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The actor: Chris Cooper, a serious-minded, thoughtful man best known for his extensive work with indie director John Sayles on Lone Star, Matewan, City Of Hope, and Silver City; his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Adaptation, and his role as the grim, homophobic Marine dad in American Beauty. With his stern, seamed face and calmly authoritative voice, Cooper has tended toward institutional roles over the years, playing military men, law-enforcement officers, and government agents in the likes of The Bourne Identity, Breach, The Patriot, A Time To Kill, and many more. His latest project involves a short but sweet role in Ben Affleck’s crime thriller The Town.
Matewan (1987)—“Joe Kenehan”
Chris Cooper: That was my first feature film, but it came in kind of an interesting way. My wife [Marianne] was also an actor. When we were living in New York, she answered a backstage ad for an NYU student’s film, and that turned out to be Nancy Savoca. So Marianne did Nancy’s half-hour junior black-and-white piece. Then she and Nancy and Rich, Nancy’s husband—we all four became real good friends from that experience. Then Nancy worked on Brother From Another Planet when John [Sayles] was shooting that. And she was aware that John beforehand had lost financing. He wanted to do Matewan, but lost the financing, so he went on to do Brother From Another Planet. So Nancy gave John my name, and said, “When the time comes for Matewan, take a look at this guy.” So that’s kind of how that came about.
The A.V. Club: Was there an actual audition process?
CC: Oh sure. It was an audition in midtown. I went up and read a couple of scenes. And then some months passed. I went to London to do a West End production with Harold Pinter—it was a Tennessee Williams play, Sweet Bird Of Youth, directed by Harold Pinter and starring Lauren Bacall. So in the seven months that I was over in England, news came. I got a callback to read some more scenes. So we did the Sunday matinee, and I had to get on a plane, fly to the States, do the audition, get back on the plane, fly back for Tuesday night’s performance. I had virtually noooo sleep. I was really on a high just in anticipation of the audition. And then during that Tuesday-night performance, I came really, really close to fainting onstage because I was so tuckered.
AVC: Which did you enjoy more at the time, theater, or doing the film?
CC: I loved the film. I couldn’t be more thrilled for that to be the first film I did, because John is a terrific writer. I mean, with 15 years of theater behind me, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what a good script is, and how it reads. And you know, the story was so well-plotted and well-told that I just felt fortunate to have that first film working with John, who set a great example, which I carry forward, as far as seeing who’s directing a piece. And then, good Lord, working with James Earl Jones and John’s stable of actors at that time—David Strathairn and Kenny Jenkins, who I had known from Actors Theatre Of Louisville in the early ’80s.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of films with John Sayles since, including the upcoming Amigo. At this point, does he write parts specifically for you?
CC: Well, no. Let me tell you this. It’s kind of a funny story. He’s probably one of my closest friends in the business. He and his mate Maggie and Marianne and I see each other when we can, probably two, three times a year. Either they come up to Boston, or we go to their place in Upstate New York and hang out for a long weekend or whatever. But the only film that I know he wrote with me in mind was Lone Star. We had gone to upstate New York just to visit them, and over preparation of dinner, and during dinner, John was telling us the story of this new script. And it sounded like a real good story, but at the end of breaking down the storyline, he said “…and you’re playing the sheriff.” So that came as a huge, huge surprise. And I had the first two weeks of looking at the script—I don’t know how to explain this. I worked myself into a corner. I just didn’t understand the character at all. John was using this word I wasn’t familiar with—the character is very laconic. Well, over the years, that’s the general term they use for me and a lot of my characters, but I just couldn’t connect with the character. So I put the script away for a week, and when I came back to it, things started to fall into shape. But for the first couple of weeks of looking at the script, I was oddly lost. Couldn’t feel out the character very well.
AVC: Has how he directs you changed over all this time? Does he have a better idea of how to bring characters across to you than he did with Matewan?
CC: No. Hasn’t changed a bit. John has a really wonderful way with him, and I think it’s safe to say in his earlier films, he primarily cast actors who came with a strong theater background. And I think that was great insurance to him that these actors came prepared. One thing you don’t do with a John Sayles script is change the dialogue to suit you. He will tell you exactly what every word means, and why he wrote it that way. With his direction—what is unusual with John that I haven’t run across in any other directors that come to mind—with the script, he supplies a pretty good fictional bio, a breakdown of the character and that character’s history. None of that may be in the script, but it’s nice. It’s a great starting point that he supplies the actors with a little bit of a background that they can start to work with.
