Like many British actors before him, Brian Cox began his career in the theater, but even as he was treading the boards, he always had his eye on stepping in front of the camera. After performing in several productions for television, Cox made his film debut in 1971 with Nicholas And Alexandra, but it took 15 years for him to gain a proper foothold as a movie actor via his performance in 1986’s Manhunter. Since then, Cox has rarely experienced downtime, as a quick glance at his filmography will reveal, and the diversity of the characters he’s portrayed is matched by the variety of directorial styles he’s worked under. Cox chatted with The Dissolve about his work in Blood, in which he plays a police-family patriarch who battles his sons while struggling with senility. He also discusses his experiences with Spikes Lee and Jonze, his hopes for a Super Troopers sequel, and his “go in and do it and get out” philosophy of filmmaking.
The Dissolve: In Blood, you play Lenny, a man who, even at his moments of deepest senility, still enjoys a good bacon sandwich.
Brian Cox: [Laughs.] Yes, he does!
The Dissolve: What are the challenges of playing someone suffering from senility?
Cox: Well, the challenges are really in making it believable. You know, the whole forgetfulness and losing track. I had a brother who passed away a couple of years ago, and he got senility toward the end of his life. He wasn’t all that old. He was in his 60s. And I remember talking to him and what happened, the kind of things he used to say. You kind of lose the plot, and you’re saying things like, “Am I still at school?” I’d say, “No, Charlie, you were out of school some time ago.” He said, “I thought so! I just wasn’t sure.” [Laughs.] He was also quite funny with it.
The Dissolve: At one point, one of Lenny’s sons references him and uses the phrase “when he’s back with us.” He certainly has his moments of lucidity, but when they occur seems to vary wildly.
Cox: Yeah, that’s true. And that’s what happens with people who are suffering from the disease. They’re trying to deal with that. It varies, the levels of lucidity.
The Dissolve: Blood has a decidedly dark feel, but it’s the sort of tone the material requires.
Cox: Yeah, I think so. And I think they captured it well. I particularly liked the idea about shooting it in these little islands [Hilbre Island, Big Eye, and Little Eye], this kind of estuary where there’s sand and these big, long, huge beaches and stuff. I thought that was a very visually interesting decision. That’s kind of what drew me to it as well.
The Dissolve: Had you seen the original Conviction miniseries before signing onto the film?
Cox: No, I didn’t even know until after I’d signed on that it’d actually been a miniseries. [Laughs.] I had no idea.
The Dissolve: Was this a case where the part was pitched specifically to you?
Cox: Well, I met the director, Nick Murphy, and I liked him a lot. And then I liked his ideas for the film and how he wanted to shoot it, so I was actually very impressed by him. That was the reason I did it. I had worked with Paul Bettany before. We did a film a few years ago [The Reckoning]. And I worked with Mark Strong when he was a young actor. When I did [King] Lear years and years ago, he was in that. I’ve also just done a film with Mark, coincidentally [Mindscape]. But I hadn’t worked with Mark for a long time, and I’d never worked with Stephen Graham before, who I just thought was delightful.
The Dissolve: What do you recall about working with Bettany on The Reckoning?
Cox: He’s grown up a lot. He’s gotten much more mature, I think. Marriage and kids has helped. I think he was still kind of at the beginning of his career, and forming himself. But I actually noticed a big change in Paul. He’s become really quite a nice man, which is good. It’s very heartening. When he was younger, he was a struggling actor, an actor trying to make his mark. That’s always difficult for a young actor. He’s like a good wine. He’s aged well.
The Dissolve: Your own first film performance was playing Trotsky in 1971’s Nicholas And Alexandra. How was the transition from stage to cinema?
“My heart goes out to people like Spike Lee and Spike Jonze, because they're trying to be their own animal. And I applaud that. I don't have to do that as an actor. I'm a hired gun, y’know? I go in, I shoot up the place, and I get out.”
Cox: Well, I always wanted to work in film. The reason I ended up working in the theater was because that’s our natural culture heritage here. But I personally always wanted to do films. I sort of missed the great British period of films. You know, with Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, that kind of people. I’m much younger than those guys, so when I came along, there wasn’t as much cinema around. It was more television. So I used to just go from television to theater, television to theater. Television is like film in a way, but you look at my first film, and then I did a film with Lindsay Anderson, and then I didn’t really do any more movies for about 15 years. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that I started getting into movies altogether.
