American Sniper: Interviews with Star Bradley Cooper

In “American Sniper,” we observe Chris Kyle growing up, beginning as a boy in Texas, when his dad first teaches him and his brother about the three types of people in the world: the predator, the prey or the protector.  And in that instant, without him even being aware, Chris’s course is set.  Cooper offers, “I think Chris is hardwired to be a man dedicated to protecting others and that mission statement is seen throughout his life.  In many ways, his protective instinct and the price he pays for it is what the whole movie is about.”

“He was a big, strong kid who believed in fighting for the underdog,” Eastwood adds.  “That carried into his role as a sniper; his job was to watch over the troops on the ground and keep them safe from an enemy they could not see.”

Cooper knew that taking on the role of Chris Kyle would test him both physically and mentally but welcomed the challenge.  He notes, “There wasn’t a way to do the movie without being Chris, not mimicking him but embodying him completely.  I needed to figure out how he walked and talked and to try to get as big as he was to even begin to get to a point where I could believe I was him because if I didn’t believe it, no one else would either.  I watched everything ever recorded of him many times and did as much research as I could.”

The actor worked with dialect coach Tim Monich to perfect Kyle’s Texas drawl.  The job of bulking up his frame was more physically demanding, involving a strict workout regimen with trainer Jason Walsh, as well as calorie loading to pack on the weight.  “Chris was 230 pounds of muscle and I was about 185 pounds at the time, so it was three months of constant eating and working out.  It was tough,” Cooper acknowledges.

“When your system isn’t naturally inclined to go in that direction, you have to kind of work at it around the clock, and he did,” says Eastwood.  “I don’t think I ever saw him off camera without some kind of shake or nutrition bar.  By the last day, he was saying, ‘Thank God I don’t have to eat anymore.’”

Having spent more personal time with Kyle than any of the filmmakers, Jason Hall could attest, “I know it meant a lot to Chris that Bradley was willing to be put through his paces to become him.  But on top of transforming his voice and his body, Bradley picked up the more innate elements of Chris Kyle.  I’d be watching the monitor and he’d stand or look a certain way…just his aura would send goose bumps down my arms.  I was like, ‘Holy cow, that’s Chris.’  It was uncanny.”

Taya agrees.  “When people see this movie, they will get the heart, the soul, the character of the real Chris…the spirit and the heart of the man with the pain and the triumphs and everything he went through.  Bradley captured all of that.”

Eastwood also respected Cooper’s complete immersion into the role, stating, “Bradley’s enthusiasm and work ethic was unparalleled.  He was totally invested in the job and never stopped thinking about how to make every aspect of the project the best it could be.”

It turned out that Cooper and Kyle had shared an equal admiration for Eastwood.  “I was told that Chris had said he always wanted Clint Eastwood to direct ‘American Sniper,’” the actor reveals, “and I have always wanted to work with Clint, so it felt so good for him to say, ‘Come on, let’s make this movie together.’”

“Both Chris and I thought Clint Eastwood would be ideal,” Taya confirms, “but believed it was a pie-in-the-sky idea.  Then, after Chris died and I heard that Clint had agreed to do it, I had a minute where I was just in awe and I gave a nod up to Heaven like, ‘You did it, Chris.’  It was just one of those moments where I felt like okay, it could’ve just happened.  But really?  I mean to get Clint Eastwood for a Chris Kyle movie; it couldn’t be more perfect.”

“I absolutely loved Clint’s fast-paced style, his efficient use of time,” says Cooper.  “And he opened up the filmmaking process to me and allowed me to collaborate on a level that was very beneficial to me and to my performance.”

“Working with Clint was the most creatively liberating experience I’ve ever had,” Sienna Miller concurs.  “He is so trusting, so instinctual and so confident in his ability to know when he has what he needs; it just forces this freedom in you as an actor.  There’s no one cooler in the world than Clint Eastwood.  That is a fact.”

As Taya, the love of Chris Kyle’s life, Miller wanted to convey the passion they share as well as the emotional challenges her character faces as the wife of a Navy SEAL.  It was also essential to show Taya’s unique spirit.  “She’s a feisty lady,” Miller states.  “She knows what she wants, she doesn’t suffer fools and she’s sharp, as you can tell from the first time we see her in the bar where she meets Chris.  They instantly have chemistry, though Taya has apprehensions about what he does for a living.  But Chris is so disarming and sincere that her preconceptions about him are very quickly dissipated.  I think she realizes she’s met her man.”

