HOLLYWOOD — They say nothing is as hot as a slow-burning fire, and Bradley Cooper’s career had been warming up for a number of years before it turned white-hot last year thanks to his starring role in “The Hangover.”

The film, which opened earlier this month in Japan, was the surprise comedy hit of the summer in North America last year. Cooper plays the debauched ringleader of a group of friends who manage to misplace the groom during a bacchanalian bachelor party in Las Vegas. So how did someone whose Masters’ thesis at the prestigious Actors Studio Drama School at New York University was his performance in the title role of deeply serious drama “The Elephant Man” at the city’s famed Circle in the Square end up in a raunchy summer comedy blockbuster? “Just lucky, I guess,” he deadpans. Born in Philadelphia in 1975 to an Italian mother and an Irish father, Bradley graduated from Georgetown University — where he was a medalist with the men’s heavyweight rowing crew — in 1997, before kindling the sparks of his acting career in New York through his studies at the Actors Studio and appearances on such television programs as “Sex and the City” and “The Beat.”

Cooper continued to fan the flames of career, skipping his graduation ceremony at the Actors Studio to star in his first feature film, 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer.” Recurring roles on the Wall Street TV drama “The Street” and the longer running hit action series “Alias” soon followed. It was a dream come true for Cooper, who said he’d known since the age of 8 that he wanted to be either an actor or a chef.

“I always thought it was kind of magical, combining ingredients and ending up with some result or dish that’s something that has an identity of its own — something that people enjoy eating and will praise you for!”

Like many aspiring thespians, Cooper ended up working in various eateries in his early years, getting a good look behind the scenes of the world of chefs and restaurateurs. Such experiences served him well in 2005 when he starred as a bad-boy chef in his own short-lived TV situation comedy, “Kitchen Confidential.”

Many actors have opened their own restaurants; might he do so someday? “It’s a definite option. Restaurants are very comfortable for me. I know my way around them. I can relate.

“And like anyone who’s a foodie, a gourmet, whatever you want to call it, I have some definite ideas on what I’d serve in my own place. But by the time I get around to it, my ideas might change and we might discover new food facts, pro and con.”

While “Kitchen Confidential” failed to catch on with TV audiences, Cooper continued to work steadily in TV, with guest appearances and recurring roles on several series, including such hits as “Law & Order” and “Nip/Tuck.”

“You can make a good living being on television if you do it often enough,” he explains. “Obviously, you can make a better yet living if you’re a regular on one ongoing TV series. But some people don’t like that sort of grind. Some people think it’s being tied to one project and closing doors to most others.”

Cooper admits he’s lucky to be working in movies now, having paid his dues on the small screen. He’s not done with the stage either, and he still participates in The Expanded Arts Program, which helps inner-city children learn about acting. “It’s not just for kids who want to be actors. It’s also about acting in the sense that it can open up and expand your personality and your self-image.”

“We, all of us, to some extent, act in our daily lives. A lot of what’s called good manners is really acting. And being able to enact different characters and improvise and fit into different acting situations can help young people gain confidence and see themselves and others in different ways.”

So how does his rather crass, frequently foul-mouthed role in “The Hangover” fit in with his nobler theatrical aspirations?

“Well, it’s reality. It’s earning a living. You probably wouldn’t be talking to me if ‘Hangover’ was a flop. Or if it barely broke even. But it was a hit, a surprisingly big hit that has lots of people talking sequel. So I’m not going to say it was a bad career move. The stage is one thing, and movies today are another.”

As a graduate of the Actors Studio, Cooper is serious about his craft and the role that advanced study plays in an actor’s work.

“I think it can give you a better overall understanding. I think it can keep you involved in acting on that student level where you’re still experimenting and unself-conscious and not afraid to make mistakes.

“But, that said, making a movie like ‘The Hangover’ was a lot of fun. The pressure was minimal. ‘Course, we didn’t know it would be such a hit. So, like, if we do a sequel, then there is going to be some pressure — especially on the writers!”

“But if it’s the same team, basically it’s going to be fun, because the experiences of making any given movie have so much to do with who you’re working with.”

“The Hangover” was directed and produced by Todd Phillips, who helmed “Old School.” It was cowritten by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. How does Cooper react to charges that the language in the film is excessively profane?

