The great actor behind so many memorable roles — including his most recent in the new Oklahoma dramedy August: Osage County — comes by the “laconic” cowboy honestly.
He definitely gets C&I’s vote for the greatest Oscar-winning actor whose name you might not be able to put with his memorable face. But you know him: He’s July Johnson in Lonesome Dove, Robert Redford’s younger brother Frank Booker in The Horse Whisperer, the repressed homophobic Marine colonel in American Beauty, a sinister CIA official in the Bourne movies, racehorse trainer Tom Smith in Seabiscuit, orchid poacher John Laroche in Adaptation, and ... and ... and ...
Yeah, that’s actor’s actor Chris Cooper — the guy who has become synonymous with laconic for the many fine roles in which he has played a man of few words. But before the impressive and wide-ranging career arc — from his first major-picture role in Matewan to western masterpiece Lonesome Dove to current project August: Osage County — there’s a funny story about that word.
John Sayles, Cooper’s good friend and the director of five of the actor’s lauded films, had written a modern western called Lone Star with Cooper in mind. While Cooper and his wife, actor-author Marianne Leone Cooper, were visiting Sayles and his longtime partner, writer-producer Maggie Renzi, at their home in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sayles was talking over a spaghetti dinner about a new script he had.
“[I]t sounded like a real good story,” Cooper told AVClub.com, “but at the end of breaking down the storyline, [Sayles] said, ‘... and you’re playing the sheriff.’ ” That came as a “huge, huge surprise,” Cooper said, because since giving him his first big role in 1987’s Matewan, Sayles had never written something specifically for Cooper though the two had become close colleagues.
“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,” Cooper recalled. “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, he said, he put the script away for a week, and when he came back to it, “things started to fall into shape.”
They fell into shape remarkably well: Lone Star, a 1996 small-town-Texas murder mystery that also stars Matthew McConaughey and Kris Kristofferson, went on to audience and critical acclaim as Sayles’ most accomplished film (one that, as a review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared, “captured the zeitgeist of the ’90s as successfully as Chinatown did the ’70s”) and Cooper’s proof — not that he needed or wanted any — that he could more than capably carry the lead (romantic, at that) of a great film.
In the new August: Osage County, which hits theaters nationwide on Christmas Day, he has a key supporting role. The screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play tells the story of what ensues when a sharp-tongued matriarch dying of mouth cancer (Meryl Streep) summons her dysfunctional family (Julia Roberts as eldest daughter) back to Oklahoma (Osage County) after her husband (Sam Shepard) disappears. Cooper plays Charlie Aiken, the timid and, yes, laconic brother-in-law to Streep’s hardly shrinking Violet Weston. The movie got a standing ovation when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and Cooper got a unanimous thumbs up.
August director John Wells had worked with Cooper before, when he helmed 2010’s The Company Men (also starring Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones), a story about middle-aged men facing corporate downsizing. Wells personally offered Cooper the role of Charlie “for which I was so thankful,” Cooper says. “August: Osage County is such a great script, and when I went to a screening of the film in July, I was really proud of what I saw.”
As Charlie Aiken, critics agree, Cooper is a standout in what might be the movie’s best scene. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, who called the film a “fat juicy steak of a drama marinated in corrosive comedy,” singled out Cooper’s face-off with on-screen wife Margo Martindale for highest praise. In it, the normally meek Charlie finally stands up to the abusive Mattie Fae, Violet’s younger but no-less-misery-making sister, refusing to let her continue to belittle their son (BBC’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch). “The strength of that scene says something about what’s missing in the film, which is intellectually and emotionally engaging moment to moment but slightly lumpy in terms of overall flow,” Rooney opined. “The sad, heated exchange between Charles and Mattie Fae has more sensitivity, more raw feeling and more sense of the couple’s history than any other scene in the movie.”
That’s in great part due to the fact that Cooper always delivers the goods (as does Texas native Martindale, who won an Emmy in 2011 as criminal matriarch Mags Bennett in Justified ). A sensitive, observant actor who digs deep to understand what he’s meant to convey, he comes prepared for shooting — and he doesn’t brook actors who don’t. But even if he is highly focused, he’s not all-work-and-no-play.
