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Bradley Cooper Transforms Himself into an American Sniper

Updated: May 7, 2023

Bradley Cooper stars in "American Sniper."

Bradley Cooper stars in “American Sniper.”

Bradley Cooper

Transforms Himself into an American Sniper

by Brad Balfour

Master director Clint Eastwood’s latest feature, American Sniper, offers a taut yet complex portrait of the late Iraqi war vet Chris Kyle. With over 160 kills, Kyle was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Uncannily portrayed by two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle), there was much more to this U.S. Navy SEAL’s story than just his incredible sharpshooter skills.

Texan Kyle went to Iraq to protect his brothers-in-arms. He served four harrowing tours of duty, personifying the SEALs’ spirit to “leave no one behind.” With pinpoint accuracy, he saved numerous soldiers. As stories of his exploits spread – he earned the nickname “Legend” – his reputation also grew with the enemy, making him a prime target of insurgents garnering a price on his head. Part of this narrative describes the competition between the Texas native and his enemy Iraqi rival – a competitive shooter in another life.

At home, he faced a different battle – striving to be both a good husband and father while often being worlds away. On his return to wife Taya Renae (played by Sienna Miller) and kids, the battle-scarred vet finds he can’t leave the war behind, taking a toll on all involved. As he starts to resolve his inner struggles by working with wounded vets, he and a friend are then killed by an emotionally disturbed Marine.

Accordingly, the war-related film which comes from Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven) is no pacifist screed. As with most of this octogenarian’s military-based movie catalogue, he doesn’t produce mere patriotic propaganda either.

Thanks to Cooper’s nuanced performance the two offer a film that may not address the larger implications of this country’s incursion into Iraq, or how we disrupted the country’s delicate social structure. However, the movie unflinchingly shows how our presence drove mothers and children to become suicide bombers without laying blame on all the troops there. To Eastwood’s credit, he capably bolsters the narrative with set pieces that offer nuances to the story while maintaining the focus on Kyle.

That hasn’t made the feature immune to controversy. Recently left-leaning documentary director Michael Moore wrote in a tweet, “We were taught snipers were cowards. [They] will shoot you in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders [are] worse.” Though Moore also had positive comments about the effectiveness of the film, a revisionist groundswell has been whipped up. Actor Seth Rogen and others have questioned how much this film serves military clichés or not – and whether it deserves its huge numbers at the box office.

Like the character he plays, the 39-year-old Philadelphia native downplays his stardom. He is just an enthusiastic actor excited by the challenge of being directed by Eastwood (who he can handily imitate when describing their working together). In Kyle he finds his inner warrior, something he’s done with other characters – witness his appearances in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle – but in a way that was unique to each character.

The film is based on Kyle’s compelling autobiography (written with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice). The book spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 13 of those at number one. Jason Hall’s screenplay adaptation hit its mark – getting Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and for Cooper as Best Actor.

This Q&A is culled from a press conference held at the New York Ritz-Carlton and another conversation with Cooper.

When you’re starring in two high profile productions like The Elephant Man on Broadway and American Sniper, who do you see when you look in the mirror?

I try not to look in the mirror, quite honestly. (laughs) Both Chris Kyle and Joseph Merrick were real people who I admire greatly. So, I just felt a tremendous responsibility to both of them. I just see it as a huge opportunity and a privilege, so I did everything I could to do right by them.

How was the training in making American Sniper? You couldn’t be physically more different than your in Broadway role. Did you have to beef up?

I had to lose weight, but I liked it. It changed everything. It was weight training, so I got really strong. I remember going to an after party at the Oscars and people just deflect off you as you’re walking around. I felt one guy bounce off me and I couldn’t believe that it was A-Rod [New York Yankees player Alex Rodriguez]! And he’s huge! I notice it even more now. I used to get bumped around like a pinball, but now I’m 230.

Did you eat steaks and lift weights?

Six thousand calories a day.

What about the women?

They love it. (laughs)

Do people perceive you differently now?