“A lot of people — or a hell of a lot of people, to put it another way — do talk like that. I know it’s low-brow. So were we aiming at a lowbrow audience? Maybe to some degree the filmmakers were, but that wasn’t communicated to me. We knew it was kind of a . . . like the male equivalent of a chick flick — I mean a movie anyone who’s not a puritan can enjoy, male or female.

“But yeah, it’s pretty outrageous, and not just in language terms.”

One aspect of “Hangover” that’s drawn criticism about racial stereotyping from some quarters is the character of Mr. Chow (played by Ken Jeong). Chow, who has a Chinese surname, could as easily have been Japanese or Korean, and he serves as a typically Hollywood “Oriental” caricature, speaking bizarrely and acting buffoonishly.

“Well, Chow, yes, he’s a character and then some. But he’s not a villain, definitely not a real villain. And the movie does include other stereotypes. Like, uh, the fat guy, and strippers, and the super-aggressive gal with glasses, and even the pretty blonde,” played by Heather Graham, Cooper’s on-screen love interest.

Was it pleasant working with Graham? “Oh, she’s great. I don’t mean just how she looks; she’s really a friendly and a trooper. And I think she makes more of some of her roles than is written into them. She’s very smart and funny, and I think she’s underrated.”

Cooper has said his favorite thespian is British method-acting sensation Daniel Day-Lewis. Why, specifically? “His virtuosity. He gets so really into a part, and he can do almost any kind of role. I really admire a lot of the British actors.”

An avid traveler, Cooper even hosted an episode of “Lonely Planet,”a documentary TV travel series inspired by the eponymous series of popular guidebooks.

“Travel is definitely another way to expand your mind and horizons,” he says. “I’ll always want to travel and see new places, whether they’re around the untraveled corner or far away like Peru, which is an incredible place. Like, we think of the Incas as being this ancient civilization, when in fact they’re the most recent one Peru had before the conquistadors arrived from Europe. I don’t want to be the kind of celebrity who’s so famous or idolized that you can’t go places because crowds follow you everywhere.”

Cooper’s burgeoning fame thanks to “The Hangover” may present exactly that kind of problem for the handsome actor, and his starring role in this summer’s big action blockbuster “The A-Team” (slated for release in Japan next month) will only raise his public profile. Cooper is now an in-demand male lead — at a relatively late age. “Well, I’m not as young as many, or I guess even most actors who are rising stars these days.”

“But I didn’t set out on that deliberate career path. I acted and did things for fun and things I thought would be interesting or maybe expand my personal vistas, which may sound sort of pompous, but I’ve enjoyed this path I’ve taken.”

Possibly less enjoyable was a brief marriage to actress Jennifer Esposito in December, 2006, that lasted less than a year. “It didn’t work out,” is Cooper’s summation of the relationship.

He’s also been linked by the press with Renee Zellweger. “What I didn’t envision was being some sort of celebrity where the outside world keeps tabs on who you’re with, on who you’re seeing or supposedly seeing. What’s that got to do with acting or with success?”

Bradley notes that the star-studded Los Angeles gym he attends (other members include Jodie Foster and Ryan Gosling) is rumored to have a member who informs the tabloids about who’s flirting with whom or departing the gym with whom. “It’s not only an invasion of privacy, it’s plumb dumb. It’s so shallow. Like, really, who cares?”

Another nontopic as far as Cooper’s concerned is his shoe size. “They have all the statistics on you, and I once admitted that when I was about age 10 I had size 12 feet. Now they’re size 14. So? But I’ve seen that referred to in some of the most ridiculous, very speculative ways. It’s pretty silly and embarrassing,” regarding such phallic speculation. “I don’t know what it is about the fact of someone’s appearing on-screen, playing somebody who may be totally unlike himself, that leads the tabloid press and its readers to abandon common sense and go ga-ga over some actor — an actor who’s a person, not a character — that they don’t know at all.

“To me, acting is about portraying someone else written by somebody else. It’s not about exhibitionism. If I’d wanted that, I’d have become a male stripper in Las Vegas or . . . or a naked chef or something!”

Read Giovanni Fazio’s review of “The Hangover” on today’s Film page.

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