In the clip above, Bradley Cooper says that plans are underway to bring The Elephant Man to the BIg Apple this Spring.
Bradley Cooper is surprising. He has a great deal more depth and ability than those Hangover films allow him to show. You would think he would be looking to play the great dramatic, romantic or historical roles like Stanley Kowalski, Romeo or Oedipus to get back to real acting, but of all the parts for men in theatre, it is the character Joseph “John” Merrick in The Elephant Man that has held his fascination for more than a decade. Anyone who has followed Cooper’s meteoric rise knows that he can be rather obsessive about his real roles. He gets typecast a lot, and he has to make a living, but there’s really no more versatile actor around. We had a glimpse of it several years ago when he took the part of The Understudy at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Every generation has had its idolized male actor, and Bradley Cooper may be the first to break through in the new century. I have watched actors all my life, and among the men there is a line that goes from Montgomery Clift to James Dean to Marlon Brando to a whole bunch of wannabes to the present day, Bradley Cooper. And he’s not anything like Brando, Clift or Dean. He doesn’t mumble. He’s not filled with angst. But when he acts, it is real.
Every great actor reflects the styles and peculiarities of the generation he or she lives in, plus whatever voguish technical twists the acting schools teach. Many American colleges and universities now offer degrees in acting – it’s a very profitable branch of higher learning – but many of them forget to teach the basics. In a 1,200 seat house you can’t hear some of the youngsters without amplification. Oh the peers can hear them, but theater-goers come in all ages and levels of hearing. Good actors make sure all can hear.But you will hear Brad Cooper, he’s had real time on the stage as well as in front of the camera, and The Elephant Man is a role he was virtually born to play. As he told James Lipton on the Actor’s Studio show, he was first introduced to Joseph “John” Merrick, the Englishman who became known as “the elephant man” by David Lynch’s film at the age of twelve. The film, made in 1980 with Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt is quite different from the play which was written earlier, in 1979. For one thing, playwright Bernard Pomerance specifies that no prosthetics are to be used, so the actor plays Merrick without the deformities. At one point in the play slides are shown of his clinical condition.
In his introductory note to the play Pomerance writes that, in actuality, Merrick’s face was sufficiently deformed that his speech was very difficult to understand: “Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically–IF it were possible–would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.”
Cooper has never explained why he took on this play for his Master’s Thesis, and one day I may get to ask him. I suspect that being born with a normal appearance he was curious as to what it would be like to be deformed, to function with a handicap. Actors constantly explore the world beyond their daily life. By getting inside the role of Merrick, he might be able to bring this different world into his own experience. For an actor, these insights are like building an ever expanding library of tools to call upon in later roles.Contrary to expectations, the play is not only just as powerful as the film, but it also allows the actor to take the audience inside the mind and world of Joseph Merrick.
Cooper is a master of deconstructing scripts, and working to fully understand the character being portrayed, not only his words, but his feelings and world view. With Cooper as with other great actors,he finally arrives at a point where he is not acting at all, but is actually slipping inside the skin of Merrick and feels what he feels, says what he says, and lets all this happen organically. “If I feel like I am acting, then I am a failure at what I am doing,” he says.
It is this mastery of the acting craft that is among the most complex undertakings that a human being can undertake, demanding intense intellectuality, imagination and a degree of vulnerability that men normally run away from at top speed. He has the strength of his convictions to bring the full force of his abilities to this task so that a few thousand people can relive the life and longings of David Merrick on stage.
Background on the Play
Tragic, moving and thought-provoking, The Elephant Man is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, who had been a freak attraction in traveling side shows, he is found abandoned and helpless and is admitted for observation to Whitechapel, a prestigious London hospital. Under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves, who educates him and introduces him to London society, Merrick changes from a sensational object of pity to the urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati. But his belief that he can become a man like any other is a dream never to be realized.At its most intimate core, The Elephant Man is a study in human dignity. Says Cooper: “One of the reasons I became an actor was because of that movie. That character was always sort of imprinted on myself forever.”
