Ring the bell, embrace the cracks
One of Sacramento’s most exuberant, funny—and, yes, entertaining—actresses is Gay Cooper, a character actress whose face is likely familiar to local theater-scene regulars. From her first role in her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., to performing monologues in Sacramento, Cooper can do it all. But sometimes, it’s not easy—the 60-year-old actress suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. “It’s been a roller coaster.” she says. “It has slowed me down at times over the last 30 years, but it hasn’t stopped me.” Indeed, she says she likes to live her life by her favorite lyrics from Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Cooper talked to SN&R about the art of crafting characters (imperfect or otherwise), Big Macs, and how her dream role would take her off the stage and behind the mic.
When did you start acting?
I was in high school, after I took my first drama class in the 10th grade—that’s where I really got introduced to acting. I got a lot of encouragement from my drama teacher.
How did you get your first role?
The first role was the typical high-school tryout for the school play. I couldn’t tell you when [it] was. I’m old. I played Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town. I absolutely loved it. She was just a lot of fun to play. I really had a good time. It gave me a lot of confidence, doing that role.
When did you realize you wanted to be an actress? In that 10th-grade play?
I wasn’t sure yet. I did know that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It really fit my creative spirit and increased my self-confidence. Then, I got that role of Mrs. Gibbs, and that really kind of sealed the deal. That was my creative outlet. Along with singing—I did sing in high school, as well. The Sound of Music and all that.
How did you end up in Sacramento?
Because my soon-to-be husband got an internship at UC Davis Medical Center. I had an acting gig at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, and I worked with a local theater company there. My husband moved out here, and I moved out three months later.
Boy, I tell ya, I wish I had time to think about that one. One of my favorite recent roles was in Talking With … for Resurrection Theatre. The role was Anna Mae in a monologue called “French Fries.” I absolutely adored that role.
In creating this character, I was able to channel my daddy in a way—some of his mannerisms, [his] way of talking [and] his love of storytelling. Because this particular character loved to tell stories, [and] whatever she said was truth, no matter what. It was the truth, no ifs, ands or buts. Even though she was talking about seeing a man healed by a Big Mac, it was true. It was written by a Southerner, so it had the Southern cadence, and, of course, I’m from Tennessee, so I was able to incorporate that as well. I was totally invested.
The only thing I can think of in terms of worst is back when I was in Tennessee. I was in my 20s, and I was cast as a lady who was 40 years older than me. I had a good time. I was just worried about the appropriateness of casting.
Most challenging character?
I think every role is challenging, because even though it may be close to my heart, it’s still a challenge. I see every role as a personal challenge, which I gladly accept.
There was an acting class I took several years ago, and the acting teacher, the brilliant Janis Stevens, gave me and this other gentleman a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You know, I’m not anywhere, anything like the character Martha, and I would never be cast in a million years. But it was fascinating to tackle that role from that perspective of somebody who would never be cast. It was extremely daunting, but it really all came back down to finding what’s in me that would [also] be in that character of Martha. It’s all about a human experience.
Do you see yourself acting in 10 years?
I see myself continuing to pursue interesting character roles, which is my forte. One of my bucket-list items is to voice an animated character. I don’t know how, when, where, what, anything, but I want to voice an animated character.
I am an amateur—emphasis on amateur—photographer. I find it to be another extremely satisfying creative outlet. It’s another creative process that requires one to be in the moment, just like acting, and to be open to everything in your present field of vision.