Lee Sternthal, left, Bradley Cooper and Brian Klugman at the Lexington… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
When he opened the door to his office, Bradley Cooper could have passed for a grip who'd lost his way around the Warner Bros. lot. His hair — partly covered by a U.S. Open sun visor — had an oily sheen to it. He was wearing baggy red sweat pants and shoes that resembled slippers. He needed to shave.
The Sexiest Man Alive didn't look so hot, and his two childhood friends, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, didn't hesitate to tease him about it.
"Nice outfit, Coop," said Klugman, plopping down on a shabby chic couch.
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"Dude, I'm sick," Cooper, 37, explained, his voice hoarse. "But you look good. You look tan. You been working out?"
The trio's good-natured ribbing dates to Klugman's 1988 bar mitzvah, when the three met and bonded over their love of movies. Now, more than two decades later, comes the Pennsylvania natives' first Hollywood collaboration: "The Words," Klugman and Sternthal's directorial debut starring their famous best friend.
In the film, which opens in theaters Friday, Cooper plays struggling writer Rory, a man whose wife (Zoe Saldana) buys him a vintage valise on their honeymoon in Paris. After he returns home to New York, he finds an old manuscript hidden inside the 1940s briefcase and is so inspired by its story that he decides to pass it off as his own. When the book becomes a bestseller, its actual author — now an old man (Jeremy Irons) — tracks Rory down to confront him.
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"It's romantic, right?" Cooper asked, seeking a reporter's opinion of the film. "I think it's so romantic. It's a good date film."
"The Words" dates to 1999, when Klugman and Sternthal wrote the first draft of the screenplay, later workshopped at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab and then made the Black List in 2005. Still, no financier was willing to invest in a romantic thriller with period elements from two first-time filmmakers. Until Cooper became a movie star, that is.
The blockbuster success of the "The Hangover" in 2009 gave the actor new currency in Hollywood, which he used to help his buddies realize their dream.
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"This is a movie that got made because of our friend," said Klugman, 36. "The sad truth is that without him, this movie doesn't get made."
"There's no shame on our part in saying that," added Sternthal, 37.
The film's release marks a career milestone for the first-time writer-directors. Klugman initially moved to L.A. to pursue acting at age 18 after receiving advice from his uncle, veteran performer Jack Klugman, while Sternthal didn't arrive in Hollywood until age 25, after stints at nine colleges including New York University and Hampshire College.
Though they worked on the first inception of the "Tron: Legacy" screenplay in 2005, their most high-profile moment came when "The Words" premiered at Sundance this past January. (The film got mixed response from festival moviegoers and has since received tepid critical reviews.)
"It felt amazing to be able to help my friends out," Cooper said, before adding, "It wasn't charity. I believe in them."
"The Words" also affords Cooper, a Georgetown University graduate who holds an M.F.A. in acting from the New School, the opportunity to step away from the crass ensemble comedy franchise that made him a star and hold the screen as a leading man.
He began the transition last year with "Limitless," about a man who discovers a drug that allows him to work at a superhuman pace. The film grossed nearly $80 million domestically, and its success, Cooper said, helped him to secure parts in "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "The Silver Linings Playbook," two buzzed-about movies set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
Cooper also is ready to build a career as a producer from his office on the Warner Bros. lot; in March, when the third installment in Todd Phillips' raunchy "Hangover" series was announced, he also landed a two-year deal to produce movies for the studio.
He named the production shingle 22 & Indiana Pictures, for the address where his father — a stock broker for Merrill Lynch who died from cancer last year — grew up. It's a nascent venture. The distressed wood floors that Cooper hand-picked were put down just months ago. His motorcycle helmet is one of the few objects on a bookshelf.
A black-and-white photograph of Cooper looking admiringly at his dad midconversation hangs on the wall, as does a poster of "The Elephant Man," the actor's favorite movie. (He played the title character in a recently concluded New York theatrical production and has aspirations to take the play to Broadway.)
Cooper's serious thespian bent might surprise those who know him only as a good-looking cad from the "Hangover" movies and "Wedding Crashers," but Sternthal and Klugman fondly recall teenage memories of studying Francis Ford Coppola films during sleepovers.