Bradley Cooper Santa Barbara
Bradley Cooper courtesy of SBIFF

Maestro writer-director Bradley Cooper recounted Thursday his reaction to landing his first acting role, a part on Sex and the City, 25 years ago. He had been passed over for so many parts, he said, that “I didn’t even realize you could get the job. … What do you mean I have to do it?”

Cooper, 48, was in his early 20s at the time — and his career since has been about as good as can be. As surprise guest Brad Pitt noted as he awarded Cooper the Outstanding Performer of the Year award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Cooper is up for three Oscars this year for Maestro — bringing his career total to 12.

Besides starring in and directing both A Star Is Born and Maestro, he’s starred in franchises from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise to The Hangover (and would do a fourth Hangover movie “in a heartbeat,” he said.) He’s worked with his heroes, from Robert De Niro to Clint Eastwood. And he’s the kind of movie star who can draw 2,000 people to downtown Santa Barbara on a Thursday night and keep them entertained for two hours by just chatting.

How Robert De Niro Once Turned Down Bradley Cooper

But in his Q&A with Deadline‘s Pete Hammond, Cooper often turned Thursday to the hiccups in his career. Like the time Robert De Niro took a moment to give him a compliment while telling him he wouldn’t be getting a role in the 2009 film Everybody’s Fine.

“I wasn’t going to get the role, but I didn’t know at the time. But he called to meet with me, and I went to meet him and he’s just like, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ You know, you’re not gonna get the role, but, I see it. I see it.

Cooper says that compliment — “I see it” — kept him going. He would soon star with De Niro in both Limitless and Silver Linings Playbook. And he returned to the moment in his acceptance speech.

“Without community, I would never attempt to achieve the things that I’ve attempted — without people that have believed in me in ways that I never believed in myself. … To have people [like] Bob — ‘I see it.’ So gosh, if you feel that way about anybody, please tell them.

“I never would have thought as a kid growing up in Rydal, Pennsylvania, who was terrified at his fifth-grade presentation — who was shaking and the board was shaking, he was so nervous — would be here doing a retrospective of his work. I mean, it’s just absolutely incredible. And it’s only the result of me, being so blessed to be with people — and I can list 50 of them right now — who believed in me and gave me a chance. So let’s do that for other people, right?”

Also Read: Here’s Brad Pitt’s Tribute to Bradley Cooper at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

He often deflected praise to collaborators, making the case that his co-stars in A Star Is Born and Maestro — Lady Gaga and Carey Mulligan — were the true stars of the films. Mulligan repaid the compliments, taking the podium to beam, “I am just having the loveliest evening. It makes me want to watch all of your films again.”

Carey Mulligan praises her Maestro co-star and director Bradley Cooper

He similarly praised collaborators like Bruce Greenwood, Amy Adams, Sienna Miller and Sam Elliott. He also talked about how much he appreciates directors, like David O’Russell — with whom he worked on Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) — who get close to the actors. When he made American Sniper with Clint Eastwood, he tried to get Eastwood to sit closer to him, too.

“I would ask him, Clint can you be close? I don’t know — he like — just — fumes come off him. I just love being around him.”

It backfired a bit because Eastwood would do a deadpan play-by-play of what Cooper was supposed to be seeing in the scene. He did an imitation of Eastwood: “Look at that little f—er run. I was like ‘Clint, stop! I can’t do the scene.’ I kept laughing.”

Main image: Bradley Cooper speaks onstage at the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award ceremony during the 39th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF.

Editor’s Note: Corrects italics in headline.