A headshot of Bradley Cooper
A headshot of Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper and Scott Ellis on the Irresistible Pull of The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper knows that his obsession with Joseph “John” Merrick, the 19th century Englishman known as the Elephant Man, surprises people.

On the heels of back-to-back Oscar nominations, the 39-year-old star of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, the Hangover films, and the upcoming American Sniper (due out this Christmas) could have his pick of leading roles on Broadway. But Cooper has been fascinated by Merrick since age 12, when he saw the 1980 movie bio of the man whose severe physical deformities masked a keen intellect. After earning an honors English degree at Georgetown, Cooper performed excerpts from Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 Tony-winning play for his MFA thesis at the Actors Studio. Now, two years after starring in The Elephant Man at Williamstown Theatre Festival, he will headline Scott Ellis’ revival at the Booth Theatre beginning November 7.
Broadway Direct recently listened in as Cooper and Ellis chatted about the play and their delight in bringing The Elephant Man to a new generation of Broadway audiences. It took an international conference call to get them together, since Cooper was in London filming a movie about a chef and his six-time Tony-nominated director was in rehearsal for the Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You.

Bradley Cooper: This may sound hokey, but when I saw David Lynch’s film of The Elephant Man, I felt a personal connection with Merrick — just a deep, deep understanding. I can’t really say why. What might seem even more peculiar is that the movie inspired me to become an actor. I thought, I want to tell stories like that. I wasn’t even aware of Bernard Pomerance’s play until I was in grad school and asked to do a half-hour version of it for my master’s thesis.

Scott Ellis: How did you cut it to a half hour?

Cooper: We only did the scenes between Merrick, [his doctor] Treves, and Mrs. Kendal [the actress who befriends him]. Years ago, when I met Patti Clarkson at a party, the first thing I said to her was, “If I ever do The Elephant Man, you have to play Mrs. Kendal.” It’s so crazy that she agreed to do it in Williamstown and that Scott said yes to directing it, when other people laughed. Now we’re lucky enough to bring the play to the Booth Theatre, where it originated.

Ellis: Bradley and I had a great time working together on a play in Williamstown in 2008, and we immediately began talking about doing something else together. When he mentioned The Elephant Man, I could immediately see how passionate he was about this piece.

Cooper: When I was still in school, I bought a ticket to London and spent six days doing a tremendous amount of research. The hospital [Merrick lived in before his death] has since closed, but I took the subway there every day and talked my way into seeing where he lived and the gardens; I saw his cloak and his birth certificate. I discovered what a survivor he was, and how proactive he was, which comes through in the play much more than in the film. You watch this guy start to become confident and move toward being a fully developed man. That is what is so heartbreaking.

Ellis: Bradley and I discovered that we were very much on the same wavelength in how to approach the play, which was as a chamber piece.

Cooper: We want the audience to feel as if they are sitting in a room with these three characters for an hour and 45 minutes. It’s just that simple and pure. The Booth is perfect because it’s very similar to the feeling of entering the space where Merrick exhibited himself across the street from the hospital in the late 1800s. The Booth is a freestanding theatre with one door. At the beginning of the experience, you’re walking through that door.

Ellis: When we started working the play around a table, to be honest, we still had not discussed the physical and vocal parts of the central character. I didn’t know what this would be yet. One day we were in my office and I gently asked Bradley what he was thinking. He got up and within 30 seconds, he transformed into Merrick before my eyes. It was like, “There he is.” It literally took my breath away.

Cooper: Every actor who plays Merrick has a different interpretation. Mine is on the extreme side, so it’s pretty demanding physically. But I don’t really think about that, because my focus is on being of service to this man. This guy had a flap over his butt. His shirt would get soaked because of the puss that came out of the tumors on his back. When you focus on the responsibility of playing a person who really existed, you don’t worry about being tired.

Ellis: It’s the weirdest thing, but when I’m in a rehearsal room or in the theatre with Bradley, I always get the feeling that Merrick knows this is happening. Bradley has such respect for this man and what he went through. He is focused and digs so deeply into the role.

Cooper: The thing I’m always awestruck by is that this guy, Joseph Carey Merrick, who died at the age of 27 in 1890, is probably the most famous person of that time period. Fast forward to 2014, and there’s a play on Broadway about him. If you had told him back then that this was going to happen, I would love to have seen his reaction. A lot of the humor in the play comes from Merrick himself — letting the audience in on the joke. He’s self-effacing and has a wonderful sense of irony. We’ve tried hard not to play him as a victim, because he never saw himself that way.

Ellis: When we were doing this play in Williamstown, I don’t think anyone would have predicted we would bring it to Broadway.

Cooper: Oh, my god, no.

Ellis: But at the end of the two-week run, we looked at each other and said, “We’re not done with this yet.” I think it surprised us both. The fact that we’re now seeing a marquee going up at the Booth feels like a gift.

Cooper: This opportunity has been a dream for my entire life as an actor. To play this character on Broadway, in the house that the play originated in, is nothing less than a complete honor.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros., Photographer: Sam Jones.