While they both exude the kind of talent that once confounded me into thinking they were leading men, they both started out and for a long time were considered character actors. The term character may be defined as a supporting actor skilled at playing distinctly unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters, such that they are almost unrecognizable from part to part, and yet play many, many roles convincingly and memorably. This definition is acceptable yet it fails to illustrate that personal idiocracy that some actors manage to bring to the screen. An idiosyncrasy that is as profound as is serves in convincing. Both David Strathairn and Chris Cooper carry that important trait, or, look of being able to embody the roles they play with mannerisms that have enabled them to develop a reliable screen presence while simultaneously carving into the brains of those familiar with their works, attributes attributed to them and them alone. This creates a beguiling memory much like a LEADING MAN does for us. Both actors continue to convince us that a certain aspect of the roles they play are noteworthy not because the role is central to the plot of a movie but because the character himself offers something that resonate in the familiar. The familiar we hold both on (though in our minds) and off screen. That familiarity can be a peculiar sort of thing or a stereotypical view held about that 'kind of person'. What these two also manage to do is to play it close and convince us of the certainty rely on then suddenly shock us with a hidden aspect of the character. An aspect that is not so familiar.
While both men maintain very controlled demeanors when being interviewed, Cooper seems the more reserved one of the two. Perhaps this is the end result of being reared in the midwest and the south. Southern men, particularly white men, often withhold themselves behind a veneer of respectability. They often use, 'Ma'ma' and 'Sir' toward authority or those in a position of such. This is similar the dual roles used by those forced into subservience. It can outwit one's opponent. For those familiar with the writings of WEB Dubois, the term 'DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS' IS is well to recall. Cooper was born in Kansas City, Missouri and spent a great deal of time on a cattle ranch in Houston Texas. One surmises that he is as soft spoken in life as he is in many of the roles he assumes. Yet he, like many of those 'quiet man' roles he assumes , conceal an explosive interior. Cooper uses this "devil in the detail" to great effect.
"I had a close relationship with cattle and horses as a young boy, so
it becomes a very strong emotional link to the character when you have lived that life experience,
say in “Seabiscuit” where I’m the trainer of this marvelous race horse who’s having some trouble
because he’s been treated poorly and trained poorly. And a simple line like “He just has to learn
how to be a horse again”, that’s a really strong connection. Through the career there are a number
of instances like that".
Comparatively, Strathairn, born in 1949, hails from San Francisco. He has a distinctly assertiveness that is heard not only because of his rigid delivery but his fluid body motions that creates an air of authority when he speaks. Even when he is playing the part of a guy who has seen better day, his delivery demand attention. Regrettably, neither of this descriptions can hold water if one were to use them to pigeonhole either of these men. They are capable of morphing into opposite of themselves at will. I mean that's what all good actors do. Some better than others.
Take a look at this clip from THE SENSATION OF SIGHT, a 2007 indie film not always sighted as one of Strathairn's finest. It was directed by first time director Aaron J. Wiederspahn. In it you see a lot of what actors like to do when they are free to immerse in a role not headed for the BLOCKBUSTER status. Its a risky role yet when you know that Strathairn at one time was an actual clown ....that is true... he spent two years prior to engaging in acting traveling with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, you know he takes risks. One wonders if his unusual gate is a result of some accident or a habit he uses to great affect.
Chris Cooper carries a similar tool in his arsenal of actor/character skills. No finer example exist than his Oscar award winning performance in ADAPTAION. Indeed the award for “best supporting actor” fits Copper squarely in the supporting actors category for which this post argues he does not squarely fit. Nonetheless, he manages to do for toothless and stringy haired characters what had not been done.
Only Micky Rourke's role in THE WRESTLER comes close. But lets not get off the subject.....
Enough of what makes these actors different, its what makes them alike that is worth picking apart. Perhaps even better what is worth dissecting is why they are often cast to play similar roles. There is no better place to start than with the John Sayles' 1987 Matewan. Both actors must feel indebted to John Sayles, he casts them both repeatedly. However in Matewan, the sowed the seeds of their respective destiny by taking on roles that not as lending men but as leaders of men.
Matewan relies on a historical occurrence. Its known that the labor wars between coal miners and their ruthless employers was long and bloody. For actors young in their profession, it was a daring move to portray men who actually helped start that war. In Matewan, David Strathairn takes on the role of sheriff Sid Hatfield. This role required him to not only perform the acts that relived a real person. But a person who was murdered for his bravery. Meanwhile Chris Cooper (who shared screen time with Strathairn) portrayed an equally daring role as a union organizer, Joe, Kenehan. What is both laudatory and condemning fr them here, is that because of those and more casting like them they both ran the gambit of being typecast. Over the years, they swam through that almost neck-in-neck.
Both have lead the government teams charged to capture and kill Jason Bourne in the Bourne sagas. Chris Cooper has been a company man, a government man and a father figure in so many films. He manages and brings to each movie that lasting impression for which he is known. He does it with such candor that he avoids typecasting. Flip the coin, and the same can be stated about Strathairn.
Strathairn's salt and pepper hair and air of sophistication that allows him to drift in and out of characters who portray a trusted authority and a possess shady side. He too has been been a father, a G-man and (again) an historical figure - One of which led to an ACADEMY AWARD for his portrayal of Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney's GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK . His impeccable range toward the polished and clean or the darker side avails him well.
Both actors offer unpredictability in small doses.
"...Right, to serve the thing. That’s what we do; we serve the story. One particular case of mine was the
film called “Dolores Claiborne” in which I had to play a very damaged man who abuses his daughter
and it was a very uncomfortable prospect to go there, to think about what that is and actually
depict that, but it was part of a story that was so much more. The relationship between the mother
and the daughter and the character was essentially just a smaller catalyst for a bigger picture, but
I felt it was important. Sometimes you have to go down some dark alleys while the main story is
bringing light to something else".
It is no accident that these men confound the senses and often confuse one's memory of one from the other. They may not be casts as leading men; however I would place my bet that they sure are neck in neck with leading the pack of character actors. One one final note- one distinctly difference is Strathairn is his rather outspoken on the political front.
Then again, Copper has played the part of a political candidate in Silver City.
I GIVE UP.