Bradley Cooper was warned. Friends discouraged the American Sniper star from choosing A Star Is Born as his directorial debut. Aside from it being one of a handful of takes on the tragic romance, the project had stalled for years in Hollywood. “I had a lot of people tell me, ‘Please don’t do this’ — people I respect and who care about me,” says Cooper, 43, on a hot afternoon in the Hollywood Hills. “I just knew this could be the end of everything if it doesn’t work. It’s like, ‘Who’s this guy making the fourth [version] of this movie? Shut up already.’ But I still could not deny what I felt deep down, and that’s why it was this movie. It sort of ignited something in me.”
Cooper’s Born charts the tumultuous relationship between alcoholic rock star Jackson Maine and burgeoning singer-songwriter Ally, played by pop icon Lady Gaga, 32. As Jackson falls deeper into addiction, Ally blazes a path toward superstardom. Cooper, who also co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, has reshaped the story into an exhilarating, emotional rock epic with a stirring original score, a career-best performance from the actor, and — yes — a career-redefining role for Gaga, who won an acting Golden Globe in 2016 for her performance on American Horror Story: Hotel. The film, which opens Oct. 5, has already generated awards talk for its two leads, and the pair’s electricity on and off screen is undeniable.
EW sat down with Cooper and Gaga to talk about rebooting this classic tale, their friendship, and the day Barbra Streisand came to set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Bradley, you were attached to star in this early on with Clint Eastwood directing, right?
BRADLEY COOPER: No, never. I wasn’t going to do it, no. I was too young. I always thought I didn’t have enough experience to play this guy. But that was when I first became aware of the project and first met [Clint] actually. He was thinking about doing it and we were talking about it. I was 38 at the time, I’m 43 now, and I just thought, “I don’t know if I could buy me like that.” And then life happens and we wound up doing American Sniper together, which aged me. And then a year of doing The Elephant Man aged me. And I thought, “You know what? I think I’m ready.” Honestly.
What was it about this particular story that connected with you for it to be your directorial debut?
COOPER: I always knew, goddamn it, I’m gonna have to at some point put it out there, directorial debut. And then I was like, when am I gonna have the guts to do it? And I also knew I could only direct something that I had a point of view about. And I always wanted to tell a love story. I thought, there’s nothing better for me cinematically to able to tell a love story, like a real love story, a broken love story.
It really was a culmination of a lot of moments. I, at that time, had become friends with a couple of musicians, and I was at a concert with one of my friends, and he’s a drummer. I was backstage and I saw the crowd from that point of view. And I thought, “That’s a great perspective that I really hadn’t seen in movies.” You’re usually in the audience.
I love Clint Eastwood, and I look up to him so much. And I always had in my mind, “Well, he was 41 when he made Play Misty For Me.” So I always thought when I get around that age then I gotta just do it.
And I had a dream — I know this sounds crazy — where I saw the first 10 minutes of the movie. So I had this whole opening that I never even shot. But that was the inspiration, and that’s what I pitched to Warner Brothers. I was like, “Here’s the movie.” And I walked them through the whole thing.
Gaga, what drew you to this?
LADY GAGA: This guy right here. I mean, when I heard that Bradley was attached to A Star Is Born and that he would not only be starring in it but that he would be directing it, I was so excited because I was already such a huge fan of him as a brilliant actor. I just knew that whatever he was gonna do was gonna be an explosion of his talent. I couldn’t believe that he wanted me to be the girl.
Did you know each other before you started working on A Star Is Born?
COOPER: No. We had a passing-by a couple years earlier at Saturday Night Live.
GAGA: We laugh about it when we see pictures of each other where we’re, like, two feet from each other but not talking.
COOPER: It’s just so funny how life works. It’s like, “So in five years you guys will be inseparably close.”
Gaga, did you have to audition to play Ally?
GAGA: I did. I tested for the film.
