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For Chris Cooper, a study in grief

Chris Cooper (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Demolition.”Fox Searchlight/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

When Chris Cooper signs on to do a movie – something he’s doing less frequently these days – he shows up ready to go. For him, the homework is half the fun.

“I want to get the script as early as possible. It’s a comfort blanket for me,” the actor says. “If I get it four months before we start shooting, I’ll be working on it. But there are some characters that don’t require so much research. They just fit you like a glove.”

Unfortunately for Cooper, his character in “Demolition” is one. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, “Demolition,” which opens Friday, tells the story of a successful investment banker, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose wife dies suddenly in a car crash. Cooper plays the young woman’s grief-stricken father, a role the veteran actor knows too well.


“I’m not sure if Jean-Marc knew the background concerning my family,” Cooper says by phone from his home on the South Shore. “But this character is kind of a study in grief, and I have a personal situation that makes it pretty close to me.”

The situation to which the 64-year-old actor is obliquely referring is the death of his son in 2005. Jesse Cooper suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as an infant and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He was 17 when he died. The agonizing experience of losing a child, chronicled by Cooper’s wife, Marianne Leone Cooper, in her affecting 2010 book, “Knowing Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday Bliss,” has caused Cooper to rule out certain roles – until now.

“This was the first time I really wanted to venture into this area,” the actor says of the special hell experienced by his character in “Demolition.” “There have been a handful of scripts over the years, but it was never the right time. I got this script and I wanted to explore the character’s reaction [to the death of a child]. I had no problem relating to his way of grieving.”


At first, Vallee, who also directed the Oscar-nominated “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” said he questioned if Cooper was right for the role of the anguished father with the stiff upper lip. Vallee wondered if the character might be too reminiscent of Frank Fitts, the abusive Marine Corps colonel Cooper played so perfectly in “American Beauty.”

“Although this character is not so rigid and authoritarian, the script does have an ‘American Beauty’ quality,” says the director. “But Chris has such an emotional fragility in this movie. It was like he was bringing his own sufferings to the part. I was under the impression he went somewhere very personal, allowed himself to go there, in the service of this story.”

The story, by screenwriter Bryan Sipe, is not at all straightforward. Gyllenhaal’s character, Davis, copes with his wife’s death in an unusual way. In contrast to his father-in-law, who puts on a brave face and carries on, Davis unravels, writing a series of oddly personal and revealing letters to a vending company after one of its machines failed to give him Peanut M&M’s. That leads to a relationship of sorts with a customer service representative, played by Naomi Watts, and her son, Chris, played by Judah Lewis.

Sipe’s off-kilter script, which results in a mountain of rubble and broken glass -- thus the movie’s title — was a draw for both actor and director. (Some critics, however, have not been won over by the script’s black-comedy depiction of bereavement.)


“I said, ‘Oh my God, I want to do this. I want to offer this strange piece of material to the world,’ ” says Vallee.

Likewise for Cooper, who said it’s not often these days that he reads something original.

“A good story is hard to tell and, judging from the scripts I’ve been reading, it’s getting harder,” says the actor, who’d worked with Gyllenhaal twice before, in 1999’s “October Sky” and six years later in “Jarhead.” “I don’t know what the deal is, but I’m going to continue to be picky. At my age, I dare say I’ve kind of established myself and I don’t have to chase a paycheck.”

Vallee said it was evident from the first day of filming that Cooper, whose resume of nearly 40 films includes “The Bourne Identity,” “Seabiscuit,” and the Oscar for best supporting actor in 2003 for “Adaptation,” had spent a lot of time with the script and was ready to go.

“I was intimidated the first week. I was almost afraid to go and talk to him. Should I call him ‘Mr. Cooper’?” says Vallee, a native of Montreal who speaks with a heavy French accent. “Then I start to call him Chris and say, ‘Maybe we do another take?’ and he was accepting. He was perfect. One take to another, Chris nails it and then he nails it again.”


He’s working less these days, but Cooper is still plenty busy. He stars in the Hulu series “11.22.63,” based on the novel by Stephen King, and he recently wrapped up work on “Live by Night,” a Prohibition-era drama directed by Ben Affleck based on the book by Dennis Lehane. In the movie, Cooper, who previously worked with Affleck in “The Company Men” and “The Town,” plays a Florida police chief. The cast also includes Affleck, Chris Messina, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, and Zoe Saldana.

“Ben and I got to know each other in the makeup chair doing ‘Company Men’ and then I did ‘The Town,’ ” says Cooper. “I really appreciate the roles he keeps me in mind for. A lot of cop characters come my way, but I remain pretty selective about which ones I want to play.

“But I love working with Ben,” he says. “He casts his actors and then he lets them go.”

And that suits Cooper just fine.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.