The Lone Star

The day after Chris Cooper won this year's Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance as the obsessive orchid lover John Laroche in Adaptation, he threw the little gold guy in his carry-on bag and came home to Kingston. He had just wrapped the longest film shoot of his career — five months in Los Angeles, New York, and Kentucky, for this summer's Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling biography of the legendary racehorse — and he was just plain homesick.

He missed his wife, Marianne Leone, an actress (The Sopranos) and screenwriter, and his son, Jesse, 15, who had grown an inch and a half while Cooper was gone. He missed walking with his bichon, Goody, in the bird sanctuary near his house. He was hungry for the food at Tuscany Tavern and Martha's Galley in Plymouth, and he wanted to spend some time on this big rock ledge that looks out over Plymouth Bay. He even missed the tellers at his bank. He took them a couple of bottles of Champagne.

To hear Chris Cooper tell it, sharing that Champagne with the bank tellers was the most dramatic moment in his homecoming after winning Kingston's first Academy Award. He put the statuette on the hutch in his dining room among some plates and teacups, and lots of folks in town keep coming in and out of the house. “They all want to take a look at it and hold it,” he says. “So it's out in the open for whoever wants to gaze on it.”

He sounds kind of calmly pleased, but maybe that's just because most people would be calmly pleased to have an Oscar on the hutch, with folks coming in and out of the house to look at it. His flat Missouri accent is hard to read.

There's some room for interpretation.

Chris Cooper has been out in the open, for whoever wants to gaze on him, for a while now. After performances in prestigious independent films including Matewan (1987) and City of Hope (1991), both directed by John Sayles, he became known to a wider audience in 1996 when he played a Texas sheriff in Sayles's Lone Star. Since then, he's had a run of memorable roles in successful movies, playing what he often refers to as “concealed” characters — whose true feelings, or true identities, are kept hidden, sometimes even to themselves. He was a distant but loving father in October Sky (1999), a repressed military patriarch in American Beauty (1999), a spymaster in The Bourne Identity (2002), and a toothless, stringy-haired, thin-skinned scientist/con artist/pornographer in Adaptation, loosely based on author Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief.

Now, with Seabiscuit — widely expected to be one of this summer's biggest hits — he's commanding a new level of respect. Tobey Maguire, his costar, says, “This guy is the best actor out there. Period.” Cooper, who has long suffered the character actor's fate of being known to audiences only as “that guy,” has finally become a bona fide star at 51. And yet, despite his newfound fame, even the people closest to him say that an abiding unknownness may be his most distinguishing characteristic. He is, in reality, much like the men he plays onscreen — an enigma. A concealed character.

“There is a bit of mystery about him,” says John Sayles. “He's not a gabby guy. There's that kind of haunted quality that Gary Cooper has.”

It's a quality that comes through even in the first shot of Chris Cooper in his first starring role, as an early union organizer in Matewan. He's shown riding a train, wearing a newsboy's cap, his mournful eyes just visible over the line of the newspaper he's reading. Then he pulls the paper down, revealing a lopsided, curled-lipped expression that could be just about anything — disdain, fear, pride, or anger.

Describing scenes like that one, Sayles says, “Some of what I was trying to build up in the beginning of Matewan is, Who is this guy? He's a mystery. Which side is he on? He is definitely watching more than acting right away. He's trying to get the lay of the land. Gradually, you find out who he is. But you don't right away. And everybody is watching him, trying to figure, Okay, which side is this guy on?”

Bottom line, says Gary Ross, who directed Seabiscuit — and he's talking about Chris Cooper the actor again, not the character — “This is a guy who doesn't show you how the sausages are made.”

Most movie star profiles consist of a brief psychobiography, usually based on no more than 120 minutes of togetherness between a journalist and a performer. This togetherness actually constitutes a meaningful connection in Hollywood, where intimacy is claimed in roughly the amount of time it takes to drink a quarter of a cocktail.

