By Lisa SchwarzbaumSteve DalyJeff JensenBrian M. Raftery and Joshua Rich
March 21, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST


Chris Cooper is going to miss his white hair. okay, maybe not the painful chemical procedure that strips his brown locks of their color — a requirement for his role as a racehorse trainer in the just-wrapped true-life drama Seabiscuit (due this summer). But the anonymity conferred by his ghostly coif? That the quiet man will be sad to lose. Sort of. At the Golden Globes in January, the actor managed to run the red-carpet gauntlet of popping flashbulbs virtually unrecognized. And right before he was named best supporting actor for his work in Adaptation, the camera crew circling his table couldn’t find him. ”The guys were going, Where’s Chris Cooper?” the actor recalls, smiling. ”I had to introduce myself.”

Come Oscar night, with considerably more people watching, Cooper’s days in obscurity should officially come to an end — especially if he wins the supporting-actor race. (At the Screen Actors Guild Awards on March 9, a TV crew trumped the Golden Globe gaffe by mistaking Meryl Streep’s agent for Cooper.) His widely acclaimed turn in Adaptation as brainy, dentally challenged John Laroche, an orchid collector who romances a New Yorker writer (Streep) has finally put a name to a face moviegoers have been seeing for years — as Robert Redford’s rancher brother in The Horse Whisperer, Wes Bentley’s dad in American Beauty, and Matt Damon’s CIA boss in The Bourne Identity. Cooper’s peers couldn’t be happier. ”Every actor knows him. Every actor loves him,” says Streep. ”He’s a transforming actor; he doesn’t have a signature shtick. Which is why he goes so unrecognized by the public — and why he’s so highly regarded by his colleagues.”

Of course, Cooper realizes that coasting under the radar isn’t the best flight plan for a long Hollywood career. The actor, who makes his home in Kingston, Mass., with his wife, actress Marianne Leone, and son Jesse, 15, hired a publicist for the first time a few months ago. ”I’ve become a little tired of ‘Oh, that’s what’s-his-name,”’ says Cooper, who at 51 has the weathered features of a farmer. Slumped on a couch in a Hollywood hotel, he speaks with a Missouri drawl while burning through a succession of cigarettes. ”[But] I may be losing a lot of opportunities because I don’t live out here. That’s the compromise.” But in the wake of Adaptation, ”that’s begun to change. There have been inquiries. That’s been nice.”

Cooper’s career has been shaped by the tension between his innate inhibitions and his exhibitionist profession. When he was in sixth grade, a teacher concerned about his bashfulness pressured him into singing at a school function. He expected stage fright, but it never came. So he stuck with singing, performing in school choirs and, later, a rock band. Acting intrigued him too, but he didn’t fully explore it until college. ”I remember my mother saying, ‘But honey, you don’t have any imagination,”’ says the Kansas City, Mo., native, with a laugh. ”I understood what she meant — I just wasn’t outgoing. But I knew what was in my head,” he says, turning serious, ”and it was full of imagination.”