Exactly one year ago, the lanky, laconic Missourian Chris Cooper—an actor who can out-stoic Gary Cooper—stood on the stage of the Eccles Theatre at the Sundance Film Festival and started to cry. Asked to explain the inspiration for his role as one of The Company Men’s three downsized executives, Cooper mentioned his brother, a home builder who had been out of work in Savannah for more than a year. “He has, several times,” he said haltingly, “tried to talk his crew members out of taking their own lives.” It’s hard to describe the effect this had on the audience. It was startling and not unlike seeing your father break down for the first time.
Cooper suffers from what he calls a crippling shyness. “Talking off the cuff is an impossibility for me,” he says now, but “seems to me you have to respond truthfully. When you start talking about your brother, you want the audience to know that everybody can relate to this.”
Cooper’s brother has luckily found work, but The Company Men—out January 21—is no less relevant. “I just hope it’s not like these films about the Iraq War, that it’s so close to people that they don’t want to really take a look,” he says warily. The film, directed by ER creator John Wells and co-starring Ben Affleck, is primarily about two things: how jobs define us and how we process the fear when the jobs disappear. For Cooper, who plays Phil Woodward, a former shipbuilder who responds to being laid off with futile rage, work has always been about fear. When the script for 1999’s American Beauty arrived, he nearly backed out of one of his best performances. “I got more and more depressed about this Colonel Fitts character,” he says. “My wife said, ‘If you fear it so much, chances are it’s something you should definitely do.’ She was absolutely right.”
Perhaps he should thank anxiety the next time he accepts an award. “At [the University of Missouri], I just got very irritated with myself. I had things to express, but this shyness was killing me,” says Cooper. “It was killing any chance at romance. So I started to audition for these pretty damn good plays.” The actor’s nearly pathological honesty found the perfect outlet in New York’s Sanford Meisner school of acting, which defines the craft as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That’s where Cooper met a young teaching assistant, the writer and actress Marianne Leone. When he finally proposed, Leone asked what took so long. “Scared,” he replied.
Cooper’s first successes were onstage, and they might have stayed there if Leone hadn’t introduced him to director John Sayles, who cast him in 1987’s Matewan, a film about West Virginia coal miners. It proved to be a career-making performance and the start of a beautiful friendship: Cooper went on to collaborate with Sayles in five films, most memorably in 1996’s elegiac Lone Star, an all-too-rare leading role. Cooper is a consistently brilliant supporting player whose natural bluntness and reserve have led to regrettable typecasting—as military men or policemen (Lonesome Dove, The Kingdom, Jarhead) or their reverse, CIA double agents (Breach, Bourne Identity). “You get to a certain age, and you get put in these boxes. For a while, it was mean fathers,” says Cooper, who points out that when he finally won an Oscar, it was for a role 180 degrees from his comfort zone: the toothless, Meryl Streep–shagging, porn-selling orchid hunter of Adaptation. “It’s funny—you get your recognition, and then nothing like that ever comes along again.”
Cooper and Leone had a son the year Matewan came out. Jesse was born early, with cerebral palsy—a quadriplegic whose tiny body was wracked by seizures. “I stopped doing theater shortly after we had our son,” says Cooper. “It breaks down really simply: eight plays per week. Each time, you’re getting to bed at two o’clock or so, and—I’m just talking about me personally—as soon as you wake up late, you’re thinking about the performance again. That’s where I need all my concentration to be, because I just don’t trust what they call ‘my talent.’ And it just wasn’t fair to the family. Jesse’s needs were really great, and it put a lot of responsibility on Marianne. After a while, I couldn’t respect myself, you know?”
Cooper and Leone had been living in a sixth-floor walk-up in Manhattan before Jesse was born. And they didn’t have health insurance. Cooper was helping to pay the bills with random daytime jobs, like installing wet bars in the closets of Upper East Side apartments. “My life experience is what I brought to [The Company Men],” he says. “After one job, the next thought for [every actor] is Will I ever work again?”