I spoke to Chris Cooper by telephone twice, for a total of about 64 minutes, hoping I might get some questions answered, or at least figure out what the questions are. In that amount of time, most of the actors I've interviewed have managed to give me the impression that I was gazing into the depths of their souls, that we were discovering some new truth that I was uniquely qualified to midwife. Like the scene in Adaptation when Cooper's character, John Laroche, tells journalist Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), “I was a weird kid. Nobody liked me. But I had this idea that if I waited around long enough, someone would come along and sort of understand me. . . . And just like that, I wouldn't be alone anymore.”

When Chris Cooper answers the phone, you don't get the feeling that he brings similar expectations to the interview. He's totally respectful and thoughtful and game to answer anything you want to ask. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking we're going to make some breakthrough here. For instance, ask Chris Cooper a classic movie star-profile question — “How does it feel to get all this recognition after so many years of just being 'that guy'?” — and here's what he says: “Well, I mean in the last couple of months [he coughs] word came back to me, okay, yeah, you are up for these various awards. And, okay, a few months down the road, there's the presentations. That was a period that I was in the middle of shooting Seabiscuit, that I had to juggle these events, the Golden Globes and, you know, the different things. And they were very exciting, they were very enjoyable — all kinds of combinations of everything — very scary, very intimidating. And now it's over. [The way he says “over” is “o-ver.” Two separate, weighted syllables.] And it's great. And I have, you know, okay, received this recognition, and the evening of the Oscars my wife and I celebrated, and it was wonderful. It was wonderful for those couple of evenings. It's over. [Separating the syllables again.] It's ancient history. And I'm just looking forward to the next job.”

It's a patient, tolerant answer to, really, a pretty stupid question. The kind of question people start asking you when you do something like win an Oscar. The kind of question people ask because they hope the magic wand of fame makes everyday life more colorful, clearer, and more focused than the black-and-white murk of our own humdrum lives. The kind of question Barbara Walters's career is based on.

In Adaptation, John Laroche wheels around at Susan Orlean, who's fascinated by his obsession with orchids because she wants to care as deeply about something in her own life.

He says, “Why don't you get your own fuckin' life, your own fuckin' interests?”

I thought it was nice of Chris Cooper not to say something like this to me.

Given that my false expectations of false intimacy with Chris Cooper weren't panning out, I dialed into the network of film people who have worked with him on various projects. But the primary insight yielded by this technique is that even the people who've known Cooper longer than 64 minutes flail when they're pressed for anecdotes about him.

“Chris — to be honest with you, well, I was going to say he's an enigma or a cipher to me, but that's not true,” says Seabiscuit director Gary Ross. “I mean, I love him, and we're good friends. I wouldn't even say 'friends,' so much as great colleagues. When we intersected, it was with a huge amount of passion and energy, but it was on a completely professional basis. I honestly don't know that much about Chris Cooper.”

Cooper's colleagues prefer to talk about his screen presence. (Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, says, “He's got such soul. That comes across in his eyes.”) Or his work ethic. (Meryl Streep, his Adaptation costar, says, “He's very attentive to the needs of the scene. There's a real give-and-take with him. I wish I could work with him on every movie.”)

Of all the directors Cooper has worked with, John Sayles is the only one who's become a close friend. Cooper says, “The film business is a kind of gypsy's life. It's a very intense working relationship when you're doing the job, and then people have a tendency to move on to other projects and become intensely involved with the people on those projects. That's at least the way I've observed it, you know, going from job to job.”

So I ask Sayles if there is something amazing he can tell me about the time he spends with Cooper. Does Cooper have a world-class Scrabble game, a secret artichoke pasta recipe, a perfect impression of W. C. Fields? “We just get to yakking,” Sayles says. “You know, nothing special. Going to Boston, there's always the lure of fried clams.”

But, yes, there is a story here. Before the fried clams, there were the meat and the potatoes.

Chris Cooper grew up in Missouri, the son of Mary Ann, a housewife, and Charles, a doctor who also raised cattle. On hot summer days, he would sit in his parents' air-conditioned bedroom listening to the cast albums of Oklahoma! and South Pacific and dream about life on the stage, a dream that began to take shape when, at 17, Cooper began working backstage at a local restaurant theater.

