Q: What have you heard about the "Back-to-back Oscars" buzz? First for Adaptation, and now maybe for Seabsicuit.
Chris: That's news to me. I don't know.
Q: Had you worked with horses prior to the film?
Chris: In a sense. I'd been around them and… not so much horses as cattle. I worked with my father, raising registered Hereford cattle in Kansas and it's a great love. It's a great way of life. I've been around horses, but I certainly wouldn't call myself a horseman by any means. It's a combination of being very aware of them, and not trusting them. But I do feel somewhat comfortable around them, but I am always leery of them.
Q: Your style, particularly in the opening scene with you bridling the horse, was reminiscent of the famous Western trainers, like Pat Parelli, John Lyons, and Monty Roberts. I was impressed.
Chris: Well, when we did The Horse Whisperer, my recollections of the trainer [on that film] working with those horses were certainly applied. And Rusty Henrickson, the head wrangler, has a great way. I've worked with him a number of times -- on this movie, The Horse Whisperer, Patriot and other pieces. He's got a wonderful way of doing whatever he has to do to get what he needs out of those horses and so I was certainly watching him and tried to apply it.
Q: What did your preparation involve to play Tom Smith?
Chris: I've got three things to work with: I've got research, I have my own life experience I can apply, and I have my imagination. Another thing was, just in time my wife found at a garage sale stumbled on this great book written by a Canadian cowboy at the turn of century, right around the time Tom Smith was doing his thing. It was a very in-depth study of the day-to-day living of a cowboy. From living with other cowboys on a ranch in a bunkhouse, what were the essentials he takes with him when he knows he's going to be out for days or weeks at a time... Really in depth study. I think the title was something like, Where the Wagon Wheels Lead… something like that.
I also have my experience of working on the ranch with my father. And some ways of life that I could apply that I'm sure Tom Smith lived, and then we also had stills and a little bit of footage. I had to work closely with the hair and makeup people to approximate a look of Tom Smith. I noticed that in his stills, he had a protruding lower lip; whether he was a snuff chewer or tobacco chewer, decided to put a little piece of makeup sponge in there to push that out. All these things were helpful and… but that's all I had to go by. Those three things. I felt comfortable. I felt like I got somewhere with the character.
Q: What about changing your voice?
Chris: I definitely had a strong voice in changing the character's voice for several reasons. I wanted to try and bring a softness and a high-pitched quality to the character that somehow applied to his gentleness in working with the animals, with horses. I didn't want him to be a rough and tumble kind of cowboy. We had some footage of Tom Smith and he certainly didn't appear rough and tumble, either. What I most wanted to do was bring his past, his life on the range, into the film. I wanted to bring his background. That was the most important thing. That goes hand in hand with developing the character on Tom Smith. My main concerns were not the races, not the flashbulbs, and so on. It was quite apparent when Laura Hillenbrand wrote, she said, Tom very rarely looked out to the news people and he enjoyed sending them on wild goose chases and playing games with them. But I think his head was in dealing with the horse, and that's what I was working for.
Q: Wasn't the real Tom Smith gruffer than how you played him? Didn't you soften him?
Chris: I'm glad you said that, because what happens usually, is what I intend to do and what's interpreted is often worlds apart. So to hear that I didn't come across as gruff tells me [it worked]. I'm glad to hear that.
What I was trying to get across was, what I am dealing with in this film is a horse. And my background, the life that I lived. What I'm hoping is, that you see a bit of Tom Smith's history before the racetrack. That's what I was concentrating on. And with the voice, I was trying to bring a softness, a sensibility, a sensitivity to the character that would be interpreted by the viewer as how he deals with animals.
Q: He was known as 'Silent Tom Smith'… did you have any resources other than the book to go from?
Chris: No. I guess I could have hooked up with Laura to get more information, but I was satisfied with what I was coming up with. Like I said, I had a month and a half to months after I was cast to research that period, I had my own experiences to apply, and I had my imagination. I liked what I was coming up with. I made an alteration to the voice after the first day of shooting, but other than that I felt secure. I thought things had come together with horses.
Q: Why don't you trust horses? Was that a learned experience?
Chris: Mm-hm. I mean, I feel comfortable around them, but if you spend time with horses or cattle you soon realize that every one of them is an individual. You look at a herd of cattle and well, they all look the same… but they know. They all have an individual personality, and those personalities change from day to day. They can have their grumpy days and their happy days and their serene days. But it’s unpredictable. You can't be off in outer space when you're dealing with animals.
Chris Cooper Filmography from IMDb.com
Gary Stevens Interview (plays George Woolf)
Chris Cooper Interview (plays Tom Smith)
Jeff Bridges Interview (plays Charles Howard)
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