hurtful," Bradley Cooper says, walking down 10th Street in New York's East Village and pondering the kind of roles he's become known for since 2005. That was the year he broke out as the archetypal American dick, Zachary "Sack" Lodge, the maniacal frat-boy villain in Wedding Crashers, a role Cooper seemed born to play. He has the look for it: the piercing blue eyes, the lupine grin, the chin of a Shakespearean villain. If nice guys finish last, a Cooper character is out in front of the pack. This summer he'll get to flash that roguish smile again in The A-Team as Face, a.k.a. Lieutenant Templeton Peck, a suave con man and lovable dickhead.

"Now, a douche," Cooper says, continuing the theme, "he's just an idiot. He's lame. A dick is a hurtful douche."

A year ago, in He's Just Not That Into You, Cooper played a cheating husband. A few months later he starred in The Hangover—now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time—as Phil, an unreconstructed playboy whose outgoing voice mail said, "Leave a message, or don't. But do me a favor, don't text me. It's gay."

"And then there's the asshole," Cooper says, his grin curling with amusement. "He's a dick with some serious issues."

Cooper, who is 35, has embodied these sarcastic bastards so seamlessly it's almost jarring to find him so pleasant on this balmy spring day. Thinner and more sinewy in person than he has appeared onscreen, and dressed in a finely made loose sweater and jeans, he could be any laid-back artist or writer from the neighborhood. He's carrying a book (Christopher Buckley's Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir) and has three days' worth of scruff.

He swings into a secluded coffee bar and orders a decaf macchiato. At the counter he banters with the young barista, whose name, we find out, is Weston. Weston has absolutely no idea who Bradley Cooper is.

"My assistant's name is Weston," Cooper says, waiting for his drink. "He goes by West."

"Too country," the kid grumbles as he grinds the beans.

"I don't mind it. But I don't like Westie."

"Mmm. Too canine."

"What about Wes?"

"Why not just Weston?" the server finally snaps.

"I like it," Cooper says, grinning again. "Thanks, bro," he adds as he's handed his beverage.

If Cooper was trying to be a dick, his timing was impeccable.

He sits at a table by the window strewn with newspapers, which he thumbs through. Asked what issues of the day he's concerned about, he says, "Literally, I was just thinking, Do I care about anything?" Now he's just being a dick—for fun.

• • •

"I expected Bradley to be more like his character in The Hangover," says Sharlto Copley, the South African star of last summer's District 9 who costars with Cooper in The A-Team. "He's still a guy. He's got that man's-man, I-like-football thing. But he's way more gentle and has more heart than you might think watching him in some of his roles."

Joe Carnahan, the director of The A-Team, goes one step further.

"Bradley's one of the guys I'd go to war with," he says. "If I'm in a bad way, I'm calling him, saying can you help me out?"

Apparently Cooper isn't really a dick—he's just really good at pretending to be one.

Behind the cocksure public persona is a different kind of guy—one driven by a childhood experience growing up in Philadelphia that he says was at times painful and difficult. His adolescence engendered in him an insecurity that made him self-critical to the point of becoming a perfectionist, and that's partially what fuels his ambition, he says.

"I never lived the life of 'Oh, you're so good-looking,' " Cooper says. "People thought I was a girl when I was little, because I looked like a girl—maybe because my mother would keep my hair really long in a bowl cut. I was in a coffee shop once and the waitress was like, 'What do you want, Miss?' I was 10 or 11—the worst age to have that happen. I had a jean jacket on and a Metallica pin. I thought I was really cool."