The actor: Brian Cox, a venerable Scot who's had a thriving career as a stage and television actor in the UK, as well as a successful run as a character actor in American movies. Cox first drew attention Stateside for playing Hannibal Lecktor—before the character had a "k"-ectomy—in Michael Mann's 1986 thriller Manhunter; in recent years, Cox has become even more familiar from his small, key roles in films by formidable directors like Spike Lee and Wes Anderson. Cox can currently be seen doing a rare leading turn in Red, a suspenseful character piece about an honorable man driven to violence when three punk kids shoot his dog.
Nicholas And Alexandra (1971)—"Trotsky"
Brian Cox: That was the first movie I did. Worked with the great Sam Spiegel. I was a young actor doing repertory theater all around England, and in those days, travel was very difficult, but I had to keep going back to meet Spiegel about playing the role. Or a role. I didn't know which role it was going to be. Eventually, I came back from somewhere way in the north of England. It took me six hours to travel, and I had to get back on the train by midday in order to make my evening performance. So I sort of staggered in, so tired, and the director, Frank Schaffner said, "We don't need to see you again, you're in the movie!" And Maude Spector, who was the casting director, said to Spiegel, "Well, you know, it wasn't very clear what you wanted." And Spiegel said to me, "Yes, you're in the movie, you're in the movie, we all know you're in the movie." And I said, "What part am I playing, is it Kerensky or is it Trotsky?" And he said, "Kerensky, Trotsky… You're in the movie!" [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: Was being on a movie set what you'd imagined it to be?
BC: I'd done TV stuff. I'd actually played Stalin, ironically enough. I think I must be the only British actor who's played both Stalin and Trotsky. I need to play Lenin so I can make it a triptych. [Laughs.] But that Nicholas And Alexandra set was particularly sepulchral, because it was shot by the great cinematographer Freddie Young. Awe-inspiring. He'd done Doctor Zhivago. And he also did Lawrence Of Arabia, which is one of the great movies of all time. So boy, that was something else. Kind of a major piece to be involved in. When we got onto the set, there was a real feel of hush. Very quiet, I've always remembered. One of the quietest films. So I thought, "Oh, this must be what film sets are like."
Manhunter (1986)—"Dr. Hannibal Lecktor"
BC: What happened was, I did a play Off-Broadway called Rat In The Skull, which I'd done in London with Gary Oldman. Brian Dennehy was sort of in the loop to play the role of Hannibal Lecktor, and it was Dennehy who actually recommended me to Michael Mann. He said "The guy who can really play this is Brian Cox. He's at the Public in Rat In The Skull, and you should go see him." Well, Michael didn't go and see me, but the casting agent Bonnie Timmermann came. And at my audition, Bonnie, who is this little bird-like creature, and very sweet, said "You know what I'd really like you to do? I don't want to see you. So do you think you could keep your back to the camera?" And I went, "Yeah, why?" And she said, "Well, when I saw your performance, I was sitting in a bad seat, and for the first 20 minutes, all I could hear was your voice. And I was so intrigued that when I eventually saw you, it was thrilling." So I said, "Oh, okay." So I started the screen test with my back to the camera, and I eventually turned around. Which Michael Mann actually incorporated into the movie.
AVC: Were you disappointed not to be asked to reprise the role in the later films?
BC: It was really strange. I didn't know what was going on. There were some rights issues concerning the character, and it wasn't very clear that the name could be used. So when they first started showing the script for Silence Of The Lambs around, the character had a different name. Tony Hopkins and I, we both had the same agent, and my agent said to me, "You know, Tony's been offered this role in a Jonathan Demme film that sounds very similar to the part you played in Manhunter." And I checked it out and said, "Well, it is the part I played in Manhunter." But by then I was already engaged to do King Lear at the National Theater. And the irony of ironies is that when I had been playing Hannibal Lecktor, Tony had been playing King Lear at the National Theater. It was just a weird juxtaposition of events. Later on, I directed an episode of Oz and I hired Jonathan Demme for a part, which was kind of my way of getting back at him. [Laughs.] But he clearly wanted his own movie, and didn't want anybody from the original at all. Because it wasn't just me that changed. Dennis Farina became Scott Glenn, you know. And I don't have any regrets about it. The only thing I regret is the money.
AVC: And the Oscar?
BC: Oh yeah, I almost forget he got an Oscar for that. Yeah, I always think it was weird he got an Oscar for that. I think Tony is a wonderful actor, and it was his day, and he deserved it. But it's an odd part to get an Oscar for. Did he get the Oscar for Best Actor, or Best Supporting Actor?
