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Character Actor 

by Ed Symkus

Winning an Oscar generally works wonders for an actor's career. Or does it? Chris Cooper, who grabbed one for his supporting role last year as a horny, wild-eyed, toothless, gun-toting orchid collector in Adaptation, believes that neither his prospects nor his attitude have changed at all.

"I don't really know what it even means," says Cooper, sitting amid the lavish Art Deco architecture of Santa Anita Park in Pasadena, where much of his newest film, Seabiscuit, was shot. "I don't live out here, so I'm really ignorant of anything that's going on with 'Cooper's recognition,' or whatever you call it."

That recognition factor may increase with Cooper's laid-back, soft-spoken, rock-steady portrayal of Tom Smith, the shy itinerant horseman and trainer who helped make Seabiscuit a racing legend and a sort of folk hero in the 1930s. But even if he gets another Oscar nomination, even if the acting offers start pouring in, he won't be altering his lifestyle.

Instead of the Hollywood grind, Cooper and his wife, actress Marianne Leone, choose to live in Massachusetts. He's from Kansas City, she's a Massachusetts native; they met about 20 years ago when both were actors in New York.

"We were living in New Jersey when we had our son, Jesse, who has some severe disabilities," says Cooper. "He's 15 now, he's in a wheelchair and communicates by computer. But we had so much trouble in New Jersey getting him an education. They just didn't want to deal with him."

Cooper knows the right choice was made about their son's welfare (he's now an honor student), but isn't sure what living on the East Coast has done career-wise.

"Has anything been lost by not living in California?" he asks, and his deep voice gets a little higher, his eyebrows turn up. "Yeah, I've probably lost out on some opportunities for jobs. But I was never one that was really promoted by the studios, and it's been a slow climb. But I am happy, and very thrilled with what I'm doing and the choices I've made. And at home I'm certainly a little more recognizable. People are very congratulatory and now they are going back to look at previous work they maybe weren't aware of."

That would include his starring or costarring in a number of John Sayles films, including Matewan and Lone Star, giving ferocious performances as troubled men in American Beauty and Money Train, and showing a comedic side in Me, Myself & amp; Irene.

Playing Tom Smith in Seabiscuit wasn't a stretch for him because of his standard three-point preparation for any role: doing research, using his imagination and digging into his own life experience.

"I had my experience of working on the ranch with my father," he says of his days growing up in Kansas City. "He was raising registered Hereford cattle, and that involved being around horses. I certainly wouldn't call myself a horseman, by any means. But I'm very aware of them. And there's some ways of life that I could apply that I'm sure Tom Smith lived."

Cooper ranched from the early 1960s to the mid-'70s, when he left for New York to pursue acting, something he had taken classes in, attempted on stage, and known for a long time he had to give a serious try. But before that he was a singer.

"When I was in my teens, I was crazy about Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis," he says, and now his eyes are twinkling. "Every opportunity I could, I would sing. I used to sing in church choir and high school choir. And in that choir there was a male octet I sang in. I sang in a band at colleges and small dance bars. I originally wanted to be a lounge lizard in Vegas."

It's a little hard to picture the usually laconic Cooper crooning at a microphone. It's even more difficult thinking of him as a song-and-dance man.

"I used to do musicals onstage," he admits. "I did a bunch of tap dancing and jazz ballet early on. I did West Side Story and Pal Joey and The Boyfriend -- there's a lot of tap dancing in that one. But I didn't get off on that. Musicals are really not my thing."

His thing is sinking his teeth into acting. In playing Tom Smith, it was very important for him to make sure the man's past and his life on the range became part of the film.

"I had a strong choice in changing the character's voice," he says. "I wanted to try and bring a softness and a high-pitched quality to the character that somehow applies to his gentleness in working with horses. But I didn't come to that until the day after the first day of shooting. I listened to what I had come up with and I wasn't satisfied, and I tried to go up to an even higher register. I was trying to bring a softness and a sensitivity to the character, that the viewer would see as a sensitivity in the way that he deals with animals."

Cooper is told that the character was portrayed as more gruff in the Seabiscuit book, on which the film was based. He absolutely beams at that.

"That's cool," he says excitedly. "That's good to hear. Because usually what I intend to do, and the way it's interpreted, is worlds apart. And to hear that I didn't come across as gruff, I'm glad to hear that."

Publication date: 07/24/03

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