William H. Macy comes flying out of the gate like a wickedly fast sprinter. Chris Cooper gallops along steadily, like a long-distance horse who thrives on stamina. Both are trying to end up in the winner’s circle for their perfs in “Seabiscuit.”
Macy plays fictional character Tick-Tock McLaughlin, a manic radio announcer/pony tout invented for the film by writer-director Gary Ross. The character seems a cross between the nationally famous Walter Winchell and Jim Healy, a Los Angeles-based sports announcer who used sound effects to brighten his reports.
“Walter Winchell is the voice everyone hears,” Macy says. “He announced fights and horse races. I thank him for letting me rip him off.
“It was (Gary’s) idea to put all the sound effects in. I’ve done radio throughout my career, like with the Atlantic Theater Co. I’m a fan of radio plays. I like listening to the old ones from the ’30s and ’40s every once in a while. Other than that, I just learned my lines well enough so I could talk really fast.”
As for the horse-racing aspects of the role, Macy says, “I’ve certainly been to the track more than once and left a sizeable amount. My wife (Felicity Huffman) rides, and has a brother who breaks horses. He’s a rootin’-tootin’ cowboy. I ride a bit, but it’s not pretty to see.”
Cooper, last year’s supporting Oscar winner for “Adaptation,” plays the laconic Tom Smith, the trainer of Seabiscuit whose reticent manner earned him the nickname “Silent Tom.” A former cowboy, Smith was far more comfortable with animals than he was with people.
Cooper prepared for the role by visiting with California-based thoroughbred trainer Bruce Headley, an old-timer who knew Smith. “I got there at 5:30 in the morning, and he had already saddled up his horses and was ready to go,” Cooper recalls. “He demands that his horses be first on the track in the morning, when it’s perfectly groomed. He has so much respect for the horses and you could see how much trust the horses had in him.”
Cooper also says he had a lot to bring from his life experience. “Since my character had so few words of dialogue, I was most concerned with bringing out the character’s history, how grueling and hard his life was. He probably didn’t sleep in a bed for a good many years as a young man. Coincidentally, I worked with my father raising cattle in Kansas. I feel very comfortable around animals. I respect them. They have their own personalities. Horses, cattle, they’re all individuals.
“I have a good knowledge of the day-to-day aspects of living on a ranch. It’s very labor intensive and a strenuous existence. I’ve put in several miles of barbed-wire fence and built loading chutes and corrals for cattle. Living that life came back very quickly.”
Cooper says the only trepidation he had was playing someone much older than he. “That really scared me. I got a picture of Tom Smith and said to the makeup people, ‘Let’s go as far as we can.’ They did a wonderful job.”
Coming attractions: Cooper – “Silver City,” “Miller”
Macy – “In Enemy Hands,” “Spartan”