Redskin Tight End Chris Cooley Believes in Cinema ‘Ghosts’
By Buzz McClain / Photography by Jonathan Timmes
There’s a lifeless body lying on a ratty couch under a bed sheet, and a rather severe-looking, giblet-studded blood stain, about head high, drips down the wall over it. Clearly, there has been an unspeakably grisly event here in this remote farmhouse near Leesburg.
And it’s all Chris Cooley’s fault.
Yes, Chris Cooley, the two-time All-Pro tight end for the Washington Redskins. That Chris Cooley, No. 47 on the field and No. 1 in the hearts of Skins fans everywhere.
There are nearly 50 people bustling about the house at the moment—none of them Cooley—curiously oblivious to the shrouded, immobile body. These folks—mostly intense 20-something men in T-shirts and camp-pocket shorts—busy themselves by fine-tuning lights, setting props, applying makeup and rehearsing lines for the next shot.
Spoiler alert: It’s a movie set, but it’s still Chris Cooley’s fault.
If Cooley hadn’t been on the radio, the fake corpse that provides a pivotal plot point in the suspense thriller “Ghosts Don’t Exist” might never have made it to that couch. “We listened to him on DC101’s ‘Elliot in the Morning’ show, and Eric said, ‘You know what, Chris Cooley is kind of a quirky guy, he might be into this kind of thing,’” says producer Aaron Goodmiller, recalling a conversation with writer/director Eric Espejo.
Being ambitious filmmakers—their production company is called 19th and Wilson, after an address in Arlington—Espejo, 38 and residing in Ashburn, and Goodmiller, 36 and living in Gainesville, emailed Cooley via his website, www.TheCooleyZone.com, and brazenly asked him to invest in their low-budget suspense-horror film. Goodmiller says, “Our motto is, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’”
They didn’t get. “He declined,” Goodmiller says.
But encouraged by any response at all, the filmmakers asked if the Redskin would mind being simply “attached” to the film with an executive producer credit. Perhaps his name recognition and high profile might attract investors. After drinks at Washington’s J.W. Marriott hotel bar with Chris and his wife Christy, the non-committal deal was committed, but only after the Cooleys heard the plot.
“The one-line pitch I used with Chris is, the film is basically about a ghost hunter who loses his wife and as a result loses his faith in what he’s doing,” Espejo says. “He gets a call from a client who says he wants him to take one last case because he’ll get the evidence he’s looking for; when they get there he guarantees it—and shoots himself in front of them.”
In other words, I’ll call when I get there. Creepy.
The plan worked, and happily once Cooley came on board catering and crew either donated goods and services or took deep discounts to help out–to the eventual tune of thousands of dollars.
And Cooley eventually did kick in some funding. “He showed up to both investor events that we held,” says Goodmiller. “Both he and his brother were instrumental in bringing a ton of people to both events. If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have been able to garner three-fourths of the money that we did from investors.” (Plan B was to hit up relatives and downscale the production.)
This month the producers hope to enter the finished film in the famed Sundance Film Festival, or the renegade Slamdance Film Festival, as well as other showcases where movie distributors might see it, buy it and release it to theaters (or, failing that, release it to the home market). “Then there’s always Cannes,” says Goodmiller, and he doesn’t sound like he’s kidding.
What an image: Cooley in Cannes?
Cooley is immediately likeable, genuinely affable and a bit of a goof, which he no doubt will take in stride when he reads this. He might even respond to it on his blog, where he writes in a manner that’s wry and self-deprecating. He’s quick to turn a phrase, as in this frank description of his wife: “She walked into the house like she had climbed out of a poster in my high school bedroom.” Romantic, too.
Cooley lives unpretentiously in a pretentiously gargantuan house outside of Leesburg. He answers the front door with a tight smile and a curly raft of what appears to be bed head. He’s 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, garbed in a T-shirt and cotton shorts, and appears to be a guy who has rolled out of the sack at 11 a.m. Only later do we learn that he went for a run with the dog at 6 a.m. before working out, so this is his post-workout, pre-shower appearance—not a post-college unemployed slacker look.
“We don’t use a lot of the house,” he explains before settling in at the banquet-length dining table off the kitchen. A DVD copy of the TV show “Heroes” lies on the table like a coaster. He and his wife Christy share the five-bedroom, three-level, block-long brick monolith with their four dogs, ranging in size from Yorkie (two) to Great Dane (one; there’s also a golden retriever). “If I could do another one, I know what I’d do differently,” he says of the residence. “I’d do it all on one floor so it’d be easier to use.”
