Chris Cooper is in Los Angeles for one day. He’s flown in to do some awards-season press, meet with director Spike Jonze about a project, and then attend a screening of Breach at the Aero Theatre, where he will be the guest of honor for a postfilm Q&A.

“They’re okay,” the 56-year-old actor says sportingly when I ask if he enjoys fielding audience questions. “I don’t mind ’em at all, if the questions are interesting — and even if they’re kinda silly, sometimes they’re fun.” Though he never lets on, Cooper seems tired on this late-November afternoon, overwhelmed by his hectic schedule but soldiering on with professionalism.

Released last February — a fact of timing that usually squashes a movie’s Oscar chances — Breach has remained an underdog awards contender thanks to Cooper’s sterling lead performance as real-life FBI agent Robert Hanssen, a seemingly model government operative until he was arrested in early 2001 (and later convicted to life in prison) for selling U.S. secrets to the Russians.

A character actor best known for his supporting work in several John Sayles films and his Oscar-winning turn as bugged-out orchid collector John Laroche in Jonze’s Adaptation, Cooper is Breach’s tragically imploding center,capturing Hanssen’s no-nonsense, sullen demeanor while hinting at the dark nights of the soul that may have led him to betray his beloved country.

In person, Cooper is several shades softer than Hanssen’s gruff personality, though his straightforward responses remind you that so many celebrity interviews involve the subject straining to impress or befriend the interviewer. In contrast, Cooper’s unfussy air suggests a Midwestern penchant for plainspoken simplicity and a polite disdain for preening self-regard. It’s a quiet self-assurance that suffers no fools and can be unsuspectingly intimidating.

Breach’s director and co-writer Billy Ray hints at this quality in one of Breach’s DVD extras. “When I was thinking about who should play Hanssen,” he says, “the litmus test that I was applying was, ‘Who would I not want to have thinking of me as an idiot?’ And Chris Cooper was pretty high on that list.”

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a father who was a doctor in the Navy and Air Force, Cooper moved several times in his youth: Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston, and then back to Kansas City. An interest in acting developed early, inspired by the American actors of the ’50s, as well as earlier performers such as Charles Laughton. In other words, character actors.

“We’ve forgotten our theatrical history: the everyman character, the working-class character,” Cooper explains. “I’m not really interested in flamboyance. My training as an actor was not to point up flamboyance. It was one-on-one working with another actor. It was concentration and relaxation.”

Concentration and relaxation may sound like two contradictory things, but whether he is playing Hanssen in Breach, Sheriff Sam Deeds in Sayles’ Lone Star, or even Adaptation’s Laroche, Cooper’s performances are at once tightly focused and calm, loose, lifelike. The amount of lawmen and federal officers he’s played in studio pictures like The Bourne Identity is a testament to his effortless sense of authority, but such parts can seem a bit interchangeable. That’s why Breach, while on the one hand a continuation of what Cooper does well, also works as a subtle subversion of his familiar hard-as-nails lawman persona, presenting Hanssen as a towering father figure whose collapse is as upsetting for his family as it is for him, particularly because his motives remain unfathomable.

“There’s a bone of contention: We need to know why,” Cooper says, in answer to grumblings that the movie fails to offer a definitive explanation for Hanssen’s actions. “Well, Hanssen never told you why. He has never told anybody why. I have my ideas of why, and in developing the character I had to have very concrete ideas of why. But it was my little actor’s secret that I kept from Billy.”

It’s a character Cooper has been close to for quite some time. After receiving the script early, he contacted Ray to express his interest in the role, but then had to wait to see if any bigger, A-list leads would take to the project.

“I knew this was a stretch, if they were even going to consider me,” Cooper admits nonchalantly. “So, frankly, I called [then Universal chairman] Stacey Snider and I said, ‘I’m sure the big names are gonna be knocking on your door pretty soon, and if you feel a little more secure going with those guys, then fine — that’s the business, I understand.’ But she stuck with me.”

Once the Oscar campaigning ends, Cooper will start reading new material. It’s been a busy period: back-to-back films (The Kingdom and the upcoming Married Life), a slew of film festivals, narrating a few documentaries. Now that he’s had a little taste of life as a leading man, I ask, does he crave more?

He shrugs off the suggestion good-naturedly. “I even question whether Breach is really considered a lead role for a studio film,” he says. “Good supporting roles have been my mainstay. And that’s fine — I’m not fighting to move up.”

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