Chris Cooper is the calm at the center of the storm that is "August: Osage County," the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

His kindhearted Charlie Aiken serves as the sole counterpunch to the blinding rage that fills the other characters and permeates this story of the tremendously dysfunctional Weston family, occupying a single house in Oklahoma after patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) kills himself.

amNewYork spoke with the Oscar winner about the movie, which stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, among other notables, and opens Dec. 27.

 

How familiar were you with Tracy's work?

I was completely ignorant of his work, hadn't seen the stage play. I live in Massachusetts now, never dreamed I would leave New York, but that was a whole family issue. But I recognize the writing in that it is the kind of writing that got me interested in acting in the first place.

 

What sort of writing is that?

Working regional theater, doing the plays of Tennessee Williams and having read [Eugene] O'Neill and Edward Albee and perhaps a little Arthur Miller, I recognize bits of that in Tracy's writing. That caliber is really hard to come by nowadays.

 

You don't find too many playwrights or screenwriters that so openly embrace melodrama these days.

[B]road generalization, but in America over the decades, we have tended not to talk seriously about things or confront things. Americans don't talk about death, I realize.

 

Did your Midwestern background help you get into this world?

There's a lot of life experience that I've brought to this particular character. And when I say life experience, I'm saying you have three, to my mind, three general things that an actor can bring to their work. ? You have research. And you have your life experience, and, if nothing more, then you have your imagination.

 

Based on your experience, how does life on the Plains inform this story?

If you can imagine, in a one- sentence summary, I'd say with that vastness of land, you can't escape. Where are you gonna run to? More pasture? Your neighbor, who's a mile down the county road? I spent summers out at the ranch and I wouldn't see a soul sometimes for two weeks, until I had to get more groceries or go to the hardware store. There can be a real loneliness. And, on the other hand, [there's] something that's not so bad.

 

Are you prepared for some divisive reactions?

[A] mind that doesn't want to deal with issues is going to say, "This is too much. This is not normal. ... his is too much." But that's drama. ... I hope after seeing something like "August: Osage" that you don't just leave it -- "Oh, I was entertained. That's great." You hope that people talk about it afterward and talk about it in some depth.