For years, Chris Cooper made a good living playing laconic lawmen types in films like Lone Star and the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove. So what was the problem? "It kind of bugs you," says Cooper, 48, "when people in the industry, after 10 years, don't know who you are."
They know now. Last year he brought Kevin Spacey's homophobic Marine neighbor chillingly to life in American Beauty. He currently co-stars in two big summer flicks, playing a corrupt cop in Me, Myself & Irene and Col. Harry Burwell, Mel Gibson's old friend, in The Patriot. The Revolutionary War epic, he says, was "the most elaborate—I don't know what you call it—monster picture I've been involved in. Those explosions, the dust—it's still with me."
Cooper bonded with Gibson, whom he calls "a sweetheart." They discussed their families—in Cooper's case, wife Marianne, 52, a screenwriter, and son Jesse, 12, who has cerebral palsy. "Jesse's doing really good," says Missouri native Cooper, who now lives in Kingston, Mass. "He has a new computer he's learning to communicate on." Despite being new to Hollywood hoopla, Cooper, whose father had a cattle ranch, was no novice in the saddle. "So many actors claim they ride horses," he says with a laugh. "It's proved in a real short time that they don't know beans about it."