Christian Cooke: From child star to film director

Christian Cooke.
Christian Cooke.
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As an actor Christian Cooke goes where the work is, but he tells Tony Earnshaw why it’s home to Leeds that he’s bringing his directorial debut.

There is something refreshingly honest about Christian Cooke, the child actor who gravitated from TV’s Where the Heart Is to leading roles in movies and big American TV shows.

Yet the 28-year-old is happy to recall his six years in a long-running series, his acting debut in a beef burger commercial or the condescension of some of the teaching staff at his old school that drove his ambition to be a professional actor.

He’s comfortable remembering his days as an ingénue because he can trace his success today – in dramas such as The Promise and Stonemouth, and series like Witches of East End and The Art of More, which he is currently filming with Dennis Quaid – back to those salad days.

He’s been working now for 18 years. That underlines his decision to abandon thoughts of university to concentrate on acting. But if he built a career through sheer graft he also got a helping hand from mum Dianne and Gerry Sayers, his former geography teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Menston.

“I went into Where the Heart Is when I was about 12,” he explains. “I got to 15 and I was missing a lot of school. I had a chip on my shoulder about it so I started trying really hard. I didn’t want to stop acting but I wanted to prove to some of my teachers that I was more than an actor. That I had a brain.”

Buckling down worked. Dianne encouraged his acting and Mrs Sayers saw to it that he achieved the appropriate school/work balance.

“Mrs Sayers was very passionate. She loved education and instilling that in her pupils. She had an interest in all of us and wanted everybody to do well. It wasn’t just a job for her. She was a major influence on a lot of us at St Mary’s.”

Cooke’s career has seen him progress through short films, features, TV series and the big Stateside productions where money is no object. Recent jobs have seen him acting opposite Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kate Bosworth. He takes it all in his stride. There’s no such thing as having a career plan.

“I don’t think you can as an actor and anyone who says they have one is probably lying. No matter what stage you’re at – whether you’ve just started, someone on my level or right up there at the top of the industry - you only ever choose the best of what’s in front of you. There are certain parts that will never come your way. Not only will you not get offered them but you won’t even be interviewed for them.

“Look at the films that you see at the cinema with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. They might not be first choices for the films that they do. That’s the way it is. I am very open-minded to doing work. Someone said to me years ago ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You want to be doing this for a long time, not burn out after a few years’.

“So it’s about having fun and doing projects that are as credible as you can make them. I don’t worry too much about career. I’m just enjoying the journey of it.”

One film that Cooke is especially proud of is Unconditional. A twisted tale of love, devotion and malevolent fantasy from director Bryn Higgins, it was released quietly in 2012. In it Cooke plays a loan shark who becomes fixated with a 17-year-old boy who he dresses in female attire and names ‘Kristen’.

“I’m glad you’ve seen that movie. It’s definitely the sort of role that inspires me the most and one of the jobs I’m most proud of. I could really create a character with that and within the boundaries of the story Bryn let me do what I wanted. There was a lot of improvisation. I went a bit mad doing it in a good way, in a really creative way.”

Like so many low-budget independent films Unconditional performed well on the festival circuit but failed to receive much of a wider release. Perhaps the subject matter worked against it. But Cooke recalls the intensity of the 21-day shoot and says the content drew him in.

“It was the first job where I felt I had complete artistic freedom on a set. I’d had an idea about the character and I’d been allowed to run with it. I’m drawn to sadness in art, really, and the melancholy. I don’t know why. I guess there’s a greater truth in it.”

He partnered with Higgins again on 2014’s Electricity, based on the novel by Bedale-born author Ray Robinson. It is a quirky road movie in which the heroine embarks on a trip to London to locate her long-lost brother. She does so in the knowledge that she is an epileptic and is heading into the unknown on several fronts.

It was via his relationship with Robinson that Cooke received the script for Edith, a short film based around an old man’s suspicions about the legitimacy of his son, and his suspicions about his dead wife. The project will shoot in Leeds next month (DECEMBER) with Cooke fulfilling a long-held ambition to direct. The stars will be Peter (The Magdalene Sisters) Mullan and Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones.

In 2011 he’d directed Chandide, an experimental guerrilla project made with a four-man crew and funded with his own cash.

“It was so much fun and so amazing to go through each stage of the filmmaking process. People always say that you make three films: the film that’s written, the film that you shoot and then the film that you edit. You find that so much when you go through that whole process from start to finish. And it’s so hard. It’s such a difficult thing to do – to make a good film. But I’m billing Edith as my directorial debut.”

He adds: “I’ve always wanted to direct from being a kid. Unknowingly I’d always gravitate towards the cameramen. I’d stay behind when I’d finished filming, get a radio and be their runner. I was really interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking. A lot of actors who become directors come at it from wanting to direct actors and wanting to draw out performances. Strangely for me it’s been the other way; I’m sort of a stickler for aesthetics and visuals.”

He met Mullan, widely acclaimed as both actor and director, when they worked together last year on the two-part TV drama Stonemouth, from the book by Iain Banks.

But he was wary of approaching him to be in Edith. Partly it was because he holds Mullan in high regard and didn’t want to undermine the sense of an actor’s professionalism. But he knew Mullan possessed no snootiness about working in short films; his work in Paddy Considine’s Dog Altogether led to a full-length film version, Tyrannosaur, with Mullan playing Joseph, a twitchy, two-fisted, fiftysomething widower with a hair-trigger temper.

“This time last year I was working with Peter Mullan. Strangely I’d already put together my director’s pitch for the Edith with various images that I’d pulled from movies. A lot of the stills that I’d used were of Peter and that was just complete coincidence, because he’s been a hero of mine for so long and he’s perfect for that role. He’s such an incredible actor.

“I didn’t tell him while I was filming because I thought, ‘It’s going to seem so convenient.’ But I sent [the script] to him a few months after and said, ‘You’ve always been the person that I wanted for this.’

“The thing about an actor of Peter’s calibre - in the nicest possible way - is that they don’t do people favours. They work because they want to work. It’s an added value if they like the people that they’re working with but they have to like the material.

“He got back to me within an hour and said, ‘I love it. I’m in. Send Ray my congratulations on writing such a beautiful script.’ That was amazing. And once I had Peter it became more real. Getting Peter was what drew Michelle Fairley to the project because obviously want to work with Peter because he’s one of the best.

“He is a bit of a mentor, Peter, and there’s a definitely an element of him that wants to be there for other people as they’re starting their directorial career just as others were there for him.”

Cooke’s plans to shoot his film depend on raising the £17,000 budget. At the time of speaking he had secured £7,000 through the crowd-funding site indigogo.

“The good thing about indiegogo is that if you don’t hit your target you still get your money and then if you go over it’s rolling funding. There’s no limit to what you can raise.”

The future looks good. Dreams are being followed, ambitions are being fulfilled, movies are being made near to where his roots still lie. And what of the future? After the experience of making TV’s Magic City – and the suggestion that he will star in a film version alongside Bill Murray and Bruce Willis – has Cooke now set his sights on Hollywood? He doesn’t duck the question.

“I love film and LA is the centre of the film industry so I go and spend time there. The show that I’ve just played the lead in, The Art of More, that’s an American show. So I guess I do go and work there but you don’t have to go and take your life there.

“There are a lot of British actors who live here [in the UK] and have prestigious careers in America. James McAvoy still lives in Crouch End and he’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. So you don’t have to go out there and commit to being there full time. I definitely want to work in America. If you love film then why wouldn’t you?”

Christian Cooke’s indiegogo link:

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