances over his career, most notably in the massively successful 2009 comedy The Hangover. It’s also a type he gets to play against, briefly, in Limitless, the new film by Neil Burger (The Illusionist). Initially, Cooper plays struggling writer/burnout Eddie Morra, who’s terminally unable to finish his poorly defined science-fiction novel. Bradley Cooper, Smarmy Handsome Guy, doesn’t show up until 10 minutes into the film, when his sketchy former brother-in-law slips him a pill that promises to change his life. Seconds after Cooper takes it, his cloudy, unfocused brain gains a staggering clarity. He’s able to recall minor details of the faintest memories, learn languages and systems quickly, and basically be the smartest, fastest-thinking person in the room. While the role plays to Cooper’s established persona, it also gives him a bit of room to wiggle out of it. The A.V. Club recently talked with Cooper about the film’s moral and thematic ambiguity, pitching Robert De Niro, and beating the shit out of himself. Note: Spoilers follow.
The A.V. Club: This film is a little hard to classify in some regards. What drew you to this project?
Bradley Cooper: It was the script. [Screenwriter] Leslie Dixon wrote an amazing script based on a book called The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn, an Irishman, back in 2001, and I just flipped out about it. It was a script that was around for a while, and had a lot of lives before I came along. I don’t know—I think it’s pretty self-explanatory why you would want to do it. I just think it’s a great character, to go from A to Z like that. It’s kind of like a dream.
AVC: It looked like it was pretty physical—not just the fight scenes, but it seems like the withdrawal scenes would be as demanding, because you look really terrible.
BC: That’s kind of your dream—you want to play those physically exhausting scenes. I lapped it up. I loved it. But yeah, a lot of breathing, rolling around, and beating the shit out of myself.
AVC: How was the drug described to you to inform your performance? In the film, you say you didn’t feel “wired.”
BC: Yeah I wasn’t high, I wasn’t wired, I just knew exactly what I wanted to do, and how to do it.
AVC: At the same time, it seems like there’s a certain sort of mania with it.
BC: No, I think what happened—unless it seemed like I was manic. Then I failed. [Laughs.] It shouldn’t have been manic. His life got manic, the consequences of his actions created an environment that started to become very chaotic, but he himself shouldn’t have been acting manic. And if you saw that, then I apologize. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, you have, for instance, the long night that preceded your coming to on a bridge in New York.
BC: Well, that’s different—that’s being off the drug. That’s a whole separate thing, when you don’t take it. He says, “I learned how to balance myself, I wouldn’t skip,” but that’s a whole side effect of the drug. But being on the drug, like when he’s in the trading room—most of the time, he’s pretty focused. He’s not acting like he’s on cocaine or speed or anything.
AVC: Did the book differ much from how the film ended up?
BC: It did; it’s worth a read. The thing that stayed true almost 100 percent is Eddie. It’s a great source of material—it was like a treasure chest when I read it, because it’s written in the first person. It’s basically Eddie’s diary, so I just learned so much from reading the book. But Leslie made it her own. I mean, the whole blood-drinking thing was not in the book. The ice-skating rink, that whole action sequence was not in the book. Lindy, the character Lindy, doesn’t exist. The only female in the book—his ex-wife exists, but the character in the book that, you could call it the female counterpart, is Carl Van Loon’s daughter, which is a completely different turn. And the book does not end well for Eddie at all.
AVC: Do you feel like the ending of the film is ambiguous?
BC: I hope so, that’s the hope. The hope is two things: one, that you’ll enjoy it, you’ll think it’s different, and the second thing is that hopefully it’ll incite some kind of parking-lot conversation. Is he on the drug at the end? Was he just pulling one over on Carl outside the car? Or was he actually off it? Was he telling the truth when he says, “Do you think my synapses didn’t change, that I kept absolutely nothing?”
AVC: The final scene, where you’re speaking Mandarin, seems like a tip of the hand—
BC: Right, that I’m still on it. I think so, but it doesn’t matter what I think, really. Because, at least the way I see it, once the movie is out there, it doesn’t matter what the director implied, or the actor—it’s its own thing. So what you think is as valid as what I think, it exists in and of itself now, the movie.
AVC: What about the murder? Was that in the book?
BC: I think so, yeah. There’s a great scene—everything changed also because once De Niro came on, we changed things to make it a more appetizing role. In the first version of the script that I read, at the end, 12 months later, that’s a different character that comes and says, “Hey by the way, we’ve been watching you.” It’s not Carl Van Loon. Then he says, “Do you have any questions?” And [Eddie] says, “Did I kill that girl?” And he goes, “Do you really want to know?” [Eddie] doesn’t answer. In the movie, I think it’s implied that [rival financier Hank] Atwood’s guy killed her to try and get the drug, because they wipe the room, somebody wiped the room. When I’m walking out of the courtroom, the lawyer, Morris Brandt, says, “You know, you’re lucky they wiped the room.” Who wiped the room? I didn’t wipe the room, that’s for sure. I didn’t even remember where I was.
AVC: So they made the role beefier for De Niro once he came on as Carl Van Loon?
BC: Basically, he showed interest on the script, Leslie wrote some more dialogue, Neil talked to him, I talked to him. I sort of went there in person and pitched him the idea of these two characters coming together, which we actually thought helped the movie. Ending on “Eddie, get back here” and I walk out with those hands, and then that’s the end of Carl, it doesn’t make any sense. I think it’s much more, whether Bob did it or not, it was a good move to combine the characters.
AVC: Pitching De Niro on a movie sounds intimidating.
BC: The only reason why it wasn’t was that I was so prepared. I literally prepared for that meeting like I was taking an oral exam in grad school or something. I read the book again like three days before, and then read the script again, and just went point-by-point why I would do it if I was him, based on combining these characters. Luckily, he’s a great guy, and he doesn’t like small talk, so I just rattled off for 20 minutes.
AVC: Was it a tough sell?
BC: I mean, he said yes. He wasn’t a pushover, I’ll tell you that.
AVC: Do you think there’s a moral to this movie? It seems like it takes a step toward a certain moral angle, but pushes that aside as the film progresses.
BC: I think like any movie, if it’s accessible, hopefully it raises a lot of political, moral, ethical questions. It’s like There Will Be Blood. I don’t know if Paul Thomas Anderson set out to make a moral quandary on agriculture and bleeding the country of its oil reserve, or capitalism, or fatherhood, but you ask those questions at the end when you’re thinking about the movie because it’s so compelling. This movie is about power and the use or abuse of it, and helping that narrative is the drug, is this pill. Hopefully if the movie is convincing, it could raise a lot of questions. What do you think of the idea of taking a pill to change your neuro-synapses as opposed to letting it be? So many things. What do you do when you have that kind of power? Is it something that could be legislated? Tons of stuff.