Limitless: Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro

The thriller Limitless, directed by Neil Burger and starring Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Anna Friel and Abbie Cornish, will be released by Relativity Media on March 18.

The role of Eddie Morra is a demanding one, requiring an actor who can hold the screen while appearing in every scene of the film, and make a believable transformation from apathetic slacker into magnetic alpha dog. “We all had our eye on Bradley Cooper,” says Burger. “He’s an excellent actor, but studios always ask filmmakers, ‘Can we finance the movie on his name?’ Luckily The Hangover came out while we were casting and suddenly he was a real possibility. I met him in New York and we hung out for an evening, talking about the movie, about life, about everything. He has such a winning personality and I could see how it would translate to our story.”

Cooper’s innate intelligence made him top choice for the role. “Eddie needs to be incredibly articulate,” says Burger. “He has to be able to run circles around other people verbally. I knew that Bradley was a very smart guy and a great talker.”

On the other hand, he has to be believable as the character the audience meets at the beginning of the story: a complete failure. “Bradley and I discussed our own stories of struggling to make it,” the director says. “We’d both been out of work, living in crummy apartments and on the verge of giving it all up. He had great insights into all of it. I was certain he could play all the facets of Eddie believably and powerfully.”

“It’s a tour de force part,” adds Kroopf. “We needed someone charming, funny, smart and charismatic. Bradley Cooper was a rising star and he also just happened to be perfect for the movie. He’s exactly the right age. He can play both the down-on-his-luck, sad-sack writer and the articulate, brilliant guy who’s using a 100 percent of his brain. Bradley has an opportunity here to use all his comedy chops, and then gets to show off all the other qualities he has as an actor.”

In Cooper, the filmmakers also found an actor who naturally pulls audiences into his world. “The genius of having Bradley Cooper play Eddie is that everyone wants to be his friend,” says Kroopf. “Guys like him and girls really like him. He’s the kind of guy that you want to go out and have a beer with or go on some crazy adventure with.”

The actor brought his talent, enthusiasm and energy to a role that required complete commitment. “This script was by far one of the best I’d ever read,” says Cooper. “I have never talked to anybody who read it and didn’t think that it was incredible from start to finish.”

Director Burger’s concept for the film was an additional lure for the actor. “Neil was clear from the beginning that he wants the viewer to go along for the ride with Eddie,” Cooper says. “When he shared his ideas with me, I got very excited. He’s effortless to work with, because there’s absolutely no ego, yet he knows exactly what he wants to do.”

Whether Eddie is on or off NZT, Cooper’s connection to the character is unwavering. “To take this character from the beginning of the movie to the end is an actor’s dream,” he says. “When we meet him, he’s down and out. Living the way he does might have been cool when he was 25, but at 35, it becomes pathetic.

“When Eddie takes the NZT, his problems are solved,” continues the actor. “He writes his manuscript very fast. Then it’s a question of what else is he going to do with his enhanced abilities. What would you do if you became the best version of yourself? First of all, who would that be? And then what price would you have to pay in order to achieve it? It’s quite a question.”

Cooper won the admiration of his co-workers on the film with his unflagging energy. “Bradley was the hardest working person on this movie,” says Burger. “He’s in virtually every frame. His character goes through such enormous changes. He’s a failure, he’s a success, he’s dying. All sorts of things happen to him. We’ve seen the different facets of what Bradley can do as an actor before, but this is all of his skills and talents jammed into this one movie. And his performance is incredible.”

“I hope audiences watching this movie will live vicariously through Eddie,” says Cooper. “I want them to experience the high with him and then deal with the reality of what happens down the road. It’s a roller coaster ride from the beginning to the end.”

Eddie’s spectacular rise in the financial world attracts the attention of billionaire Carl Van Loon, played by Oscar winner Robert De Niro. “Van Loon is one of the smartest guys in the financial game,” says Burger. “Robert De Niro is fantastic in the role, because he is an incredibly intelligent, powerful guy. He is also a very generous and kind person as well, and, at first, Van Loon comes off that way. He seems to be taking Eddie under his wing. But, as in De Niro’s best roles, there’s something just a little sinister under the surface.”

Burger had met with De Niro shortly after The Illusionist was released and both men expressed an interest in working together. “At first the part of Van Loon didn’t seem important enough for him,” the director says. “But then we all thought, let’s at least take the shot. I spoke to him about it and he said he liked the part but didn’t feel like there was enough for him to do. I discussed some ideas about changing the part for him, he liked them and left the door open to go back to him. I told Leslie and she wrote some great new lines for him.”

When Dixon learned that De Niro was available to play the role, she jumped back into the script to develop the character into a part she thought would be worthy of the acclaimed actor’s talent. “At first, Van Loon was more of a straight supporting character,” says Dixon. “And then we all got really excited about the idea of De Niro playing the role. But I realized to my horror that I’d written kind of a standard part and there was nothing particularly special about it that would attract him. I holed up for a week and tried to imagine Robert De Niro saying these things. That brought quite a bit more color and juice to the writing.”

