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Playback: Scott Cooper on ‘Hostiles,’ Sam Shepard and a Nation Divided

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Filmmaker Scott Cooper made a big splash with his 2009 directorial debut “Crazy Heart,” which won Jeff Bridges a much-deserved (and overdue) Oscar. He followed it up with steel country yarn “Out of the Furnace” and Whitey Bulger biopic “Black Mass.” His latest film, “Hostiles,” stars Christian Bale as a 19th-century Army Captain tasked with escorting a dying Cheyenne elder (Wes Studi) to sacred lands in the north.

The film is set for a world bow at the Telluride Film Festival, where Bale will receive a tribute to his career. Cooper has worked with the actor twice now and is eager to raise his own glass to a friend and colleague he calls the greatest actor of his generation.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“Christian is the least selfish actor I’ve ever worked with,” Cooper says. “He’s a lot like Jeff Bridges, in fact, where the less you see of these men in public, the more likely you’re going to believe what you see on screen. You don’t see Christian doing television ads. Unless paparazzi are very, very crafty, you don’t see him in these magazines. He tries not to be photographed. He lives a very private life. So I was surprised that he was open to celebrating his career, because he doesn’t normally like to call attention to himself. I’m just happy that they’re honoring his work because he is, for my 10 bucks, the best actor working.”

Cooper’s latest is an emotionally draining experience, a movie about hate and the catharsis of letting it go. It came to him unusually, through the widow of Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald Stewart (“Missing”). Cooper saw in that manuscript the seeds of timely ideas he wanted to explore concerning reconciliation and forgiveness.

“As I was writing it, I didn’t see the division that we now find ourselves in,” Cooper says. “Certainly I didn’t take it seriously that Donald Trump would be our president. I think probably what I wasn’t realizing as much as I should have is just how deeply people are suffering and how wide the divide is between those who have and those who don’t. So I saw an opportunity to make a film about inclusion and all of the things we as Americans need to better understand to make this country heal. Because I fear for my children’s future if we don’t.”

To that end, Cooper will next be adapting Hampton Sides’ “Hellhound On His Trail,” about Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray, the manhunt that brought him to justice, and the climate that helped spawn him in the first place.

“I think I have a handle on the material to tell it in a very sensitive fashion and one that can really speak to the times in which we live,” Cooper says. “Because James Earl Ray was really influenced by the rise of a demagogue named George Wallace, who gave a lot of people permission to speak through bigotry and hatred and violence.”

For more, including talk of Cooper’s previous life as an actor and sobering thoughts on the late Sam Shepard, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Scott Cooper photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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