His parents—Charlie, formerly a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and Gloria, an Italian-American homemaker—were perplexed when their son developed a tendency toward self-flagellation. "My mother's always asking me"—Cooper puts on a mom voice—" 'Bradley, why are you so hard on yourself?' " He's the type, he says, to get down on his hands and knees and scrub the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush.

Or to train like a maniac to handle a gun for The A-Team. "He worked really har—and I mean really hard," Carnahan says. "He was training with the M4 machine gun and he got proficient really fast. Scary fast. There was a part of Bradley that wanted to deploy to some far-off point in Yemen and do battle with Al Qaeda."

"I fuckin' loved it," Cooper says. "I rowed crew in college, and it's very much the same thing—you feel like you're part of some other mechanism." He jumps up from his chair and pantomimes gunplay in the middle of the coffee shop, changing rounds on an imaginary M4, leveling the nose of the gun at targets. The other customers look up from their laptops and David Foster Wallace novels.

"It's very powerful," Cooper says, taking a seat again. "And there's so much in it that's symbolic, for a boy, for a man. I never felt more safe and calm than when I had 300 rounds of ammo and a fuckin' M4 around my neck."

It's telling that as a kid, he says, he was such an outcast that he actually felt a kinship with Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man—the victim of a horribly disfiguring disease who made his living as a sideshow attraction in Victorian England.

"I became obsessed with this motherfucker," Cooper says. After he watched David Lynch's production of The Elephant Man on television, he adds, "I was crying. I couldn't move. He was a beautiful guy, fuckin' beautiful. He had tremendous hope. He struggled to be a man—because he was a man." Cooper says he would look in the mirror and imagine himself as the Elephant Man. He says it's what made him want to become an actor—and he's not being a dick. "I literally went to London and saw the cloak that Merrick wore," Cooper says, laughing at the absurdity of the revelation. He played Merrick on stage for his graduate thesis at the Actors Studio, which he attended after graduating from Georgetown in 1997. He went to London just to research the part, rather obsessively.

For all the attention to craft and the ugly-duckling self-doubt, casting agents tended to peg Cooper as the pretty boy. His first professional role, in 1999, was as one of Sarah Jessica Parker's endless series of bedmates on Sex and the City. In 2001 he landed his first part in a film, as a camp counselor in Wet Hot American Summer, which involved a sex scene in a shed with Michael Ian Black. Played for comic effect, the torrid make-out session has become an Internet favorite, sparking the inevitable gay rumors. "Welcome to the movie business," says his friend Paul Rudd, who also starred in the eighties satire.

Five years later Rudd and Cooper worked together again, with Julia Roberts, in Three Days of Rain on Broadway. "We would sit around laughing," Rudd says, "saying if we had had a crystal ball when we were shooting Wet Hot American Summer and it had told us we were going to be the two guys opposite Julia Roberts in a play, we would have thought that was crazy." Actually, Rudd was already becoming one of the biggest comedic male leads of his generation, with Cooper just a few steps behind. "But movie stars used to be dashing, masculine, and mysterious," Rudd says, "and we're the kind of guys that laugh at our own farts."