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Top of his game; Bradley Cooper tries to remain grounded as career takes off

"A couple of days ago, I said I'm getting off the hamster wheel. I really did."

Bradley Cooper has tucked his 6-foot-1-inch frame between the plump pillows of a sofa at Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Hotel, 25 minutes from his hometown of Abington, Pa.

He's in this cushy but familiar spot to discuss "Limitless," the film that has finally elevated him to the role of marquee movie star and cast him opposite his idol, Robert De Niro. Yet, here he sits, revealing to a reporter that just last week, he considered quitting acting.

"Look, I'm very blessed, very lucky that I work but that doesn't mean this job's easy," Cooper continues, noting that getting passed over for a coveted part -- he won't say which -- prompted the flicker of career angst. "I don't find it easy. I find it very difficult. I find it hard to be an actor, because you have to deal with so much rejection."

It's hard to believe a guy like Cooper ever wrestles with self-doubt. For starters, just look at him. He exudes an effortless, golden-boy handsomeness, with eyes so crystalline Crayola should strongly consider naming a crayon after them.

And look at his career. After years of playing supporting roles in TV shows like "Alias" and movies like "Wedding Crashers," Cooper's moment appears to have arrived. Following the monumental box-office success of 2009's "The Hangover," more Hollywood doors have started to swing open, including the doors that led to the lead in "Limitless." The psychological thriller, which opens today, also gives Cooper, 36, his first executive producer credit.

In the film, Cooper has to carry virtually every scene as a struggling writer who takes a black-market drug that maximizes his brain power and turns him into a wealthy, well-connected investment genius. Suffice it to say that success comes with a price. And for Cooper, the role comes with an irony he seems keenly aware of: It took the Georgetown University graduate almost a decade to finally star as an overnight success.

Cooper, who describes himself as an optimist in life who always prepares for the worst in his career, may be cautiously hopeful. But others are confident.

"He's going to continue to rise. He's an amazing actor," says James Lipton, dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, where Cooper earned his MFA, and host of Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio."

"He has already risen to the top fraction of a percent of American actors, and I don't think there's any way, short of turning into Charlie Sheen and self-destructing, that he will not continue to progress," Lipton says.

Cooper seems determined not to self-destruct and to keep certain elements of his life private, particularly his reported relationship with actress Renee Zellweger. Neither Cooper nor Zellweger has ever officially confirmed the long-term romance to the press, although numerous photos and online videos of the two suggests their partnership is real.

Given what he's gone through to get where he is -- Cooper notes that not so long ago, bouncers wouldn't even let him into L.A.'s SkyBar -- he also knows better than to take too seriously the paparazzi attention, his inclusion on People's sexiest-man-alive list or even the hordes of wonky fans that mobbed him at last year's White House Correspondents Dinner.

"If 'The Hangover' had happened to me at 23, I think I'd be really screwed," he says. "Because notoriety -- if you don't know what it is and how it has nothing to do with you and it's gone in an instant and it means nothing that's of any worth -- it has the facade of answering all those problems. You know, of giving you all those things. So if you let it do that, you're really in trouble. But for me, I don't even have to try to not let it get in. Because it's so clear to me what it is."

Cooper is coming off of a particularly hectic few months that included filming "The Hangover 2" in Bangkok (it comes out Memorial Day weekend), doing reshoots for "Limitless" and mourning the loss of his father, Charlie, who died in January after a long illness. More than anything, the actor who once waited tables is just trying to live in the moment and relish the rewards and esteemed company he's earned after years of paying dues.

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