“He’s really sneakily funny,” Leone Cooper says of her husband. “One of the things I most love is how much he can crack me up. People think of him as serious — no one gets his antics side. He has a highly developed antics side. I wish more people saw that.” (Audiences did have a rare opportunity to watch the straight-faced man rap as oil magnate Tex Richman in 2011’s The Muppets.)
Meryl Streep apparently agrees with Cooper’s wife, once suggesting that the hardworking actor should give himself a break and try to have more fun on the job. Cooper and Streep — who nails the role of a non-nurturing mother responsible for inflicting so much damage on on-screen daughters Julia Roberts as Barbara, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, and Juliette Lewis as Karen in August — first worked together in 2002’s Adaptation, for which Cooper won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor. “Meryl has really taught me to enjoy the process of acting and to not take it so seriously,” he says. “I’ve really tried to carry that philosophy forward in some of my later work — to just relax more and get a kick out of it. I think my work has gotten better after taking her advice to heart.”
His serious and intense approach might have something to do with Cooper’s formative years as a hardworking kid on a ranch in Missouri. The son of two Texans — his mom was a homemaker and his dad was a doctor in the Air Force who was also a cattle rancher — Cooper once described himself as having grown up a “blue-collar cowpoke” in Houston and Kansas City, Missouri.
“On the ranch in Missouri we had two sections of land, and in the springtime we weaned the calves from their mamas and had a roundup — pinning, tattooing, and castrating the males,” Cooper recalls. “My father and I raised about 350 head of Herefords. If I hadn’t gone into acting I think I would have seriously considered ranching as a livelihood — I really enjoyed that lifestyle. Thank goodness I didn’t do it because I realized later how physical ranching is. But as a kid I put in miles of barbed wire, and working with the cattle out in the country was pretty wonderful.”
He found time for movies, of course, and was inspired as a youth not by special effects-driven flicks but rather by strong reflective stories focusing on human interactions and human behavior. “That’s what got me interested in this business,” he says. “The classics that still draw me in today are One-Eyed Jacks, starring Marlon Brando; anything with Montgomery Clift; and John Wayne in Red River.”
In 1975, Cooper left the family ranch for the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied both agriculture and drama (he thought acting classes might help him overcome his profound shyness). That mixed background — part aggie, part actor — would make him ripe for westerns during the resurgence of the genre in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and some memorable movies would take advantage of Cooper’s unique qualifications. “I was a young man during the tail end of the westerns, and my life experiences have served me very well to tackle these kinds of roles.”
After college, Cooper moved to New York to pursue acting. A little more than a decade after his years spent in the saddle punching cattle, he was getting paid to get back in the saddle in front of a camera. His first major big-screen outing wasn’t as a cowboy, though; it was as a compassionate labor organizer in the 1920s coal fields of West Virginia in 1987’s Matewan. But even in that film, the camera seemed to capture something of the quiet cowboy. A review in Variety noted Cooper’s “strong face and Harrison Ford good looks” (it was the era of Indiana Jones after all) and credited him with “[giving] the film its heartbeat.” (For his part, Sayles says Cooper has a kind of “haunted quality” that reminds him of Gary Cooper.)
Then came a string of outright cow-boy stories. Cast as July Johnson, the Arkansas sheriff hunting for Jake Spoon, in the Larry McMurtry-penned 1989 epic miniseries Lonesome Dove, Cooper went on to star as a good guy who falls in love with and ultimately marries a Chinese immigrant threatened (but for his saving help) with prostitution in an Old West Idaho mining town in 1991’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, for which he won a Western Heritage Award, and then as Anthony Blessing, the father of an old cowboy and former sheriff awaiting execution in the 1992 CBS TV western Ned Blessing. In 1993’s miniseries Return to Lonesome Dove, he reprised his role as July Johnson, and three years later he costarred in the critically acclaimed contemporary western Lone Star as the reluctant Sheriff Sam Deeds, who has little heart for the politics of his job on the Texas-Mexico border.
