When people hear you've met a famous actor like Bradley Cooper, they invariably want to know whether he's a normal guy.
And of course he's not "normal." He's a movie star. Nominated four times for an Oscar, likely to accrue still more nominations for his new movie A Star Is Born, which he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in.
I, on the other hand, am a normal guy and I know this because the last time I interviewed Cooper, in an office building, word had gotten out that he was on the premises, and the lobby filled up with women holding cellphones, crowded around the elevator banks.
I saw them when the doors opened. I also saw the crestfallen looks on their faces when they saw that I was not Bradley Cooper.
That underscored just how abjectly normal I really am.
And how un-normal movies stars are, through circumstances not under their control. That's one of the subjects of A Star Is Born — how hard it is to hold on to your old original self when fame arrives with its demands and distortions.
Yet Cooper has fared as well as anyone. As evidence of that, I cite the circumstances of our most recent interview. He was in town doing press for A Star Is Born, keeping a low profile.
No photographers, please, and could I interview him near his family's Jenkintown home, at a restaurant?
Of course I could. But when I arrived, there was a TV crew hanging out, and when I relayed this info to his reps, a few minutes later my cellphone rang. It was Cooper, wanting to know whether we could do the interview at the coffee shop down the street.
So off I went. The coffee shop was also mobbed, normal rush-hour traffic, and my phone rang again.
Cooper, saying the place was jammed, suggested another option.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"Standing in the parking lot," I said.
Then a horn sounded. I looked to my right, and there he was, rolling down the car window, greeting me with a cheerful, "Hop in."
Long story short, we ended up doing the interview Seinfeld-like, driving around for the better part of an hour, looking for a coffee shop we never found.
"I was afraid you were going to get lost," he said. "I just wanted to be a good host in Jenkintown."
Every celebrity should be as abnormal as Cooper, who obviously likes being home, likes talking about his family roots here.
His late father, Charles, grew up not far away in North Philadelphia, at 22nd and Indiana (we could have driven there and back in our 45 minutes). His mother, Gloria, and her Italian family were in South Philadelphia.
Of his mother's side: "My great-grandfather had a pushcart on Ninth Street, my grandfather was a cop who had a garlic business. So I grew up in an Italian environment. Huge. In the kitchen growing up, you only spoke Italian. I remember it was like this invisible door you would enter, and you'd be in this different time period. Incredible."
Merged cultures are in his DNA, and so is music. Though his father was of Irish descent, he loved Mario Lanza and would listen to the albums with Bradley. His mother enrolled him in a youth orchestra, where he played the upright bass. Other influences were more typical of a kid who grew up in Rydal and Jenkintown — he gorged on Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"I would obsess over bands and just binge on one for an entire year. I was one of those guys," he said.
So when Cooper talks about A Star Is Born being deeply personal, you can see why. It's about art that crosses cultural lines, it's about a love of music, and it's about the conflict between art and fame, the way celebrity can box you in and interfere with artistic goals — like his desire to direct.
Cooper was at the height of his stardom, coming off 2015's American Sniper, when he essentially stepped away from movies for three years — the only acting he did, he says, was voicing the barbed, cheeky Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy — to fulfill that dream. Part of which came from watching the example of friend and mentor Clint Eastwood, who helmed American Sniper.
"I like the way he walks through life," Cooper said. "I just love the guy."
And he knew Eastwood was 41 when he directed his first movie (the psychological thriller Play Misty for Me). When Cooper, now 43, turned 40, he started to get that now-or-never feeling.
"The other reason I didn't direct was — well, I was terrified — that I didn't have a story to tell," he said.
Eastwood had tried and failed to make A Star Is Born (with Beyoncé), and Cooper became enthused with the idea of bringing his own vision to the project (the film has been made three times before, with Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Janet Gaynor in the title role).
In his version, Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a successful musician (he doesn't like to label it country, but the guys in the band wear cowboy hats) whose chance meeting with an unknown club singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) turns into a romance and artistic collaboration that catapults the young woman to stardom.