You know, there’s a lot of people talking about acting in the cinema and acting in the theater, but it’s only a question of scale. The truth’s the truth no matter what. The dramatic truth is always the dramatic truth, and I think that’s what people kind of always forget. Good acting is good acting, whether it be film or theater. It’s just a question of the scale, really.
The Dissolve: That Lindsay Anderson film you referenced was In Celebration, correct?
Cox: Yes. Lindsay was a great director. Probably one of the finest directors I’ve worked with, certainly in cinema, but also in the theater. His great thing was about economy. He gave me the best note ever: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” [Laughs.] You know, trust your own weight, as it were. He was the first person who really taught me to do that, so I was able to transfer that lesson from the theater to the cinema. He was a great teacher as well as a great director.
The Dissolve: Your brother in the film was actually one of the actors you referenced a moment ago: Alan Bates.
Cox: Yeah! Funnily enough, they just did a revival of that. I’m the rector of a university in Scotland [University Of Dundee], and I was summoned to this festival, the centerpiece of which was Lindsay Anderson’s archive. They had a showing, a screening of the film, which I hadn’t seen for about 30 years, but… It’s a really good movie! [Laughs.] You know, because of the community of the actors and the history of the actors involved, and Alan. We’d done it in the States five years previous, so it was really, really good. It was just a wonderful film to watch. And it was actually beautifully shot, too. Beautifully directed. And it was a real film, not one for TV. Even though it’s an interior, it’s pretty much shot like a film. Yeah, he was a tremendous director. Truly tremendous.
The Dissolve: In Celebration was released in 1975. What was it that drew you back to film in 1986 with Manhunter? Was it specifically the part of Hannibal Lecktor [as the character’s name was spelled at the time—ed.], or did you just figure the time had come to give film another shot?
Cox: Well, I think Hannibal Lecktor was the thing that sort of opened the door to me. People kept saying, “You’ve gotta go to Hollywood, you’ve gotta go to Hollywood.” And I kind of resisted it for a long time, partly because I was married and had kids. But my marriage broke up, so… But when I did Manhunter, I sort of came back, but the fortunes of Manhunter in those early days and my fortunes were very similar—which is to say that they were slightly arrested. [Laughs.] Because Manhunter did phenomenally well, but then DeLaurentis went bust, and the film went into kind of liquidation, so it took a while before it got back into the public consciousness. And then the next thing we knew, they did The Silence Of The Lambs. I think it was NBC who then showed Manhunter, but I think they called it The Pursuit of Hannibal Lecter, and it was at that time the biggest movie ever show on television, the biggest audience. So then the film got known. In fact, it languished for ages. It was released here [in the U.K.] something like three years after it was made. But it opened doors for me. I went back to working in the theater, and then in the early ‘90s, I decided to make the move back into cinema.
The Dissolve: Had there ever been any talk of you reprising the role for The Silence Of The Lambs, or had that ship already sailed by that point?
Cox: Well, I think the thing was that Jonathan Demme, when he did it, he just… [Hesitates.] It’s sort of a complicated history, because at one time Gene Hackman was going to direct it [and star]. He had the rights to the project, but then he gave it up. I don’t really know what happened. Michael Mann owned it, but… There’s also this whole thing about Lecter. He’s got different spelling. They hadn’t resolved the character’s name. Even though it’s Thomas Harris’ name, in Michael’s film…well, I don’t know what happened, something to do with copyright, but it became an issue. Finally it was resolved, though, and they called him “Lecter.” But I remember that my agent called—Tony Hopkins and I had the same agent at the time—and said, “There’s this character, it sounds very similar to the one you played, but the name’s a bit different…” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: You’ve worked with some definitively British directors in your career. In addition to Lindsey Anderson, you also did a film with Ken Loach, Hidden Agenda.
Cox: Yeah, I worked with Ken the once, though it was over quite a while. It was a great film to work on. He’s a tremendously good director. He’s known as this polemicist, but he’s actually much better than that. The same with Spike Lee. Everyone thinks of Spike as being African-American and quite political, but his knowledge of cinema is extremely profound, just in terms of his technical knowledge. Ken’s the same. The film I did with him was different for him. I mean, it was a political film, but it wasn’t, like, party political. It wasn’t like a lot of his films, which are social studies as much as anything else. Hidden Agenda was much more of a political thriller.
The Dissolve: Since you brought up Spike Lee, you did 25th Hour for him. You obviously respect his knowledge, but how was he to work with as a director?