Continuing his western run, Cooper costarred with Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer in 1998. Cooper’s ranching and riding background made him a natural to play Frank Booker, the younger brother of horse-gentler Tom Booker (Redford), who sets out to rebuild the lives of a traumatized young girl and her injured horse.
“We worked good long days on horseback and the film felt pretty true to life,” Cooper says. “My life and work on the ranch in Missouri all came back pretty comfortably. [It] was such a beautifully shot film. We had a drive through a spectacular valley in Montana that I think could hold half of Manhattan. There was Robert on horseback on one side of the valley and I was on horseback up on the other side, and we were signaling to each other on how to proceed to round up the cattle.”
Five years later Cooper returned to the equine theme in Seabiscuit, the inspiring true story of the champion Thorough-bred racehorse by the same name. He plays Tom Smith, a once-successful racehorse trainer who has fallen on hard times. First seen living as a hobo, the soft-spoken trainer (in real life, Smith was known as “Silent Tom” for his quiet nature) is hired by Seabiscuit’s owner, millionaire automobile magnate Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), to make something of the overlooked mustang. A team of three ostensible losers — the has-been trainer, the vision-impaired jockey, and the undersized horse — overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to win races across the United States during the Great Depression. Their victory is both per-sonal and national and gives the beleaguered country something to believe in. And it gave audiences something to cheer.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best writing (based on the 2001 Laura Hillenbrand book), and best cinematography, Seabiscuit turned out exactly as Cooper hoped it would. For that, he gives a lot of credit to director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games), who also adapted the screenplay.
“Ross and his crew came up with some pretty innovative ways to move in close on those racing horses,” Cooper says. “I remember seeing some of the camera trucks and the runs they would make during the races. I don’t know if that kind of sideways filming has ever been accomplished in any other movies.”
Cooper remains especially fond of his opening scene, in which he is getting ready to run down the mustangs. “[It] was just a beautiful setup and a beautiful introduction to my character. I was very proud of that film and it was great to work with Jeff [Bridges]. He is a good man.”
As for the wranglers, Cooper has worked with many over the years and sincerely marvels at the quality of their horsemanship. “They bring their own well-trained horses and give the actors good riding workouts even if you say you know how to ride,” he says. “It’s always good to get on the horses and train — get some good pointers so that you either look good on horseback, or, if your character is not the greatest horseman, like July Johnson, my character in Lonesome Dove, the wranglers helped me to look like I didn’t know how to ride very well.”
In spite of his strength in western and equine-related stories, Cooper was not typecast as the laconic cowboy (if he’s been typecast at all, his wife says, it’s as “the guy who’s barking out orders”). Instead, he has enjoyed a reputation as a director’s actor able to handle just about any role, from a toothless hippie horticulturist orchid thief in Adaptation to the voice of Douglas the peacekeeping cockatoo in Where the Wild Things Are. And in the spring, he’ll star in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Oscorp founder Norman Osborn, before the creation of his alter ego, the Green Goblin.
But of all the diverse roles the multifaceted Cooper, now 62, has brought to life on-screen, the western remains close to the heart of this Midwestern ranch kid. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Lonesome Dove miniseries, he reflects on his fondness for the genre and his pride in having appeared in one of the best westerns of all time.
“The production team [of Lonesome Dove] really respected the period and were true to it. I feel that many of today’s westerns take license with that time in history.” Not so, he says, with the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit with Jeff Bridges stepping in for The Duke. “That movie was really terrific,” says Cooper. “I remember commenting to my wife after more than one viewing that to my mind that was what the West was like. You had these riding paths and could go for miles before finally running into another rider coming from another direction. Just that setup for a western was so unusual but rings so true.”
Would he do another western? Cooper doesn’t hesitate: “Any time there’s a great script and story about that period I’d love to be involved with it. I just wish there were more westerns coming out that were treated with the respect they deserve.”
When they do cast another western that’s given due respect, look for Cooper to be that guy who bares just enough of his soul to keep you on tenterhooks. Don’t bother labeling it laconic or anything else that aims to pin down what makes his still waters run deep. Just put the name to the face and watch the man work.