THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME
Penelope Cooper speaks out about her career, her family, and winning the lead in Sofia Coppola's box-office smash.
February 6, 2024 - No one is more awed by Penelope Cooper's overnight success than the actress herself. "It's unbelievable," Cooper, 37, says. "I wake up some mornings still thinking that I work at The Cheesecake Factory!"
Cooper's ascent to stardom reads like the perfect Hollywood success story. The actress was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and moved to California to pursue a career on the stage. She supported herself as a waitress until she landed a successful audition with Pasadena's Furious Theatre Company. Then she worked her way up the ranks and finally into the film industry with a series of critically-acclaimed supporting roles, including that of Laura Wingfield in the 2017 big-screen adaptation of The Glass Menagerie.
When Cooper was cast as the lead in Sofia Coppola's Cynthia, she was still a relative unknown - but no longer. Her poignant portrayal of John Lennon's first wife has made her a darling of the critics and the box-office alike. Élan Magazine's Emmy Walker recently sat down for a short Q&A with the Academy Award-nominated actress.
Élan: What was your initial reaction to being cast as Cynthia Lennon?
Penelope Cooper: I was in shock - literally in shock. I auditioned for the role on a whim, really; it was the first time I tried out for a part since my daughter was born, but my agent encouraged me to jump back in and get my feet wet right away. At the time I thought there was no way I would end up with the part. It was truly the role of a lifetime.
Had you worked with Sofia Coppola before?
God, no. I knew who she was, of course - I remember seeing Lost in Translation two or three times when it first came out in theaters - but meeting her left me starstruck. She had such a strong vision of what she wanted the film to be, but at the same time she was incredibly patient with me.
How did you prepare for the role?
I've been a fan of The Beatles all my life; my dad was a huge fan, he had, you know, all the albums, so I did listen to the music to get myself psyched. I also read everything about Cynthia that I could get my hands on, especially what she'd written herself. My copy of John [Cynthia Lennon's biography of her first husband] is about to fall apart, I've read it so many times!
I also spent a lot of time going over archival footage of Cynthia, trying to learn how she stood, how she spoke - I didn't want to mimic her, but I did want to offer a faithful reinterpretation of her story. She was such a multi-faceted woman, although I think only a few people were really aware of that.
She did tend to get overshadowed by John.
That's unavoidable, I think. [Laughs] She's often forgotten or even cast as some sort of villain, the obstacle to John and Yoko's great romance, but I think that she did the best she could with the life she had. And, of course, John treated her badly. That was certainly a concern going into the film - we were presenting this not-so-glamorous side to a legend, and we weren't sure how people would react to that.
Obviously, the reaction was positive.
But we didn't know it would be!
Were there any scenes in particular that you found difficult to shoot?
Well, the easy answer is "all of them," just because of the British accent. I had to work with a coach for six months to get that down. Other than that, I'd say the scene where Cynthia and John were given LSD and didn't realize it. And of course, the reconciliation scenes with John - I wanted to show a sort of gradual return to friendship between the two of them.
Cynthia remained attached to John all her life, didn't she?
That's very true. She was married four times, but in the end she even changed her last name back to Lennon. I think that he was, in some ways, the love of her life, but she wasn't the love of his. He did love her, but it wasn't the same from his side. It's sad.
Did you have any experience with unrequited love of your own?
Not really. I dated a lot of men before I met my husband, and some of them were definitely jerks, but no, never unrequited love.
Your husband's something of a celebrity himself, isn't he? He won a Nobel Prize two years ago.
In physics, yes. He's the department chair at Caltech. I don't understand half of what comes out of his mouth sometimes! I'm incredibly proud of him, though - that was really a dream come true, for both of us.
You're not so scientific yourself, though.
No way! [Laughs] We're an odd couple. He calculates the tip when we go out to eat and I drag him out of his office to get some sun.
How did the two of you meet?
I moved into a new apartment, and Sheldon lived with his best friend across the hall. We really clashed when we first met - he even broke into my apartment in the middle of the night to clean because he thought I was too messy! He's such a neat-freak. [Laughs]
And somehow the two of you found the time to start a family.
That's right, our daughter just turned five.
Does she take more after mom or dad?
Cassie's definitely got her dad's smarts - right now she's into astronomy, and we have to go to the planetarium every weekend. But she has my organizational skills, so I know that Sheldon didn't just clone her.
Is it hard juggling your career with being a parent?
Yes, but it's worth it. Cassie's in school now, which helps, but I didn't act at all for the first few years after I had her. And Sheldon took a sabbatical from work to be with her while I was filming.
You seem determined to avoid the high-profile lifestyle.
I think it's important to find a balance between a career and family. I don't want to always be in the spotlight or on the cover of some tabloid. It's part of a wholesome life, I guess, if I can use that word without sounding like a door-to-door Bible salesman! You know - exercise, eat your vegetables. [Laughs]
What do you do to relax in your free time?
Most of my free time is spent being a mom! I take Cassie to school, playdates, museums, that sort of stuff. For me, though, I like going out dancing with my friends or to the movies. And believe it or not, I'm also hugely into video games. I was addicted to Age of Conan for a while, but now I set myself time limits.
What sorts of films do you enjoy?
Everything! I like romantic movies, but sometimes I just want to laugh or be thrilled. I think Little Miss Sunshine is probably the closest thing to a perfect movie ever made. Gotta love the classics.
And now you've been cast as the lead in a superhero film.
Right, Black Canary.
When is that due to be released?
Next May, I think.
You're already the pin-up fantasy for geeks across the nation.
I think geeks across the nation will have to get in line behind my husband. He's a huge comic book fan; he's the one who encouraged me to take the role.
Is there anything else planned for the immediate future?
Who knows? I already feel so lucky to have made it this far. It's a good life. ❖