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"Bro, Do You Really Want to Do This Play?": Alessandro Nivola, Bradley Cooper, and The Elephant Man

Cooper and Nivola starred in the initial run of this new production of Bernard Pomerance's play at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012.

Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man, directed by Scott Ellis, at Broadway's Booth Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

"It's like Beatlemania out there," Alessandro Nivola said when I asked him the scene outside the stage door during recent preview performances of the Broadway revival of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre. "I've never seen anything like it." That's a pretty wild response for a historical drama about the life of Joseph Merrick (aka the Elephant Man).

Nivola plays Dr. Frederick Treves, the brilliant English surgeon who discovers Merrick in a freak show and decides to take him on as a patient. Bradley Cooper (Three Days of Rain) stars as Merrick. Both men appeared in the Academy Award-nominated film American Hustle as well as in the 2012 run of The Elephant Man at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

We spoke to Nivola about his work with Cooper and his appearance in last season's Broadway revival of The Winslow Boy. But first, we had to get one order of business out of the way.

Alessandro Nivola stars in the Broadway revival of The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

Tell me about your mustache.
I live in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and everyone there thinks I've grown it as a fashion statement. I've had a number of people say to me, "Oh God…men and their facial hair." But I've done it for purely professional reasons! Bradley and I normally have fairly similar coloring. We don't look alike, but we don't look wildly different. We wanted to create as much contrast as possible. So when we did The Elephant Man at Williamstown, I grew the mustache and darkened my hair. It really sets us apart. He actually shaves his entire body for the role because he wants to be as neutral as possible as the vessel of this character.

As you mentioned, you were in the original run of this production at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012. What drew you to the project?
Like Bradley, I'd seen the film when I was younger and I remembered loving it. When I read the play, I saw that it was completely different from the film. Treves really has an enormous arc. He goes from being supremely confident and successful, verging on arrogant. He ends the play with a nervous breakdown and a complete loss of faith. I was surprised at how dramatic the role was. I spoke to Bradley and he is so passionate about this story. His enthusiasm is infectious. Originally, however, I had to turn the role down.

Really? Why?
I was filming Devil's Knot and there was one scene in that movie that presented such a logistical problem for our rehearsal schedule that I had to turn Treves down. They just couldn't get me out of this one scene. When I turned it down, Bradley called me up and was like, "Bro, do you really want to do this play?" I was like, yeah, so he told me to hold on. A half hour later I got a call from my agent saying it was all sorted out. The film sent me a new script and the scene that was the roadblock was no longer in the script. Instead, they added a line in the scene right before that: I say to Reese Witherspoon, "Honey I'll be right back…"

Alessandro Nivola plays Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

"…I just need to go do The Elephant Man at Williamstown."
Right. I'm literally like, "I'll be right back," and I'm on the next plane to Albany. So the rehearsal process up there was crazy. I flew back and forth between Williamstown and Atlanta three times over three weeks. There was no time. I have these huge speeches in the play that are really hard to remember because they're full of anatomical language, and I kept screwing up the order of the lines. I was determined that I was going to know all that stuff before we started on Broadway.

Since that initial run, you've appeared on Broadway in the revival of The Winslow Boy, in which you played star barrister Sir Robert Morton. Is the role of star surgeon Frederick Treves very different?
Their rhythm and energy is so different. Personality-wise, Sir Robert Morton is deeply repressed. He has such difficulty expressing any kind of emotion. He's an aristocrat and a supreme snob. The beauty of that character is that this romantic side of him starts to leak out, against his better judgment. Treves is a more overtly dynamic person. He had a fighting spirit and is less stiff-upper-lip than Morton. Treves is a decidedly middle-class guy, full of aspirations. He wants to gain social status and move up in the world. Initially, he takes in Merrick as a means to further his career. Yet he's a deeply feeling person who loves this man. He falls in love with him, a platonic way. He slowly sees all the ways that love is at odds with his project.

Has playing this role made you more suspicious of the allegedly good intentions and altruism of others — that maybe they're doing it to glorify themselves?
That tension exists both in philanthropy and love. There's always this conflict between the selfish motivations and the unselfish ones. People feel great generosity when they love somebody, but they also feel desperate need for themselves. That's part of human nature.

Bradley Cooper has said this play was his reason for becoming an actor. What was yours?
Mine was playing Peter Pan in a third-grade play. I didn't even fly in this production, but it was enough to convert me.