COOPER: We shot 10 pages in one day at her house. We were moving like lightning and she completely gave herself to the process. And not everybody can do that — 10 pages in eight hours.
GAGA: We sat down at the piano at my house and I heard him sing, and I remember I stopped playing. I was like, “Oh my gosh, Bradley, you can sing.” And then we kept going. Before we knew it, we were harmonizing. And he filmed us doing it. We have a tape of the first time we ever sang together.
COOPER: It’s on my phone. When I look at it now I’m like, “Oh my God. How could she say yes? I’m not that good.”
Did you have immediate chemistry?
COOPER: From the moment [we met].
GAGA: It’s one of those things. And I think also we’re both from the East Coast.
COOPER: We both have an Italian upbringing. Our families are very similar.
GAGA: Before I knew it, I was making him spaghetti and meatballs. It felt right. I was really kind of willing to do anything to show the studio and to show him that I had what it took to play this role.
COOPER: She didn’t have to show me. We made this sort of decision that first time at her house that we wanted to do the movie together. And we shook hands on it, and then it was just about “Okay, here we go,” and started a long journey. She knows everything about me — everything. There is not one thing she doesn’t know, and I believe the same for me.
Gaga, this role was pivotal in the careers of Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Janet Gaynor. Did you take it thinking this could be a game-changer for your career?
GAGA: No. Not because I didn’t have faith that it would be a blockbuster huge film, but just because I don’t think about projects in that way. I don’t go into it going like, “I’m gonna do this because this is gonna change my whole career.” I went into it because I really believed in the story, and I really believed in the way he wanted to tell it.
Gaga, did you put Bradley through rock-star boot camp in order for him to play Jackson?
GAGA: I wouldn’t say that I put him through it — I would say that he did the work. He was in the studio with us all the time and without me a lot of times. [Born‘s music collaborators include producer Mark Ronson, singer Jason Isbell, and Willie Nelson’s son Lukas.] What I wanted for him more than anything was for him to discover that he already was a musician and that it just had to come out of him.
COOPER: I grew up loving music. I also always felt like I had, like, six characters in me and one of them is a musician. I loved to sing privately. I thought, “One day I could maybe pull that off.” It really was the confidence she had in me that I would just find it.
Bradley, did you look at specific rock stars as inspiration?
COOPER: Anything that any artist does, I believe, is inspired by something they’ve seen, because that’s something that we do. We look at the world, we soak it up, and then we create and say something that we want to say because of it. Everybody from Tom Waits to Mozart has inspired Jackson Maine.
GAGA: I’ll never forget the first time I heard him sing Jason Isbell’s song, “Maybe It’s Time.” [The song that opens Born’s trailer.] I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” The soul behind it. He told the story. There are so many famous musicians in the world that when they sing, I don’t know what they’re trying to tell me. He has the ability to do that. I think my favorite part is that within the first 15 seconds into the film, I’m like, this is a musician.
Bradley, where did Jackson’s voice come from? It’s a raspy almost-growl.
COOPER: I knew I wanted to lower my speaking voice an octave. So I hired [dialect coach] Tim Monich early on — I mean, like, a year before we shot the movie. He moved to L.A. and we worked five days a week, four hours a day on exercises and lowering my voice. It was brutal, and it took months and months and months. The person that I used was Sam Elliott [who plays Jackson’s brother, Bobby] because I didn’t want [Jackson] to be only a country musician and I didn’t want him to have an accent. Sam grew up in California and his mother is from Texas, so it’s kind of this great hybrid voice.
While Bradley had to summon his rock swagger, Gaga, you had to strip all that away to perform as someone not used to the spotlight. How did you begin to play that?
GAGA: First of all, it was a makeup wipe handed to me by Bradley, to take all the makeup off my face. So we did that. To dye my hair back to my original color, which is this sort of mousy brown that Ally has in the film. To be honest, I really felt afraid to take the stage with Jackson Maine because I was also going on with Bradley Cooper. At the time, I was always very aware that I was in the midst of a tremendously talented human being.
