Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus

Actor, director and writer Bradley Cooper received Outstanding Performer of the Year at the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday, Feb. 8.

Outstanding Performer of the Year is given to an actor or actress whose performance in a film has exceeded greatness. Cooper received the honor for his role as Leonard Bernstein in Netflix’s 2023 “Maestro,” which he directed and co-wrote as well. 

Cooper was joined on the red carpet with co-star Carey Mulligan, where the Daily Nexus got a chance to speak with him. When asked if his multiple roles in the filmmaking process changed his approach to acting, Cooper replied “It didn’t change it at all. It’s the same approach of doing a role just as an actor.”

“It helps when you write it and you sort of envision the world,” said Cooper. “Your brain gets to utilize those other aspects. So I feel like they feed on each other in a great way and actually fuel the acting.” 

Cooper was joined by “Maestro” co-star Carey Mulligan and SBIFF executive director Roger Durling on the red carpet. (Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus)

Following the red carpet, the stars and audience members made their way into the theater. Santa Barbara Film Festival (SBIFF) Executive Director Roger Durling kicked off the night by welcoming the event moderator Pete Hammond, awards columnist and film critic for Deadline. Hammond took the stage to give a brief introduction to the honoree.

“When you talk about Bradley Cooper, you should also throw in outstanding director, outstanding writer, outstanding producer. He’s done it all in ‘Maestro,’” said Hammond. 

“Bradley Cooper has made the 21st century his creative playground, making him appropriately ‘outstanding performer,’ but the real deal is a filmmaker,” he continued. “There is inevitably much, much more to come for Bradley Cooper.”

Hammond’s foreword was paired with a montage of Cooper’s 25-year-long genre-spanning career, featuring clips from “The Hangover,”  “American Hustle” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The montage was set to music from the Oscar Peterson Trio, with music inspired by Leonard Bernstein. When the sequence ended, Cooper ran onto the stage while waving to the crowd. He was met with roars of applause from the audience. 

“All right, they like you. They really like you,” said Hammond.

The conversation started off with Cooper discussing the appropriate energy and atmosphere captured by the film compilation. “I love how unorthodox it is. It was very Leonard Bernstein,” commented Cooper on the highlight reel. 

He continued to discuss the unorthodox structure of “Maestro,” which was done through the inclusion of Bernstein’s music. “We really wanted to make a movie that was scored to Leonard Bernstein’s music, in a way that we could expose people to the breadth of what he was able to give to us,” said Cooper.

The energy was high in Arlington Theatre, with both those on stage and in the audience engaging in the playful nature of the evening. Hammond pulled out a printed 39-page Wikipedia article of the list of the awards and nominations received by Cooper, from Golden Raspberries to Golden Globes. Amidst the laughs elicited from this gag, Hammond still managed to speak to the powerhouse of Cooper’s career. “All of this is testament to what you’ve [Cooper] done here,” said Hammond.         

Hammond guided Cooper through his vast career, starting with the 25th anniversary of his first job: “Sex and the City” in 1999. Cooper had a minor role in the second season of the show as “Jake the downtown smoker.”

“Is that hard to believe?” Hammond asked about the anniversary of his first job.

“Yeah, I’m getting older!” Cooper said, followed by laughter from the audience and himself. 

He continued to tell the story of his brief time on “Sex and the City.” “I auditioned for them. At that time, I didn’t really realize that you could ever get the job.”

“I remember when I got the call to do it, I was terrified. What do you mean I have to do it?”

It’s clear that Cooper has come a long way since being “Jake the downtown smoker.” When asked if he always wanted to be an actor, he immediately replied “Always, since I was like 11.”

“I always knew I wanted to do it, but I was terrified, I was very shy. But I always knew I wanted to do it.”

Despite his multiple accolades and achievements, Cooper constantly expressed gratitude and humility. He took time to acknowledge the discussion moderator, interrupting his own tribute to include praise for Hammond. “I met Pete so many years ago and he is one of the nicest human beings in the business.”

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Cooper’s vast filmography was a common theme throughout the discussion. He discussed his comedic origins exemplified by his role as Phil in “The Hangover,” which went on to become one of the highest-grossing R-rated comedies in the U.S. 

“We didn’t know what we were making and weren’t even sure if it was a comedy,” Cooper said. “We were staying at Caesars Palace in Vegas. I had tiger claws on my neck and no one even looked at us.”

When asked if he could consider a fourth “Hangover” movie, Cooper answered with an immediate nod. “I would do it in a heartbeat.”

Director David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” marked a shift in Cooper’s career, as Russell was his first inspiration to go into directing. 

