…but then there was this group called the Nomadic Theatre troupe, and I kind of felt like okay, I can jive with these guys, so I auditioned for some plays and I played Azolan, the servant in Dangerous Liaisons, was the first thing I had done…
—Bradley Cooper, NPR’s Fresh Air, May 25, 2011
I discovered Bradley Cooper.
Really, I did.
I cast him (or rather we cast him—my friend and co-director Brian Rath and I) in the first play he ever did, a Nomadic Theatre production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, staged in the spring of 1995 at our mutual alma mater, Georgetown University.
I’ve been loath to disclose this piece of Greg Olear trivia because a) discovering the actor who played Face in the A-Team movie is not in quite the same strata as discovering a new planet or the cure for cancer; b) unlike Jessica Anya Blau’s full-frontal encounter with Smurf-schlonged Hollywood Leading Man X (who had, at the time, about the same Q rating Cooper does right now), there’s not much to the story; and c) as Ouisa so eloquently puts it in Six Degrees of Separation (written, incidentally, by John Guare, another Georgetown alumnus), “Let’s not be starfuckers.”
But the situation has changed. Bradley Cooper’s sudden and unavoidable ubiquity has forced my hand. I can’t seem to escape him. Consider:
>> Last weekend, The Hangover II established a new box office record for live-action comedy, and has now grossed some $200 million—or about $200 million more than our play grossed.
>> My father-in-law’s therapeutic herbal remedy company, Herbasway Laboratories, wrangled a tie-in with the aforementioned film to promote one of its signature products, the “hangover helper” Last Round (it really works, by the way; if your ambition is to be a literary lush, I recommend you give it a whirl), so even he has been singing the praises of said bohunk.
>> I found, while packing up the old house two weeks ago, photographic evidence of our association (see below).
The time has come to tell the tale. Starfucker I must be.
* * *
Let me set the stage.
Georgetown is known for producing politicians (Bill Clinton) and NBA centers (Patrick Ewing). But my alma mater is, and always has been, a sneaky arts school. Among its notable alumni are The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, Guare, Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz, Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto, and acting legend John Barrymore.
Overlapping my time on campus were the Memento screenwriter Jonathan Nolan; the Emmy-winning director Michael Sucsy; my friend Dave Berman, who plays the assistant coroner on CSI (and who would have been in the play if he weren’t studying abroad that semester); comedian Mike Birbiglia; Vertical Horizon’s Matt Scannell; and the playwright/TV writer/comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, my friend and sometime mentor, who was hired a few months ago to re-work the script of Spiderman: The Musical.
For a school of nascent lawyers and diplomats, not too shabby.
In 1995, there were two drama companies on campus: the venerable and stuffy Mask & Bauble, and Nomadic Theatre, the young upstart known for breezy comedies like Dracula: The Musical (in which I played Van Helsing my freshman year). The two enjoyed a friendly rivalry, and it was our ambition crush M&B and establish Nomadic as top dog. To do this, we needed to stage an ambitious play, and stage it well.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses fit the bill. A demanding and difficult play, it is three solid hours of precise dialogue, ornate costumes (which we avoided by setting the action in the 1920s; men in tuxedos, women in gowns), and swordplay. The lead, Valmont—John Malkovich in the movie—is on stage for most of those three hours, almost never stops talking, and dies after an extensively choreographed swordfight. It’s not an easy part to pull off.
But we had the man for the job: our friend Bandar al-Hejin, a gifted actor who was also stunningly handsome. He’d smoldered his way through a production of Rope the year before, establishing his bona fides theatrical and heartthrob. We selected the play with Bandar in mind.
Madame de Merteuil, the Glenn Close part, is critical to the success of the show; for the play to succeed, we had to find someone who could go toe to toe with Bandar. Fortunately, we did: despite having to audition with a talentless schmuck in leather pants who handed out headshots, and who made it clear that he was the son of some Hollywood director we’d never heard of and therefore the Second Coming of Brad Pitt—as soon as he left the room, Brian tore up his headshot and screamed, “Fuck him!”—Lucy Ellenbogen dazzled in her try-out, and only got better as the play went along.
Rounding out the talented and attractive cast were Lucy Barzun Donnelly (who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe last year for producing Grey Gardens), Noelle Coates, Destiny Lopez, Maggie Kemper, Alexia Paul, Roman Kindrachuk, and Brady Richards, one of my best friends (who, among his many other talents, fashions Beer Buckles).
