In The Words, the Sundance film that sold to CBS Films last weekend for $2 million and officially premiered Friday night in Park City, Bradley Cooper plays Rory Jansen, a struggling New York novelist whose manuscript is politely turned down by a literary agent. He is devastated by the sudden realization that he’s not destined for literary greatness, and he can no longer keep his suffocating fears of unmet expectations from his ever-supportive wife (Zoe Saldana). “I’m not who I thought I was and I’m terrified that I never will be!” he explodes after a disastrous dinner with their wealthy New York friends.

It’s a feeling Cooper admits he can relate to. People‘s reigning Sexiest Man Alive has been a successful actor for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until The Hangover in 2009 that he became an A-list superstar. Prior to that, there were occasional dry spells in between the Aliases and the Wedding Crashers. “For sure, I’ve been creatively stymied at periods and wanted to be a bigger part of the storytelling process,” says Cooper. “I’ve been in certain jobs from the time I’ve been able to make a living as an actor where I’ve been frustrated. But that said, I’ve also had the huge gift of very simple things please me, so I do really find a lot of joy in very little things.”

In The Words, Rory’s pangs of insecurity are magnified by his subsequent discovery of a long-lost manuscript that dwarfs anything he could ever hope to write himself. He can’t help himself, and he spends his nights just re-typing the yellowed manuscript of a tragic post-World War II love story into his computer. “I look at it like he found Mozart, like a piece of music, this unbelievable concerto, and he’s literally playing it on that keyboard,” says first-time director Brian Klugman, Cooper’s longtime friend who co-wrote and co-directed the film with their other childhood classmate, Lee Sternthal. “He just wants to feel what it’s like.”

But one thing leads to another, and a financially desperate Rory eventually submits the found manuscript as his own. It makes him the literary celebrity he always hoped of being. “He kind of falls into it and then deals with the aftermath of what he did,” says Cooper. “It’s not premeditated.”

But just as Rory is being crowned his generation’s Hemingway, on old man appears (Jeremy Irons) with an inconvenient secret to share with the young author. He wrote the novel 60-some years ago, lost it, and never wrote another word.

Told from the perspective of Clay Hammond, another renowned writer played by Dennis Quaid, The Words weaves the tales of the three scarred writers, with Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian) playing a young Irons in flashbacks. Are Rory and the old man’s stories just part of Hammond’s own new novel — also titled The Words — or is his book an admission of some moral splinter that haunts him as well. There’s enough ambiguity to keep audiences arguing about what’s real in the movie and what’s Hammond’s fiction, so much so that the film’s leading men themselves are at odds over whether Rory would do it all over again if given the chance to go back in time and choose: A life of honest mediocrity or splendid success enabled by a fraud.

“I think he would not do it again,” says Cooper quickly. “No way. He’s had to deal with the consequences but if he could take it back, for sure [he would]. ”

Quaid is less sanguine. “A friend of mine has this saying, ‘There’s no perfect crime.’ No matter what you try to do in life, nothing turns out exactly how you hoped it would be in the end. He’d probably screw it all up again. ”

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