It was at the Actors Studio Drama School at The New School in New York City that he finally was able to finally explore the subject. A superb acting student, he nevertheless had to prove his commitment to it: “I had sort of a tough time getting it cast as my thesis, but they finally relented and allowed me to do it and it was a wonderful experience,” he recalls fondly.
And it seems he has been wanting to do it on stage ever since. “At the time there was a revival off Broadway, and though I didn’t get to see it, I have never stopped wanting to bring it back to life.”
After his first time in the Berkshires Cooper recalls, he decided “what a great venue there is in Williamstown, so I thought, it would be a great place to do it.”
How the Production Came to BeIn introducing the team at the lunchtime Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) news conference yesterday, Artistic Director Jenny Gersten recalled how it developed. “Scott and I started talking about this a year ago, and this is his ninth production with the WTF. When Scott directed The Understudy, it was Bradley Cooper’s first time performing here, and they began discussing Elephant Man. Last year I had a call from Scott asking if they might do it, and we moved forward. It’s wonderful to have Scott and Bradley working together again.
“And I am just thrilled to also welcome Patricia Clarkson back here,” Gersten said, beaming. You could feel the warmth and familiarity of old friends.
“I actually started here in 1980 as an intern, when I was five years old.” joked Clarkson.
Scott Ellis continues the story: “Working together on The Understudy, we had a great time. We talked a lot after that and when Bradley brought up The Elephant Man, I said ‘sure’ never thinking he would have the time to do it. Last year we decided to focus on it, and this year, it is getting closer and closer to reality. We both got lucky and found the time in our busy schedules, we talked about who we would like in the company, and Patricia Clarkson was our first choice. He called Patty and it came together,” relates Eillis.“He texted,” Clarkson corrects him, “actually he texted, because he was in Prague at the time,” Clarkson recalls. I think all the message actually said was a simple “Williamstown, Elephant Man?” and the dates.
Clarkson plays the pivotal role of Mrs, Kendal. She and Cooper also talked about doing the play several years ago. “She would make a terrific Mrs. Kendal,” Cooper enthused. Clarkson replied that it is ” a chance for me to do a beautiful and indelible role that I think has been done beautifully in the past. I have a lot to live up to with the extraordinary women who have played this part. I like that challenge of finding my own Mrs. Kendal and bringing myself into it. I haven’t exactly done a part like this before.”
Clarkson recalled that back to 1996 she rehearsed with Arthur Miller in the basement of the church next door “which I still remember fondly.” Actors tend to spend their working days in many places, and love to return to the places where they have been before, and to reunite with old friends. The WTF is a magnet for actors in that regard, and why each summer, many of them hope a break in their schedule will allow them to return. “There is a sense of community in theatre that you never have in film, and for an actor it is where the heart lies. Always, in theatre.”
Cooper expanded on how Ellis became involved. “I’ve imagined Williamstown as the ideal place to do The Elephant Man, ever since I had the wonderful experience doing The Understudy with Scott. I’ve talked about the play a lot over the years and Scott was one of the only ones that didn’t laugh. He took pity on me” The fact that we are here and doing it here in Williamstown is just miraculous. And having Patty Clarkson as Mrs. Kendal and Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves is just a dream come true.”
Every play is really a team effort, and this is one that is filled with enthusiasm and energy. They had just finished a first table reading minutes before this gathering, though the other members of the cast were not present. They include Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma!, Young Frankenstein) as Ross/Bishop How/Snork, Scott Lowell (“Queer as Folk”) as Will/Lord John/Earl, Alessandro Nivola (WTF’s As You Like It, Coco Before Chanel) as Frederick Treves, Marguerite Stimpson (Butley) as Sandwich/Countess/Alexandra, and Henry Stram (WTF’s The Importance of Being Earnest) as Carr Gomm/Conductor.
