If rising Broadway star Lilli Cooper needs a bit of career advice, she knows where to turn: Her father has been there, seen that and done that.
Cooper, who earned her first Tony Award nomination this month in “Tootsie,” is the daughter of Chuck Cooper, the Tony-winning actor of some 15 Broadway shows.
The chances that anyone makes it on Broadway are small. The chances that an offspring makes it there as well are smaller still. The Coopers recognize this.
“I don’t know how it happened. It’s kind of crazy. We’re constantly pinching ourselves. It feels very surreal and very special,” says Lilli during a joint interview with her dad.
She is the youngest of Chuck Cooper’s three children and grew up in midtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from Broadway and dad’s work.
“Backstage was my backyard,” she says. “I would go to his dressing rooms after school and do my homework and take naps under his dressing station and help the prop guys hand off props in the wings. So it’s just sort of like in my blood.”
One of her grandfathers was an actor at Cleveland’s Karamu House, the oldest African American theater in the United States, and she has two older brothers — Eddie and Alex — who also have gone into the arts.
Chuck Cooper recalls the moment he realized his daughter had the chops for a life in the theater. She was in “Spring Awakening,” and he noticed her voice had beautiful focus and maturity. “I just sat straight up and the hair on the back of my neck went up. I went, ‘Oh my God what have we wrought?’” he says.
This season on Broadway marks the third time both father and daughter were in shows at the same time. Chuck Cooper recently ended his run in the Tony best-play nominee “Choir Boy,” and his daughter plays the love interest in a retooled “Tootsie,” Tony-nominated for best new musical.
Chuck Cooper, 64, has had a wonderfully varied career, from Shakespeare to musical comedy. His stage credits include “Caroline, or Change,” ″Chicago,” ″The Cherry Orchard” and “Act One.” On TV, he’s been on “The Good Wife,” ″House of Cards” and “Madam Secretary.”
“I call him all the time to ask for advice,” Lilli says, turning to her dad. “It’s invaluable the breadth of knowledge that you have and experience that you have. I use it, I think, on a daily basis, from ‘Should I audition for this?’ or choosing jobs, down to like ‘I lost my voice. How do I get it back?’”
Her dad says he also seeks out his daughter’s help: “I lean on you, too, because I can be kind of tough and sometimes I think I need her to help me calm down.”
Lilli’s Broadway credits include “SpongeBob SquarePants” and playing Elphaba in “Wicked.” She’s been on TV’s “The Good Fight,” ″Elementary” and in Steven Spielberg’s film “The Post.”
Growing up with a dad whose job wasn’t the traditional 9-to-5 wasn’t always easy, and the three Cooper children witnessed the attention their dad got in a big Broadway show but also the months of unemployment.
“They were there for all the beans and rice, all the eviction notices. The ‘No, you can’t go to camp.’ ‘No, you can’t have these shoes,’” Chuck says. “I was willing to gamble that it would be OK.”
He is modest about his achievements: “I merely refused to quit. I just kept showing up. I kept dodging the bullets and I kept showing up, and this is what happened.”
Lilli, 29, was a shy child, but had the mouth of a sailor at age 4 and bossed around her older brothers. “This is a child who we took swimming and who would jump into the pool,” says her dad. “I never taught her how to swim. She just jumped in and swam. And so it was with life.”
They may love each other but they don’t sugarcoat their opinions of each other’s work. In college, dad came to see a play Lilli was in and later suggested she change something.
“At first, I was like, ‘He gave me a note. He didn’t like me.’ But then I was like, ‘No, he was being helpful.’ It was a note that I took and I got better. So, yeah, I think we’re brutally honest with each other and sometimes it can be like, ‘Just lie to me!’”
Lilli hopes to mimic her dad’s career versatility, saying she wants “to have sort of a toe in everything.” And she is unfurling her wings at a time when traditional casting choices are giving way to more fluid ideas of race and gender. “I’m a biracial woman,” says Lilli. “And I’m trying to navigate what my identity is in the theater.”
Her dad, who fought his own battles with racism, sees encouraging signs: “I think America is clearly in a space of redefining itself. This is a perilous position for us to be in. But it’s also an exciting time and one of wonderful possibility.”
Father and daughter may share blood and talent but they also have something in common that’s skin deep. Both have the same tattoo — a hand with thumb, index finger and pinkie finger up and the ring finger and middle finger down. It’s the American Sign Language sign for “I Love You.”
Lilli explains that the Coopers have long flashed the sign to each other after performances, a way to cheer each other at curtain calls. Lilli and Chuck got the same tattoo of the hand on the same day, he on a forearm and she on an ankle.
“It’s sort of our little secret,” she says.
SOURCE: MARK KENNEDY, AP