The changes worked and De Niro signed on. “He dug right in and was a big contributor to the team,” says Kroopf. “His level of preparation was phenomenal, and yet he was relaxed enough to keep making it real for Bradley. They have a similar way of working. They are both incredibly inventive. They stay with the text, but they always find little wrinkles that keep the other actor on his toes.”

As thrilled as Burger was to have the distinguished actor join his cast, he was also momentarily intimidated. “De Niro is one of my favorite actors,” the director says. “And he was an incredibly generous collaborator. But when I was on the set working with him, I was thinking about all those iconic roles, like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta from Raging Bull. I’m going to tell Robert De Niro where he’s supposed to stand or how he’s supposed to say a line? I had to put all that aside and just get back to the business at hand, which was the actor in front of me, not the one in my head.”

However, the director’s initial doubts were far from obvious on the set, according to Cooper. “It was wonderful to watch Neil work with De Niro,” says Cooper. “He handled it with complete ease. He treats everybody the same, which, to me, is one of the greatest assets a director can have.”

Working with De Niro was the fulfillment of a longtime dream for Cooper. “Bob is one of the reasons I became an actor,” he says. “When you work with someone that good, your job gets very easy. All you have to do is react to what they’re doing.”

With Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper on board, the rest of the cast fell quickly into place, starting with Abbie Cornish as Lindy, Eddie’s girlfriend.”

Lindy, a magazine editor, has given Eddie her complete support. But even she has reached the end of her patience with him and ends their relationship as the film opens. When he discovers NZT and becomes wildly successful, they get back together again. “Abbie has a luminosity that makes it especially sad to think that Eddie could have blown it with her,” says Dixon. “And indeed, one of the things the drug does is help him get her back.”

Along with the opportunity to work with two actors whose work she admires, Cornish was drawn to the overall quality of the script. “It’s extremely well-written,” says the Australian-born actress. “This is a story you can lose yourself in because it feels like it could actually be happening. It’s totally believable and very contemporary.”

Lindy reconciles with Eddie after his amazing transformation, but she remains the voice of reason in the story. “Neil always saw the role as being pivotal, even though it’s a smaller one,” says Cornish. “She’s the only one who takes the drug and is able to understand the consequences. It changes what it is to be fallible, which is essential to being human.”

Working with Burger was an intensely collaborative experience for Cornish. “He’s a very sensitive person who listens to the actors,” she says. “It makes the process of filmmaking feel collective and that’s very refreshing.”

Cornish brought the right mixture of smarts and beauty to the role, says Burger. “Abbie is fantastic,” says Burger. “She’s so lovely and so talented. Abbie has this mischievous energy, but she’s also incredibly bright. And the chemistry between Abbie and Bradley was immediate. They are pretty amazing together. You could feel the connection and get a sense of the history of their characters.”

Cornish, almost all of whose scenes are all with Cooper, says his enthusiasm for the work was infectious. “Bradley took on the role wholeheartedly,” she says. “It was awesome to watch. He has a great sense of humor as well as great depth to him, so he has that enormous range as an actor. He’s perfect as Eddie, because he can go from the guy in a downhill spiral to someone who has completely got it together. He’s also generous, and very engaging, which makes it a lot of fun to work with him.”

When Eddie decides to play the stock market, he borrows money from the only source that will give it to him, a smalltime hood named Gennady, played by Andrew Howard. “Gennady grew up in Russia and moved to the United States twenty years ago,” says Burger. “He still has a thick Russian accent, and he’s a very scary, dangerous cat. Borrowing money from him is reckless, but it’s also very smart, because Eddie is able to turn a little money into a lot of money very quickly. The problem comes when Gennady gets wind of this drug and wants in on it.”

Creating the colorful thug was fun for Dixon, and when Howard was cast, he had some additional ideas that she incorporated into her script. “Gennady is a very primitive, crude thug,” says the writer. “At first, Eddie is the only person that we see using NZT. When Gennady starts to take NZT, it smartens up a bad guy. Andrew Howard pointed out that when you give a thug this drug, he may not get as smart as Eddie, but an enhanced brain would give a bad guy enhanced capacity to be horrible.”

The result is both humorous and terrifying. “Leslie and I talked about how it would be funny if every time you see him, his vocabulary is better, and he’s a little more erudite,” says Howard. “He develops a slightly different look. I wouldn’t say he’s looking good. It’s more Euro-trashy nightclub. He’s looking like the man about town, but it’s just off-kilter.”

Howard, who is from Wales, did research for the character by spending time in Brighton Beach’s large Russian community. “That’s where the character would be from,” he says. “You see lots of Gennadys knocking about there, so it was quite an experience. I jumped on the chance to see and hear and feel a real Russian community right in New York City.”

For Howard, the film’s appeal comes down to the combination of extraordinary storytelling, acting and action. “The movie is a rip-roaring thriller,” says the actor. “It’s got edge. It’s got brilliant performances. It’s got Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. Neil is an extraordinary director and he knew exactly how to tell this story. He always brought a little something extra to the table that would give it more nuance and color.”