“Oh my God, Gio is the best. They should make a movie about him. That’s the best pizza I’ve eaten in my life. Period,” Cooper enthuses. Then he flashes the sheepish grin of a guy who suddenly seems embarrassed about consuming carbs. “We had, like, a lot of pizza.”
Cooper is talking about Giovanni di Palma, the luminary of Atlanta pizza (Antico) and Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano. The pair spent a few hours inside Antico after Cooper hosted a Q&A session a few miles away at Regal Atlantic Station, where he cheerfully fielded queries about what it was like working with Lady Gaga, the challenges of his directorial debut and why he wanted to reincarnate “A Star Is Born” for the third time since 1937.
We’ll get to the movie in a moment as well, but first there is a vital exchange about cheesesteaks (Philly native Cooper is a Pat’s fan, but is urged to try Tony Luke’s) and a shared affinity for Howard Stern.
Football is next on the agenda, but when a guy has committed two years of his life to learning to sing and play guitar while concurrently co-writing a script he will then star in and direct … it’s probably time to make that the focus of conversation.
Bradley Cooper stars as Jackson Maine, a successful roots-rocker who is battling demons when he falls in love with Ally, played by Lady Gaga, in "A Star is Born." Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
For weeks before its Oct. 5 release, the buzz on Cooper’s $38 million version of “A Star Is Born” has been rapturous, with Oscar love seemingly a foregone conclusion.
It isn’t hype. The movie is a marvel, a visceral valentine that, as Cooper says, makes music a character, not a backdrop.
There are slight tweaks to the well-documented plot about a successful male performer (Cooper’s Jackson “Jack” Maine) meeting — and falling in love with — a fledgling female singer (Lady Gaga’s Ally) whose career flourishes under his tutelage.
Unlike past iterations of the character, Jack is still playing sinewy, Allman Brothers-esque music to tens of thousands at Glastonbury and Stagecoach music festivals (where Cooper was given four and eight minutes, respectively, to film scenes for the movie). Jack might be an alcoholic with a slightly unwashed veneer, but he’s hardly losing professional luster.
“I wanted to deal with, what does trauma do to you as a human being if you never had the help to reconcile it and grow?” Cooper, 43, said. “For me personally, I couldn’t tell the story about a guy who is upset that his fame is dwindling. What really interested me is this guy. He’s a guy who could tour for the rest of his career, even if he’s barely singing. There are a lot of musicians like that. And Ally, I didn’t want her to be an ingénue. What happens when the world tells you that you can’t and then one person reignites that spark? Also, (these are) two people who are fully in love with each other. There’s no infidelity, there’s no jealousy that you’re bigger than me. It’s not about that.”
Lady Gaga plays aspiring singer Ally in her feature film debut. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Cooper enlisted Lukas Nelson — son of Willie — to co-write several songs on the soundtrack with him (Jason Isbell penned the quietly searing “Maybe It’s Time”) while, naturally, Lady Gaga contributed a trove, working with Cooper and Nelson, as well as Mark Ronson and Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town). Nelson’s band, Promise of the Real, also stars in the movie as Jack’s backing musicians.
Cooper, who grew up tackling a few instruments and playing in school orchestra through his early teens – “My mother kept throwing my sister and I into this music school and then you’re bopping around instruments from the violin to the saxophone and wind up with the upright bass,” he recalled with a smile – dedicated himself to becoming a musician on screen.
“I didn’t want any (camera) trickery, any sort of digital thing of moving my fingers or cutting from someone else’s hands up to me. I needed it to flow, so I had to (play) in order to make the world believable. The camera is on the stage the whole time. I wanted to be close and for you to feel what he feels like when he plays guitar, and if you’re cutting away, you’re going to lose all of that.”
The sound of Jack’s guitar, and Cooper’s style of playing it, was influenced by Neil Young.
“I liked this idea of (Jack) almost lumbering onstage; that he’s not this butterfly flying through the guitar. I wanted him to be very sort of muscular. And Neil, I love the way he plays the guitar. When Jack is onstage is when he’s most himself. He takes his hat off when he goes on stage. He sheds it all. That fuels it and he’s been living on that for years — that and painkillers. But that’s where he gets that fix. And Neil, when I watch him play, it’s like he’s in a trance.”
Cooper also recalls telling Eddie Vedder, his buddy and onetime pen pal (“Does that even exist anymore?” he jokes), about his ideas for “A Star Is Born.” The two bumped into each other a few years ago in Hawaii, where Vedder and his family were vacationing and Cooper was filming what became the 2015 Cameron Crowe dud, “Aloha.”
“(Eddie) was like, ‘Oh, man, people will never get this right,’” Cooper said.
Instead, Cooper aimed to get all of the minutiae right, and credits Vedder for "sharing so much of what he's been through" to aid in the details.
Bradley Cooper spent two years learning to sing and play guitar while also co-writing the screenplay, which he also directed. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
There is so much more to discuss – the scenes stolen by Cooper’s adorable real-life dog, Charlie (named for his late father); how one directs Lady Gaga in music scenes (“The way I saw all the music stuff, they were acting scenes,” Cooper said, while heaping praise on the musician, whom he refers to by her real first name, Stefani); how he flew to Ohio twice to convince Dave Chappelle to take a small, but pivotal role in the film.
But Cooper needs to hustle across Midtown to record a segment for Turner Classic Movies and then hop a flight back to Philadelphia for another screening that evening.
As he heads out of the room, though, he’s still thinking about one thing as he grins and points. “Gio’s!”
“A Star Is Born”
Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle. Directed by Bradley Cooper.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 15 minutes.