Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) conducts an empty room, while Yannick Nézet-Séguin looks on.


Bradley Cooper transforms into Leonard Bernstein in his sophomore film, Maestro.

Photography by Jason McDonald
20 December 20234 min read

Director and actor Bradley Cooper’s latest film, Maestro, begins with lauded composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s most life-changing moment. Young Leonard (played by Cooper), assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, awakes in one of Carnegie Hall’s studio apartments to the call that will alter the course of his life — to fill in for conductor Bruno Walter, who has fallen ill. Within hours, Bernstein steps onto the symphony orchestra’s storied stage to make his electrifying debut as a conductor. 

Cooper had enjoyed Bernstein’s work before embarking on the film, but he’d also long harbored a desire to conduct, ever since he was gifted a baton as a child. “I remember in grad school, we had to do a private moment in front of classmates and I chose to conduct,” says Cooper. “Later, Ellen Burstyn came and did a workshop with us for four weeks and we had to create a character, and I wrote a monologue about a conductor who is coming to a rehearsal. So, it was always there.”

For Maestro, Cooper had the opportunity to live that dream, immersing himself in the world of conducting and studying with some of the best. Observing Gustavo Dudamel’s rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera, sitting in on Michael Tilson Thomas’s performances, spending years with the Philadelphia Orchestra — Cooper inhaled the life of a composer and exhaled as Bernstein in Maestro.

Music consultant Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who holds simultaneous roles as music director for the Metropolitan Opera of New York, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal, admits that Cooper took to conducting quickly, especially Bernstein’s signature way of engaging his whole body in the act. “I can’t take credit at all for Bradley’s performance,” says the conductor. “It was insane — every gesture, every facial expression. He really got Bernstein.”