Most actors, especially when pushed, will admit that one of the toughest parts of the job is delivering exposition. And this year, television’s MVP of doling out key plot points to the audience is unquestionably Chris Cooper, the veteran character actor anchoring the narrative of Hulu’s “11.22.63.”
As diner owner Al, Cooper only spent two weeks on the set of the limited series based on Stephen King’s 2011 novel. But those two weeks were exclusively devoted to filming an intensive series of scenes between him and James Franco. Franco plays Jake, the young man who Al tasks with the quest to save JFK via a mysterious time portal in the back of his diner — and over the course of the series, it’s Al’s advice to which Jake constantly returns.
Earlier this year, IndieWire sat down with both Cooper and showrunner/executive producer Bridget Carpenter to discuss the evolution of “11.22.63.” And when IndieWire pointed out just how much of Cooper’s dialogue was exposition, especially in the show’s earlier episodes, Carpenter laughed.
“Yes, that’s totally true,” she said. “He was like, ‘Really Bridget?’ Believe me, he was well aware of that. He was like, ‘I’m the mouthpiece for everything.’ And I’m like, ‘I know. You’re the one who knows everything.'”
But Carpenter chose not to see exposition as a dirty word, especially given the quality of the actor behind it. “Who do you want to have expose [the plot] more than Chris Cooper? So, I was like, ‘That’ll be okay. He can talk for a while.’ He was amazing — he was really, really gracious about it. Because those scenes are harder to play than other scenes, because you have to be present and emotional and I’m telling you these things we want the audience to know.”
For Cooper and Franco, those two weeks on set were almost like being in a play — especially since Franco was pretty much the only cast member Cooper had any direct involvement with, and they were basically limited to two specific locations.
“James and I worked pretty solely together, out of the diner and out of my JFK room at my home. It’s kind of where most of the scenes happen between he and I,” Cooper said. “I went in the day before with Kevin [MacDonald], the director, who wanted to show me the set — we wanted to discuss how to move around it. It was such a brilliant set. Within five minutes, it told you where to move. It told you the different areas you could work.”
And according to Carpenter, those two weeks on set with Cooper and Franco were truly memorable: “[Those days] are days that I don’t think anybody on the crew or the set would ever forget. Chris Cooper would start to talk and you could hear a pin drop.”
What did those scenes give Carpenter as showrunner? “[They get] two great actors to get to look into each other’s eyes. That’s really special. And It’s really amazing to get to be with actors who are at the very height of their game. And it’s not nothing to them. They’re not shrugging and going on. It’s electric.”
One of “11.22.63’s” most memorable moments, on a performance level, comes during one of Al and Jake’s earliest scenes — when Al tells Jake in the first episode, “I need you to go back there and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.” You couldn’t ask for a more blatant example of exposition, so focused and simple that in the hands of a weaker actor, it could be impossible to sell.
And Carpenter agreed about the line’s necessity. “We’re giving you the thesis of the series right here. Here’s the thesis. Focus up.”
“But you care,” she added, “because it’s Chris Cooper.”