Mahershala Ali and Bradley Cooper on ‘Swan Song,’ ‘Nightmare Alley’ and Not Quitting Acting

Bradley Cooper (“Nightmare Alley,” “Licorice Pizza”) and Mahershala Ali (“Swan Song”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

This season, both Bradley Cooper and Mahershala Ali are pulling off a double act. Cooper’s fans can see him in two period pieces: As the lead of “Nightmare Alley,” in which he plays a tormented mentalist desperate for validation in the 1940s traveling-carnival scene, and as a key supporting player in “Licorice Pizza,” in which he’s a deranged version of the producer Jon Peters. Ali’s double duty is more forward-looking, and more literal: In the futuristic sci-fi film “Swan Song,” the Oscar winner plays a dying man as well as the clone who may replace him.

MAHERSHALA ALI: How was it making the transition from playing Stanton in “Nightmare Alley” to playing Jon in “Licorice Pizza”?

BRADLEY COOPER: The reason that I didn’t give up acting is Paul Thomas Anderson. When he called me to maybe be in his movie, Mahershala, I mean really, I think I’d open up a door in his movie. I’d do anything.

We broke from “Nightmare Alley,” I was able to grow a beard and Searchlight was praying that I didn’t get COVID, because we had to go back and continue “Nightmare Alley,” but I was like, “There’s no way I’m not doing it.” That was the first movie back from COVID. And Jon Peters was the beginning of the movie, so I started with everybody else, which was wonderful, rather than coming in when everybody’s already downriver. I spent three and a half weeks with Paul. I watched all the camera tests. He was teaching me all about lenses, things I never knew. He’s incredible.

I don’t think people realize: We haven’t worked together, but we’ve been in the same movie.

ALI: Ten years ago.

COOPER: “The Place Beyond the Pines.” And we didn’t meet until the premiere. I went into the editing room with Derek [Cianfrance], and that was the first time I had seen you, and wow.

ALI: What was that like for you? Derek, he did “Place Beyond the Pines” and “Blue Valentine.” You’ll see the scene, it’ll be written, and he may want you to do a take or two of what is written — but in general you throw it all away and perform the essence of what is there. Are you comfortable working like that?

COOPER: All we’re trying to do is capture a truthful moment, right? So whatever one needs to do. I like the extremes to which he does it. I had to take the police academy test, which I dug, and do all that research he wanted me to do, which I love doing.

Derek did this show on HBO [“I Know This Much Is True”] where it’s similar to what you just did in “Swan Song,” where Mark [Ruffalo] had to act off himself. A guy I went to grad school with, Gabe Fazio, gained weight, did all the stuff to create the other brother. Did you have somebody?

ALI: I did. I had a gentleman by the name of Shane Dean. I got to read with him via Zoom before we started filming. His essence felt right. It felt like a match where I was working off a version of myself. Rhythm, spirit and tone.

COOPER: So you’re doing scenes with Shane Dean?

ALI: Yeah. We’re doing scenes and then basically switching. It is challenging in the beginning, but it begins to wake up and understand that I’ve just got to switch. And you don’t over-question it, and you jump in. In essence, you’re playing two characters, but if you just committed to playing the one you’re playing in the moment, then you’re always only playing one character.

COOPER: I remember this guy in our business was like, “Hey, I saw ‘War Dogs.’ Best thing you’ve ever done.” I was like, “Oh, really? OK.” So I’ll try not to say that. But I was broken by what you did. Man, you’re so good, dude.

ALI: Thank you.

COOPER: And I never once, not for a second, Cameron and Jack … It was clearly two different characters to me. You swept me up into the reality of that illusionary tale. Whatever work you had done, it all paid off, because it was just so clear. The trickery went away instantly.

ALI: They had been working on it for a year and a half or two years before I came on. And then there was another year of work once I came on it, and then we started filming.

COOPER: So you worked for a year straight? Had you had that kind of time before to prep like that?

ALI: No.

COOPER: Isn’t that a complete game changer? It’s the only way to do it.

ALI: 100%. If you can. As an actor, it’s very challenging to watch a film and just purely enjoy the story. There are other things. For me, I think about the things that I choose to sign up for.

Eventually there may be a point where you begin to get offers; you may start auditioning less. Then you get to a place where you’ve been for some time, where you’re not auditioning anymore. They’re making offers or pitching you on things. When I was watching “Nightmare Alley,” I was just thinking about how difficult of a role it is, and the places that you have to go to bring that character to life, and the place that you have to live in for that time.

COOPER: This was a rough one. Last time I auditioned was “Paradise Lost.” I put myself on tape with my buddy Wes to play Satan, and we were going to do it. This was 2012, I think. And I got the role. I was so happy. It wound up not coming together. Just recently, I thought maybe after “Maestro” I’d want to try to write and direct a version of “Paradise Lost.” Adapted from Milton’s poem.