AVC: Best Actor.
BC: Wow, that's bizarre. Because when I played Hannibal Lecktor, he was a supporting character. Which is what I thought the strength of it was. I thought once the Hannibal franchise got under way, it got a bit silly, to be honest with you.
Rob Roy (1995)—"Killearn"
BC: Again a great script, and I think a much better script than Braveheart, the other epic film at that time. Though Braveheart struck a lot more bells because of its heroic sensibility, and also because of the sheer feat of what Mel Gibson had done. But I thought Rob Roy was the much better script, and I also thought, from a Scots point of view, that Rob Roy really investigated the nature of a Scottish character that was sort of duplicitous, and the survival mechanism that occurs in the feudal chain. My character, Killearn, was sort of the quintessential fallen angel turned bad guy. It was an interesting character to create. I didn't like being around him. I just didn't like the guy. I thought he was a horrible guy.
AVC: In the '70s and '80s, you didn't do many films, but from Rob Roy on, you've done a lot. What changed in your career?
BC: I'd always wanted to do movies, but if you grow up in these islands—especially where I grew up in these islands—the theatre is very powerful, very potent. It's a part of our heritage. Our culture is really a theatrical culture, not a cinematic culture. Feudal societies don't create great cinema; we have great theatre. The egalitarian societies create great cinema. The Americans, the French. Because equality is sort of what the cinema deals with. It deals with stories which don't fall into "Everybody in their place and who's who," and all that. But the theatre's full of that. Especially in Shakespeare. So in a way, it behooves you as a British actor to try and master the classics and become a classical player. I got caught up in it. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but I was too late.
You see, the free cinema, the cinema of Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay… That all ended by the time I came along. So I went to work in the Royal Court, because they weren't going to be making any more of those movies. And I did television, because television became our film industry, and it was good. We had a very good standard of television for a very long time. But the standards started to get eroded around… really, the late '80s and early '90s. Meanwhile, I went to America to do Manhunter, and when I came back, I was going through a divorce, and I realized I wanted to stay in the country. So I went and worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I did the majority of my major classical work. Playing Titus Andronicus, playing King Lear, playing Petruchio in The Taming Of The Shrew. I had an amazing time of it. But the movies were always in the back of my mind, hanging around.
Then in the mid-'90s, having done this thing of having a full career, going from television to theatre, I decided I wanted to give the movies a go. Manhunter had become a cult success, and people were saying, "You know, we'd love to see you do more movies." So I moved to America. It was a big thing, because I was nearly 50, but I suddenly thought, "No, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to have my last possible role of the dice, because I'm not a kid." In a way, it was perfect timing, because I hit Hollywood when I was old enough to deal with it. I think if I was a younger actor. I couldn't have dealt with the crap. Cinema isn't what it used to be. It's very hard to create the kind of cinema that I loved, which is the cinema of the '50s, the '60s, and I suppose the early '70s.
But I remember reading a book by Michael Powell, the filmmaker, saying that in films, "There are no big parts and small parts, there are only long parts and short parts." And it was a revelation for me, because it meant that really the concentration is on when you work. It could be a day, it could be five days. The hardest thing to do in movies is be a day-part player. You have to go in, make your mark, and get out. There's a lot of leading actors who are not good for a lot of a movie, and then suddenly they have good moments, and they're like stepping-stones across a particularly feisty stream. They build careers out of that. The politics of it is something else. So when I decided that this is what I wanted to do, and I made the move, I decided that although I was a leading actor in the theatre, I'd be a character actor in movies and take it from there. America's very good in the sense that good will out. In the end, I knew that if I could create some kind of rapport, I'd get my acknowledgement as a film actor.
Rushmore (1998)—"Dr. Nelson Guggenheim"
AVC: Speaking of that Michael Powell line about short roles and long roles, one of your more indelible parts is from a movie you're barely in, Rushmore.
BC: Exactly. I actually went to see Rushmore, and I came late, and I missed myself. [Laughs.] It was great, that scene. I caught that scene the other day on TV, funny enough, the first scene that you see with Jason Schwartzman and myself, where we talk about his grades. That's a brilliant scene, and I have to say, we play it brilliantly. Jason's very intelligent; he's a bright kid. We've got this level of seriousness, as though we were talking about something quite important. And these two men are clearly friends as well, but the kid just isn't cutting the mustard. You know? It's an absolutely wonderful scene.
