Despite a distinctive craggy look and an instantly recognisable voice, Chris Cooper has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors, playing everything from an upstanding sheriff in Lone Star and a rare-plant collector in Adaptation (a role that won him an Oscar), to a treacherous FBI agent in Breach. Now, in Ira Sachs’s exceedingly odd melodrama-noir-comedy Married Life, Cooper plays Harry, a philandering husband who decides to spare his wife (Patricia Clarkson) the humiliation of a divorce by murdering her. We spoke to Cooper at Toronto in September.
How much of this movie’s tone – or the mix of tones – came through when you read the script? It seems like it would be very odd on the page.
It came across as more of a dramatic piece the first few times I read it. And then as I read it more, I began to see the possible touches of comedy...There’s a formality to the script, to the dialogue, that was a little scary. That’s something that both Patty Clarkson and I spent a lot of time talking about.
How did you prepare? Did you watch movies from the period?
No. For this one, my preparation was really my own memories. If I do a timeline of this character, that guy is my grandfather’s age. Harry was born in the late, late 1800s. Harry may well have been a soldier in World War I. Here he is in 1949, age 53. Of course, I looked into what was happening in the 40s and 50s at that time. The Kinsey report was coming out, polio was a big epidemic, World War II had ended, and I thought of it as a sort of highly romantic period, the late 40s.
Is that your process for other roles?
[They] require different avenues. Breach was a whole ’nother thing. There were five or six books out about Robert Hanssen, and I devoured all of them. I dare say there are some times when a character or a role comes your way, you don’t necessarily have to kill yourself to understand the character.
Are there directors that you specifically look to work with?
The talent pool of directors out there is monstrous, but it’s not like they’re going to call me. This is I think the third film feature that Ira’s done, and I must say, that’s taking a chance, putting yourself in the hands of a new director. I have no regrets.
What’s the difference between working on a production like this versus something like The Kingdom?
With a production like Kingdom and a character playing a supporting role like I did in Kingdom, there’s a lot of downtime. I can handle that, I can keep myself busy, but I think I like the schedule and the structure of something like Married Life. You know, I consider Bourne Identity, that franchise, very intelligent. I guess a lot of people would put it in the action genre. Kingdom is, to my mind, the first action film I’ve ever done.
Do you like doing work with a political edge?
It’s fine with me. Syriana was strongly political, but it’s informative… I thought Syriana was, in some respects, kind of difficult to follow. But that’s how layered that particular issue is.
What are your future plans? looking forward to next?
I’m looking forward to doing my wife Marianne Leone’s script that she’s written and we’ve been trying to get done. It’s a story that’s very dear to us and an important subject that’s entertaining, but it’s also a serious subject that we want the viewers to take a look at.
What’s the subject?
The story is the fight of a mother in the state of New York. Her fight to get her twin daughters, who had developed cerebral palsy at birth; it was her fight to change the laws and be able to get those daughters into public education with assistance.