Azolan, a secondary part, is Valmont’s valet: his servant, but also his confidante, his comic straight man, his partner in crime. A fin de siècle DSK like Valmont, we decided, would employ someone young and handsome as a wingman. That’s what we were looking for at the audition.
We narrowed it down to two actors: Oliver, a Mask & Bauble veteran who delivered the lines with saucy aplomb; and a sophomore transfer student who’d never been on stage before in his life. He was a bit wooden, the newcomer, a bit stiff, but we liked that; we didn’t want Azolan upstaging—or, worse, trying unsuccessfully to upstage—Valmont. We felt a guy this raw would deliver the lines, many of them jokes, without acting like a stand-up comic.
Plus, he was a good complement to our lead. Bandar was dark and handsome, slender and on the short side. The new guy was tall, more filled in, and blonde. And he was good-looking. Fantabulously, jaw-droppingly, pinch-yourself, hot-as-all-get-out good-looking. So we went with him.
Our decision proved prudent. The new guy was the perfect Azolan. He did indeed deliver his lines well, never attempted to upstage Bandar, and remained as fantabulously, jaw-droppingly, pinch-yourself, hot-as-all-get-out good-looking as he’d been at the audition.
The new guy’s name, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, was Bradley Cooper.
* * *
The spring of 1995 was only Cooper’s second semester at Georgetown. A sophomore, he’d transferred from a school in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend, who was just as comely as he was (in my recollection, she looked a lot like a young Courteney Cox—curious, given his recent not-so-dangerous liaison with Jennifer Aniston), and, it seemed to me, more worldly. They reminded me of the Bulgarian couple in Casablanca: attractive, optimistic, decidedly un-jaded.
As for me, I graduated in December of 1994, a semester early, and was only hanging around to direct the play, forestall gainful employment, and prepare my liver for the graduation week of drunken debauchery known as Senior Disorientation. So I did not know Cooper well.
He struck me as pleasant, quiet, polite, and shy (I realize this is not unlike how neighbors describe serial killers). He had a certain wide-eyed quality that was endearing, but he was also a bit aloof, perhaps because I was older and, as a director, something of an authority figure (one who threw good parties and made rehearsals fun, but an authority figure just the same).
In his recent NPR interview, he hinted at another reason for his aloofness:
“I also didn’t feel at all comfortable with the theater crowd when I was in high school. I never felt any connection to those students and so too was it true at Georgetown,” Cooper said. “I had nothing in common with them. Maybe I was intimidated by them.”
So we’ll go with that. He was intimidated by me (and probably by Brian even more, Brian being the “bad cop” of our directorial duo). Because, you know, I’m so intimidating.
I saw him only once after that semester, at a theatre event for students and alumni a year or two later. He showed up with Eric Chase Anderson, Wes’s kid brother (Bottle Rocket was out by then) and eventual art director, who had cast him in a student film called, if memory serves, The Ant Colony, and coaxed a nuanced performance out of him that hinted at what was to come. Cooper wore a purple-and-blue pinstriped three-piece suit, and his hair was slicked back like Pat Riley’s. Gone was the wooden gait that had gotten him cast in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; now he strutted like John Travolta, not arrogantly but confidently. In other words, like a movie star.
He’d gone as Hollywood as it was possible to go within the collegial confines of the Healy Gates. He would wind up going all the way there.
We watched with interest as he guested on Sex in the City and was sodomized in Wet Hot American Summer. We shook our heads every time Alias came on.
When he nabbed the “Ralph Bellamy” part in Wedding Crashers, we were astonished. A guy we actually knew—a guy Brady still traded emails with; a guy I once implored to project—was in a major role in a major comedy!
But it didn’t stop there: The Hangover, Renée Zellweger, He’s Just Not That into You, Jennifer Aniston, The Hangover II.
It hasn’t stopped yet. It just keeps on going.
The A-Team? Try the A-list.
It’s kind of amazing.
* * *
Would Bradley Cooper have made it this far if we’d opted for Oliver as Azolan—if, in other words, we were lesser casting agents and directors? Of course. Much as we’d like to believe otherwise, he does not owe his success to us, his intimidators. We’re not like the guy from the Human League song.
Would he make a good Asher Krug? Absolutely (although it must be said: Bandar would, too).
Would it kill him to note that the play responsible for exciting his acting bug was co-directed by a novelist who has a new book out in the fall? Evidently. Or, more likely, this pesky detail has escaped his matinee idol’s attention. Can’t say I blame him.
Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to hear that, unlike that fateful night in Vegas—and now, one night in Bangkok—Cooper hasn’t forgotten his time in our play.