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Chris Cooper on Midwestern Culture, Meryl Streep's Tough Love, and the Making of August: Osage County

If Chris Cooper's screen performances seem uncommonly vivid and humane, that's likely because he's a startlingly atypical celebrity, wearing his rough-hewn humanity on his sleeve, and never saying or doing a thing that feels remotely affected. Within moments, he conveys that he's a man of great compassion, which came in handy for his role in August: Osage County, the new Oklahoma-based adaptation of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and a project that hit very close to home for the actor.

Cooper plays Charlie, a passive, benevolent guy who may just be the most heartbreaking member of a highly dysfunctional clan whose members are also played by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Speaking with DETAILS at New York's Essex House, the 62-year-old actor, who netted an Oscar for his work with Streep on 2002's Adaptation, touched on topics both light (hairstyles, fish sticks) and deeply personal (the loss of his son in 2005). A good-old-boy who somehow wound up in Hollywood, Cooper proves to be empathetic, entertaining, and, thanks to Streep, someone who doesn't whine on the job.

DETAILS: You're from the Midwest originally—Kanasa City, MO—so does that make you the guy on set who showed everyone around, along with Tracy Letts who was born in Oklahoma?

CHRIS COOPER: No, not really. But I'll offer a little side story about roaming around: I'm a huge fan of architecture, and a great fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I had no idea that his one high-rise housing and office complex is in Bartlesville, [which is] right there. And I went on the tour twice during production. I also got a tour of one of the homes he built near there, and Benedict [Cumberbatch] came along. They'd just spent five years restoring this house, and . . . there's just nothing like it. Amazing architect.

DETAILS: If I were to head to that area, what should I check out? Is there a restaurant I shouldn't miss?

CHRIS COOPER: There are a lot of chains along the highway, but there were a couple of family-owned barbecue places that were real consistent and real good. Honest barbecue. But the story of so many small towns is that you used to have the square and the town hall. But on that square, all those store fronts are boarded up, and everything has moved down to the highway—all the chain stores, all the big Wal-Marts. That's just the way America has changed. And I think that's pretty consistent across the Midwest.

DETAILS: Which foods or dishes did you grow up with?

CHRIS COOPER: Growing up in the Midwest, at a time when the frozen TV dinner was really popular, I ate pretty poorly. Some of my most common memories of meals were bread and butter sandwiches and fish sticks. And maybe tomato soup. Then I married a first-generation Italian woman, and she got me on the Mediterranean diet, which probably saved my life. We haven't eaten the skin off a chicken in 30 years. And now I've picked up some of the recipes.

DETAILS: What are some of your go-to dishes?

CHRIS COOPER: One dish that we'll have once every week is Italian sausage with broccoli rabe and penne pasta. She also makes great soups with prosciutto, and beans, and escarole, and great chicken soups with turkey meatballs. So I'm finally eating well, for these last 30 years.

DETAILS: In the film, there's a great tenderness between Charlie and Little Charles, and I know that you and your wife, Marianne, lost your 17-year-old son Jesse to complications from cerebral palsy in 2005. Did you find yourself connecting to that experience in those emotional moments?

CHRIS COOPER: Absolutely. There are so many aspects of this play, and of the character of Uncle Charlie, that I've experienced. Even that countryside is very familiar. I lived a four-hour drive from where we shot this film, and on my days off, I drove up to the Kansas-Missouri line, where my mother lives now, to visit her. I raised cattle with my father in the '60s and '70s. I spent my life out in farm and ranch country. It's very familiar and comfortable. I know those people—simple, earnest, usually pretty religious people. So I didn't have to beat myself up, or do a lot of research for this movie. Everything was very much at my fingertips. And with Jesse, enough time had passed where I could really use my experience, and what we went through.

DETAILS: Was that still difficult?

CHRIS COOPER: It made me remember coming to Jesse's defense. Early in his life, neurologists would say, "Well, he'll never be intellectually normal." And he proved wrong these medical doctors, who you look on as gods, and who are making these statements. They are almost murderers of a kid's potential when they say these things. A parent who will so trust what the doctor says may well give up on that child, but Jesse proved himself to be intellectually superior, and he was studying Latin the last two years of his life. We were making plans for [him to go to] college. But the whole idea of coming to this boy's protection was just right there in the film's material. And the one-sentence summary is that it's just unconditional love.

DETAILS: And with Uncle Charlie, this idea of unconditional love, and defending one's son, comes to a head when he finally has it out with his wife, Mattie Fae, played by Margo Martindale, who's cruel to Little Charles. Are you a lay-it-all-out-on-the-table kind of guy or do you prefer to sweep certain things under the rug?

CHRIS COOPER: Oh, it's just part of me, and part of being an actor, that you want to discuss—you want to dig. But I think there are a lot of things America just doesn't like to talk about. We're a culture that's starting to force the discussion of issues, political or otherwise, but this is too often the land of Happy Meals and Disneyland and "don't make waves."

DETAILS: It's been a little more than a decade since you won the Oscar for Adaptation, another partnership with Meryl, and your career has since flourished. What's do you value most about that span of time?

CHRIS COOPER: Working with Meryl in Adaptation played a great part in what went on for the decade after. There's one little story, and journalists have got it really wrong and it's pissed me off, so I'm going to clear it up. We were shooting a scene that I didn't think was going well and I had a tendency to beat myself up, and bitch, and moan. So here we are going back to our marks to do another take, and I'm talking to myself. Then I hear this little voice behind me, just whispering: "Stop whining." And it's Meryl. And coming from Meryl, I took that to heart, and I thought, "you take this business too seriously. You got to learn to enjoy it more. Lighten up." And that has stayed with me, I think to my benefit, all these years.

Photographs courtesy of The Weinstein Company
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