Breach (2007)—“Robert Hanssen”
AVC: Here, you were playing a historical figure. That’s a lot of background right there. Does that help, or get in the way?
CC: It helps tremendously! At the time, or shortly after [Robert Hanssen’s] capture, of course I looked for every bit of background I could. And it turned out that there were four, maybe five books about Robert Hanssen. Though in those books, some of the stuff was certainly repetitious, all of them down the road offered me something, some new insight about the guy. In some of these books, they went back to his high-school classmates and asked what they remember about the guy and his oddities—and there were plenty. And [we talked to] the people in the CIA who worked across the hall from him. And then we had the young man who Ryan Phillippe played—the actual guy came to Toronto, and we picked his brain. I had all sorts of questions to ask him, and he was very, very, very helpful. When Bill Ray wrote the script, we still handled Hanssen’s character with as much respect as we could, because we were very well aware that his wife and kids were still living, and there were some oddities about the character that we didn’t touch on, that we certainly could have. But I hope the character we had on film was enough to suggest that he was a pretty conflicted guy.
AVC: You’ve said that’s considered your only starring role in a studio film. Did that make the experience any different?
CC: No. It really doesn’t. If you put that kind of thought in your head or on your shoulders, it’s nothing but a weight. There’s certainly people in the business who that’s all they do, is carry a film. And I don’t know how they approach that, but I think it’s pretty dangerous to think too much about “Well, I’m carrying this film.” I don’t think it helps to worry about that too much. You just try and do the best work you can. The whole business is a gamble, so you just try and turn out your best work that you can.
Where The Wild Things Are (2009)—“Douglas”
CC: That was kind of bizarre. Spike [Jonze] had called me long before he got into shooting the film, and we had such a great relationship in Adaptation, and I would hope to work with him again and again. But initially, when I read the script, I didn’t think I could bring anything to the role of Douglas. Douglas seemed to be such an observer, and on the sidelines. And then once Spike and I talked, it kind of broke down into the idea of—I broke it down into military terms. The role that James Gandolfini did, I had to see that as “Okay, Gandolfini’s character, he’s the general. But he’s kind of a high-strung general. And I’m the level-headed guy that Gandolfini’s character comes to when he needs settling down, or needs to calm himself. I’m the rational colonel to the general. I’m the one who just kind of tells him to take a breath and calm down and think this through.” So that’s the only approach that I thought made sense to me.
The Patriot (2000)—“Colonel Harry Burwell”
AVC: You have a lot of colonel roles.
CC: I remember being initially really, really excited about this film. Because this was originally going to be based on the true characters in history. Mel [Gibson] was going to play the Swamp Fox, and I was going to play Light-Horse Harry Lee. And I don’t know what happens down the road, while you’re in production. Maybe too many chefs, and too many rewrites. I think this was one of the first film ventures that the Smithsonian Institute was going to be involved with, because the accuracy of the clothing and the weaponry and all that, the Smithsonian was going to help us. Then as time went on, I think it got further and further away from historical fact, and became more of a vigilante film. And that was a slight disappointment. We had to change the characters’ names, because if there were any living relatives, they would have been furious.
But you know, it was a huge, huge project, and thank goodness we had these wonderful Revolutionary War re-enactors. We had, I think, over 300 who came out to the farmland in, I think it was North Carolina where we shot a lot of this stuff. And they came out in their trailers and station wagons and camped out for a number of weeks, and were just so thrilled to be a part of this project. And they were a great, great help to everybody. Some of these guys are great, great craftsmen. They made their own period weapons. And the costumes were their own. So that was just a huge epic, epic film. I must say when I saw it at the première—certainly not to compare, but I thought “My God, it’s so epic. It kind of touches on Gone With The Wind, or something like that.” It was a huge production. That’s something I didn’t realize, even when we were shooting it.
AVC: Were you unaware of the alterations as they were happening?
CC: Umm, yeah. This was one of those five-month shoots where I didn’t need to be there all the time, so I was back and forth flying home, and got to have a week off or a month off, and then come back into production. So yeah, there was plenty going on that I was unaware of.
AVC: Did you interact much with either Mel Gibson or Heath Ledger off the set?
CC: Well, only so much in the hair and makeup trailer. And gosh, with Mel, it was more just friendly chitchat about our families. With Heath, he was a sweetheart. Great, kind of kept to himself a little bit. I think it was a big load for him in one of his first films. But a really sweet, sweet guy. I don’t usually, to a great extent, hang out with the folks I’m working with.