Cooper believed he could sing and play well enough to become a credible Jackson, but he wanted a true vocalist to play Ally. He had a hard time finding the right woman, until one day at a cancer benefit he heard Lady Gaga sing "La Vie en Rose" (he sort of recaptures that moment in the film's prologue, and the song is one of the few covers you hear).
He introduced himself, and not long after, they were at her house, on her piano, harmonizing to the folk tune "Midnight Special" that Creedence turned into a '70s hit. Cooper shows me the proof on his cellphone — a video of that first meeting, the two of them singing the song.
I mention that Cooper and his costar have similar facial geometry, which becomes an element of the film. Ally is oversensitive about her nose, and when they turn to face each other, there's a mirror-image affect.
"You're so right. In fact, I think his nose is bigger than hers," Cooper said.
Her voice, though, is bigger than his. And that's why he had to have it in the film, to give the story credibility and soul.
"I knew she was the perfect person to play it. She's the real deal. I always knew it had to be an actual, accomplished singer, so that it could be the meta of the movie," he says, "and it's in the fabric, the DNA of the property demands it, I think. "
Gaga/Germanotta had done some acting (she won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story: Hotel) but this was another level, and a new challenge. Cooper was careful to keep things relaxed on the set, using tricks he learned from Eastwood.
"I don't say, 'Action,' I shoot rehearsal. I got all of that from Clint," he said.
Lady Gaga also acts via her singing — it's where much of the movie's key storytelling occurs. She wrote or cowrote many of the songs, working with artists from all over the musical map — hitmaker Mark Ronson, country artists like Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, pop songwriter Diane Warren, and many others.
Cooper is cagey about Maine's musical niche. The beard, he's said, was inspired by Eddie Vedder. The voice has a twang he borrowed from costar Sam Elliot. He cowrote and commissioned songs from artists who fall under the country or Americana label. The music embraces blues, folk, rock, and country.
"I was thinking maybe he's country, but as I kept working on it, it kind of moved north and west, and story-wise, I wanted him to be non-placeable. That why I arrive at the Sam Elliott voice. It's this great accent that you can't really place." (Elliot is a Californian, from Bakersfield, home to its own specific country sound).
Cooper worked with Lukas (son of Willie) Nelson and Jason Isbell, to craft songs that have highly specific roles in the story. They're integrated organically into the narrative — as Jackson and Ally go about writing, performing and touring, the songs roll out naturally, like dramatic scenes.
"The music is a character in the movie. It's not just an interlude where you're bedazzled by some big production number. It forwards the story. Every lyric influences the story," he said.
Cooper had to keep the movie to under $40 million, and that meant shooting concert scenes guerrilla style, walking onstage unannounced in the middle of famous music festivals featuring legit bands and hardcore fans.
In that context, Cooper was the untested talent. He sneaked on stage at the Glastonbury festival in England, running out in the middle of Nelson's set (Nelson's band plays Jackson's) to do a quick six minutes in front of an enormous crowd of serious music lovers.
"Oh, I thought they were going to throw bottles at me, for sure. And, actually, looking at it as a director, I thought that if that happened, I would spin it. As a disaster, we'd just use in the movie in a different way.
He didn't have to, and truthfully didn't want to. Cooper takes pains to point out that in his version, Jackson Maine is a success professionally. He's not a bully and a has-been, like the character in previous films.
"He has a drinking problem, but he's a success. So when he finds Ally and invites her on stage, starts writing for her and with her, it's a new dynamic, very much of equals, equally in love," Cooper said, adding that Ally's character has been remodeled as well.
"It's just a different relationship. She's not an ingenue, working with a band and playing gigs and happy to be singing," he said. "No, she's 31 and she's bitter and she's been in a world where men have told her she's not pretty enough, she's not worthy enough for her songwriting."
Jackson's character believes she is and says so. It's the basis for the movie's heartfelt love story, which the audience follows through its ups and downs.
"What happens when you actually do have love, there's no infidelity, they care selflessly for each other, What happens when you have all the cards and it's still hard?"
And what happens to Cooper now? Well, he's done singing. He has no plans to make a second career of music, the way other actors have. But he's not done directing. He has another dream project in mind, which he talked about off the record, because it's not a done deal.
But if all goes well, he'll be starring and directing again. And soon.