Celeste Cooper, best known for her role as the Medical Examiner in Chicago P.D., is breaking out with her first major role in the suspense thriller Range Runners, out now On-Demand.
Celeste also returns to her younger athletic roots in the movie, making the role both challenging and exhausting.
We spoke with the actress about the new movie and being part of a long-lasting TV show like Chicago P.D.
What drives that theatre person inside you?
I think going back to the beginning more so for me is where it is. I used to play a lot of sports and I didn’t actually have the passion that you need to really go as far in those types of areas. I actually parallel with the movie, it’s something I did more because my father wanted me to do it and pushed me to do it versus it was something that I actually loved for myself. During my senior year of high school, I went to track practice and ran a lap with a friend. We dipped into the locker room to cut through, to get to the theatre building because they were having auditions for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
I had a couple teachers that saw something in me that I didn’t really even see in myself. And so they were always seeing how I interacted with a couple of friends around me and that I had a big personality, but when I wasn’t around people that I was comfortable with or just in big settings, I was really quiet. So I think they were interested in how to consistently get me out of my shell. And so I didn’t want to go to track practice anyways. They mentioned this audition and I went to go audition with my friend and I ended up being cast in the role of Lucy Van Pelt in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It was the first time that I really felt good at something.
I’m the youngest of my family and my older sisters, I have an older brother as well, but I grew up in the house with my older sisters and my sisters were known to shine and in specific areas. They just had things that they were really good at. One of them was a cross country star. The other one was the intellectual winning the spelling bees and the pianist. And I never really had anything that my family was like, “Oh, Celeste is really good at this.” It was, “Oh, she’s so cute.” You know what I mean? The young one and all this stuff. So it felt as if I did the show and one of my sisters in particular really sparked something in me because she was saying, “Oh my gosh, Celeste. You were amazing. I didn’t even know that was in you. You never do stuff like that.”
She was just my cheerleader from day one that I should do this. I should pursue acting as something that is my career because something happened that she doesn’t see in my day to day life that comes out of me on stage. And then different family members came on board, and more opportunities and things were happening like, “Oh yes. Celeste is good.” It just became that domino effect of support of a career that is, unpredictable and I felt a freedom of there’s something about it transforming for me. I’ve always been really passionate about transforming in a physical way.
All the people that I play are a little bit different physically than myself. It’s something of how I approach my character work and I think it’s probably because of my athletic background of certain people. I think they might have tension in their shoulders and the person might have a limp right here. There’s something that happens where I really embody who these people ar.
It came full circle with Range Runners. You’re back on the track.
My agent, Paonessa Talent Agency, got me an audition for Range Runners back in 2017. As soon as I got the slides, I was like, “Oh yeah. Yeah, this is me.” It’s funny though because it’s me, but it’s not me. I’m definitely someone that is a lot warmer and I smile and laugh a lot, and this particular character does not do any of that. But I will say the connection to me is her perseverance, her drive. I’m very, very driven. And I think sports is a big reason for that. My father pushed me in basketball, volleyball, and track when I was doing all of those sports. Track was actually the one I was most consistent in, even though it was my least favorite, but I was running track since I was seven and stopped when I booked that show at 18.
The idea of trying to live someone else’s dream but at the same time wanting to make your father proud, I connect with that. You know what I mean? I definitely know my father is extremely proud of me and being an actor today, but I’m sure, initially he had other dreams for me in a way that he wanted what’s best and what he thinks is best for me, but we might not always line up with the same views on things. I just immediately connected with that because the character Mel that I’m playing is running from something. She’s running and she is trying to really just rediscover and prove to herself that she is worthy. That she is enough. That she is this talented person, track star type of person, even though she didn’t make it in the Olympics. But on the way of her, through hiking in these woods, she comes across two people that really shouldn’t actually be in the woods.