American Beauty (1999)—“Colonel Frank Fitts”
CC: I have a go-to guy in a lot of these roles who lives a town or two over from me. And he has been a soldier. He has worked for the government. He has worked undercover. He has worked both for the U.S. and hand-in-hand with Canadian authorities, for the postal service. So he’s full of information. He’s sort of the guy I went to when I was very specific with the art department about how I wanted Colonel Fitts. I was very specific about his private study. I wanted to incorporate things on the desk, and on the shelves, and on the walls. I have been in the military—I was in the Coast Guard reserves, so I understand the military pretty good. There was plenty of background about the character that we created to justify who and what he was. And that was just for my own security. I built a whole history of his life in Vietnam, and his having his first homosexual relationship with another soldier, and that soldier having lost his life in a firefight. And from that point, here is a guy who has shut down who he is sexually, but has continued a life in the military.
And that all makes sense to me when we have the scene with my son, when I have the fight with him and tell him “You need discipline—you need structure and discipline.” When I say those lines, what I’m saying in effect is my character—I shut down sexually, and my life in the military “saved” me. Well, it really destroyed him. So again, another very, very conflicted character. Allison Janney and I had worked out a timeline of how we met, when did we have the kid, how long did we live on base, you know? Hopefully you realized that when these people moved into this new neighborhood, they had lived the military life, and lived on base more or less all this while. And this man is retired from the military, so he is completely lost. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. That’s kind of the background we created for that character.
AVC: Do you get tired of playing military, police, government, institutional-type roles?
CC: Yeah, I do. I think it kind of comes with an actor’s age, you know? You get into your 50s, and those military guys, CIA, FBI, blah-blah-blah, I think those are often the roles that come your way. And sure, it can get a little… Actually, I’ve kind of tried to put a moratorium on that, but you know, these scripts come along. Like my previous film, Remember Me. This was a New York cop, so again, there are some similarities, but I try to make them individuals.
Money Train (1995)—“Torch”
CC: That was… boy. We had just moved to Kingston, I think in ’94. I think I had gone into New York and auditioned for one or two characters in that script, and we bought this little house here that we still live in. And financially, we had no business buying this house. We were scared to death. So it was an opportunity to make some money and do another film role, and it’s something I thought would be very challenging. It turned out to be… [Pause.] Certainly not a pleasant character. Sometimes you go into those dark areas, and that’s what you’re called to do.
AVC: Was it enjoyable playing someone who was so dark compared to other characters you’ve done?
CC: Not really. Not really enjoyable. It was a pretty wicked, awful character, considering what he did. I just really can’t say that was an enjoyable role. It was more of an opportunity, and kind of survival. Something for a number of reasons that I just had to do.
AVC: Do you feel your characters’ morality reflects on you in some way?
CC: No. But when you’re asked to go to these dark places, it’s not fun. Robert Hanssen was—I had to be relentless when I was working with Ryan [Phillippe]. He understood where I was coming from. He understood where I had to come from in dealing with him. I think over the years, I’ve learned not to take the work so seriously, and that has helped. Ryan and I, after any particularly tough scene in Breach, we could just go our separate ways and take a breath and come back and do it again. Now, when we were shooting American Beauty and Wes [Bentley] and I were doing our fight up in his room, we were both just kind of basket cases, because it was so emotionally tough. It was a very long night. We shot that scene all night. You know, we shoot the scene, take a break. I know I was crying my eyes out. It’s just, you try to play it as close to the bone as you can, also with safety in mind so nobody gets hurt, but emotionally, I can’t say it was pleasant.
AVC: Was there something particular about your American Beauty character that touched you, or was it just the intensity of all the emotion you had to bring up in order to play the role?
CC: Well, it’s just heartbreaking when you create a character and realize how he has, just for all the wrong reasons, destroyed himself and his family. Imagine what he has put his wife through, what he’s put his son through. And at the same time, such a complete lie—lying to himself throughout his life, since he’s been in the military as a young man, and since probably in his teens, he has carried this lie with him. And I don’t know how other actors deal with it, but when I’m shooting the film, I’m there to work. I’m trying to put everything I can into it to make this character interesting to the viewer, and hopefully, after seeing the film, they continue to ask questions about that character. It’s amazing the different interpretations I’ve gotten from people on the street about Colonel Fitts. The gay community got it, but some of the interpretations I’ve heard—people are very interesting. It’s amazing how differently people interpret a role.
Adaptation (2002)—“John Laroche”
AVC: That’s another character who spends a lot of time lying to himself and others, and falling apart in the process.
