By Sean Axmaker
Chris Cooper made his film debut in John Sayles's Matewan. In the 20 years since, his career has been defined by a remarkable wealth and variety of interesting characters and intense performances in films as diverse as Lone Star, American Beauty, Seabiscuit and Capote. He won an Oscar for Adaptation and his unsettling incarnation of CIA traitor Robert Hanssen in Breach was mesmerizing. He takes another rare leading role in Ira Sachs' Married Life, an unusual genre mix that combines period style and a story of adultery and one man's plot to murder his wife with a comedy of manners approach and a serious conversation about love and desire and marriage and relationships. I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Cooper about Married Life, married life, and a career playing such a diverse and memorable set of characters.
Harry Allan, the character you play in Married Life, decides to kill his wife because it would be - in his mind, anyway - kinder to her than a divorce.
Yeah, he's a little narcissistic there, a little full of himself. So in love with his wife it would be better not to confront her with a divorce so, yeah, he decides to put her away gently.
And yet he's a sympathetic character in a lot of ways. How do you play a character like that who, in real life, would likely be institutionalized for thinking that way?
You don't work for the evil side of this man. I'd say, for the most part, he is a gentle man and always has been except for his needs in this relationship, which he's not getting. He's looking for that romance and affection and his wife just has a different point of view. Add to that, probably to his fault as well, the marriage seems to be falling flat so, like a whole lot of men, he seeks it elsewhere. But he's certainly made a terrible choice. Instead of doing the honest thing and confronting her with a divorce, he chooses something else.
Patricia Clarkson's character has a defining line: "Love is sex. The rest is affection and companionship." Harry is more of a romantic; in his own words, he aspires to be truly happy in love. That's two opposites in the conversation of love and marriage. Where do you personally fall in the conversation?
I think you really have to work at it. I think, unfortunately, that a lot of men think once they're married and comfortable, they don't have to put much effort into their relationships. My wife [Marianne Leone] is a very strong woman, very independent, and she really keeps me on my toes. I've come to realize that and it's gotten to the point where she doesn't need to keep me on my toes. I realize I have a part to play in the relationship, too. I need to show interest in what she does and inquire about what she does. I think it's a huge give and take and I think it's a struggle. Not a struggle, but it takes work to keep that relationship interesting and not let it fall apart and not let it fall flat.
Do you draw from your own life and experience when you play a character like Harry?
Not so much with my married life, but there have been relationships that I've had before where I certainly recognized it and I really learned my lesson. As a matter of fact, the previous relationship that I had, we knew how to push each other's buttons in the wrong way, and from that, there was a bit of antagonism. After that relationship, I was really determined not to make that mistake again and I tried my best to stick to it, because I realized there was no reason to push those buttons. There were places that I just will not go in the relationship I have with Marianne.
It's an unusual combination of comedy of manners and character drama with a bit of 40s film noir, but it’s played with a light, almost comic touch. I think its more ironic than an actual comedy...
That's the word, that's the word. Ironic.
But there is a certain lightness to the way its played that has more in common with romantic comedy than drama.
Yes. And I think Ira was very, very aware that something like this script could fall into cynicism and he really wanted to work against that. I think Pierce Brosnan turned in a great performance; he has some great, light comic moments in there, and we all tried to not play it too hard, not take it too seriously. There are some scenes where we really tried to play it for real but Ira was there steering us toward a lighter touch. We were very aware of it and hoped it would come across.
The cast of Married Life is top notch. Does that help you bring out your performance?
Sure it does. Absolutely, absolutely. It's like, and not to make light of their talents, if you want improve your tennis game, you've got to play somebody that's better than you. And when you have talents like that, it's just a reminder to look at who you're playing these scenes with. You've got to do your best. When you're working with a less competent actor, it's almost like you've got to work harder. But working with these talents, it's a great thing; they keep you on your toes.
In your last ten or twelve movies, you have been a part of some very good casts.
I think so. If I do say so myself, I'm very strong about my choices. There were four very recognized films this year, and I'm sorry but I'm just not going to mention them, but there were four films that have gotten huge recognition this year that, for one reason or another, I passed on. But I have no regrets. I had problems with the scripts and I've seen the finished product and my instincts, I feel, for the characters that I was approached on - I think I made the right choices on passing on those pieces.
I'd like to ask about another character you've played that has some very troubled relationships, among other things: Robert Hanssen in Breach. He's absolutely corrupt on so many levels. When you play a character like Hanssen, do you have to find a part of him that you can relate to? Do you find a psychological path into his motivations? How do approach him?
There was so much material to draw from. There were five, if not six books that came out shortly after his arrest. There was also a book by Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller, they co-wrote a piece that took a lot of license and they dealt with more of his inner demons. But the other four or five books - certainly some of it became repetitious because it covered the same ground, but some of them went as far back to interview some of his classmates, some of the people that just worked across the hall from him at the FBI, some of his relatives. There was a world of material to build this character on, though once he was apprehended, the big question was: "Why did he do this?" He's never told anybody why, but I think we pointed out, at the very end, two or three possibilities as to why he did it. I certainly came up with my idea of why he did what he did, why he became a spy. But I had terrific building blocks from all those books to get a picture of Hanssen that I could develop and work with. There was a lot of material out there.
The character you create is so specific and detailed, in his body language and in his manner with everyone, it's so off-putting and yet it feels so authentic and real.
We were real lucky, we had Eric O'Neill [the FBI agent who investigated Hanssen, played in the film by Ryan Phillippe] with us before we shot; Ryan Phillippe and I had him for a good week. We had a thousand questions to ask him and we spent time breaking down computers - and I'm completely computer illiterate - but he was a great source. I had no audio and I only had maybe 30 seconds of video that was taken by the FBI at the time of his apprehension. So it got to the point where I asked Eric to give me his best impersonation, and I really couldn't apply that to the character because his delivery was so slow and he was such a lethargic man that [director] Billy Ray was saying, "You know, if we keep at this pace, we’re going to have a four-hour film. We've got to pick it up, we've got to move along." And so it's not an impersonation, but I hope some aspects of the man came across.
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