You've played a remarkable wealth and variety of interesting and fascinating characters in your career. What do you look for when you are offered a role?
On occasion I'm going to have to, but I don't like to repeat myself. I love the challenge of really going out there. I was scared to death but I loved the idea of playing Tom Smith in Seabiscuit, a man that was 15 to 20 years older than me. I know the actors that Universal initially approached and they were all a good 12, 15, and a very well known actor we all know, he's 20 years older than me. But for some reason or other they passed and the role came down to me. And it was scary but on the other hand, it was a great challenge and a lot of fun. I like to work physically and with voices and just get out of myself, get away from myself.
Is there a role that you passed on, for whatever reason, and then have thought, "I wish I'd taken that role?"
I'm sure there is. [Pause] But on the other hand, the roles in both Adaptation and American Beauty, particularly American Beauty, the more and more I read that script, it seemed so dark that I was really tempted to pass on that. I was sort of afraid of the role and my wife really gave me a great thing to remember. She said, "Well, if you're that frightened, you should do it." And I'm very grateful for that. For Adaptation, I just thought that nobody has ever cast me as a character like that and my chances of getting that role, I thought, were near impossible. But I was so captivated by the character and I saw the character possibility going so may ways. It was an unusual audition with Spike Jonze. I told Spike I couldn't give him what I thought was one definitive idea of this character so we worked on about four or five scenes and I gave him three or four different interpretations of the character. It went on for about an hour and a half and thank goodness he let me do that, which is, if you're at all familiar with the audition process, very unusual. American Beauty and Adaptation are some of the big boosts in my career, as far as recognition, and also I've learned a lot of lessons.
You made your feature debut in John Sayles's Matewan. How did that role come to you, or did you come to it, and what had you been doing before landing the role?
I believe I was 35 when I got that role in Matewan. I had done about 15 years of theater before that and, as a matter of fact, before the audition for Joe Kenehan came up, I was in England at the West End, the Haymarket Theater, doing a Tennessee Williams play with Lauren Bacall. It was Sweet Bird of Youth and Harold Pinter was directing it and we were in the middle of our seven-month run and I got word that John was auditioning for that film. So on a dark night, I flew back to the States and auditioned and flew right back for Tuesday night's performance. A couple of weeks later I heard that he wanted to cast me for Joe Kenehan.
To go back a little further, I say that that's the first feature. I had done some student films with NYU students. My wife had done a black-and-white, 30-minute film with the director Nancy Savoca for her junior year and Nancy and Marianne remained good, good friends and still are, so my wife and I did Nancy's senior color half-hour film, and through that, Nancy became the first female to win that Haig Manoogian award at NYU that Scorsese always refers to. Then Nancy worked in some capacity on Brother From Another Planet. She was aware of the script for Matewan and she said, "When it comes time to cast this, be sure and read Chris Cooper." So that's how it all came about. Frankly I was very happy with theater and I think it was more or less through the urging of my wife that, thank goodness, I got in to film.
Do you get back to the theater much or at all?
Not too much. I haven't done a theater piece since 1994. What I have done is some summer script development. I did a John Patrick Shanley piece a couple of years ago at Vassar, which was a real good experience, and I've done some pieces where I've had... Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and there's an evening of Trumbo's letters from prison that I did in New York. That's about it. My requirements for theater are, I think, kind of hard on a family because I know from previous experience, you go to bed at about 2:00 in the morning after a performance and you wake up and the first thing you're thinking about is that night's performance. I just don't think it's really fair to do that to your mate. But down the road, Marianne and I have thought about finding a piece to work on together and we may do that at some time.
It seems that the roles you are most well known for are stern father figures, like in American Beauty, or suspicious authority figures, like in The Bourne Identity. But John Sayles casts you as more soulful and introspective characters, like in Matewan and Lone Star, and in Silver City he gave you a marvelous, satirical comic role.
I know, I know, and I greatly appreciate it. I'm trying to put it out there publicly that I'm really trying to put a moratorium on CIA, FBI and military guys. I think I've done it, you know. I've done about five or six of those almost back to back. And maybe it’s the age that I've reached, that's where the parts are for my age group. And I've also said I'm looking for intelligent satire or comedy. I had such a great time in Adaptation playing John Laroche and I hoped there was some comedy in that character, or you'd see a bit of something not so serious. But unfortunately I think that's just the way I'm seen in the business.
It's become a cliché but I have heard more than one director say that 90 percent of directing is casting. What do you think it is that you bring to a film and to a role when someone casts you?
I think I bring all the homework that I've done on that role. I come prepared, but also I'm not so stuck in my interpretation of a role that I can't make a shift when a director has something else in mind. My training was to fill yourself up with a background and, when it's called for, a lot of research. Even for Married Life - it didn't involve so much research, but at the same time, I did take a serious look into 1949 and what was happening politically, what was going on with the country. Something that I just happened on in my research that didn't apply to me I think turned out to be a little helpful to Patty Clarkson's character, and that was that the Kinsey study on sex came out in 1949. I mentioned that to her and I think she followed that through and used that because her character came off, to me, as an almost modern day, very progressive woman for that period.
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