I became unrecognizable. I can go anywhere anyways, but lately nobody notices me [because I’m much bigger].

In a way this movie is like a western… familiar territory for Eastwood.

The construct is that of a western in the way that we set it up. There is a sharpshooter, then there is an enemy sharpshooter and there is a showdown at the end. Usually, when you’re in the frontier, there is that tumbleweed, and there is a desert storm that comes in. (Whistles.)

Did you get any military field training?

I really focused on getting into the mindset of a sniper. Not so much about the training of becoming a Navy Seal, which I would have loved to have done – if I had survived it…  I supplemented that with the weight training, which for me, personally, was a thing that pales in comparison to what they go through. But at least I could understand about that kind of focus and sacrifice.

Do you think this will help a global audience understand America’s involvement in the Iraq War?

It’s not a movie about the Iraq War. It’s a movie about what someone like Chris has to go through – a soldier. The dilemma and the horror of it. The battle internally and with the family. That is all this movie is about. That’s all we ever talked about making it about. It’s not a political movie at all. It’s a movie about a man, a character study. We had the privilege of telling this man’s story. The hope is that you can somehow have your eyes opened to the struggle of a soldier, as opposed to the specificity of the war.

What do you hope moviegoers will take away from seeing this film?

Movies, for me, have always been healing. When I was a kid growing up, The Elephant Man was a movie that affected me in such a massive way that it made me want to be an actor. It always made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. That’s why I do what I do. I love storytelling so much. We had an opportunity to tell this man’s story, who was a very charismatic, dynamic human being, so it’s going to be a story that is cinematically fruitful. There are a lot of things that make it something you are going to want to watch, but the takeaway will be for those who can relate to him. Maybe it will be healing to relate to a veteran who has gone through similar things that Chris had gone through and maybe not feel so alone. People who don’t know anything about what vets go through – what [Kyle’s wife] Taya has gone through – maybe can have some sort of empathy or sympathy when they see a vet pass them at an airport. Maybe think twice.

You also serve as a producer on this film, doing a lot to see that it got made. Why did you want Clint Eastwood to direct the movie?

That’s almost a hilarious question… Why would I want to work with Clint Eastwood? He made maybe the best American film [of all time] – Unforgiven. He is one of the greatest directors of our time, of this century. Also, the character struggle of a man that he tackles in Unforgiven – with [the character of] William Munny – and with Letters from Iwo Jima, he is able to do in a way other directors just aren’t [able to do so]. He was the perfect director for this movie, which is a character study framed as a western. He is perfect. Chris Kyle actually said if there was anyone he would choose to direct the movie, it would be Clint Eastwood. Then he had his wish.

What was it like working with Clint Eastwood?

I love him to death. We had so many moments. We laughed a tremendous amount while making the movie, shockingly, actually, given the content. I think that’s probably why he gets so many great performances out of people, because he makes them really feel at ease.

How was the shooting schedule?

We shot in the spring in Toronto. It had an insane turnaround, almost as fast as Million Dollar Baby. With Million Dollar Baby, he locked it in six weeks before it opened. We were down to the wire with American Hustle last year, and this was even closer. Wolf of Wall Street was the closest, they couldn’t even qualify for SAG last year because they were running late.

Given the intensity of this character, how did you decompress at the end of an emotional day of shooting?

There was no way to unwind every day, for me, because it felt like it was one long stretch. I didn’t feel like there was much of a difference between shooting and not shooting, until we got to the very end. First of all, you’re so excited to come on the set every day because Clint Eastwood is there. That never gets old. It’s like the most exciting thing. We became friends with him and we would hang out with him a lot – we would have dinner after and hang out – so it was amazing. As a producer, I also got to live with the movie after. As a producer, you’re watching the editing and helping the director craft the movie. There was a day when I felt that Chris had left me, maybe three and a half weeks after the movie. That was a sad day. Besides that, I felt like it just went into a different transition.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: January 21, 2015.

Photos © 2014. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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