Robert Lorenz asserts, “The role of Taya demanded somebody who could dig in and hold her own against the legendary figure of Chris Kyle.  The real Taya is someone who gave balance to Chris because she is such a strong personality, and Sienna does the same thing in the movie—balancing the performance that Bradley gave with a terrifically moving one of her own.”

“Taya matches Chris in energy and strength,” adds Cooper, “so there’s a lot of fire and a lot of love and also a lot of pain in their relationship.”

Miller says, “Going in, Taya knows that Chris lives by the ethos of God, country, family, in that order.  She does her best to be patient and understanding, but I’ve spoken to Taya about this, and the reality is that, as a wife, being third on that list is brutal.”

The actress adds that she gained tremendous insight about her role directly from the woman she was portraying.  “I first met Taya via Skype and we talked on the phone a lot, and then she came to L.A. before we started shooting and we spent a day together talking, hugging, laughing and crying.  It was extraordinary.  She’s a truly formidable woman and I admire her hugely for her resilience.  I also appreciate her graciousness and her being as accommodating as she was in helping me identify with how she felt during those years.”

Taya Kyle recalls, “There was a time I was showing her a video clip of Chris and some pictures that I had on my laptop, and I remember her suddenly looking at me and saying, ‘Wow, you really loved him.’  And there was something about the way she said it—because I had talked to her before, and she knew I loved him.  But in that instant, I think she understood that this was a love that was life-changing, and that I will never have an experience like it again.  When she got that, I realized that she was going to bring it to the movie.  And she did.”

Cooper says that Miller was not the only one who benefited from the input of the woman who endured her husband being in harm’s way through four tours of duty in Iraq.  “Taya was a tremendous asset to the entire film.  She revealed so much of their life to me and Sienna, allowing us to read many of their email exchanges and describing certain scenarios.  She was so generous about sharing personal details of their relationship so we could really understand what it was like for them to be together.”

“Bradley said to me many times that they owe it to me for being so being so open and giving us all this detail, but I think quite the opposite is true,” Taya asserts.  “I owe it to all of them for caring enough to get all the details.”

Apart from Taya and their children, Chris Kyle had close-knit extended family in the men of SEAL Team 3, which Andrew Lazar calls “a true brotherhood.  SEAL Teams are tasked with some of the most dangerous missions in the military; they are dealing with life and death every day, so the bonds they form are extremely strong.  And you need that in order to survive.”

Jason Hall adds, “You ask any of these guys why they serve, why they are willing to go back over and over, and they’ll say they are fighting for their country, which is true.  But when you get down to the bare bones of it, they will tell you, ‘I was fighting for the guys next to me.’”

One of the men who fought alongside the real Chris Kyle on SEAL Team 3 was Kevin Lacz, better known to his compatriots by his nickname, Dauber.  As part of Kyle’s inner circle, Lacz became a vital resource for the production, providing essential details about their deployments to the filmmakers and cast and eventually coming onboard as the film’s Navy technical advisor.  But he soon took on another role—that of himself in the film.

Lacz recalls, “I was training Bradley to do some long range sniper work and he said, ‘Did you ever consider playing yourself in the movie?’  I wasn’t sure about my acting skills, but I put a video together, Clint looked at it and liked it and there we were.”

On set, Lacz’s firsthand accounts of the team’s exploits in Iraq proved invaluable.  Cooper attests, “He would add little Chris anecdotes or things Chris would do.  He also guided us in the specific ways the team would operate, which dictated how we filmed certain scenes.  I can’t even imagine having done the movie without him.”

For Lacz, stepping onto the set was like stepping back in time.  “I’ve been out of the Navy for a few years, but once I donned the uniform, I did feel like I was back in Iraq at times.  The set design was awesome, so visually I was there, and then it was just about trying to get into the mindset of being a Team guy again.  It’s not the same, but you get that emotion, that visceral feeling, when you recreate those moments.  It was powerful to me, and I know it was powerful to everybody who was on set watching.  It makes you come back and reflect every day.”

Eastwood cast an ensemble of young actors to play the other members of Seal Team 3.  Jake McDorman plays Ryan Job, who was saddled on his first day of SEAL training with the unfortunate nickname Biggles because “he was a little heavier than your average applicant,” McDorman acknowledges.  “And the instant an embarrassing nickname is thrown out, there’s no undoing it.  It’s permanent.”