I was able to play off of not only memories of what it felt like to be nervous to go on stage, but I also just had it right there. I was standing on the side of the stage during that moment in “Shallow.” [The song from Born’s trailer when the pair first sing on stage together.] I was watching him rip, roar on the guitar and sing. I really felt nervous. I really felt afraid. It really just took me back to that place. It was just so real the way that it was all set up that it was easy.
The camera is also right up in your face during this intense performance scene. That must have been overwhelming.
GAGA: Well, I had to really just stay hand in hand with him, eye to eye with him, side by side. I had to really stay focused and trust him. That was the biggest thing, the trust.
Tell me about the creation of the music and the soundtrack for this movie.
COOPER: It was an evolution, like the story. It went hand in hand. We knew the story we wanted to tell and then the music really became a character in the movie. There is no lyric that’s ever in any point of the movie that doesn’t have exactly to do with where one of them is, or hopes to be, or regrets being. That was our launching pad and then it was just about discovering what songs fit in the right places. We had wonderful songwriters that helped us and it was just an exploration. That’s the only way I know how to do it: You have to go to work every day with the people that you want to work with and try to create something.
GAGA: There were so many songs too, there was so much work that was created, so many different incarnations of each song. We were writing songs during the filming.
You all shot at actual festivals like Glastonbury, Stagecoach, and Coachella. Gaga, you headlined Coachella while simultaneously filming A Star Is Born.
COOPER: She shot, headlined, and then shot.
GAGA: Bradley was like, “How are you going to do this?” I was like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Ally is going to play Coachella.” When I actually look back at Coachella, it’s more Ally to me.
COOPER: The truth is, we made this movie for a very small budget considering what it was, and her doing that allowed us to have the week in between Coachella. [The grounds] were still up so we had the run of the entire place, all the stages for five days. It was the first stuff we shot. That was amazing because that was the first time I sang on stage with her. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.
GAGA: It was so easy. And it was live. I was so excited that he wanted to do all of the music live and record our voices live. It’s my least favorite thing when I’m watching a movie that has music in it when someone starts to sing and they’re lip syncing.
COOPER: Stagecoach was shot in eight minutes between Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson, and Glastonbury was f—ing insane. That was in front of 80,000 people. Kris Kristofferson was kind enough to give us four minutes of his set. I sang, played the guitar solo, and then I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Kris Kristofferson.”
Did he and his A Star Is Born costar Barbra Streisand ever come to the set?
COOPER: He came the day that we shot at the Chateau Marmont and he stayed for five hours with his wife.
GAGA: I just burst into tears when I saw him. Barbra came to the set and she watched some of the film.
COOPER: She gave us a blessing. Everybody was so excited she was there. We just looked at each other and were like, “Wow. How are we here right now?”
You guys also shot on the Saturday Night Live stages. How did you get that access?
COOPER: Yeah, that was not easy. I just never wanted to do a montage of her rise. I didn’t want a montage in the movie like that, and I thought, how can we show the rise, and Saturday Night Live is the only place you can go when someone has arrived to a new spot. There is nothing else. I hosted that show in 2008, way before The Hangover because somebody dropped out and I knew a bunch of the people in the cast. I got to know [creator Lorne Michaels] then, and I fell in love with him. He’s one of the great people.
We had lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel and I said, “Don’t make me recreate it in L.A.” He was kind enough and he said yeah. So we used all the crew. She performed as Ally on that stage.
GAGA: We used their cameras too. We did the whole thing.
Ally is very close with her father, played by Andrew Dice Clay. Gaga, I know you are similarly close with your dad — is that something you brought to the script?
COOPER: That was always in the script, but [she] was so kind. When Eric and I started writing the script we asked her about her life and stories. Then we recorded everything. Then Eric [Roth] and I would take that.
