WILLIAMSTOWN -- Actor Bradley Cooper is no stranger to Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man." His relationship with the play goes back to his formidable years as a child, when he first saw the character of John Merrick in David Lynch's movie of the same title.
"I didn't even know there was a play [when I was younger], because growing up, my father showed me David Lynch's movie, which he made in 1980 with Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt," he said Tuesday, during an interview at the Williams Inn. "It's roughly based on the play, which is based on Joseph Merrick's life. One of the reasons I became an actor was because of that movie. That character was always sort of imprinted on myself forever."
Cooper -- who will star as John Merrick (as the character is named in the play) in the Willamstown Theatre Festival's production of "The Elephant Man" later this month -- wouldn't learn of the play until he was in pursuing his MFA in acting at the Actors Studio Drama School at The New School in New York City.
"I had sort of a tough time getting it passed as my thesis, but they finally allowed me to do it and it was a wonderful experience," he said.
That experience never left him and he's been seeking the right people and venue to bring the production to ever since.
"I think when I first met Patty [Patricia Clarkson] three years ago, one of the first things I said to her was that she would make a wonderful Mrs. Kendal," Cooper
"I think it was," Clarkson said, laughing at the statement. "It went something like that."
Clarkson, who last appeared at the festival in the 1996 production of "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," will star as Mrs. Kendal, Merrick's love interest.
"It's a chance for me to do a beautiful and indelible role that I think has been done beautifully in the past and I have a lot to live up to with the extraordinary women who have played this part," she said. "I like that challenge of finding my own Mrs. Kendal and bringing myself into it. I haven't exactly done a part like this."
Fellow festival alumnus Alessandro Nivola, who appeared in the 1998 production of "As You Like It," plays Frederick Trevas, the doctor who studies Merrick's physical deformities.
"I thought Williamstown would be a wonderful place to do ['The Elephant Man']," Cooper said. "Then I had a wonderful experience with [Director] Scott Ellis, doing ‘The Understudy,' here [in 2008]. I think I mentioned it before even doing ‘The Understudy.' Scott was one of the only ones that didn't laugh."
Ellis, who is in his ninth season with the festival, said he immediately agreed to do the production with Cooper, but he "never really thought it would happen" because of scheduling conflicts.
While the idea of Cooper playing the role of physically deformed Merrick may seem absurd, it's not a stretch for the actor, even though he was named "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine last year. (The part of Merrick is played without prosthetics or makeup per direction of the playwright.)
"Outside of that, it's not something that I've grown up with. It's not something I've ever had to navigate through. There's no context for me," he said of the title bestowed by the magazine. "My feeling with Merrick is the physical affliction is a massive undertaking. A very interesting thing to do as an actor is to study his physical malady -- which is myriad -- and just study how he would go about his day."
Cooper added, "The thing I love most about him is just how much he wanted to belong and be a part of[society]. That's something very much I can relate to in my life. I don't want to say it's easy to play Merrick, but there's a natural affinity and connection that I feel to him and who I think he was. It's a very natural connection, a very visceral feeling I have towards this man who lived in the late 1800s."
"The Elephant Man" will open on the Nikos Stage on July 26 and run through Aug. 5. Tickets for the performance are sold out. However, Artistic Director Jenny Gersten said Tuesday that opportunities such as ticket lotteries and day-of-show tickets will be announced in the coming weeks.
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