From American Beauty to Adaptation, Seabiscuit to Syriana, Chris Cooper is never showy, rarely even scene-stealing, but he leaves an indelible mark on all of his films. And after years of meticulous, considered decisions to work with directors like John Sayles, Joel Schumacher, Robert Redford and Sam Mendes, this very picky actor (he turns down most scripts that are offered to him) made the leap to leading man in last year's Breach, playing true-life American traitor Robert Hanssen. He's also got top billing in the forthcoming Married Life, Ira Sachs' 1940s-set crime drama about an adulterous salesman convinced that murdering his wife is better than putting her through the humiliation of a divorce. Co-starring Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams and Patricia Clarkson, it's the sort of old-fashioned drama they rarely make these days, which is precisely why Cooper loved it.
Having seen Married Life for the first time, what did you think of it?
I was very, very happy with it. I'd seen an earlier cut about four months ago and it just hadn't come together, so it was a pleasant surprise. And I'm so happy that audiences got the humor in it.
What was the difference between that early version and the final cut?
The director had a brand new opening with credits; he added a lot of new music; he brought back some scenes that the actors missed; he injected previous little shots at important moments to remind the audience, like the pouring of the poison into the aspirin bottle — just good reminders of what was up. And thank goodness for Pierce [Brosnan]: he really carried some difficult scenes and did a great job.
There's nice interplay between the two of you, especially as your characters are so different but also best friends.
It was nice. Ira's a very smart director and a puppet master; he set up evenings between Rachel [McAdams] and me before we shot, just so the actors could get to know each other. I know Patty [Clarkson] very well — we've worked together — but he'd set up dinner dates with Rachel and me and, another evening just before we began shooting, with Pierce and me. We had a really great evening together, just talking about family and our work, so that when the day came for us to work together, we already had a nice connection. There was just a little touch of history and it was very helpful.
You're renowned for reading a script several times before you decide whether the role is right for you…
I think you have to because you can certainly miss roles in reading a script just once and making a snap decision. No, I'm cautious.
So what was it about this one that caught your attention?
Having read scripts for years, a lot of it is gut instinct. I was the first actor aboard on this — which is kind of unusual — and I stayed with this script for a year and a half before we got into production. We had a lot of highs and lows in that year and a half. There were other actors who came aboard and, at the last minute, dropped out for whatever reason and there was a point where we thought that it was just not going to happen. I'm a person who does not have a string of jobs down the line, so I'd looked at a studio script — The Kingdom — and got on board with that, and then come to find that Pierce and Rachel and Patty all of a sudden had come on board. I still wanted to stay with this production, so for five months I was juggling The Kingdom and Married Life.
Were there any adjustment problems going back and forth?
The two production companies worked out a schedule where I could fly up from Arizona to Vancover when I had any time off on The Kingdom to work on Married Life. And I was very fortunate that on those trips back and forth, I was able for the first portion to concentrate on working with Pierce and the second time to work with Patty and then Rachel. It was an unusual way of working, but it worked. But I really like to do one job at a time and then I like to go back home, be with my wife and recuperate before I find another project. That makes sense to me. I don't like doing one after another or combining.
Being so cautious about scripts, what are you looking to jump out to you as you're reading them?
It's both the story and the character. I've been labeled as this big character actor and that's fine. I certainly do not want to virtually repeat myself time after time. I guess there are actors whose general make-up you want to see time and time again because they are just very entertaining but, you know, I don't feel that comfortable. I guess I suffer from the insecurity of thinking that perhaps I wouldn't be that interesting playing myself time and time again. I like the challenge, for instance, of a film like Seabiscuit, where this guy was 15, 20 years older than me. I know who the studio first approached and those guys are 15 and 20 years older and fortunately, for whatever reason, it came down to me after they passed on it. Very scary, but a great challenge. And if I'm going to spend this much energy and time in a production, away from home, away from my wife, I want it to be worth my while.
Is it just coincidence that you've played so many military men?
I have a military background — I was in the US Coastguard. But that whole thing is just how the industry works. Go back a little while, when I was doing October Sky with Jake Gyllenhaal — for six months or a year after that, all I got offered was these “mean father” roles. After The Bourne Identity, it was CIA or FBI guys. As far as the military thing, it's just what comes my way. With Jarhead, Sam Mendes just gave me a call and asked if I would help him out. That was really only two scenes, maybe four days worth of shooting. [My character in Jarhead] is a pretty stereotypical military guy, but it was at the last minute and I was just helping Sam out. I understand that they call it show business and that people are hesitant to take a chance, so they rely on what they've seen before.
But the role you won the Oscar for, John Laroche in Adaptation, was quite unlike any you'd ever played before.
I will be forever grateful to Spike Jonze. He really went out on a limb for me. The audition process for that was so interesting. I loved that script and that character so much and I saw so many possibilities in the way I could play him, that I did about an hour and 45 minutes audition with Spike, pleading with him to give me the time to show him different interpretations. It was one of those scripts where I just saw too many possibilities. With most auditions, you're lucky to get a second reading. But we worked on four or five scenes and I gave him three or four different interpretations for each and he had it all on video. I think that was one of the more… not comical but there was a dry humour to the character and a quirky side to him that, for a piece that I've received the most recognition for, none of my other characters are like that.
With Breach, some bigger names tried to muscle in on the project. Is that a problem you've had on other films?
No, it's not a problem, it's just in that particular instance, I got the script early and whether it was in the trade papers or whatever, talking about how good the script was, I knew that bigger names were going to try and jump on it. I'm not a person who calls, but in this case I did. I called the head of Universal who was at that time Stacey Snider and I said to her, “I know the bigger names are knocking on your door and if you choose to go with a bigger name, just understand that I understand.” But she stayed with me and [director] Billy Ray had a voice in it and he said, “No, I want to work with Chris.”
After Breach and Married Life, have you reached a stage where you think you'll be considered for more leading roles?
I don't know. I mean it's great to think that as a 56-year-old, I am in a better position in many ways than bigger names because on the one hand, if there's a little supporting role or a character that I think I can have fun with and do something with, it's my choice and I don't think maybe the bigger names are allowed to take that chance. And on the other, for the first time I'm considered the lead in a studio film — Breach — and it's great. Whether that's going to happen again, I don't know. Breach certainly made its money back and everybody's happy. Maybe they'll take a chance again.
Do you turn a lot of things down?
Yes. And believe me, I don't have any regrets. I mean it's great, directors and writers are very bold — you have to be in this business — and I get sent stacks of material. And I may do — this is a conservative estimate — one in 50 scripts.
Are you planning to star in Hurricane Mary, the script your wife Marianne has written about the legal battles a family fights on behalf of their children with cerebral palsy, which your son died from?
Absolutely. We're still trying to get the money but it's a project that's very dear to our hearts. It's an important film, it's not frivolous by any means, and she's written me the part of the pro-bono lawyer who is behind the family. In the film I'll be able to verbalise what I was always too tied up emotionally to say when the same thing was happening to Marianne and me.
It could be a cathartic experience.
Yes, I have a lot to get off my chest in that one.