Chris Cooper has what some might consider a charmed life. On the one hand, he gets paid good money to work on-camera doing what he loves: acting. On the other hand, he has a level of anonymity that allows him to retain his privacy in a culture that feeds on celebrity stories and scandal. For those of you saying, "Chris who?" you know him best as Wes Bentley's cruel, emotionally stifled military dad in American Beauty, as the upstanding sheriff of a small Texas town investigating a long-ago murder in Lone Star, or as the dedicated mine superintendent who nearly thwarts his son's aspiration of becoming a rocket scientist in October Sky.
Like most actors, Cooper still has to audition for parts. That may change with the release of Charlie Kaufman's new film Adaptation., directed by Spike Jonze, in which Cooper offers perhaps his greatest character study yet as John Laroche, an eccentric orchid poacher missing his four front teeth who profoundly changes the world of a New York writer (played by Meryl Streep) by making her realize what she's missing in her life—passion. For me, Cooper is the glue that keeps this wonderfully strange, intricately layered film together and shows the industry and audiences how much more range he's capable of. Cooper is charming, sexy, funny, and tragic—all at the same time—in this superb supporting performance.
He grew up in Kansas City and worked in regional theatre—first backstage, where he picked up some carpentry skills, gradually working up to walk-on roles. In 1975, he moved to New York, where he studied with Stella Adler and Wynn Handman and got a stage career going, both on and Off-Broadway and in regional theatres including Actors Theatre of Lousiville, Seattle Rep, and Yale Rep. Eventually it was an NYU student film that led to Cooper's big break: his alliance with director/writer John Sayles, who cast him in Matewan and City of Hope and later wrote the lead in Lone Star for Cooper.
I recently sat down with the straight-shooting, ruggedly handsome actor to find out more about him and what drives him in his work. The resulting conversation proved to be a virtual how-to lesson on perseverance and what matters most in acting: good, solid technique matched with great instincts.
Back Stage West: Did you plan on solely being a stage actor, or did you have aspirations to work in film and television?
Chris Cooper: I saw myself doing film and television, but I made no effort. As a matter of fact, I told my agents, "Don't put me up for auditions," because I didn't feel that I was ready. It was my wife [Marianne Leonne] that really got me started in film. She had answered some of the NYU students' [casting calls] for 30-minute short films that they have to do as juniors and seniors, and it just so happened that she answered an ad when Nancy Savoca [Dogfight, Household Saints] was a junior at NYU. Marianne was involved with that black-and-white film, and they remained friends. And in Nancy's senior color film both Marianne and I worked on that.
People come up and say, "How do you do it?" I say, "Ease into it." The best way is to get involved with these student films. It's the best thing I could have ever done. You can make all your mistakes then, and the world is not looking at you. As it turned out, right after Nancy graduated from NYU she worked in some capacity on John Sayles' Brother From Another Planet, and she knew that the finances had fallen through for another film he wanted to do, which was Matewan. So he ended up doing Brother From Another Planet. Nancy worked on that production and kept putting into John's ear, "When you read people for Matewan be sure you read Chris Cooper," and he did.
I did one reading and months passed by. I went to London to do a play in the West End, and I was there for eight months, and in the middle of that eight months I got a callback. So I had to fly back to New York in one day and read and fly back to London for that evening's production, and in a couple of weeks got the word that I got that part. I couldn't imagine anything better than to work with John on such a great [project], to work with DP Haskell Wexler. He's a master.
It was very odd because you have these conversations with casting people in New York, and, just to break the ice, questions come up like, "Who would you like to work with?" I had seen [Sayles' Return of the] Secaucus 7, and I had said, "This would be a nice introduction to film—to work with somebody like him." So that's how it turned out.
BSW: Did your introduction to film, specifically working with John, set high standards for you?
Cooper: He set a lot of standards for me. He was very finance-conscious. Time was money; he made that very clear. He was a real stickler for: You don't mess with John Sayles' lines. He had a simple honesty, and there was discipline. And it was just a great crew of experienced people. I kind of ran myself ragged from being so excited being in this job. A good lesson I learned quickly was conserving energy, because I was looking over Haskell's shoulder in scenes that I wasn't even involved with just to learn whatever I could. And I really had to put a stop to that because it was just burning me out from my own work.
It was a wonderful way to start. John became a very dear friend. They call him now one of the granddaddies of independent film, and I couldn't be more pleased being associated with three of his films.
BSW: Have you had any strategy in your career?
Cooper: Nobody is going to give you the key, and nobody is going to tell you how to do it. Time and time again it's: How bad do you want it? How serious are you about this, and why do you want to be in this business? There's a bunch of nonsensical reasons why some people want to be in this business, but my thing was I wasn't even thinking in terms of a job or a profession to fall back on. I was not going to be denied, and I had been denied so many times. The rejection is a part of this business, and I got very used to that. But it's what everybody says: You go after everything and anything you can.
Matewan got a lot of recognition. It was up for best screenplay at the Oscars that year, and I toyed with the idea of, Oh, great, things are going to happen. I didn't work in film for a year and a half after that. I think the next thing I did was probably Lonesome Dove. It's totally up to you. There is no game plan. It's your own struggle, and it's about how much you want to do this, and what is most important is why.
BSW: You have said before in interviews that you usually play very contained characters. John Laroche is such a departure from that. Was that the main draw—to not repeat yourself?
Cooper: It's not that I think I've been pigeonholed in any way. I've played a lot of really diverse characters. However, when I did Lone Star, I got so many sheriff roles. And then when American Beauty came along, I got so many mean father roles. Perhaps it's a backhanded compliment, in a way. Repeat myself is not the word, but I guess repeat character types was something I didn't want to go back to back with. Down the road, I'll play another mean dad, but here, the outstanding word that kept coming out in reviews [about me] was "laconic." And I said, What is this? Laconic? After a while it began to bug me, because I knew I was capable of playing a bigger or broader or more fiery character, but I had not been perceived that way from my work.
