April is Actor Month at TFE. Here's Jose in conversation with one of our best.
In person, Chris Cooper exudes the same suave charm he has onscreen, when we sit down to discuss his work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition and I refer to him as “Mr. Cooper” he shakes his head and says “call me Chris”. From his oddly approachable John Laroche in Adaptation, to his tough but sensitive Tom Smith in Seabiscuit, Cooper has perfected the art of creating “the memorable everyman”. In Demolition he plays Phil, a man who must cope with the death of his daughter in an accident, and has to learn how to forgive his son-in-law Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) for having survived. Most of Cooper’s scenes involve harsh encounters with Gyllenhaal’s character, who has lost all sense of societal propriety rather than paying tribute to the legacy of his wife.
When I speak to Vallée about the qualities his cast brought to the film, he explained “I observe and try not to interfere with the actors, they use all the space around them, they put stamina and spirit into it”, you can see this in the way with which Cooper in particular moves as if he’s completely unaware that his character exists at the service of a story. He couldn’t seem more comfortable in this fictitious man’s skin if he tried. I spoke to Chris about his process, how he uses external elements to discover the men he plays, and to celebrate Actor’s Month we ended up discussing his favorite thespians.
Our conversation follows...
JOSE: Can you share some insight about how you find your way into the characters you play? Do you find something in common with them?
CHRIS COOPER: Pretty basically everyone’s different. Every character to my mind requires something a little different. Right off the bat I look for the story, then I look at the director and the other actors. Early on in my career I tried to follow all the rules and tore myself apart creating character or doing research for the role. I continue to do that, but I have to admit sometimes there are characters that just fit like a glove, and what you’re reading you so relate to, or you can bring your own life experience that this character is going through as a parallel. For example with Phil, eventually whether you’re young or old, you will lose a loved one and that kind of emotion is just right here. You don’t have to beat yourself up as an actor to fill a part or a required portion of the role.
JOSE: I was curious because there are many scenes in which Phil says some real ugly things to Davis, and I wondered if as an actor you discuss the other characters’ backstories with the actors who play them?
CHRIS COOPER: No, I learned early on that you don’t do that. To a point I would confer with Polly Draper who played Margo, my wife, just to get a rough idea: where did we meet? How long have we been married? Are there problems in our marriage or do we feel good about it? But then she’s going to fill in the very particulars of what’s in her mind for her character and I do the same for mine. You work on an outline with the other actor, but there’s a stopping point.
Right, cause probably Phil and Margo’s impressions of who their daughter was are completely different too.
Exactly, there are things she knows that I’m unaware of.
You were very involved in creating the office of Colonel Fitts in American Beauty, was that particular to that character or is that something you do with most characters?
That particular incident was because that was his room and it was no man’s land for anybody else. From there you could imagine how that house was run, how was the feel in that house. I talked with my go-to-guy for military work and government work, he worked both sides of Canada and the US in the postal service so he had a lot of background in that and the military. I went to him and for that film he had very specific stuff. Sometimes it’s just not the case, you’ll be so blessed with a set designer and what they’ve provided you, that you couldn’t imagine a better environment to work in.
So it’s not like you picked Phil’s suits for instance?
We spent a good amount of time talking wardrobe. I’m very interested in the psychology of wardrobe and color, and what a suit, shirt, shoes...what can they suggest that I’m not aware of. I think people in costumes appreciate that.
You mentioned you have a go-to-guy for military advice, and having played all these military characters, I wondered if you ever think about the similarities between making films and military rank for instance.
Not really, we’ve done enough films, we know the routine. You make a good point, it is like the military, and I’ve always got the sense that if by the second day of production the people in charge can’t almost read each other’s minds, the film is in real trouble. Chances are great all these crew people have worked together time and time again.
I thought it was funny when I read once that you said you were always operating on fear when you work, because fear is the last thing I associate with how relaxed and confident you seem onscreen.
Early on I studied with Wynn Handman who was a disciple of the Neighborhood Playhouse, Stella Adler, Bob McAndrew, all these guys are very well known and they bring their own talent to how they’re trying to shape or work with an actor. There’s nothing wrong with fear, as long as when the camera rolls it’s gone. You need to be invested in your scene and character. My fear of failure, of not coming across, of my character not being as full as I hope, sure, I don’t see anything wrong with that kind of fear.
Do you have any rituals to dispel these fears?
Sure, I came from theatre. I didn’t do a film till I was 35, but I’d done 15 years of theatre. Working onstage night after night after night, making my mistakes and learning from them, and finding a technique that I could always depend on. Your timing as an actor for when this scene is coming up, this scene is happening next week so you start preparing for that, but today you’re shooting this scene. People often ask actors if we take our characters home and no. I don’t take my character home with me, but when I’m home I’m thinking about tomorrow’s work, looking at the script and what’s coming up in the next few days. I don’t take the character home but he’s on my mind.
Having done theatre first, was it easy to get used to the permanence of screen acting and how once it’s done it’s done?
Bob McAndrew had a very specific film technique class, back then in the 70s and 80s, most of the people in class came from theatre, but his class was about how to work small for the closeup. We learned subtlety, in theatre you project - I don’t know if they’re mic-ing everybody now or what - but I had a little bit of help easing my way into film by taking those classes. We shot our scenes on Super 8 and it was a great lesson. If you can stand to watch yourself, and a lot of actors can’t, it’s a great tool. You can see what works and what doesn’t.
It’s not terrifying, it’s just theatre (smiles).
We’re celebrating actors this month, who are your absolute three favorite actors?
Most contemporary, and you will see him just once every three or four years, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis. His work is fabulous! Breaks my heart in many respects to realize, or to think that an actor like Harvey Keitel has to go to Europe, maybe he preferred that, but American cinema never found much for him to do. Maybe there was a little difficulty working with him? I don’t know. But I love watching his performances. The talent pool is huge, it’s hard to pick, but honestly Jake [Gyllenhaal], he’s making stronger and stronger choices in his characters and the films he does. He’s very brave.
Demolition opens in theaters this weekend.