Besides the Actors and Director Scott Ellis, the creative team for The Elephant Man includes Timothy Mackabee (Scenic and Projections Design), Clint Ramos (Costume Design), Philip Rosenberg (Lighting Design), and Tom Kochan (Original Music/Sound Design). Davin DeSantis is the Production Stage Manager.
The Festival’s Nikos Stage is an intimate 173-seat venue that regularly sells out in advance from within the pool of Festival donors. Tickets to the Williamstown Theatre Festival may be purchased online (www.wtfestival.org), by phone at 413-597-3400, or in person at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance Box Office at 1000 Main St (Route 2), Williamstown, MA 02167.
The Challenge of Being Deformed
Cooper considers himself blessed to have a normal appearance. He does not consider himself anything out of the ordinary despite the proclamation by People Magazine that he is the sexiest man alive. That is Facebook fodder, and best ignored. Of course, looks are not what make someone sexy or attractive in any case. For people with some depth it is as much personality, authenticity and intellect as it is blue eyes or whatever. (They don’t hurt in getting cast in parts I have noticed.) But add both sides of the equation together and he’s worked hard for the accolades.
Which presents a special sort of problem for the actor.“My feeling with Merrick,” Cooper says, is to mimic the effects of “the physical affliction. It’s a massive undertaking.” Especially without prosthetics. So as an actor he will “study his physical malady which plagued him, which were myriad, to what the difficulty of even going to the bathroom would entail. and relive how he would go about his day. The thing I love most about him is just how much he wanted to belong and be a part of normal life, and that’s something I can relate to in my life. I don’t want to say it’s easy to play Merrick, but I feel a very natural affinity and connection to him, to understand who he was.” Cooper finds he has “a very visceral feeling towards this man who lived in the late 1800s.”
I asked Cooper what it was like to play Merrick, especially since he had so much pain inside, in part from being shunned, but also because he was the object of disgust, on top of dealing with the deformities themselves. His answer was surprising: “It’s very liberating and healing. I felt very humbled and grateful the first time I played it and can’t imagine I won’t have the same experience. I can’t foresee what it will be in a couple of weeks, but it will most likely be a very different experience from the first time. It was a very singular experience for me to play him, maybe because he was an actual human being.
Cooper was also sure that, now, years after his training that the performance would be more complex working with people he trusts. “In doing this there is a lot of trust needed between Scott Ellis and myself; he must be as committed to doing it justice as I am. I have that trust, the freedom to explore, which enables me go even deeper into the role. We have very similar ways of working towards that end, it doesn’t take a lot of discussion.”
“I felt there was solely one objective for me as an actor, to do him justice. To make it very simple. It’s really about me and him. If I truly believe I am him – up there on stage – then everything else is going to take care of itself.” – Bradley Cooper
From the Historical Record
The exact cause of Merrick’s deformities is unclear.
The dominant theory throughout much of the 20th century was that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I. In 1986, a new theory emerged that he had Proteus syndrome. In 2001 it was proposed that Merrick had suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. DNA tests conducted on his hair and bones have proven inconclusive.
Merrick was human like all of us, perhaps even more so
Treves observed that Merrick was very sensitive and showed his emotions easily. At times Merrick was bored and lonely, and demonstrated signs of depression. He had spent his entire adult life segregated from women, first in the workhouse and then as an exhibit. The women he met were either disgusted or frightened by his appearance. His opinions about women were derived from his memories of his mother and what he read in books. Treves decided that Merrick would like to be introduced to a woman and it would help him feel normal. The doctor arranged for a friend of his named Mrs. Leila Maturin, “a young and pretty widow”, to visit Merrick. She agreed and with fair warning about his appearance, she went to his rooms for an introduction. The meeting was short, as Merrick quickly became overcome with emotion. He later told Treves that Maturin had been the first woman ever to smile at him, the first to shake his hand. From the Joseph Merrick entry on Wikipedia.
Bradley Cooper Films
Ask the average Joe and they identify Cooper with the Hangover movies, real juvenile stuff. But in Limitless, he had a chance to act a bit.