They don’t seem to be hiking or doing any type of camping or anything. We run into an unfortunate situation where they take something from me and leave me for dead. And I end up getting out of the situation because I was basically tied up and all this stuff. I was able to escape that and instead of necessarily like going for help and getting out of these woods, I actually go after them to take back what’s mine, which is actually a Range Runners hashtag Take Back What’s Yours. and I think there’s a lot of meaning behind that hashtag alone. You basically just see me fighting for my life and trying to make sure that everything I came in those words with, I leave with. So I’ll leave it at that. I’m trying not to give too much away.
The emotional part, it didn’t bother me because I was really into also the storytelling of what’s happened with that character emotionally or in the journey of everything that’s going on, physical, mental, and sometimes an emotional release was the best thing for her. I really liked to honor that thinking about other people who might be in similar circumstances and I just want to always be honest and truthful regardless of how I might feel on that particular day. Celeste might be tired, but at the same time I got to do the work. I got to do the work because I need to be honest and truthful so people can feel what this character is going through because it’d be a disservice not to.
That’s totally different from being a medical examiner on Chicago P.D.
A hundred percent different, because the medical examiner, Chicago P.D., I mean, I’m basically dead pan, monotone, it’s straightforward, direct. I remember smiling one time and they were like, “Yeah, maybe let’s keep her more serious, direct and all that stuff.” And I was like, “Okay, okay.” So, I get what they need for that show. I do that, but it definitely is a whole different energy than someone like Mel that is going to fight. She’s a fighter and there’s nothing that’s going to stop her from getting what she wants or needs.
I was still a little on the green side, so that was a big deal for me. As I said, I was really nervous and I went in there and said my lines, but I stumbled.
I don’t know what happened to me because I’m one of the most polite people, I would say, and I was just like, “Oh no, no, no. We’re going to do that again.” Like I told them we were going to do it again because I stumbled on the line and they let me. They let me do it again and basically the next time I did it for some reason, hey, I’m a strong believer in Papa God, I decided to crouch down on the ground like I was on the scene of the crime. So the first time I did the scene, I was standing up and the next time after I told them we were going to do it again I crouched down and I said those lines.
The first thing that came out of the director that was casting that episode, said to me, “If I got down that low, I couldn’t get back up.” You know what I mean? That was literally her reaction to me. And then she’s just like, “All right, thank you.” And so I didn’t know what that meant. I was just like, “Okay, whatever.” And then the next thing I know I’m put on hold for it and then I book it. And I did that one episode and that was in season one. It wasn’t actually a recurring role at the time when I booked it. Then it wasn’t until season three, where I guess some of the writers or producers remembered me from season one and they started bringing me back in season three.
One of the side benefits of something like that is your parents and your family have something to show everybody. They must have loved that.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s when a lot of my family members were like, “Oh my gosh, my Celeste has made it,” But it’s also one scene. It’s one scene and yes, I have a whole scene, but it is something that I’m always craving more. So it was strange when this was actually the most screen time I’ve ever experienced where I was saying way more, than I’ve ever said on Chicago P.D. or other shows and movies that I have appeared in.
Range Runners is the real deal. It’s got a wide release with video on demand.
I’m so grateful for that project. It’s definitely, truly been a blessing in my life. And I really think that it’s something that people are really going to enjoy. I mean, from our film festivals that we were at last year, received nothing but love and praise. I was just so grateful to receive that type of love. It was really, really beautiful.
What’s up next for you?
I’m doing more virtual producing. I’m working on a project with a friend of mine Tanikia Carpenter where we’re basically going to be honoring Chicago icons from the area of Woodlawn on the South side of Chicago. Muhammad Ali and then Emmett Till, and Mamie Till, and Lorraine Hansberry all actually lived in that part of Chicago. And so we’re looking to create some performances and interviews to uplift those particular people.
I’m also working on a short film. I’m not actually writing it, but I’m going to be in a short, short film that Steppenwolf Theatre is producing that Mia Chung is actually writing. And so I have a reading for that tomorrow, and I’m not sure when we’re going to be shooting that, but I’m assuming that we’d be shooting that fairly soon and would probably be available to the public until late September or October.