Chris Cooper: The man who played a patriot in American Beauty is now turning traitor in Breach
The way Chris Cooper sees it, he had one of two career choices. He could be a cattle rancher or pursue his dreams to become an actor. "But the bottom fell out of the cattle market in the Seventies so I decided to take my chances," recalls Cooper, 56.
Considered one of Hollywood's most respected actors, it took time and determination to reach that place: "Acting wasn't the kind of thing that boys did where I grew up. It was considered a rather sissy profession. My father, who was a hard-working doctor, thought I was out of my mind when I told him of my decision."
Cooper's father would most likely have had his worst suspicions confirmed had he seen his son – dressed in a leotard – attending ballet classes at the local Stephens College for Women. "But those dance classes were important because making a total fool of myself every day in front of a classroom full of women really helped me break out of my shyness," he reflects.
Following a tour with the US Coast Guard Reserve to avoid being drafted to Vietnam, Cooper left the family's 1,280-acre Kansas cattle ranch to study drama at the University of Missouri before moving to New York where he trained with famed drama teacher Stella Adler. Appearing in several on and off-Broadway shows in the early Eighties, he even took part in a British production of Sweet Bird of Youth directed by Harold Pinter.
But success came slowly, and by the time he made his well-received film debut in John Sayles' coal-mining drama Matewan in 1987, his joy was tinged with sorrow. He married his college sweetheart, the actress Marianne Leone, that same year, and the couple's son was born prematurely and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. While privately struggling to cope with a much loved son with special needs, Cooper's professional dreams failed to ignite when Matewan turned out to be a commercial flop.
A turning point came two years later when he was cast as July Johnson in popular US TV mini-series Lonesome Dove, proving that he could hold his own against formidable co-stars Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. Following that performance, work began to pour in steadily, with roles as Robert Redford's brother in The Horse Whisperer and as Uncle Joe opposite Robert De Niro in Great Expectations.
But it wasn't until 1999 that he finally received a broader recognition following his compelling performance as despotic father Colonel Frank Fitts in American Beauty, and later winning an Oscar for his portrayal of eccentric orchid grower John Laroche in Adaptation. Subsequent roles as conflicted jockey Tom Smith in Seabiscuit and taciturn agent Alvin Dewey in Capote.
An old-fashioned kind of actor, slow-spoken and thoughtful, he specialises in somewhat gruff, surly roles, having played similarly hard-nosed characters in Syriana, Jarhead, October Sky and The Bourne Supremacy. But for all of his cinematic triumphs, Cooper is the first to tell you that success is no protection against tragedy, having buried his 17-year-old son Jesse two years ago.
Together with his wife, the couple have become tireless advocates for special needs for children suffering with cerebral palsy. Discussing his son's death in a recent interview with The Improper Bostonian, Cooper said: "I think he [his son] improved my acting throughout his life, and his death has fed certain emotions. That may sound rude to a reader, but this is what actors do. We draw from our emotions and from life experience and we bring that to our characters if we can."
The actor is choosy about his work, rarely accepting a role until he's gone over the script numerous times. But when he was offered the role of real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen in espionage drama Breach, he signed on immediately. "As a rule, if I'm interested, I'll give the script three or four readings before I make a strong decision. But this was unusual because it only took one reading," he says.
The real events, on which Breach is based, began seven years ago when rookie FBI agent Eric O'Neill – portrayed by Ryan Phillippe in the film – was chosen to help draw renowned FBI operative Hanssen from his cover, culminating in one of the most sensational US trials of the decade when Hanssen was found guilty of treason. He is currently serving a life sentence in a US maximum-security jail.
Known for his intense preparation for a role, Cooper found himself swamped beneath the volumes of available information on Hanssen, who was finally brought to justice in 2001 after selling secrets to the former Soviet Union for two decades. "There turned out to be a lot of research material – more than for perhaps any other character I've played. I read at least five books, all of which were in-depth studies from his childhood to his capture, and they were very helpful.
"With Breach, it's amazing to remind people that this did not happen too long ago, but perhaps the events of September 11 have swept the remembrance of this away. But as I'm often saying, we're a very young country, and I'm surprised that we seem to have an even shorter memory."
The actor offers no personal theories on why Hanssen would betray his country, merely shaking his head: "When he was captured, they did a pretty thorough psychological evaluation on him and I think we played on probably four possibilities touching on why he did what he did. Some psychiatrists suggested that the roots of this may well have begun concerning the relationship with his father – it started at an early age.
"For myself, I believe him to be truly a very committed, dedicated, religious person and in that study they suggested that he had very strong psychological demons that he was dealing with. He was terrified of failure – of not looking good in the eyes of his wife and children. He expected to rise higher than he did in the FBI, and instead [ended up] sitting in front of a monitor and reading reports. I think this may have been real discouraging to him and it probably angered him quite a bit. Beyond that, who really knows the truth?"
Not only was Hanssen considered to be America's worst spy, but he also used his early internet expertise to trawl porn websites and – as the film shows– developed something of a crush on Catherine Zeta-Jones. Ask Cooper whether the Zeta-Jones line was inserted purely for audience titillation, he confirms that Hanssen's crush was indeed real – although he doubts very much whether the disgraced agent will ever get to see Breach from his high-security cell at a US maximum security prison.
Even Cooper's high profile was unable to cut through the red tape in order to visit Hanssen: "That would be impossible. He's in a super-max prison and I believe, to this day, he's caused so much trouble with the amount of information he gave the Soviets that, from time to time, he may will still be interrogated.
"I doubt if he'll ever see our film. I saw a documentary on the prison where I believe Hanssen is and I don't know if they're granted reading material or television. I don't believe they are. But who knows? He may have some friends in the guards there, who can get him things."
Based in Massachusetts, Cooper ventures into Hollywood only when movie work dictates: "I think the nice thing is that I don't live in Los Angeles and the business is not part of my everyday conversation. My friends are carpenters, historians and teachers, and we have a lot of other things to talk about besides the business of making films.
"I take my work very seriously and have a great respect for this business. There are things I hate about it and things I love. The only thing that keeps me interested and keeps my respect about the business is my work ethic. As far as my work is concerned, I'm very happy with my choices."
'Breach' opens on 31 August