AVC: It's a crucial scene, not just because you fill the audience in on the lead character's background, but because you let us know he's basically a good kid, and it's okay to root for him. That's what makes the rest of the movie work.
BC: Those kinds of roles can be so key, and a lot of people take them for granted. I was raised on movies where you saw such wonderful character actors, like Jimmy Gleason. There's a marvelous film called The Bishop's Wife, and there's a whole sequence where Gleason is a cab driver who goes skating and does all these kinds of funny pratfalls and stuff. It's a tiny part, but a moment of glory. Movies can do that in a way that no other medium does it, you know? You can save space if you play a role right. I think Hannibal Lecktor's only got three scenes in Manhunter, and yet that part, more and more, people keep seeing it and saying, "Wow, it's extraordinary." I think for Tony, possibly… Well, I don't want to put words in anybody's mouth, because I think he's very grateful for the role, but I also think it's become a bit of an albatross. Because it got blown out of proportion to what it was meant to be, and then it became something else. It became a Grand Guignol turn in a way; it became a shtick. And I didn't like that aspect of it. The great thing about Hannibal is that you don't know anything about him. You don't need to know about him; he's a mysterious guy. It's the mystery that really sells the role. I think once you start tampering with the mystery, you deconstruct it in the wrong way.
25th Hour (2002)—"James Brogan"
BC: Ah, there's a director. Astonishing, Spike Lee. A feisty guy, but a guy who's, I think, incredibly misunderstood. I think people review his politics or his color as opposed to his filmmaking sometimes. Because he's a wonderful, wonderful filmmaker and a lover of the art. He stands up for things, but he's also a brilliant storyteller who really understands the whole. The thing about 25th Hour… Films like that will, probably, in the mists of time, achieve what they're supposed to achieve. 25th Hour, when it came out, people said, "Oh, it's nothing." But people keep coming back to certain scenes and saying, "Wow, that's really interesting, that's amazing." Like Ed Norton's diatribe to the mirror, the hate speech. And the whole last sequence of the movie—the journey, and my monologue. Where he's going to go, what's going to happen. The elegiac nature of it. It's about a kind of America that's changing. Which is why Spike plugged it straight into 9/11 in that sequence where they look down into that black hole of Ground Zero. It's a very, very vibrant film. More than anything else, it's a very accurate social and emotional document of a real period in time. The disconnection. The wishing to start a new life, with new values. I think it's an amazing film, actually.
Spike is an amazing director. It's funny, I did movies around the same time with Spike Lee and Spike Jonze, and both Spikes have this wonderful thing in common: They know where to put you. A lot of directors, they never know where to put you. I worked with Doug Liman on The Bourne Identity that same year, and I got a lot of, "Oh, okay, you should, uh… I thought… maybe…" [Laughs.] You walk onto a Spike Lee set, he's got you set in the right place. Just, "You're here by that table, then you come in, and then you move over there." Spike Jonze shoots the same. Both Spikes are really quite extraordinary.
Adaptation (2002)—"Robert McKee"
AVC: When you did Adaptation for Spike Jonze, did you do any kind of research on Robert McKee, or did you just go from the script?
BC: I know Bob. Bob is the one that brought me the role, Bob is the one who said "I think Brian should play me." And I was delighted, because it's a wonderful role. Bob was very concerned at first, because he thought he was going to be a figure of fun. He was very concerned that it was going to be a satire of his teaching, and he's very serious about his teaching. I mean, he doesn't mind people taking the piss out of him, but his work is very serious to him. And again, that was a wonderful sequence where Nic Cage and I are in the bar, after I'd blasted him in public during the seminar. Then we meet in the bar and I talk to him. I remember the first assistant turning to Spike Jonze and saying, "Hey, isn't that great? You always wanted your Obi-Wan Kenobi character, and now you've got him." And when I told Bob that, he was really pleased. He said, "Oh, I see!"
X2 (2003)—"William Stryker"
BC: Bryan Singer's sense of narrative is second to none. He's a brilliant narrative director. But it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride with him. These big blockbusters, they do take it out of a director, they really do. The stress factor is unbelievable. What I most remember is one time we didn't shoot. I came back in from Venice, Italy. I'd started filming in, like, June, and we went through to November, but I had this section in September where I was supposed to be off. And then I got a call, "Oh, you've got to fly in." They give you 24 hours to get on the plane. I waved goodbye to my wife and son, and I'm off. Venice to Vancouver. And then I got there for a scene where I've captured Pat Stewart, and I bring out my son, the boy in the wheelchair. We started doing the scene, and first of all, Bryan didn't like my costume. So the wardrobe department went off and changed my costume, then we came back and started shooting. And the actor who was playing my right-hand-man, my heavy, he wasn't on the call sheet. Bryan said, "Well, get him, find him." And so we went back to the dressing room while this actor was found and brought to the set.