At the University of Missouri, he became so frustrated by his own shyness that he forced himself to get serious about acting. “I wanted to be more outgoing. I envied people's wit and their humor and their being able to socialize. I thought that acting would be a big help,” Cooper says. “And it has. I don't consider myself shy anymore.” (Meryl Streep says her first impression of Chris Cooper was, “He seemed very shy.”)

In 1975, after graduating from college and working briefly with his father raising cattle, he took off for New York with four of his friends. As he pulled out of the driveway, his very practical father said to his more artistically minded mother, “Don't worry. He'll be back in two months.”

For the first week he lived in New York, Cooper was so intimidated by the big city that he didn't dare wander beyond a few blocks of his apartment. Then he started going to acting class, where he met his wife. He played on Broadway and off, and began getting film roles. Then he and Marianne had Jesse and moved across the river to Hoboken.

When Jesse, who has cerebral palsy, got to school age, the Coopers came to Massachusetts because of this state's comparatively progressive record of mainstreaming children with disabilities, and because Marianne has family in Plymouth.

In 1985, his father visited the set of Matewan, and after that he stopped checking the driveway to see if his son had come back yet. His dad, before he died in 1989, finally came around when he saw how hard his son was working.

Chris Cooper talks about other human beings with unusual respect. But when he talks about his father, that tone intensifies: “He was a very strong, moral, and, in a lot of ways, very innocent, naïve man, but really the greatest example of a gentleman that I have ever come across.”

In films such as October Sky, Cooper has made “strong, strong use of memories of my father and of our relationship and memories of his friends.” And his connection with his dad may help account for his gift for portraying with striking empathy and grace outsiders and people with old-fashioned values, the kinds of characters who are poorly understood, and often patronized, by movie actors.

Maybe having a son with a disabling disease helps account for this, too. But I didn't ask him about it, because I felt it would be like asking if I could come over for supper sometime.

Wherever it comes from, it's pretty clear from 64 minutes on the telephone, and half a dozen conversations with his colleagues, and 10 hours or so of watching his movies, that this is a guy who knows there's more to being a person than being what counts in Hollywood — beautiful or financially successful or charismatic. And what's more, this is a guy who's never really questioned whether Hollywood's right and he's wrong.

Preparing to play John Laroche, for instance, he says it helped to know some fishermen on the South Shore who “have lived very rough lives, but they're extremely smart. If they had the opportunity, they could become CEOs or, you know, they could rule the world, but through the circumstances they didn't get the breaks.”

In his acceptance speech for the Golden Globe that he also won for Adaptation, he said, “You have given millions of stringy-haired and toothless people a lot of hope.” He wasn't just being flip.

In the end, for all I know, Chris Cooper's got a drawer full of Prada sunglasses and a groovy pad with an infinity pool at the foot of the “Y” of the Hollywood sign where he meets Charlize Theron and Kirsten Dunst for monkey sex every other Tuesday afternoon. Maybe I really haven't solved the mystery of Chris Cooper, because maybe I don't even know what questions to ask.

At one point, while talking to Meryl Streep, I ask her what she would be interested in reading in a profile of Chris Cooper. I figure her answer will reveal some secret knowledge, and then we'll all know! She says: “You know, because I've done so many of these things, I feel the burden of them. [She flings out burden with this funny, high-pitched inflection, fires it off like a candy-coated rubber bullet.] And I don't read them because of that. I just know how the person feels who's having it done to them. [Same inflection, again.] No offense. [Ha-ha.] It feels horrible. [And more ha-ha, and maybe she's got her hand to her forehead, rolling her eyes so you'll laugh along, too — so you'll get it, but it won't make you feel bad.] Everything feels misconstrued. Everything is reduced. [The pace picks up, the litany of bother.] You feel the burden of putting your friends on the spot, and they have to talk about you. You're horribly embarrassed. Everybody is mad at you after it comes out. [You're laughing with Meryl Streep now, through all of these words, at the whole fact of your talking. At the idea that you could solve the mystery of Chris Cooper. And you're wondering, What can a profile of Chris Cooper do? What, in the end, is the point? She sighs. There's a beat. Then she tells you.] And the only person who's happy is your mother.”

So the case is still open, the mystery unsolved. Let's just hope that Mrs. Cooper — you, Mary Ann, out there in Kansas City — let's hope she's happy.