There is often a stark contrast between an actor's real personality and his onscreen persona. Fortunately, this does not hold true in the case of Hollywood's "Mr Nice Guy" Chris Cooper. If the testimonies of his movie peers are anything to go by, the earthy, kind-hearted roles Chris is known for are very much a reflection of his own character.
The Kansas-born star grew up on his father's cattle ranch, so perhaps it is unsurprising he often plays cowboys and farmers. His aptitude for physical work was first combined with an interest in drama when he began building sets for a local community theatre group. That was in his teens, but a pattern that was to become the hallmark of his career had been established.
He chose the unusual combination of agriculture and acting when he studied at the University of Missouri, before moving to New York to become a stage actor. There he developed a solid reputation both on and off Broadway, before his move to the big screen came with 1987's widely acclaimed Matewen. It was the first in a series of collaborations with renowned director John Sayles, who also cast him in City Of Hope and Lone Star.
Cooper's performance in the latter role won him great critical acclaim, though he remained on the fringes of A-list stardom. "I don"t think anybody has thought of Chris as a romantic lead," says Sayles. "But he's a really good, deep actor. What you ask for in a movie actor, when you're asking for something complex, is to play a text and a subtext Chris has to be playing that underneath thing - it's just there and you believe it."
He remains a supporting cast regular, however, and it may be that "everyman" energy that has made likeable secondary characters the staple of his career. Not to say he isn't capable of a thoroughly nasty performance - who can forget his chilling turn as Kevin Spacey's unbalanced neighbour Colonel Fitts in American Beauty? More representative of his career, however, were his roles in films like The Horse Whisperer, as Robert Redford's brother, and Lone Star as the uncertain county sheriff digging through his father's murky history.
"He's a guy who looks like he has a past," adds Sayles. "He looks like he's haunted by what has gone before. He brings that kind of depth and feeling to the screen, so you don't even have to give him a lot to say and people will look at him and think, 'There's a lot going on here'."
In Adaptation, Chris, who played an orchid thief, once again delivered a performance that set the industry buzzing - so much so that he walked away with an Oscar for best supporting actor. The coveted gold statuette finally put a name to the face for millions of filmgoers. But ever modest, the actor felt uncomfortable when he later returned to the set of Seabiscuit and a crew member introduced him via loudspeaker as "Oscar winner Chris Cooper". "He got so embarrassed," said producer Frank Marshall. "He would say, 'I don't want to talk about it.' "
In the meantime he enjoys a simple life in Massachusetts with actress Marianne Leone, his wife of 20 years. Tragically they lost their only son Jesse, 17, in January 2005 from causes related to cerebral palsy. They have both been ardent advocates for kids with special needs.