But I would audition tomorrow for something. Whatever the director needs to make the decision. I’m in a position, or I put myself into a position starting after “American Sniper,” where [I was] trying to create my own content. With “American Sniper,” I got the book and I put the work in, asked Clint Eastwood to direct it; we spent the time and got the script right and took it from the beginning of an idea all the way to the end. “A Star Is Born” even more so — actually writing it from just an idea or a feeling of wanting to do something with music, and maybe I’ve always wanted to be a musician. And I wanted to tell a love story, and I wanted there to be singing. A lot of that was because the directors I admired weren’t hiring me and because they have already made a decision in their mind whether you’re right or not for something. So once you pass that audition point, but then you become like, “Oh, I know Mahershala.” Do you know what I mean?

ALI: That can get very narrow.

COOPER: “Nightmare Alley” was an interesting example of how insecure I am. I was like, “Oh, I guess I still am the guy that wants to be in the group,” because I had no intention of acting in anything other than I’ve been writing. Leonardo DiCaprio fell out, and Guillermo del Toro came to me. I still remember thinking, “Oh wow, the guys that don’t hire me, they want to hire me?” And then it was like, “Of course I have to do it just because I’ve never been allowed into that group.” It was insecurity and ego. Thankfully, it wound up being an incredible experience. And that was very interesting to me to play a character, Stanton Carlisle, who has clearly been traumatized as a kid, has no parental foundation, has no foundation for love, intimacy, real connection, and he just is surviving off of a gratification and a desperate need to find out who he is.

ALI: How do you wrestle with the character that has a deep emptiness and still bring some degree of hope to it along the journey?

COOPER: I don’t really think about it other than, what’s the story? What’s the investigation? If I do the work in prep, which I did do for Stanton, which really means what’s the voice? To me, it’s always about the voice. The voice is everything.

And in this movie, a lot of things happened on the day. It felt like Stanton taught Guillermo and I about where this exploration into humanity could go. It was terrifying for both Guillermo and myself because of that; it was really going into the unknowing. The whole movie leads towards the end, where finally someone tells him who he is.

ALI: Tell me about “Maestro” a bit.

COOPER: I wanted to be a conductor since I was a kid. I was obsessed with it, asked Santa Claus for a baton when I was 8. Listening to music, falling in love with it and being able to really know every single moment of a piece, like Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 in D major, this violin concerto. I could do it as if I know everything about it without really being able to speak the language, obviously.

I always knew that Steven Spielberg knew that I had this obsession with conducting. He had this biopic idea and was talking to me about potentially acting in it. But I had just been working on “A Star Is Born.” And I said, “Listen, all I want to do is write and direct movies. I always felt like I could play a conductor, but may I research the material and see if I can write it and direct it? Would you let me do that?” Steven has a lot of interests — he’ll just choose one thing and all of the other things will be on hold. I think he knew he wasn’t going to make that movie for a while. He was kind enough to hand it off to me, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four and a half years, and we start shooting in May.

I want people to see this movie, Mahershala, “Swan Song.”

ALI: Well, me too.

COOPER: People need to see this movie for the content and for what you do. I find that there’s two different types of actors. There’s an actor that has already made all the decisions. I’m not that guy.

ALI: Me either. Because I have to discover. I’m a big hip-hop head; I know you love hip-hop. I remember you listening to the Tyler, the Creator album when we were working on “Place Beyond the Pines.” It’s freestyle. It’s the energy to just go out there and go with the flow, do it off the top of your head. I always want to be clear on my lines, but I’m really giving it a bit of thought, but I want to leave space to be informed about what needs to happen.

I’m always surprised by how much energy I have for the work when I’m really just advocating for the character and in service to the story. We could do a 20-hour day if I’m doing it from the right place. When it’s about other stuff, I find I get tired quicker and I have to check in with myself and go, “Do you know what you’re trying to accomplish in this scene?” I don’t have it all worked out.

I have a sense that you have a love for discipline. Meaning structure. It’s just my sense from watching you. What is your relationship to discipline?

COOPER: Love equals discipline. If I love something, I can have the discipline. I have a crazy work ethic. That is definitely true. So much so that the jobs that I have taken in the last five or six years, the people that I’ve worked with, I have said, “I work really hard, and this isn’t going to be easy.” And it’s because I love it so much.

The thing that I just cannot live with myself is if I didn’t use that time to work as hard as I could to get it to the best place it could be. I grew up with this idea that we do what we do for a living; I dreamt it. I don’t know if I ever dreamt this big. I don’t even know if I allowed myself to. Shame on me if I don’t work hard, and I’m here now. I’m not going to squander this. No way, man. No way. It all comes from love.