Dave Chappelle has a small dramatic role in the film as one of Jackson’s old friends. How did that come about?
COOPER: Richard Pryor is my hero, and I’ve always been obsessed with standup comedy since I was a kid, but I really idolized him and studied him as an actor. I think he’s one of the great actors, and there is something that when you get up on stage in front of people eight times a week for years, and years, and years, there is a level of authenticity that you just bring. I always thought standup comedians could be the best actors. Dave Chappelle is somebody I find magical. I was doing a play in London and he came and we hung out all night. I spent two years trying to get him [for the film].
There’s a truly stunning moment with Ally singing a beautiful ballad at the Shrine in Los Angeles. Tell me a little about shooting that.
GAGA: My very, very, very dear friend Sonja died of cancer that day. We were supposed to shoot in, like, 30 minutes, and I left the set because her husband called me and I could hear her in the background and I just got in the car and drove. I missed her by 15 minutes and she died. I literally laid with her, with her husband, and their dog, and his son…. When I came back, Bradley was so gentle with me and we got through it. I performed the song. He was like, “You don’t have to do it again. It’s okay.” All I wanted to do was sing. I’ll never forget that day. It was really a special scene, and I’ll always remember that moment.
This movie is a love story, but it’s also a powerful portrait of a man struggling with addiction and depression, subjects that are very timely at this moment. What do you hope people take away from it?
COOPER: I mean, ultimately, it would be wonderful if it could impart some understanding of the human plight. I know that’s why I wanted to tell this story, so I could even help understand it myself. Also, to recognize that trauma is real, and traumatic events that occur especially early in life, if they’re not dealt with and aided, will have ramifications that go on and on and on and on and on.
GAGA: That they’re real and that it’s an invisible illness to many people. I’m so grateful to have been a part of this film, you know, for that reason, and Bradley’s choice to do it in the way that he did it in the film, I feel that it paints a very, very compassionate lens.
Ally has a speech where she talks about how people in the industry have pushed her to get a nose job. Gaga, have you ever faced that kind of scrutiny and judgment in your career?
GAGA: Oh, yeah. I mean, when I wrote my earliest hits, people were trying to take my songs and give them to other people. I was, like, clutching to them for dear life, thinking, “I finally wrote a hit. I can’t give it away.” I was not the prettiest girl in the room. I was a little weird, and I liked being weird. I didn’t like to be sexual in a way that other pop stars or pop groups were. I was my own thing. It’s heartbreaking, because you feel like “Why am I not enough?”
You’ve also been very honest about your struggles with chronic pain and fibromyalgia. How was it during production?
GAGA: It was up and down, but you know what? I have an incredible director and friend and lead actor, and I had him by my side the whole time and we did it.
Gaga, do you remember when you first saw the finished film?
GAGA: Well, he was so kind. He flew to where I was and he played it for me and some friends of mine. I just remember that from the very first frame, I just burst into tears. I literally cried watching the whole movie. I had to watch the film several times before I could watch it as an audience member, if that makes any sense.
Bradley, you’ve been working on this for three years. Are you now able to let go of it?
COOPER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Believe me. I didn’t let go of it until I felt like, “Okay, that was it. I remember the last time I saw it. We were coloring it for months, and I brought two of my friends in. When the movie ended, I went, “That’s it.” I knew it was over.
Someone asked me the other day, “Are you terrified? Nervous?” The truth is, I’m not. I would’ve been terrified if it wasn’t the movie I wanted to make, or I felt like I had left something on the field. We haven’t left anything on the field. I mean, it’s all there. Whether it works or not … I mean, look, talk to me if it’s a bomb and see how I feel. But I can really say that I’ll take the heat or whatever it is, because it’s the movie I wanted to make.
Is this the start of a new ongoing creative collaboration, like Tracy and Hepburn?
COOPER: That would be amazing.
GAGA: If I’m lucky enough.