Bradley Cooper
Rex Features

Most people would agree that Bradley Cooper is a handsome man. But David O. Russell did not cast The Hangover star in the lead of his new movie Silver Linings Playbook for his looks. Instead, the acclaimed director of Flirting with Disaster and The Fighter says he saw a darkness inside Cooper which he could tap.

“He had an intensity and an anger that I found personally a little intimidating, and I told him that when I first met him,” Russell says during an impromptu press conference at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “And that was a really good thing. It was a scary quality that made me think he could play the role, because there’s something scary about that. He isn’t just the affable, grounded guy from The Hangover. And the more I got to know him, the more I saw that he had all these colours and dimensions, perceptiveness, vulnerability as a person that I was excited to put into the movie.”

Silver Linings Playbook stars Cooper as Pat Solitano, a former school teacher newly released from a mental institution after beating his wife’s lover nearly to death. Despite losing his career, home and wife, Pat is determined to stay positive and rebuild his life and marriage. To that end he moves back in with his beleaguered parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), starts working out in a bid to attract his ex, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games), a young widow dealing with her own mental health issues in the wake of her cop husband’s death.

Casting the Tiffany role, Russell says, was not easy. But a last-minute audition tape the now 22-year-old Lawrence made in her father’s study convinced the director that she was the right actress for the role, despite her youth in relation to her 37-year-old co-star Cooper.

“None of us really thought she was right for it, but we didn’t really know who she was!” Russell says. “She can seem 45 or she can seem 25, and you keep forgetting that when you’re talking to her. And that’s a very interesting quality.”

The movie, for which Russell also wrote the screenplay, is based on the 2008 best-seller by author Matthew Quick. Producer Harvey Weinstein originally optioned the book for director Sidney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa) who showed it to Russell before his death that same year. Russell found himself drawn to the “very specific world and neighbourhood” of the book, which is set in Cooper’s hometown of Philadelphia.

“It was about people that I really related to,” Russell says. “They were very emotional people. They were very intense and they were extremely raw. They said things; what they were feeling. It wasn’t clean; it was messy. And both of these characters wear their emotions on their sleeves, and they tell the truth – whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, whether it’s going to make them look good or not.”

Quick’s book, Russell acknowledges is “much more extreme” than his film, with Cooper’s character having been hospitalized for four years, not the mere eight months depicted in the movie. Russell says he decided to tone down certain aspects of the book in order for it to more readily fit with his own personal experiences with mental illness.

“I didn’t know somebody who had been away for four years,” he says. “I knew people who had been hospitalized for a couple of months, a week... They went off their medication; they were totally together, functioning professionals, working in very high-level ways; parents, with children and families. They went off their medication and they were in the hospital for a weekend.”

Making those changes, Russell says, was all in service to keeping the film as believable as possible.

“What I love most about that is how real it is, and the creation of a world, so you feel like you’re a voyeur in someone’s world. And that was very important to me, to create a home and a block and a neighbourhood and a feeling that she’s [Tiffany] a couple blocks away but they know each other. So that’s very important, and that everybody feel real and authentic. Y’know, Robert De Niro, Bradley, Jennifer, Jacki... Everybody had to feel real.”

“And if you were going to tap into a truth, you’re gonna bring everything that you have lived since you were born,” adds Cooper. “And that’s the real s**t that I think David’s talking about, like creating this real world.

“And he has this ability, this unique ability, as a director to get people to go to their core instantaneously. We shot this in 34 days. There’s no time to bulls**t. It’s like ‘we gotta get there now.’ And when you get six people in a room with a very compelling script that has an arc and you get them all to go to that place right away, you’re going to get the feeling that you felt like watching it. And that’s really because of him. He has this ability to get actors out of their own way and allow our lived experiences as human beings to come through in the heart.”