CC: Absolutely. It was a wonderfully challenging role. And I have to say, hands down—as I said before, I’m learning to enjoy the process more and more—and I’ve never had so much fun on a shoot as in Adaptation. And a lot of that had to do with working so closely with Meryl [Streep]. She’s a great girl. When we talked, I kind of got the sense that we worked in similar ways, in one respect. In a nutshell, a lot is intuitive. Certainly I read that short piece that Susan Orlean wrote, then her book. Spike had gone down to Florida to talk to John [Laroche], and took his cameraman, so he supplied me with about five hours of video of John Laroche. And they went to his old neighborhood, went to his old high school, went to a mall. So in one respect, I got a real good sense of what John thought of himself, and that was a great mix. Sometimes intimidated. Sometimes thinking he’s the smartest guy in the room, smartest guy in the world.
The audition I did was very, very unusual, in that when I read the script, I just saw so many possibilities and ways to play a scene. If you’re not familiar with the audition process—you’re lucky if you get a second reading of the character. I went to the audition and pleaded with Spike to please allow me to show him four or five interpretations of a scene. And he let me do that. We did four, possibly five scenes where I showed him different ways I thought this could be played. Then once I was cast, and we were shooting the film, when the finished product came out, that’s how Spike directed me. He would say in a particular scene, “Okay, here you are picking up Susan Orlean at her hotel, and you’re going into the Everglades or whatever. Okay, on first meeting her, you could be terribly intimidated. Here you are, this Florida redneck cracker meeting this intellectual New York journalist, and you’re completely intimidated. Okay, now play it like you’re the smartest guy in the world, and she’s lucky to have this time to spend with you. So you’re very confident.” So on and so forth. So we’d play all those different variations, and then when it came to editing the film, it was up to Spike to choose what take he wanted. And that became a real surprise to me at the première when I saw the film, because I didn’t know what take he was going to use.
AVC: Do you think he mixed and matched those different takes on the character to reflect the way he recreated himself, and was sometimes inconsistent day to day?
CC: He may well have. He may well have, to broaden the take on the character. Sure. It’d be great to have a conversation with him someday, and pick his brain about that. But I don’t know how he came about the take that he chose.
Lonesome Dove (1989) and Return To Lonesome Dove (1993)—“July Johnson”
CC: I had done Matewan in ’85-’86, and at that point, Marianne was pregnant. We moved, because we lived in a walk-up in Manhattan, on the sixth floor. So we were making plans to move over to Hoboken, across the river in New Jersey, and get a second-story or street-level apartment. Matewan came out, and it being my first film, and me being such a fan of John’s work, and it being one of the kinds of films I enjoy watching, I thought great things were going to happen with the career. And I don’t think I really worked for a year and a half. I mean, I did little stuff. TV pieces. Miami Vice. Equalizer. And I may have been doing some plays. But I think Lonesome Dove may have been the next film that came up since Matewan. And I had read a lot of Larry McMurtry’s books. It’s a mystery—I know they auditioned a lot of folks in L.A., and if I remember correctly, they had a handful of actors they were going to read in New York. And why or how I got the opportunity to audition for Lonesome Dove, I have no idea. But I knew that character of July Johnson was just—seemed to fit me like a glove. And I worked my tail off on that audition. And also, somehow, somewhere getting the news that the director felt pretty sure he had cast the role of July Johnson, that just spurred me on to try and give the best audition I could ever give at that time. And I guess it worked out.
AVC: Is there anything in particular that goes into a good audition for you? Is it just research or having a handle on the character?
CC: A big, big part of it is relaxation. It’s a combination of relaxation and concentration. You can be so scatterbrained and nervous at these auditions because they mean so much. You can just kill yourself and end the audition by making them so important. I think one of the helpful things was that I had nothing to lose, knowing that this director had pretty much already cast July Johnson. It was just, “You know, if I have this opportunity, maybe down the road he’ll cast me in something else, or there’s a smaller role in the group of boys that I might be right for.” But it worked out for me beautifully.
Married Life (2007)—“Harry Allen”
AVC: Not many people saw this one, but it was a really solid movie, and a strange vintage experience. It feels like a lost Hitchcock film.