He’d probably eliminate the rarely used game room, and he’d make the large bar area more intimate and design some sort of shelving to put his collection of Plexiglas-boxed souvenir footballs—touchdowns (28), game balls, All-Pro balls (two)—but the home theater would go unchanged.
“It’s pretty sweet,” he says as he works a remote control to give a demonstration of the big screen gear. “We’re down here a lot.” He and Christy might be found in the company of the dogs watching the DVD boxed sets of favorite TV shows, rather than theatrical movies. “We’ll get ‘Lost’ and ‘24’ and watch, like, four episodes at once,” he says.
As for actually going out to the Regal Fox theaters in Ashburn, “I think we’ve been to two in the last year,” he says. “But when we go we’ll see whatever’s popular or supposed to be good. So, you can tell, I’m not really a super huge movie fan.”
Nor was he desperate to get into the field of filmmaking. “It’s not like something I was desiring to get into,” he says. “Honestly, it’s not something that I’m even interested in pursuing.”
In fact, “Ghosts” was the first script he’d ever read. And now he’s not only helping produce, but he has a part in it.
“I told him we’d get a part in there for him,” Espejo says. “Initially I’d given him the sheriff’s role, but he took one look at the sides [script pages] and saw it was like, eight pages and multiple shooting days, and he said heck with that.”
Cooley was demoted to deputy, and now has one major dialogue scene with the sheriff. “It worked out well,” says Cooley. “I think I had six or seven lines. It took forever and I didn’t mess up the lines or anything, it’s just moving the camera and setting up all this stuff.”
“He was smiling and having fun with it,” Espejo says of the executive producer’s performance. “He took me aside and we went over the lines; I directed him a little bit and he got it fine.” (Cooley’s scene has already been aired on the NFL Network.)
“It would be hard if you had to actually act out anything emotional or scary,” says Cooley, impressed by the demands of the craft. “It’d be hard to do it over and over again trying to act. Again, it’s not something I really want to continue doing.”
Indeed, he’d rather be painting, and not the flat latex-on-the-wall variety of painting. He climbs the stairs to his small studio and shows off several oil and acrylic canvases in progress, many of them slated to be auctioned for charity. Some are ambitious, if primitive, landscapes of the Western terrain where he grew up—rivers, mesas and mountains—first in Wyoming and then Utah, where he and his brother relocated with their mother. The paintings are clearly of someone self-taught and feeling his way around the palette but with a natural affinity for perspective. Has he had painting lessons? Despite being an art major at Utah State, “I wouldn’t even consider that [an art lesson] because I was more of a football major when I was in college.”
Picked by the Redskins in the third round of the 2004 draft, Cooley eventually worked his way into the starting lineup—and the hearts of fans—with his clutch receptions on the field and his blue-collar sensibilities after hours. Supporters respond to his insouciant attitude toward polite society, forgiving him for marrying a Redskins cheerleader (they’re not even allowed to date players) and, last year, posting a photo on his blog of his playbook that happened to be in his naked lap.
To escape the suffocating confines of civilization, last year he and Christy bought 450 acres in Wyoming and built a log cabin where he expects to “be outdoorsy,” in the manner of what he says is his favorite movie, “A River Runs Through It,” the bucolic 1992 story of two brothers growing up in rural Montana.
“I love that movie,” he says, walking up the stairs from the lower level. “If it’s on [TV] I’ll sit and watch it over and over.”
He stops at a cabinet under the upstairs flat-screen TV in the well-lived-in living room of the main floor. The two cleaning women who are toiling upstairs haven’t been here—perhaps for weeks—so the room is comfortably chaotic. You don’t expect a mansion like this to have a room with dog-chewed couches, cushions in disarray, dishes on tables and an authentic feeling of feet-on-the-table comfort, but that’s Cooley—no airs, no pretention.
“You’ll laugh at this,” he says, opening the TV cabinet and taking out a black CD-carrying case. He unzips the case to reveal sleeve after sleeve of a few dozen random DVDs. “This is my movie collection. Great, isn’t it? I categorize them as ‘Funny Movies’ and ‘Other Movies.’ Easy.”
The irony of an executive producer keeping his handful of movies stashed under a TV in a CD jacket isn’t lost on him. “I don’t know anything about movies,” he offers again. But as a team player, Cooley exhibits an emotional involvement in “Ghosts Don’t Exist.”
“My big concern once it got going was an actor might quit, or something might happen that would shut the movie down,” Cooley says. “But it got filmed, so we’ll see.”
He thinks for a moment.
“If the movie’s terrible,” he says, “I’m going to feel like a jackass.”