KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City native Chris Cooper is so in demand that there’s rarely a time when at least one of his films isn’t playing in theaters.
Currently you can see him on the big screen in “The Company Men” (he co-stars with Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones). Or watch him on your TV (via DVD) in the Affleck-directed “The Town.” And Cooper even has a presence at your local book store.
The 59-year-old Oscar winner (for 2002’s “Adaptation”) recently spent some time on the phone discussing his recent work and what’s going on in his life.
—“The Company Men”
In this drama from writer/director John Wells, Cooper plays Phil Woodward, a former shipyard welder who in 30 years has risen to become an executive with a Boston-based conglomerate. But when he loses his job as part of a massive downsizing, Phil’s life spins out of control. Cooper said he wanted to do the film because its timely theme reflects what he has seen in the lives of people he knows.
“For the past 25 years my brother in Savannah (Ga.) has built fine homes,” Cooper said. “But the bottom of that market fell apart six or seven years ago.
“Since then he’s been really, really hustling to get government jobs and to rehab homes, but lately even that’s kind of fallen apart. Recently he did luck into some work at a college near where I live in upstate Massachusetts.
“But he’s told me that over the last six years things have gotten so bad with his own crew members that he’s had to talk people down from taking their own lives.”
While “The Company Men” deals in some heavy themes, Cooper said making the movie just a few miles from his home in Salem was a pleasure.
“I’m not sure exactly how I was cast,” he said. “I don’t know if my name was submitted by the people I work with or if John cast me just because he knew I lived in Massachusetts and he wouldn’t have to fly me to the set. He could save some money.
“In any case, it was lovely to just stay home and be with my wife, Marianne, after a day’s work. Actually, that was the case for both ‘Company Men’ and ‘The Town.’ I did them back-to-back and got to sleep in my own bed every night.”
Cooper has a small but choice role in “The Town,” playing the imprisoned father of Affleck’s character.
“My scene was shot in one long day ... but it was a great day,” Cooper recalled. “You know, Ben’s been getting better and better as a filmmaker. There was a period there where he was not making the best choices in his professional and personal life, but now he’s doing fine.”
Cooper met Affleck on the set of “Company Men,” which was filmed first. That’s how Affleck thought to cast Cooper in his movie about a gang of robbers.
“Jeremy Renner” — a nominee for best supporting actor — “and I met at this prison and spent five hours with the warden and guards. We got a real up-close-and-personal tour of the prison. Up on the wall of the guards’ room were pictures of all the prisoners arranged by their gangs. Irish gangs, Latino gangs, black gangs. ... I t gave me a real feel for the life my character was living.
“We were in a section where there was no division between us and the prisoners. It made a real impression on me, just to soak in the atmosphere and see how the guards deal with inmates. I tell you, it was like watching ‘Scared Straight.’ You’re exposed to that existence, and it shakes you up. It took a few hours after I got home to return to normal.”
Cooper said the key to his character — an Irish gangster named Big Mac — was hopelessness.
“It was important to me that I not make this character in any way heroic. Other guys in the film talk about Big Mac and what a tough guy he was. But I wanted to get across the idea that he was not the guy he used to be. He’s burned out and defeated, and he’s spending the rest of his life in prison ... and given the violence in there, he might not live that long.”
The project closest to Cooper’s heart at the moment is “Knowing Jesse,” a memoir written by his wife, Marianne Leone, about the couple’s son. It was recently published by Simon & Schuster.
Jesse Cooper suffered from cerebral palsy and was a quadriplegic. He died in his sleep at the age of 17 six years ago.
“It’s the story of the Cooper family,” the actor said. “It’s about what a bright boy he was and the triumphs of his short life. He proved so many people wrong.”
The book has been getting rave reviews for its humor and emotion, and Cooper is clearly in awe of his wife’s achievement.
“She worked so hard on this. She did lots of interviews with other families that have lost children. It was hard, but Marianne is determined to get this story out there. I hope it’s especially useful for younger parents in the same situation.
“Medically there haven’t been that many advancements in the treatment of cerebral palsy. But some of the technology now available ... my God, I wish Jesse could have had an iPad. He would have just soared.”
Finally, Cooper said, he just wrapped up work on the new Muppet movie, due in theaters this Thanksgiving.
“I’m so happy with it. I do a hip-hop number accompanied by four Vegas-type showgirls. It’s a real earworm of a song. Not like anything I’ve ever done before.”