Cox: Oh, he was great. He’s pretty tremendous, Spike. I’d probably rate him as one of the best directors, y’know what I mean? I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with some great directors. But I really liked Spike. I always felt completely at ease in Spike’s hands. You knew exactly where you were. He’s a director that really got you in the right spot. You knew what you were doing, you knew you were in the right place. And he also allowed things to develop. The original end of that movie was much shorter, but he fell in love with that monologue I had. In fact, David Benioff, who wrote it, he wrote the monologue, and it was made five minutes longer than it originally was, and then we shot the film accordingly. But he was tremendous to work with, Spike. I’ve been sad not to see Spike do more movies, because he’s such a good moviemaker.
The Dissolve: You’ve got a remarkably diverse back catalog, from X2 to Super Troopers. How do you go about selecting your films nowadays? Is it a case where they’re pitched straight to you?
Cox: Well, they usually are pitched straight to me, yeah. When I was very young, I was very keen on comedy, and then it drifted away from me. But as I’ve got older, I’m much more interested in comedy than a lot of people give me credit for. And I think I’m good at it! So I’ve just leaned in when anything’s come along that’s had a tremendous sense of humor. Especially the Broken Lizard crowd. That was a great script. In fact, I think it’s by far and away the best film they’ve made, Super Troopers. But contrary to that, the critics will ask, “Why would you do this? Why would you do that?” I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve actually took myself—well, I take what I do seriously, but not the career. I’m interested in the work, I’m interested in the roles, but I’m not interested in managing what I appear in. To be honest with you, I think it behooves an actor just to do what is offered, as long as it’s not badly written. There’s a great selection of work out there, and I’ve decided that’s what I’m going to do. I really wanted to play the range, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to continue doing so.
The Dissolve: Have you ever signed onto a project where you ended up saying, “I’ve made a terrible mistake”?
Cox: No, I don’t believe that at all. You know, there have been projects I’ve enjoyed, projects I haven’t enjoyed as much, and projects that, y’know, I haven’t enjoyed. But ultimately, I think all the projects I’ve done, they’ve always had a great learning curve in them. I said this years ago, but one of the things I read that was a tremendous inspiration to me was Michael Powell’s autobiography. He said, “In movies, there are no big parts or small parts. There are only long parts and short parts.” And that’s actually true. You spend your time on a movie, it could be 10 days, but they could be very full days. Or you could shoot a movie over a long period of time, but you still ultimately end up working only about 12 days. I like to take ’em on commando style: I go in, I do it, and I get out. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Is there a particular “in, out, done” sort of role that leaps to mind when you think of doing films in that fashion?
Cox: Well, Manhunter was like that, really. It wasn’t a long gig. It was a very quick gig, in fact. And it was a very satisfying one. Adaptation was like that as well. But then X2 was quite a long part. The Bourne films were quite long, and they kept going on because they kept doing rewrites. And Troy was certainly a long road. But then there’s some independent films where you really work very hard very quickly and you can get a film on its feet in only a few weeks, as opposed to several months.
The Dissolve: You mentioned Adaptation. Spike Jonze is another director with a very distinct vision.
Cox: Yeah, he’s great. Another really, really gifted guy. He’s gifted with imagination. I’ve just done his recent film, the one he did with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson that’s just coming out [Her]. Scarlett and I play virtual characters in it. We’re computer-generated characters. I play a real guy, but he’s been taken over by the I.T. and he’s been computer-generated. It’s a really interesting subject. Joaquin plays this guy who falls in love with his computer, the voice of Scarlett, and becomes completely besot by it. It’s very much in the way Spike usually works. He takes a long time. That’s what’s very interesting about directors. They’ll spend a long time on projects, whereas with actors it’s a much quicker turnover. We’re in and out, in and out, in and out.
The Dissolve: You also worked with Wes Anderson on Rushmore. Is it difficult to work with a director whose sensibilities behind the camera are so distinct, who tend to do things a very specific way every time?
“The dramatic truth is always the dramatic truth, and I think that's what people kind of always forget. Good acting is just good acting, whether it be film or whether it be theater. It's just a question of the scale, really.”
Cox: Well, they are distinct, certainly, but you find, particularly in America, that the people who are of any value are those who are trying to do their thing. Like Woody Allen. But in America, once you make a success and you have your big blockbuster, they’re always trying to get you to do that big blockbuster again. You need money and you need backing to really carve a career in America. You look around and you say, “What’s happened to Hal Hartley? What’s happened to John Sayles? What’s happened to all those great filmmakers of the ’90s, those independents?” And their career’s come to a stop because a) they can’t afford it any longer, and it gets tougher, but b) they’re not really looked after properly, those filmmakers. It’s very hard to be your own man. It was hard then, but it’s even tougher now. So my heart goes out to people like Spike Lee and Spike Jonze, because they’re just trying to be their own animal. And I applaud that. I don’t have to do that as an actor. I’m a hired gun, y’know? I go in, I shoot up the place, and I get out. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: But that gives you the opportunity to keep your options open. As noted, you seem to have a wealth of possible gigs at any moment.
