But seeing complete bullshit written about himself was, oddly enough, one of the things that made Cooper realize his star was on the rise. "I still can't fuckin' believe all this," he says. Nor, apparently, could execs at Warner Bros., who allegedly failed to anticipate The Hangover's runaway success—or to contractually obligate its stars to a sequel. Now Cooper is reportedly set to earn $5 million and 4 percent of the gross box-office earnings on The Hangover 2—A-list money.

"In an industry that is desperately low on real nuts-and-bolts leading men," Carnahan says, "I don't think it's a surprise that Bradley has rocketed to the top of all the lists. Because he is that guy."

This summer, Cooper gets to act opposite one of his heroes, Robert De Niro, in The Dark Fields, a psychological drama about a failed writer who starts taking a drug that gives him special intellectual powers. Cooper's character is a loser and a former cocaine addict and, well, a dick.

That last part doesn't really matter to him, just as long as he nails the performance. Above all else, Cooper wants to be a great actor. "That's the only reason to do it," he says. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't." Working with De Niro on a serious project puts him in another league. "De Niro's one of the reasons I became an actor," Cooper says. "For some reason, since I was a kid, I felt very connected to him. He reminds me of my grandfather.

"I put myself on tape to play his son a few years ago," Cooper says with a grin. Putting oneself "on tape" for a casting agent is something aspiring actors—not big stars—do to land a part. "I was at home and we filmed it in my parents' basement. My mother played De Niro's role." (He didn't get the part in 2009's Everybody's Fine; Sam Rockwell did.)

But if a sophisticated indie drama like The Dark Fields—or for that matter, a big-budget popcorn movie like The A-Team—does well, Cooper will never have to put himself on tape again. "I'd love not to have to do that," he says. "I did it for this movie about UFC fighters a few years ago, and I didn't know anything about UFC fighters. I wore biking shorts. I was outside in my back yard in Venice, and I was, like, kicking the trash cans and shit. I didn't know what I was doing. I would love to fucking see that tape."

He laughs at himself and says good-bye, then walks across the East Village to the subway alone and, for what could be one of the last times, unnoticed and unrecognized, even as a dick.

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