Now Cooper is starring as an action hero—a standard turn for any actor with his eye on Hollywood superstardom. "I think he's going to get offered everything under the sun because of the way he is in this film," Carnahan says. "He's funny, charming, effortless—these are movie-star qualities. But this has happened to him because of a lot of hard work. Those are always the best stories."

Cooper, blinking his long, dark eyelashes, says the shock of it all hasn't worn off. During one shoot for The A-Team in Vancouver, he says, "me and Liam Neeson were supposed to be helicoptering down into Baghdad with fucking guns and the wind machines blowing. So I'm hanging on and there's fucking Liam Neeson and I got a gun and there's music playing and it's as if I'm making a movie. But actually I am making a movie. It was so fucked-up. It was very surreal."

It's a word he uses a lot. It was surreal to see himself turned into a brick-house hunk for The A-Team, which features lots of shots of his sweaty, bulging biceps and concrete pecs. "I had to literally transform my body," he explains—for six months prior to filming and during the shoot, the already fitness-obsessed actor cut out sugar, salt, and flour and underwent grueling two-hour workouts with a trainer every day.

"As the movie progressed, I got in increasingly better shape," he says. "There's this one fight scene with Liam Neeson toward the end, where it's, like, the apex of the work. We finished and Joe's like, 'Brother, come here, look at this,' and he played it back, and I swear to God, it looked like my head was digitally superimposed onto someone else's body.

"I was like, 'This cannot be me—that's the way I look?' " Cooper says. "It was so fucking surreal, 'cause as a kid I only fantasized about looking that way. Remember Soloflex commercials? That was huge when I was a kid. It was like, 'I wanna be the Soloflex guy. Mom, can we get the Soloflex?' "

And yet, even toned and trained into superhuman shape, Cooper still fixated on his physical imperfections—or at least those he perceived. "Even in that body I'm in," he says, "I still saw them, absolutely." He still felt a bit like the Elephant Man. "Oh, shit," he says, laughing again. "This is going to be like, 'What a fucking asshole. Oh, really, you feel like fucking Elephant Man?'"

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The delicate self-image is an odd disconnect for a guy who has dated Hollywood beauties, including, reportedly, the Oscar-winning actress Renée Zellweger since 2009. Cooper says he can't talk about that—he's strictly mum on the subject: "I just can't." He was married to the actress Jennifer Esposito for four months between 2006 and 2007, something he also won't talk about in detail, although he has said, "It was an experience."

In mid-2009, the tabloids went to town with stories of him romancing America's Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston. "I'm reading about me taking Jennifer Aniston to my Bel Air mansion"—he lived in a modest home in Venice, California, then; he has a bigger house in Los Angeles now—"and having a candlelit dinner, and I was like, 'That's crazy. Never happened.' " He says the next time he saw Aniston, who is a friend, he joked, "Hey, we should hang out—the other dates that we never had went so well."