If this were a movie role, we’d accuse Bradley Cooper of Oscar-baiting by playing Joseph Merrick, the deformed sideshow figure more famously known as the Elephant Man. But rather, it’s just the 2011 People‘s Sexiest Man Alive playing against type in the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer.
The 1977 play The Elephant Man introduces us to Merrick, whom many of us have probably heard about by surfing Snopes or other urban legend websites, but know little about beyond the medical condition that enlarged his head and hands and severely crippled him. Like the fact that he died at 27 of what medical professionals believed to be asphyxiation, because he had tried to sleep lying down even though his head was too bloated to support his breathing in this position. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Bernard Pomerance‘s play “weaves Merrick’s inner humanity into a parable on beauty, innocence and dignity that shatters our illusions of normalcy.”
While this might be Bradley’s first unattractive role since he became a mainstream hunk, it’s not his first time playing the Elephant Man: He performed the role as his thesis at the New School back in 2000. At 37, he’s a full decade older than Merrick was at his death, but we’d suspend our disbelief to see how his performance has changed in the last twelve years.
My title is perhaps a little misleading, because it’s not clear if Bradley will have to don prosthetics or not for the role. But it’s clear that he felt a kinship with Merrick. When he appeared on Inside the Actors Studio last year, he said, “I knew that there was some connection I had with this guy, and I thought, Let me explore this character. A weird thing, one of my hips is a little higher, and there’s that one medical photograph of him—literally when I saw it, I thought, It’s me.”