Bradley Cooper on Playing Leonard Bernstein: “I direct the whole day as him. That’s the only way I know to be absolutely free”

Cooper points out that because he is playing Bernstein at three different ages, he had to approach his portrayal in three different ways.

Bradley Cooper has been nominated for twelve Academy Awards — five for acting — including three for Maestro, his biopic about composer Leonard Bernstein. For Maestro, Cooper is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, though much of the focus of the film’s accolades is on Cooper’s portrayal of the acclaimed conductor.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Cooper speaks about portraying Bernstein throughout his life and how he approached the performance for this longtime passion project.

Cooper points out that though he is playing Bernstein throughout the film, because he is playing him at three different ages he had to approach his portrayal in three different ways. He explains:

‘”It starts with how I hear and see the movie. I always saw it as one musical element. And part of that music is the interplay between the characters and them speaking the music, the melody of their conversations, particularly between Felicia and Lenny. I had access to these wonderful audiotapes. That’s part of why I started to focus on making the movie about the two of them—the intoxicating melody of their conversations, and particularly him. He spoke melodically.

“I knew early on that in order to tell this story about their relationship, it was going to have to take place over a period of time. Bernstein sounded different from years of smoking and getting older. His voice completely changed. I knew early on that I needed to start working on that immediately. Tim Monich [a dialect coach] and I started working on these three separate voices—when he’s in his twenties, when he’s in his fifties, and then when he’s in his late sixties.”

Cooper details how he continued to remain completely focused on portraying Bernstein throughout the shoot. He continues, “The only way that I know how to do this is to bank Lenny way before I start shooting. Otherwise, I’d be terrified… So, Leonard Bernstein, that character that you see in the film, was banked maybe six months before we started shooting. When I go through hair and makeup in the morning before crew call, Lenny is there. It’s me, but I’m speaking like him. Everything’s him. I direct the whole day as him. That’s the only way I know to be absolutely free. If I have to put headphones on, excuse my language, I’m absolutely f***ed. All of my energy is put towards the filmmaking and to the other actors, so there’s never a moment on set when I’m thinking about what I sound like.”

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