“[O. Russell] really believed in me as a storyteller. He really took me under his wing, and I went to film school with him for that movie [‘Silver Linings Playbook’] and ‘American Hustle,’” Cooper said. “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to even think I was capable of directing a movie if I hadn’t had the experience of working with David O. Russell.”

Hammond drew comparisons of Cooper’s career to Clint Eastwood’s, who directed him in “American Sniper” (2014). The two’s careers have followed similar paths: both actors and directors, switching between on-screen and behind-the-scenes work. 

The pair then discussed Cooper’s experience taking on dual roles in filmmaking, often directing himself in his movies. “I really do love being in the field as an actor/director. It’s what’s intoxicating about it.”

Cooper’s first venture into being an actor/director was 2018’s “A Star is Born.” Starring alongside Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born” went on to prove Cooper as a force to be reckoned with — actor, writer, producer, singer-songwriter and most notably, director.

During the interview, it was revealed that Cooper considered Beyoncé and Adele for his co-stars, before deciding on Lady Gaga. 

“She is just a force of nature,” Cooper said about Gaga, praising her performance and starpower.

Cooper also looked back on his Academy Awards performance with Gaga in 2019. “I had no desire to sing live on network television. But I knew if I didn’t sing and she was up there singing ‘Shallow’ with someone else, they would be like ‘well that guy obviously can’t sing because he’s not doing it.’ But it was awesome.” 

The final conversation topic was Cooper’s most recent film, along with the project he was being honored for, “Maestro.” Hammond welcomed Cooper’s co-star, actress Carey Mulligan, on-stage to talk about the film.

Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus

“I am having the loveliest evening,” Mulligan said upon reaching the podium. She then turned to Cooper. “It makes me want to watch all your films again.” 

“What might be too easily taken for granted is your [Cooper’s] innate gift as an actor,” Mulligan said when speaking about Cooper’s talents on-set. “I don’t think acting is a 10,000 hour skill. I don’t think you can prep or practice, that’s something else.”

“Those impressions that you leave on people is just talent. That’s just God-given talent, aside from anything else,” Mulligan continued. “Having an evening to honor that is just so incredible.”

After Mulligan’s speech, Hammond steered the conversation to the Bernstein family’s support of “Maestro.” 

On working with Leonard Bernstein’s family, Cooper said “They’re tough cookies. They don’t pull any punches at all. They’re like what I assume their father was like, their mother too.”

Cooper thought back to showing Bernstein’s family the final cut of the film, and the movie nature of their emotional reaction. “We’re all hugging in the exact same position as the film. I felt like I was him [Bernstein]. Lenny felt like he was with us the whole movie.”

“When this came around, it almost felt like I was supposed to do this,” Cooper said. “That’s what these projects start to feel like. If I’m calm and open, they’ll tell me what I’m supposed to do.” 

Hammond then welcomed actor Brad Pitt on-stage as a surprise guest. Pitt and Cooper have been longtime friends, both being esteemed figures in the industry.

Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus

Upon taking the podium, Pitt said, “The first time I saw Bradley, I said to myself, ‘one day I’m going to milk this guy for a free trip to Santa Barbara.’” The crowd laughed in response.

Pitt praised his friend’s illustrious career, focusing on Cooper’s success as a director.

“I’m not going to say I know for certain what’s at the heart of Bradley’s brilliance, but I am going to take a stab at it,” Pitt said. “It’s his verve and his veracious love for this little thing we call the human experience.”

Pitt ended his speech by commenting on Cooper’s multiple Academy Awards nominations. “I do hope that this is his year [to win], because it’s well overdue.”

The two friends shared a hug and a kiss on the cheek as Pitt presented Cooper with the award. 

Cooper began his acceptance speech by sincerely thanking those who spoke at the event and all those who have supported him in his journey, continuing to express genuine humility. 

“People made movies, I watched them, they changed me, inspired me, kept me alive,” Cooper said. “Now that I get to do these things, the thing I benefit from is the doing.” 

Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus

“Seeing these projects that I’ve been a part of, these memories, magical made up stories, it’s such a privilege. I can’t believe I get to do it. In life, I’ve been so privileged, so blessed,” Cooper said.

He ended his speech by reminiscing on his childhood. “I never thought that this kid in Rydal, Pennsylvania, who was terrified at his fifth grade presentation, would be here doing a retrospective of his work. It’s just absolutely incredible.”

“It’s only the result of me being so blessed to be with people. And I could list 50 of them right now who believed in me and gave me a chance,” Cooper said. “So let’s do that for other people.”

The crowd cheered as the honoree exited off the stage, marking the end of a night full of inspiration, laughter and gratitude.

This appeared in the Feb. 15th Daily Nexus printed edition