CC: It was a great, great experience. Ira [Sachs] had approached me. I loved that script. And this was one of those situations where I said, “I’m on board with this. I’ll do this anytime, anywhere. When you can get the money, count me in.” And so I think a year and a half went by, and it’s kind of like the situation with John Sayles on losing the financing. A couple of actors came aboard and then dropped out. I think what clinched it was the other folks, Pierce [Brosnan] and Patty Clarkson and Rachel McAdams. That group of four, I think, is what sold it. But the unfortunate thing—I had committed to a big studio film, The Kingdom, because I didn’t think Married Life was going to happen. Then I got word that the financing had come through. And Ira was very strong on wanting to shoot it on a particular time slot. And fortunately, the production companies of The Kingdom and Married Life worked out a schedule where anytime I wasn’t working down in Arizona, I could fly up to Vancouver and shoot portions of Married Life. So that’s how that worked out. We just juggled it, and I was working on two films at the same time. But I love that film, and Ira would be the first to say that yeah, it does have a touch of Hitchcock in it. Beautiful period production. The wardrobe and sets were really top-notch for such a low-budget movie.
AVC: Was it difficult to keep your handle on the characters while trying to intersperse them like that?
CC: You would think so. But there were periods in Arizona where I wouldn’t be needed for a week. Or for two weeks. So you know, you drop the character, and when you’re in the plane going to Vancouver, your head’s in the other character. I mean, it’s just a discipline.
The Town (2010)—“Stephen MacRay”
CC: This is a random role. It’s like one scene. But a great scene, I think. This is a great adaptation from a Chuck Hogan book called Prince Of Thieves. I play Ben Affleck’s father, who is doing five life terms for a Brinks heist that I committed and killed a couple of the guards. But this story is generational. It’s thieves who pass down their triumphs and mistakes to the next generation, so that they don’t make the same mistake that the previous—like I had made. So Ben is visiting me in Walpole Prison. We spent just a great day with this prison visit scene. And Ben was kind enough to assemble 13 minutes of film that involved every reference to my character before my scene, so I could see how other people saw him before I played him.
AVC: You make such a point of researching your roles and thinking them through in advance. For a single-scene role, could you ever see yourself just walking onto a set and shooting it from the hip?
CC: I don’t trust my—I don’t trust it. [Laughs.] I frankly run on fear when I’m working, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I don’t ever want to get on my high horse and think I can take my work lightly. There’s something always, to this day, to learn about the business, or a new way of presenting something through acting, or a new process. No, I just don’t trust myself enough to just knock off something.
AVC: Has there ever been a role that you wound up feeling underprepared for?
CC: That’s a great question. [Long pause.] Underprepared for… [Yells to another room.] Marianne!
Marianne Cooper: Yes?
CC: Anything come to mind—this is a great question—anything come to mind, a role that I felt unprepared for?
MC: Remember with the writers’ slowdown, and you were doing Bourne Identity? I don’t know if it was Bourne 1 or 2, but you got the script, and when you got off the plane, they handed you a new one.
CC: Oh yeah! That’s more of the actor’s nightmare rather than being unprepared. It was a script that was never finished. The Bourne Identity. It’s pretty amazing. I had the Bourne script for a good month and a half, and I knew I was going to Prague to shoot my segment of the film. So two weeks before I’m off to Prague, I get a call from the production company, and they say “Look, forget the script. We’ve got a lot of re-writing to do, and we’ll send you a script as soon as we can.” So a week goes by, and I’m getting pretty freaked out, because here I am, and I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do. And I’m not a quick line-reader. I don’t learn lines real quickly. So a week went by, and it’s a week before I go to Prague, and I get another script. I no sooner set that script down, than within an hour, production’s calling saying “Forget that script. We’re still in re-writes. We’ll send you something as soon as we can.” I flew to Prague without a script. I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do. I think it’s fair to say—I think it’s been out in the atmosphere enough that people know that’s just how the shoot went. And I think it’s kind of how the second shoot went.
We were working 12-, 14-hour days, and then I would find myself hanging around the set for another hour asking anybody, “Do we have pages for tomorrow?” And it was a great, great example of finding that survival gear. I mean literally, that gear to work in that kind of situation. All those guys, that support team that I had around me while we were tracking down Bourne, we’d get these pages of technical jargon, and we’d have to go off to a quiet corner for a half-hour and just jam and learn these scenes and make them look interesting, and make them look like we knew what we were talking about. So that was quite an experience. Boy, somebody was watching out for me, because at the same time, I’m going through jetlag, and doing a lot of physical scene work, and I would get maybe four hours of sleep a night. And I’m just so surprised it went as well as it did.
AVC: Through all the rewriters, did the character substantially change from what you’d prepared for?
CC: Umm… no. No, not in that particular job. No. I had a sense of what my character was there for, and what his job was. It was just that, it’s a comfort zone to have the script as early as I can, so I can do whatever work I need to on it. This was just one of those experiences where comfort was never around you.