The strong cheekbones, the deliberative, world-weary line delivery: Almost everything about Chris Cooper suggests a damaged sense of decency. Which makes him the perfect actor to get away with committing indecent acts on-screen.
In “Married Life,” Ira Sachs’ wickedly dark comedy of 1940s manners, Cooper is soft-spoken adulterer Harry Allen. Harry is in love with the platinum-blond Kay (Rachel McAdams), who makes him feel needed in a way his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), cannot. Harry doesn’t think Pat can take the news.
Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, David Richmond-Peck
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 7 Mar 2008 (Limited release); 2007)
So he does the only humane thing. He plots to kill his wife.
And somehow, part of you wants him to pull it off and live happily ever after.
Now that’s acting.
“There’s a certain everyman quality to Chris as a performer on the screen,” Sachs says, sitting next to his star at a Dallas hotel. “I think people have a lot of empathy for him, and we needed Harry, who does such bad things, to be someone the audience can root for on some level. They’re not sure what they’re rooting for him to win, but they care about him, they understand his pain. Chris brings that quality in spades.”
When Harry, in his gray business suit, calmly plans to poison his wife, it’s easy to picture all-American Jimmy Stewart spying on his neighbors in “Rear Window” or obsessively molding the appearance of Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” Hey, it’s Jimmy Stewart. He couldn’t do anything wrong, could he?
Harry is the kind of part that Cooper might kill for. OK, maybe not kill. But the 56-year-old Kansas City native has found himself in a casting rut of late. Like Harry, he’s had too much of the same ol’, same ol’, and he wants a way out.
“I think I’ve reached an age where I’m reading a lot of military men and FBI men and CIA men, and I’m about ready to put a stop to that,” Cooper says, battling the same bronchial ailment that recently laid his director low. “I think I’ve done that already. Before that, I played one or two very stern father figures, and then it was all mean dads. Now I’m fighting against that. I’m looking for light pieces, some mature or intelligent comedy. I’d like to give that a try.”
It’s no coincidence that his favorite role to date was John Laroche, the loopy, dentally challenged orchid hound of 2002’s “Adaptation,” which he calls “the most laugh-out-loud fun I’ve had on a job.”
“There was a certain kind of clarity and lightness in that performance that I thought was so attractive in an unusual character,” Sachs adds.
“Adaptation” was also the film that won Cooper an Oscar for best supporting actor, at which point filmmakers and casting directors got back to the business of pegging him as a military man (“Jarhead,” “The Kingdom”) and an FBI man (“Breach”).
There’s one thing Cooper won’t be pegged as: a Hollywood guy. He lives in Massachusetts, where he recently took a year off from acting to renovate his house with his wife. “I did three jobs in `06, and to be honest it was the first time I got burned out,” he says. “I was away from home for seven months. I don’t like to do that.”
People will stop him in the grocery store and ask him a question about this film or that. He politely obliges and goes about his day. “Life has remained very normal, thank goodness,” he says. “My notoriety is not such that I can’t handle it.”
And with any luck, and some imagination from the film industry, he can soon return to making movie mischief.
In a decent way, of course.