December 20, 2013 at 10:09 am

Bradley Cooper gets into character from the very top on down

Bradley Cooper is Richie DiMaso in 'American Hustle.' (Columbia Pictures)

Bradley Cooper got into Richie DiMaso through his hair.

DiMaso is the FBI agent Cooper plays in writer-director David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” which opens in theaters today.

Cooper and Russell began working on the character while they were finishing last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” which earned Cooper a best actor Oscar nomination.

“David and I were very clear about not making him the sort of strait-laced FBI character that we’ve seen before. We wanted to make him as colorful as all the other characters,” Cooper says on the phone from New York.

The movie, which is loosely based on a real FBI sting operation that involved con men, is set in the ’70s, and so they decided DiMaso might want to wear his hair in tight curls like black baseball players of the day.

“We got a couple of wigs that I would try on, I’d take photographs and send them to him, and we liked the look but it didn’t look real,” says Cooper. “It looked like the Three Stooges a bit.”

So a hairdresser decided to use curlers on Cooper’s real hair.

“Literally, the minute the curlers came off we all were like, ‘Wow, there, that’s it,’ ” he says.

“What I didn’t realize was that I was going to spend three hours for the next 43 days prepping and going underneath the heat lamp. But I started to enjoy it and it was definitely a huge part of the character,” Cooper says. “It was a great way to get into Richie every day.”

Aside from the hairdo, DiMaso has little in common with the mental case-romantic Cooper played in “Silver Linings,” or any other role the actor has tackled. He’s ambitious but clumsy, constantly trying to take control while spinning out of control.

“The problem is he is kind of underdeveloped as a man, in his skills as a human being. He’s kind of this 14-year-old boy, living at home, eating chicken in his bathroom with curlers in his hair and he’s desperately trying to find an identity and reinvent himself and to be in the cool group,” Cooper says.

“So he has this righteous sort of American Dream idea but it’s filtered through the lens of a sort of half-man boy who doesn’t have the tools to really know what to do,” he says.

Cooper, 38, has been a bit more successful with his own dream. He knew he wanted to act from the time he was a kid in Philadelphia, and, after graduating from Georgetown University in 1997, he went to the fabled Actors Studio in New York City. He landed his first TV role (“Sex and the City”) in 1999, his first movie in 2001 (“Wet Hot American Summer”) and struck a chord as a preppy jerk in 2005’s “Wedding Crashers” and as an understanding friend on TV’s “Alias” in 2006.

Then his career got a big boost with 2009’s “The Hangover,” which earned $277 million domestically. It spawned two sequels and suddenly Cooper was a leading man and much in demand. At this point, he’s made three films with his Oscar-winning “Hustle” and “Linings” co-stars Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence. And, oh yes, he was named “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2011 by People magazine.

But according to Cooper, he was never considered a leading man type when he began acting.

“When I first started out in this business, I was never cast as the good-looking guy, that wasn’t the thing. In the TV show ‘Alias’ I wasn’t the main guy, I was the other guy, the sort of really nice guy. ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ I played the gay counselor,” he says. “I was not sort of pigeonholed into this quarterback guy or whatever.”

And he’s hardly a heart breaker in “American Hustle.” Hair and all, Richie DiMaso’s something of a loser. But that’s the beauty of acting, Cooper says.

“It’s a sort of bonus world that you get to go to places emotionally, physically, without having to suffer the consequences as if that’s something you actually did in your real life. You can play at those things,” he says. “It’s kind of a wonderful way to live and work.”

Bradley Cooper

Born: Jan. 5, 1975, Philadelphia

■Graduated from the Honors English program at Georgetown University in 1997

■Speaks fluent French

■Hosted “Treks in a Wide World” for the Discovery Channel (2000)

■Has made three films with Robert De Niro, three films with Jennifer Lawrence and three “Hangover” films

Next up: “Serena,” with Lawrence; will be the voice of Rocket Raccoon in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Both are due in 2014.