Cox: Yes, but I’m not locked into trajectories. It’s not as if I have to say, “Well, I must do this now.” I remember meeting an English actor on a plane once, an actor called Nigel Hawthorne, a good actor. I remember Nigel, who’s a bit older than me, when he was in the theater in the early days. He was a supporting actor in the theater, then he found a bit of success and became a leading actor and what have you. I think he was doing a film with Sly Stallone [Demolition Man], playing a supporting part, and he said, “Well, I can’t do that anymore.” And I went, “That’s rubbish! You do what you do.” We’re actors. You start to believe your own mythology. You need to remember that’s nonsense. You need to keep working, that’s the main thing. I’m lucky because I have both British culture and the American culture, so I have these two things that I can go backward and forward to, plus doing the theater. I feel very blessed in that way, because I’m not particularly locked into one genre, as it were. It’s not just one notion of myself as an actor who needs to do a certain thing in a certain way. As I say, I really don’t mind being a hired gun.
The Dissolve: On the occasions when you’re playing a character who’s a real person, do you tend to dive into research?
Cox: I do some. I do my bit. I’m not a huge research person, but I’ll find out about them. I just did a very good movie for a French director where I played J. Edgar Hoover [The Curse Of Edgar], and that was really interesting. He was quite a fascinating character, this kind of closet gay careerist who’s had so much written about him that wasn’t true, and I was trying to carve him with a certain principle, slightly right-wing. A really interesting character, particularly his relationship with Clyde Tolson. Really complicated, but really interesting. And again, great drama. Very funny as well, though. He’s a comic character, too.
The Dissolve: When you’re playing a character who’s closeted but whom the audience knows is gay, it’s got to be a bit of a fine line to play.
Cox: Well, I think the thing about it is, y’know, with somebody like Hoover, there’s so many notions about who he was, what he was, what he did—was he a cross-dresser, was he this, was he that—and you realize when you get into the skin of him that he was what he was, but he wasn’t going to risk anything. First and foremost, he was dedicated to the notion of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That’s what he loved, that’s what he wanted, and that’s what he did. Nothing would jeopardize that for him. So when you look at all the other stuff, you go, “No, no, no, it doesn’t make sense, he’s not going to be like that.”
The film we made was about his relationship with the Kennedys, which was a really interesting relationship, where he saw himself as kind of a pater familias to both Bobby and John. He knew Joe, he was a friend of Joe’s, but it’s about how he really didn’t like them because he thought they were spoiled and rich and thought they had a sense of entitlement, which is something he didn’t have. He was a worker. He worked for everything. So getting inside the skin of J. Edgar Hoover, that was really interesting for me. Not only was he gay, but he might’ve been black as well. He might’ve had African-American blood in him. All of these things kind of create the character. There’s a great deal to him. You don’t need to fall back on the cross-dressing. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: As a journeyman actor, do you feel any particular difference on your side of the industry when it comes to new media platforms like VOD?
Cox: Well, you know, you see some people struggle, but then you see people like [George] Lucas and [Steven] Spielberg complaining about how they can’t get their films out there because of the whole opening-weekend thing, and I’m going, “Yeah, but you guys started it!” [Laughs.] They’re the prime suspects in that whole debacle happening! The cinema’s become a top-heavy force. You can’t get grown-up films now unless you’re wearing a funny suit and throwing meteors at 200 miles per hour.
The Dissolve: Is there a status update on the long-discussed sequel to Super Troopers?
Cox: Well, they keep talking about it! [Laughs.] So I don’t know. But I’m still hoping.
The Dissolve: You’re in whenever the time comes, then?
Cox: Oh yeah! I loved that film. It’s just very witty. It’s funny. That’s what’s good about it. I think it was a guy called Cosmo Landesman here at the Sunday Times who wrote, “If Mr. Cox needed the money that badly, I’m sure his friends could’ve lent it to him.” I didn’t write back, but I told someone, “Could you please point out to Mr. Landesman that I didn’t get any money for doing Super Troopers?” [Laughs.] I didn’t do it for the money. You don’t do films like that for the money. You do it because they’re funny.