Since his first film and television appearances in the late-eighties, actor Chris Cooper’s filmography has come to include blockbusters (The Bourne Identity, the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2), comedies (Me, Myself, and Irene, The Muppets), Best Picture nominees (Seabiscuit, Capote), a Best Picture winner (American Beauty), and his own Oscar win in 2003 for Best Supporting Actor for Adaptation.
Cooper will be back on the big screen in limited release on Christmas Day, in the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play “August: Osage County.” The film centers around the Weston family, the disparate members of which return home following a family tragedy. Cooper gives one of the standout performances in the film as Charles Aiken, who must reconcile his strained relationship with his wife Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), particularly as it relates to their son “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch).
In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently enjoyed a conversation with the incredibly talented and personable Cooper about his work in the film. Here’s what Cooper shared with me about making his second film with both director John Wells (The Company Men) and Meryl Streep (Adaptation), shooting the twenty minute scene at the center of the film, and playing a member of a troubled family in August: Osage County.
Jackson Truax: In 2003, you won a very well-deserved Oscar for your work in Adaptation. What impact did winning the Oscar have on your life or career?
Chris Cooper: I’d probably be the worst person to [answer] that. There have been some slow years. On the other hand…some very nice scripts came my way… I think I was working on Seabiscuit during the awards. That was certainly a wonderful opportunity… [The Oscar] certainly hasn’t changed my life that much. I’m still living in the same raised ranch. And working about…two films a year. Which is just fine with me. That keeps me pretty busy. It was a wonderful night. But I don’t think it has really impacted my life that much. I live in Massachusetts. People are wonderful there. I think we, on occasion, get a slow car passing the house. An occasional knock on the door. But that’s about it. People have been very, very nice.
JT: You were also in the Best Picture winner American Beauty, for which you shared the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble Cast. That was such a meaningful and significant film to so many people when it came out. When you were building your character or filming those scenes, was there any awareness of what the film was saying and how important it was?
Cooper: I would agree, that it seems to be a seminal film for a certain period of young people. Still, it comes up. We felt pretty confident people would either love it or hate it… I still question those that ask me, or mention the film, “What was it that was so important? Did the children of that period relate to that kind of upbringing? Or that kind of malaise in their life?” It’s still a little mystery to me.
JT: Getting into August: Osage County, you’ve worked with some of the most acclaimed directors working in film today, and you’ve now made two films John Wells. What is it about working with John Wells that makes him unique?
Cooper: I think he would say that casting the production would be one of the most important steps for him… I must say that most directors, when they feel confident that they have…cast their productions correctly, you give the actor free reign. I certainly realize the weight and responsibilities that a director has on a production. So I want to come prepared. I want to come with a lot of variety. And make his job as easy as possible. More and more, there’s very little time for rehearsal in film production. August: Osage County was a great example of all these powerhouse people coming in very prepared, and very little time wasted… That’s what John might say is…the most important aspect of his directing. I certainly want to stay open to a little tweaking here or there if I’m not giving him what he wants. But all of us, I think, we all knew the importance of this film. The great, great writing that Tracy [Letts] has given us. We wanted to give it everything we possibly could.
JT: One of most successful elements of the film is the extent to which the chemistry among the actors makes this family feel so real. As a cast, did you do anything to build that chemistry, either on or off set?
Cooper: The person I most deal with is Margo Martindale. We have been very, very good friends as far back as our early, early theater days at Actors Theater of Louisville, where we met… I saw her in a lot of productions. We didn’t work in any productions other than “The Informer,” an Irish play. But I don’t know as we traded any lines in that production. But I saw her do a lot of material. She was as talented back then as she is today. About six months before we got into shooting August: Osage County we did a…play for radio…and had a ball. I think with all that trust and love, I think that helped that relationship come alive.
JT: What did she give you as a scene partner that was the most helpful in your performance?
Cooper: Just renewing that friendship. I spent most of my time with Margo and Meryl. And we lived right next door to each other. So we’d sit down for a glass of wine at sunset on the back porch. And talk about old times… It’s just a lot of love and trust in that. I’m convinced it comes through in the relationship.
JT: You and Meryl Streep worked together on Adaptation and reunited here over a decade later. Did the experience of working together feel the same? Or did each of you having had an additional decade of professional and life experience change anything at all?
Cooper: Working with Meryl in Adaptation was a real, real lesson… Before and while working with her, I had a tendency to maybe take the work a little too seriously. There was an instance where I really took what she said to heart. Because it came from Meryl. She taught me to enjoy the process a little more. Don’t take it so hard. I think my work over this decade may have improved a little bit since then.
JT: One of the standout scenes in the movie involves the whole cast at the table together for an extended period of time. What were the biggest challenges in filming that scene?
Cooper: That’s an eighteen-page scene. We got it down to twenty minutes. The bulk of the lines are great, great work from Meryl. But I think we all knew that there’s a lot of humor and horror in this table scene. One very important thing is, move the scene along, move it along. Don’t take too much time with it. There’s a lot to say and a lot to cover. We got together several nights before shooting the scene… We read it many, many times and felt comfortable. And then we left it alone until we got to set. Because then we had to add the blocking, and drinks, and plate movement and thinking through that. We kind of left that very loose. I don’t think we were terribly conscious of trying to match every take. I think it was shot so that we didn’t have to worry about that.
JT: Your character, Charles, has a very well-drawn character arc. He’s trying to keep peace in the family, in a way that feels quiet and gentle, until the scene where things come to a head between Charles and Mattie Fae. What were the challenges of building and following that arc, and was it something you’re conscious of as you’re performing any given scene?
Cooper: I was going over that, too… It kind of dawned on me, that in this case, Mattie Fae is always disappointed; And giving this boy a hard time. Apparently, this is something we have not confronted. We have not talked about. We know at the conclusion of the film, we will get Mattie Fae’s side of the story. But here’s an aspect of Americana, where we’re not talking about what’s in front of us. I’ve observed in America, we don’t talk about death. We always try to make this country “The Happy Country.” This is the country of the Happy Meal and Disneyland and “Let’s not make any waves.” And don’t embarrass yourself. And that’s as unfortunate as a family that shows it’s real dirty, ugly underbelly. And is so tough on each other. I think it’s just…it’s the other side of the coin.
JT: August: Osage County is opening during the heart of the holidays, where a lot of people will be seeing movie with their families. Why should audiences seek out August: Osage County and what do you think it has to offer them that’s unique?
Cooper: I think they will love it or hate it. I think this will be, certainly in the holiday season…a time where they will thank their lucky stars that they don’t have a family like this. Or they will know that their family is not the only one who has such friction.