So I had been looking for a character like this with some depth and some challenge—and when I drove to New York and auditioned with Spike [Jonze, the director] I did have some trepidation, because I know that in most cases when you go to an audition it's lucky if you have a second reading of a scene. And at the very beginning I took a chance and I sort of pleaded with Spike. I said, "Please give me a chance to show you the variations I can imagine giving you per scene of this character, because he is so many things at different times for each scene." So he liked the idea and we worked on about five scenes and we probably did four and sometimes five variations on how to present this character in this particular scene.
BSW: I guess I'm surprised that you even have to audition still. Was it more of a meeting or was it an audition where you were one of many actors showing up that day?
Cooper: This was an audition. I had no idea I [would get cast]. I mean, there were famous faces in the waiting room that I was up against. I did not have the job. Fortunately I guess it paid off, and we also realized that that's the way we would handle the shoot. When we got to our scenes we would try them in various ways, which is kind of unusual. I think many directors have a set idea of how they want to play a scene, and I've never in any other work with a director been allowed such variation.
BSW: Was there any concern that your performance would be all over the place because you were trying so many different things per scene?
Cooper: No. The direction was posed, for example, like, "OK. In this scene with Meryl you're meeting her for the first time, and it's as if you know you're a very smart, self-taught guy. This woman wants to go into the swamp with you. You can teach her everything. You're probably one of the foremost authorities on orchids. You think very highly of yourself, and maybe you feel that she should feel lucky that she's in your presence." Next take: "Try it as if you're completely intimidated by this woman because you're a middle-lower-class Florida redneck and here's this New York journalist who writes for The New Yorker and you may wonder, Well, what does she think of me? So you try it."
BSW: I would imagine that it was surprising for you to see the finished film and to see which takes Spike chose. Was making this film liberating for you?
Cooper: Completely. This was a film where Meryl and I did our most improvisational work. Many, many times we opened the scene with improvisation, worked our way into the scripted part, and then worked our way out with improvisation. That was just wonderful, because for one thing the improvs were set up correctly. A lot of directors don't know how to set up an improvisation correctly, and they bomb. I think it's fair to say that with Meryl's and my training and our years of theatre work, that helps. It was very liberating. Just the surprises that would come from those moments were wonderful. I so wished that some of them were in the film. I've seen the film once, and I don't think any bits of our improv are in there.
BSW: What do you think you'll take from this experience?
Cooper: I come away armed with the feeling that at some point in future work I might be able to work through a problem or help a director through a scene problem by suggesting improvisational work and setting it up correctly. I think it's a wonderful tool. You can completely fail. A great line I got from Wynn Handman, which was essential for acting, was this idea—the combination of concentration and relaxation. If you've got those two working, you can get some discoveries in improvisation.
BSW: What do you think the actor's job is? To serve the director? To serve the material? To serve his character?
Cooper: Again, because it goes with my background of coming from theatre, I was always under the assumption that the director has the total concept of how he wants to present this piece of work. So I put myself in his hands. That may not be wise all the time, but fortunately, again, through having some training—and I'll stress to actors who are trying to get into this business or theatre, Get some training. Get a technique that you can depend on, whether it's for stage—to repeat and repeat night after night what you must come up with—or in film, which is becoming very obvious working with younger actors who don't have training. They can't sustain their work after the four and fifth take, and it's a little bothersome working with folks who don't have training.
But what I was going to say was, Wynn Handman said very early on to us, "Sometimes you're going to work with a director who doesn't know what he's doing, and you're going to have to save yourself." And that doesn't mean throwing your weight around. It means you become your own director in a way to save yourself in what could turn out to be very poorly directed work. But to answer your question, I do start off putting myself in the director's hands.
BSW: Do you have a specific technique you apply to your acting?
Cooper: It varies with each job. I mean there are generalities, yeah. There is sitting in the easy chair and having your first read; there's that first objective read-through. Make no judgment. Just read it. And whatever it calls for—if it's a historical piece, it's the historical research, which was so important working with Stella in her script analysis class. Time and place, besides what's going on here. What was happening in the world? What was happening politically? Know your history. Feed your brain.
Maybe other actors will understand this and other actors will not believe it, but in my head, when I'm doing a scene, the words have the least to do with it. I'm trying to build an emotion. I have objectives that I want in this scene. And I'm also trying to fill my head with many, many other things other than what's going on in the scene, like any human being does in real life. What that helps me do is, because you've rehearsed this scene a thousand times, it helps me not realize what's coming. You know these scenes. You know these lines. It's a sense that if I'm talking and then I'm waiting for your line, I don't want to do that. That's a killer. I want to have my activities. I want to be involved with things. And I want to stay connected with the other actor. But I have a world that I have to create for this character, and that's where the great discovery is, and I think that's where the surprises come. And that's where I think so much good acting occurs.
BSW: Is that the most enjoyable part of acting for you—that time when you're building the character away from the set?
Cooper: Yeah, oddly enough. The homework and using your imagination and in your head going on this trip of the possibilities of, What was this character like as a child? What made him what he is now, today, in this scene? It may sound like nonsense to people, but it's essential to fill out your character. And the viewer may not ever perceive 85 percent of the work that's gone with you inside or the work you've done on the character. But when it works, when it's all working in scene work—and it doesn't happen often, but when it does, you know it—it's just like walking on clouds. You were into this character. You were in the moment. BSW