So we've been sitting there since 10 o'clock in the morning, and it's now 6:30 in the evening. I get on the set, and we start doing the scene. And Bryan comes up to me and says, "You know, I don't think you're quite… You're not really having an easy time with this scene." I said, "Well, you know, Bryan, it's been a difficult day. I flew in from Venice to do this scene, I knew this scene, but I haven't been able to get going. I just need two or three tries to go through it." He said, "Well, maybe we should do it tomorrow." And I said, "No, no, Bryan, I'm happy I'm here now. But we haven't shot anything all day, so you can't be too pleased." "No, I think we should wait for it." "No, Bryan, I'm very happy to…" "No, no, it's a wrap!" And he wrapped the whole day's shoot. [Laughs.]
And everybody was kind of startled by this. But the truth of the matter was that it was his first day on a new set. And Bryan always used to slightly freak out on his first day on a new set. Well, not "freak out," but he had to get the measure of it. He always made up the time, and in fact, he was well under schedule by the end of the film. But the producers of course went nuts, seeing dollar signs and wasted money for the day. I could see Bryan all day, taking the set in and thinking, "How am I going to shoot on this?" The storyboarding is different from actually getting there on the day, and really understanding how it is—especially on those sets, which were so enormous. He cracked it, though, and after that, it was just plain sailing. A really interesting guy. A very talented director.
Deadwood (2006)—"Jack Langrishe"
BC: Deadwood was a great experience. Working with David Milch, who's one of the real geniuses of Hollywood. I'd seen the series, and Ian McShane, I've known for years. We didn't know each other well—we've subsequently become great friends—but we'd been around one another for 40 years. And I just thought that Ian was giving the performance of his career. The acting on that show was just second to none; it was amazing. And the scripts just dazzled. This whole look at the West and what it really constituted… David's premise was that the Hays Office kind of propagandized the old West. Because in reality, there was this mixture of the Bible and cuss words. And also the classics, because everybody was much better read than people gave them credit for. When you signed up for Deadwood, all you had was your character. You didn't know how he was going to be used. They described my character to me and told me he was someone they'd wanted to bring in from the word go, but HBO thought it would be too expensive to have a theatre and all that stuff. So they didn't bring me on until the third series, and I had a ball, I just loved it. It's not for everybody, because you have to really trust that you're going to be taken care of. I had faith that if they used the character, he was going to be used well. I was sad we didn't do a fourth series, because I felt they were about to get into my whole relationship with Swearengen, and the fact that I ended up being his only friend, and clearly was going to be the guy who ultimately was going to help with his removal. It's just a fascinating, fascinating show. A great piece of work.
AVC: It's been called Shakespearean. You've done a lot of Shakespeare in your life—do you think it compares?
BC: It's actually Jacobean rather than Shakespearean, because it's so dark and amoral. It's really from after the Enlightenment period, when things fall apart. It's interesting in its reflection on the Indian wars, and really the avarice of America, which is what that whole situation was about. Having given these lands back to the Sioux, the sacred lands, they found out that there was gold in them thar hills, and the American government, along with George Custer and Hearst, jumped onto the bandwagon to quickly reverse the whole thing. It was not a very good period in American history.
Red (2008)—"Avery Ludlow"
BC: A great, great script. A great story. It was the brainchild of director Lucky McKee, who really started the whole thing going. And sadly, we ran into troubles with the financing and keeping within the budget. There wasn't a proper producer, which was one of the problems we had in the early stages. And also filming in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, when they smell movies, they get a little bit greedy about it, particularly on location. So things got out of hand, and we had to close down production. When we started up again, Lucky had fallen out with the producer, so he was out, and it didn't look like it was going to happen. We'd shot a good 60 percent of the movie, but we needed to do all the key stuff, like my big long monologue piece. I was immensely frustrated, because I'd already shot for three weeks, but I'm glad we finished the movie, because I think it's a beautiful story, and to me, it's a great role. The making of it is a sort of bittersweet tale, but I'm glad about the result.