Biggles and Chris Kyle become fast friends during their punishing SEAL training, where Chris’s actions are emblematic of his natural protective streak.  McDorman explains, “Biggles is struggling and Chris notices that and tries to take the pressure off him by putting the attention on himself.  His support gives Biggles the best chance to succeed, and Biggles is able to rise to the occasion and prevail.  It formed the bond that lasted for the rest of their years together—a pledge of commitment that, no matter how hard it gets, you’re not going to abandon one of your brothers.”

Joining their band of brothers were Cory Hardrict as D; Luke Grimes as Marc Lee; Eric Laden as Squirrel; and Ray Gallegos as Tony.

While it was nowhere near as grueling as what real SEAL applicants endure, the actors assembled by Eastwood to be SEAL Team 3 did go through a kind of boot camp in order to portray accurately members of the Navy’s elite Special Forces.  They were trained under the tutelage of Lacz and the film’s military advisor, James D. Dever, a former Marine, who previously worked with the director on “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

“We had to learn how to properly hold a gun, how they enter and clear a room, and the correct lingo,” Grimes says.  “We were constantly reminded that we weren’t just doing it for the camera; we were doing it for the guys who were there and the ones who are still there, and we took that very seriously.”

Adds Hardrict, “We just tried to stay focused and do our best because, at the end of the day, this was an acting job.  But for the men we were playing, it was real life.  When it was time for them to put on the gear and go out on the battlefield, it was all business, and we wanted to do that justice.”

“Every one of the actors gave their all to telling this story,” Eastwood remarks.  “I was so grateful for their dedication and their appreciation for the people who actually put on that uniform every day.  Regardless of the conditions, there were no complaints.  It was just about getting the job done and done right.”

Bradley Cooper underwent particularly specialized preparation to become a believable SEAL sniper, which entailed much more than firing a gun.  The actor details, “I trained with the .338 Lapua, a .300 Win Mag and MK11, which are the three sniper rifles Chris used, and just becoming comfortable with those weapons was imperative.  But there is this other quality—the ability to operate in very high-pressure situations in a way that’s extremely methodical.  It’s fascinating what they have to know: how to be prone on a gun; how you have to have your feet in a certain place and even control your breathing.  And then there’s how long these guys stay on the gun.  Kevin and I talked about how Chris could stay on the gun for eight hours without moving, which is an incredible feat.”

“Bradley did not leave any stone unturned when it came to the level of detail he went to in playing Chris,” praises Lacz.  “He was like a sponge; he picked everything up so quickly.  His intrinsic motivation really set him apart from anyone else I’ve ever worked with outside the actual Teams.  He was a natural.”

In the film, Chris Kyle’s legendary prowess with a rifle is rivaled by an enemy sniper named Mustafa, played by Sammy Sheik.  “He’s a Syrian sharpshooter who competed for his country in the Olympics,” says Sheik.  “Now he’s come to Iraq with the goal of fighting for the insurgents against their common enemy.  I thought he was a fascinating character even though he does not say one word the entire film.  But everything had a rhythm to it.  Clint would tell me, ‘Take it slow; this guy is cool under stress.’”

Peter Morgan expounds, “The Iraqis have dubbed Chris the ‘Devil of Ramadi’ and put a bounty on his head and Mustafa is after him.  He also poses a major threat to the Americans on the ground, so it becomes a key part of Chris’s personal mission to take him out.  And who better in the history of cinema to track two marksmen pursuing each other than Clint Eastwood?” he smiles.

Adding impetus to Chris’s mission, one of the Marines on the ground is his own brother, Jeff, who joined the Corps “to follow in his brother’s footsteps,” says Keir O’Donnell, who was cast in the role.  “Jeff idolizes Chris for many reasons, stemming from the fact that Chris always stood up for him from the time they were kids.  And their family dynamic, just having those Texas, Americana roots, is that fighting for our country is a very heroic thing.”

Completing the Kyle family, Ben Reed and Elise Robertson appear as Chris’s parents, Wayne and Debbie, and Cole Konis and Luke Sunshine are seen respectively as Chris and Jeff in their younger years.  The cast of “American Sniper” also includes Navid Negahban as Sheikh Al-Obodi, and Mido Hamada as the merciless Iraqi enforcer who demonstrates how he earned the name “The Butcher.”