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Chris Cooper – A Real Contender

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Chris Cooper stars in "Silver City."

Chris Cooper stars in “Silver City.”

Chris Cooper

A Real Contender

by Brad Balfour

Actor Chris Cooper didn’t need a crystal ball to figure out how to make his character in Silver City — the bumbling local politician running for governor of Colorado — resonate in this hard-hitting reflection of our times. His campaign becomes the backdrop for investigator Danny [Huston] to solve a murder that involves pollution and illegal immigrants. Loaded with an incredible cast that includes Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Richard Dreyfuss and Kris Kristofferson, the film offers parallels with a certain Presidential candidate and illustrates how smoothly this Oscar winner (for Adaptation) can slip into a role. A consummate character actor, Cooper has risen through the ranks to become an A-list actor who has starred such hits as The Bourne Identity, Seabiscuit and American Beauty. Now he joins his old friend John Sayles in this timely, provocative tale of crime and politics.

It's no secret that the character you play in Silver City, Dickie Pilager, is modeled after George W. Bush. He’s also probably the dumbest character you’ve ever played.

I just think he’s a strong believer in what he’s doing. He’s got this whole born-again thing. Pretty obviously he’s stumbling along in politics but first and foremost he believes. John said that Dickie Pilager was a man who doesn’t have the imagination to consider his beliefs seriously and what that entails. That said a whole lot to me. He can be passionate and really not know what he is talking about.

Did you do any research to get the character down?

I’m a bit of a news junkie and watch too much news, so these politicians are in my face every day. This was one of those situations where I didn’t have to beat myself up with the research. It’s there in your face every day.

Did you watch any older Bush footage?

No, I didn’t do that because it’s not an impersonation. If it were, I would have done a better job. There is no doubt there will be some recognizable bits in this character. It was a lot of fun with a character I can relate to.

There are a lot of great male roles in Silver City. What made you pick this part?

John originally came to me with the intention of playing Kris Kristofferson’s character of [billionaire] Wes Benteen. That was fine with me. If John requests my services and I can then I will be there at any time. A good month or so later he got Richard Dreyfuss as the manager which was a big relief which gave him a good age range of the other characters.

You and the rest of the cast must have had some interesting political conversations.

Getting picked up from the hotel in the van there was Kris and Richard who are two guys that are politically active going back to the 60’s. I wish I could remember specifics of it but it was always political talk. We were busy during shooting, so our heads and hearts were in the movie.

It's been seven years since you last worked with [writer/director] John Sayles (on the successful 1997 film Lone Star.) Was this one a different experience, especially since you won your Oscar?

I think it averages out to one movie every five years. It’s not different at all. We have a great working relationship. John depends primarily on his casting, so his actors come to set with strong ideas. There is no rehearsal time in a Sayles film other than the blocking rehearsal. If you want to talk about a particular point that bothers, then he will talk about it for a few minutes, but time is money. The Oscar has changed nothing. It’s always what is in the script.

Has your life changed after winning the Oscar?

It has not changed one bit. I flew home to Massachusetts after that delightful and surreal evening but thank God life went right back to normal. I think the nice thing is that I don’t live in Los Angeles; the business is not part of my everyday conversation and my friends are carpenters, historians and teachers. We have a lot of other things to talk about besides the film business.

What do you attribute to your recent success?

I’m very happy with my choices but frankly I take my work… maybe, "seriously" isn’t the right word, but I have a great respect for this business. There are things I hate about it and things I love about it. If I am given the responsibility of playing a character, I’m constantly working on that script to help better develop the character. I take the work seriously but it’s a thorough utter joy in what I do. The only thing that keeps me interested and keeps my respect about the business is my work ethic.

When you work on a huge Hollywood movie like The Patriot or The Bourne Identity there are script changes all the time. Is it difficult for you?

One of the most frustrating jobs was The Bourne Identity. The script was unfinished, and we would get to the end of a 16-hour day, and we didn’t know whether we were going to shoot the next day because the scenes hadn’t been written. That was consistent from day to day. But then it’s very interesting that you find a way to work into that. The actors really find another way of working together because this material is coming at the last minute and help each other just to memorize the lines. It was a nightmare. But it’s just something you have to deal with.

Were you surprised at the result?

It came across very well. I think it was a little more of an intelligent film for that genre. I was pleased but it was [producer] Frank Marshall that saved the day for that film. They were more prepared for the second film. I’ve been approached to do films that I knew were going to be huge box office hits and they were. I would be rolling in money today because of them but I said no. Down the road someday I may be some superhero figure.

How do you pick your scripts? Something just strikes me. I’m pretty much open to any film. It always begins and ends with what’s on the page. I don’t know if it’s the Oscar or what but right now the approach is "We have this script and if you’re interested but have some problems then we’ll develop and rewrite it." I’m not a writer and I don’t know the first thing about improving a script. If it’s a finished script and it’s interesting, then I’m interested. I don’t understand all this development business. I have been talked to like that a lot of times and all I can picture is that I’m being forced into a corner. They’ll give me this ethereal thing if I commit and I’m not about to do that. If I’m not familiar with the director or the writer I will look them up on the IMDB to see what they’ve done before that can tell you a lot. I think it’s essential to see what you’re getting into. Also I want to know what other actors are attached and do I respect their work. There are a few things I like to consider. Obviously, John sets the bar for you in terms of quality screenplays, so how does a Charlie Kaufman screenplay compare? Charlie Kaufman is kind of a shadow figure. He was at the initial reading and he was lurking around occasionally during the shoot day. It’s also unusual that a writer is invited onto set as Charlie was. Other than hello how are you? That was about all that was said. I respect him but he’s a very shy individual. He’s done his work on the script, so I think he knew his place once the cameras started to roll.

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: September 22, 2004.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2004 Courtesy of Newmarket Films. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2004 Courtesy of Newmarket Films. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2004 Courtesy of Newmarket Films. All rights reserved.

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