“That’s the joy of acting for me—to get into a whole other character’s skin,” Chris Cooper, an Oscar winner for his supporting turn in “Adaptation,” said during a recent Dallas stop to promote his new film, “Married Life.” It’s a period film noir, in which he co-stars with Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams as Harry Allen, a man who plans to kill his wife in order to spare her the pain of his leaving her for a much younger woman, only to find that his spouse and his best friend have other ideas, and the follow-up to Cooper’s turns as CIA turncoat Robert Hanssen in “Breach” and as a far more loyal FBI investigator in Peter Berg’s “The Kingdom.”
The hectic schedule, Cooper admitted, was a change from his normal practice. “I’m not one of those actors that I’ve got to do something all the time,” he said. “I really like the break. For me it keeps the business fresh. And I don’t live in L.A., and I can really step away from the business and live a normal life under the radar [in Connecticut].”
But Cooper’s intense method also explains his aversion to a heavy schedule. “Half of my enjoyment is the research that’s involved,” he explained. “When I get a script—and I try to get a script as early as I can…I’m going to be working on that script every night. I like to do my work in the evening, when the house is quiet and I can really concentrate. And I will do that seven days a week—I don’t feel comfortable not doing it. And it’s just a joy for me to delve into the character so I have enough going on in my head, and in some scenes more going on in my fantasy world and what I’ve created…than what is going on in the scene. And from the training that I had early on, it’s almost as though the words aren’t so important as what’s going on inside the character, what thoughts are going on. So I can fill myself up with a world.
“The audience isn’t going to get 5% of what’s going on inside my head, but that’s just my training. And it’s a comfort, and it’s a confidence that I have—or need. The whole idea is filling yourself with character.”
That process, however, was threatened by circumstances this time around. “I was the first actor on board for this script [‘Married Life’],” Cooper explained. “We’d been trying for a year and a half to get it going. And we lost financing, we lost actors, and at one point we just thought we were not going to be able to do the shoot. So I went into another job [‘The Kingdom’] that was going to be a five-month shoot in Mesa, Arizona.
“Then I got word that we’d gotten these other actors and now we’ve got the money for ‘Married Life,’ and we want to go. So it’s something I do not like to do, two jobs at the same time over this five-month period. Any time I wasn’t working in Mesa, I’d take a flight up to Vancouver and work on this film. But as luck would have it, it really worked out, because I got to work in a solid chunk with Pierce, and then I came back and did all my pieces with Rachel, and then I came back and worked with Patty. Thank goodness the two production companies worked out a schedule so that there was no problem there.”
And the rigors of double shoots didn’t prevent Cooper from his usual practice of “filling” himself with his character. “When I really started turning it on was when I knew that we were going to shoot this thing,” he said. “I probably had two-and-a-half months to study it before we started shooting.” When asked about how much of a backstory he constructed for Harry, he replied simply, “Everything. I mean, Harry’s well-to-do. Well, how is he well-to-do? He inherited a lumber company from his father. His mother and father were killed at an early age. He was sent to an aunt. Why has Pierce got a British accent? Because the aunt sent him to a boarding house in England. This is the stuff we created for ourselves. Patty and I worked on the particular timeline—just the particulars, because each actor got to go off into his own world and branch off and make it even more particular. We crave doing that…filling ourselves up with the background.”
Cooper described much of Harry as deriving from his own family memories. “In 1949 my grandfather was in his fifties—he was born in 1898,” Cooper said. “And that would make him around [Harry’s age]. All these jobs call for different forms of research. Sometimes you’ve got to dig deeply, like with Hanssen, for the character. And there was plenty of material available for that. But these are fictional characters. I certainly looked at what was happening at the time, in ’49, but really what I relied on was my reminiscences of my grandfather and my grandmother’s relationship, and my mother’s and my father’s. My father was a doctor, and we never saw him at breakfast. And we’d be lucky to have dinner with him. If we did have dinner with him, we always ate late, 8:30 or 9:00 o’clock. Then he did house calls, and would go back to evening rounds at the hospital. Now Mom and Dad loved each other. Dad put Mom on a pedestal. But I know that there were periods where my mother had just about had it, and Dad, being a doctor, wouldn’t understand it. He was just an innocent, naïve man. He lived in his office, with his patients. And my mother was a beautiful, attractive woman, and could have had a number of lovers. And I think Dad would never have known.”
Summing up his approach to acting, Chris Cooper added, ”I take it seriously. I don’t want to put my energies into something I’m not 100% interested in. I try to make good choices and work with other talents I want to.
“It’s a great experience.”