Character actor Chris Cooper did a lot of theater before moving into films. There were drama classes at the University of Missouri, and studying in New York with both Stella Adler and Sandy Meisner apostle Wynn Handman. There were roles on and off-Broadway, in Seattle, and in London. His jump to films happened when he was 36, landing a lead role in John Sayles’ “Matewan.” Since then, he’s played heroes (“Lone Star”), villains (“Money Train”), and uncategorizable characters (“Adaptation,” for which he won a Supporting Actor Oscar).

In 2017, he returned to Broadway, as Torvald in a production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the sequel to the Ibsen play. But now he’s back on the screen, and staying busy, currently in the role of Jerry Vogel, a father who deserts his family in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and, opening on Christmas Day, he’s Mr. Laurence, the wealthy neighbor to the March family in “Little Women.” Cooper recently sat down for a chat about “Little Women” at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, the actual building where Louisa May Alcott wrote the book, and part of the movie was filmed.

Q: There have already been close to a dozen film versions of “Little Women.” Did you have any second thoughts about taking part in yet another one?
A: In advance, I thought it might be a risk. But there was the urging of my wife (actress Marianne Leone). “Little Women” was one of the first books she ever read. And it didn’t take any coaxing; it’s a wonderful book, and there was a nice little role for me.

Q: You’re known as someone who likes to research a character before playing him. Mr. Laurence has been portrayed by, among others, Robert Young (1978), John Neville (1994), and C. Aubrey Smith (1949). Did you watch any of their performances first?
A: I did not.

Q: There’s a big difference in theirs and yours. Mr. Laurence is usually presented as a gruff man who eventually softens. You play him as kind and benevolent from the get-go. Was that in the script or was it your idea?
A: I’d say it came from me. I read the book and I listened to an audio version of it. As far as my choice of how to play him, lord knows that I’ve played enough grumpy old men, so this was a chance to show a little more of the kind side.

Q: Jerry Vogel, in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and Mr. Laurence are two very different characters. Did you have a different approach to each of those roles?
A: The tools are not so different in different films. For me, it’s doing the homework, putting the time in, as I always have. When I get a script, I will work on it during the day, every night and on the weekends. Half the fun of developing the character is going over and over this material. When I studied with Stella Adler, she had a wonderful script analysis class. She taught that even single words have a life. There’s also what’s going on politically, religiously, economically. All of those are hints. I wasn’t given much for Jerry, but I had to give him a background. So, I made him a homebuilder. He liked his liquor, and I imagined that he and his girlfriend liked to hit the bars and do karaoke, thus the singing scene at the daughter’s wedding. It’s just adding stuff here and there for the role. In “Little Women,” there’s a scene where Mr. Laurence is in his home, sitting in the shadows, listening to young Beth play the piano, and he’s smiling but not saying anything. It’s a beautiful scene. It’s a man’s memory of his granddaughter (who had died), and I have dealt with some of that feeling in my own experience. So, if it doesn’t become too intrusive, use it.

Q: You mentioned that you sang in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” You also rapped in “The Muppets.” Was there a time that you wanted to be a singer?
A: My folks took me on a road trip to Las Vegas when I was 15. We went to some small shows and saw some great singers. At that age, I thought Las Vegas was cool, and that I wanted to be a lounge lizard. I was crazy about Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett. I would come home after school, put those albums on, and sing along. I would sing in church choir and high school choir. I sang in a rock band and we’d play at under-18 dances and college fraternity parties. I sang at every opportunity I could.

Q: So, did acting get in the way of a singing career?
A: Well, yeah, but it all intertwines. I think back to my fifth-grade teacher, who recognized my shyness, and she really worked on me. One time she made me get up onstage and sing to the parents. And I liked that applause, I enjoyed it. So, I kind of knew where I was headed.

“Little Women” opens on Christmas Day.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.