Written by Dave Kindy — Photography by Derrick Zellmann
Chris Cooper and Marianne Leone are sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and eating homemade cranberry bread. The conversation is pleasant and lighthearted as they banter back and forth about acting, writing, and life on the South Shore.
The talk turns to Cooper’s latest movie, “Irresistible.” He tells a story about how co-star Steve Carell and director/writer Jon Stewart were trading jabs and one-liners between takes of the political comedy, shot last year in Georgia. The Academy Award-winning actor is asked if he joined in with the comedic repartee.
“I know better than that,” he says. “I learned that from being with Marianne and her writer friends early in our relationship. They would be writing sketch comedy and I would try to interject stuff and it would fall so flat. Nope. Not going there!”
Leone tries to stifle a laugh. “It’s so true,” she says with a broad smile.
There is an easy give-and-take to their relationship. Both are stars in their own right; they might even be called the ultimate Hollywood power couple – if they lived in Hollywood. When they’re not on the road for work, the couple lives in Kingston, on a quiet lane overlooking a serene marsh, which has been their home since 1994.
Cooper is more reserved and contemplative than his wife. He measures his words and talks softly about his career and his growth as an actor. He is glib as he remembers anecdotes and tells stories about the people he has worked with, though his delivery is soft and gentle – much like his nature.
He is the straight man to Leone, who is more effusive and lively. She is the yin to his yang. Opposites attract, they say. Words seem to tumble from her mouth as the thoughts come to her mind. Leone, who is also a recognizable actor as well as an author and playwright, is expressive and energetic – and doesn’t hold back with her feelings.
“Chris passes on plenty of scripts,” she states, in no uncertain terms. “I’m the first line. That’s what most people don’t realize. I read them first.”
Born of love and steeled by tragedy, the duo makes their marriage work. It hasn’t been easy, though. The traveling for work and demands on time because of their crafts means separation and distance for weeks at a time, but they have managed it successfully for 36 years.
Photos: Kingston actor Chris Cooper stars as Jack Hastings in the film “Irresistible”, a Focus Features release. Also pictured are Brent Sexton as Mayor Braun, Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer and Tom Key as Councilman Pietkowski. Credit: Daniel McFadden / Focus Features
The misfortune that cements their relationship is the shared pain of losing a child. Jesse Cooper, who died from an epileptic seizure at age 18 in 2005, was the focal point of their lives. He still is. Inside the house, framed photos of Jesse with his mother and father are everywhere. Standing on an easel next to the dining room table is a striking painting of Jesse as a young child with two angel wings protruding from his back.
“Jesse was just a baby when we had that done,” says Leone. “The woman who did this portrait painted him a few years older. She even showed him with his disability.”
Jesse was born three months early in 1987 and suffered a brain hemorrhage. He developed cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair because of his restricted mobility. The Coopers’ hearts were filled with compassion for their son. They helped him overcome his boundaries and excel at life and learning. Jesse would eventually thrive at Silver Lake Regional High School, making the honor roll.
Love for their son is what brought Cooper and Leone to their modest but comfortable home in Kingston. At the time of Jesse’s birth, they lived in the New York City area but wanted to move to a place that would provide better opportunities for their child. Leone, who grew up in Newton, spent summers in Kingston visiting her aunt and uncle, Ellie and Benny Iannucci, who owned Kingston Block Co. The quiet South Shore town seemed a perfect fit for their family.
“We were familiar with this area,” says Cooper. “We’d travel here on car trips, spend time with her aunt and uncle, and we started looking at real estate. My thing was, if I am going to move all the way to Massachusetts from New York, I want to be within walking distance of water. This house came along and I said, ‘this works for me.’”
It was a big decision to relocate. Both Cooper and Leone had careers that were on the rise. They were concerned that being so far away from Broadway and Hollywood would severely crimp, if not put an end to their acting aspirations.
“It did kind of freak me out when we moved here,” Cooper recalls. “But as soon as we did, my career took off.”
Soar is perhaps a better description. Cooper landed a series of roles in movies and television, each one garnering him greater attention and more praise. Some of his more notable performances include “Lone Star,” “American Beauty,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “Seabiscuit,” “Breach,” “Little Women,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and other films. Cooper has also starred on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for “A Doll House, Part 2.”
It all came together for him in 2002 when he won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in “Adaptation.” His portrayal of orchid thief John Laroche was lauded by critics and garnered awards from numerous film festivals. The film opened the door for Cooper to take his pick of projects, including movies like “Irresistible” and a prominent role in the second season of the television series “Homecoming,” which debuts on Amazon Prime this year.
“I loved working on these two projects,” says Cooper. “It was hilarious on ‘Irresistible.’ I didn’t want to miss the chance to work with Jon Stewart and Steve Carell. These guys are so funny. This role was perfect for me. Sometimes, you have to work your tail off on these characters and sometimes a character fits you like a glove. It felt very comfortable.”
While Cooper’s career was taking off, someone had to stay home with Jesse. Of course, that was Leone. She loved being with her son, but it looked like the end of her acting career. It wasn’t. As Jesse got older, she was able to get work in a variety of projects, including “The Sopranos,” where she had a recurring role as actor Michael Imperiole’s mother. Leone also started writing essays, plays and books, including “Knowing Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday Bliss.” One of her screenplays, “Hurricane Mary,” about a mother’s struggles to have her twin disabled daughters admitted to public school, is being developed into a movie starring – who else? – her husband.
Life in Kingston was not without its challenges. Leone had to fight to get her son the proper education he deserved. “Never piss off an Italian woman,” she says with a smile borne of adversity. Still, they love the town, its beauty and the relaxed relationship they share with their neighbors.
“It’s just so great here,” says Leone. “When we first moved in, the people next door welcomed us with a jar of homemade blueberry jam made from blueberry bushes in their yard. We kayak here. I have friends here that I’ve known since I was a little girl and I swim with them every day in the summer near Gray’s Beach, where my aunt and uncle own property. The natural landscape here is beautiful and when we had Jesse, it was lovely for him to experience nature.”
Although he has been gone for 15 years now, Jesse remains the focal point of their family, a testament to a joyful soul that bore an inquisitive mind. Amid the family photographs there is one with Hollywood star Jim Carrey.
“Jesse loved him,” says Leone. “He was star struck. Jim Carrey spent his entire lunch with Jesse when Chris was working on ‘Me, Myself and Irene.’ That was huge. I judge people by their kindness quotient and Jim Carrey’s was high.”
Jesse’s spirit is the emotional glue that holds everything together – the tie that binds. “Our house and its wooded surroundings all hold precious glimmers of our shared past with Jesse,” says Leone. “It’s beautiful and we will always retain a connection to this place.”