‘The name sounds familiar but the face escapes me.’ That’s what most people would say about the prolific film, television, and theater actor Brian Cox. With a distinguished stage career in the U.K. spanning four decades, Brian Cox first entered the American psyche in the 1980s with his strong, stunning performance as the first Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter and then suddenly disappeared for over a decade into the U.K. theater life. After returning to America in the late 1990s to concentrate on what he loves most — American cinema — Brian Cox is poised to finally put that face to the name known well by the American masses. filmcritic.com recently sat down with this jack-of-all-trades to discuss his latest endeavor as a leading man in the new film L.I.E., his personal gripes with character research, and the pros and cons of working in the Hollywood system.
filmcritic.com: Let’s first talk about your new film, L.I.E. Describe how you initially become involved in the project and why did you choose to play a possible controversial role of a pedophile.
Brian Cox: Well, what happened was the script was sent to me about two years ago. When I read it I thought — boy, this is a difficult one. The reasons then began to mount up for not doing the film. Those reasons then became the catalysts for doing the film.
What were those reasons?
It’s a subject that people usually don’t tackle. Cinema, in particular American cinema, shies away from the subject of pedophilia except for a few films such as Todd Solondz’s Happiness. I felt that it was an important film, a responsible film. It seemed to me to ring a lot of bells, it seemed to be truthful and in the end, I was very moved by it. I found it to be an interesting story — this kid growing up and being parentless and finding a father figure in the most unlikely of characters. That character having a dark side to him, a shadowy side, and a good side as well, which makes great drama and a great role to tackle. It has all of the key ingredients. The character is flawed, and yet he has a very strong altruistic streak about him. The marriage of his public life and his private life holds the drama, because it quite clearly that they are strongly separated. I found those elements were very well realized in the screenplay written by the director Michael Cuesta and his co-writers, Steve Rider, an ex-cop from the Bronx, and his brother Gerald Cuesta, I was very impressed by the level of responsibility and the level at which the film was shot, the ways these kids from Long Island were learning how to work in movies. That was the best possible world for me to be in because I work in studio pictures and television work and I felt this is type of work I should be doing as an actor.
What are the positive and negative results, from both a personal and business sense, of taking on a challenging and provocative role in a film such as L.I.E.?
There are really no negative results from taking on a role like this. There is always a risk factor with the contiguous nature of the subject matter. In the end, my business is about risk. Actors in general have become very spoiled in the roles they choose these days. When I first started in this profession — about a hundred years ago in the last century [laughs] — it was all about taking risks, it was about doing the job and honing the craft. The fact is that Hollywood, from as early as the sixties to the present time, has ghettoized cinema into the BIG industry, a marketing industry. In doing this, the audiences have lost touch with the aspects of film which were to be informative and educational and even spiritual. An actor, too often in the past, would have fallen into this personality thing, where they don’t even act anymore. They just turn up and say the lines given to them in a script. I know I sound a bit harsh on them but it’s not altogether their fault — it’s kind of what is required of them by Hollywood. Acting is really something else and the role I portrayed in L.I.E. requires acting, it requires really understanding the material and making it work. The actor is successful at his trade when the audience reacts to it by saying, ‘I hate this’ and then, ‘I like this’ — shifting back and forth in those emotional responses to the character.
How does an actor like yourself start out as an stage apprentice at age 15 in the U.K. then go to working in the Hollywood studio system forty years later?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be in the movies. I grew up with an Irish-Scottish background — my family being Irish immigrants who moved to Scotland in the middle part of the last century. My family was all farmers and when the potato famine hit, we packed up and moved to Dundee, Scotland — a mill town that was previously a whaling town. My culture was working class and was influenced by American cinema, not English cinema – which was totally alien because I was a Scots and Irish and there nothing Anglo-Saxon (British) about me. All of those zany British comedies didn’t mean anything to me. Such films as Angels with Dirty Faces and Spencer Tracy films meant more to me on the screen because I understood that — I had those people in my community. One of my favorite films is The Court Jester with Danny Kaye.
I knew I wanted to go to America but I didn’t have enough money and I didn’t even know how to get there. When I was fifteen, I got a job at my local theater — I started there mopping the stage — and I met a variety of people — actors — and I saw the ones who were good and I saw the ones that had a work method. After that, I decided on a particular drama school in London to attend and hone my acting craft. I then went into the theater and from there you get caught up in whole British scene, the theater life. I did a lot of television work in Britain in the seventies. I then came to America and Broadway in the early eighties. It was interesting kind of journey because I kept moving forward. I had a particular bad year when I was 36, I had reached a bit of an impasse. I just wanted to do film and television and I couldn’t even get arrested. I had been doing leads at the National Theater and then I was out of work for about ten months. I then changed my perspective and two plays I was doing in the U.K. were sent over to America, with myself in tow. During the second play, Bonnie Timmermann [casting agent for Manhunter] saw me, and that’s how I got the role as Lecter.
Before you landed the role of Hannibal Lecter, what other obstacles stood in the way?
Other actors were in the running for the role as well — such as Mandy Patinkin, Brian Dennehy, and John Lithgow. In fact, Dennehey was the favorite for the role at one point. The director Michael Mann then saw my tape I put together with Bonnie Timmermann, and he said, ‘Wow,’ and then they cast me — simple as that.
After your turn as the infamous Lecter, where did your journeys as an actor lead you then?
I went back to England. I went home because my marriage was breaking up and I had a family to tend to — to be with my kids. I was also still caught up in the life of the theater; I will still honing my craft as an actor. So I went to London and I did theater work up until the mid-nineties. My agent in America kept receiving offers for other film roles but I decided that I wanted to stay with my kids in the U.K. — I still needed to understand what it is to be an a
When I was growing up, a mentor of mine — who has passed away now — said to me when I was very ambitious in my late twenties/early thirties, ‘Everyone wants to be star. Don’t worry about that, just try to be a good actor. Being a star is easy, being a good actor is difficult.’ He was right and that is where I concentrated.
Were you ever approached for reprisal of your role as Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs?
I was never approached for the role. What happened was Michael Mann had the project and then Gene Hackman took over — he wanted to make it his directorial debut, but that fell apart as well. I didn’t even know they were making the film. I think Jonathan Demme wanted his own team and he went for Tony [Hopkins] because he was a name and he was well known. Our film –Manhunter –didn’t receive the amount of exposure it deserved because the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, declared bankruptcy, and Manhunter laid in escrow for years. It got these great reviews but only opened in certain cities but eventually became a cult classic. Michael Mann owned the rights both films –Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs –but gave it up because he had done his ‘serial killer’ film and didn’t want any part of other one. Ironically, Tony and I had the same agent and when Tony Hopkins was playing King Lear, I was playing Lecter; and when I was playing King Lear, Tony Hopkins was playing Lecter.
What prompted you, after ten additional years of U.K. theater work, to return to America in the mid-nineties?
I did a lot of classics — Shakespeare – during that time and became known as one of the better classic actors in such roles as King Lear. The heritage of a British actor revolves around the challenges of playing the classic roles to meet certain levels of success as an actor. In America, the heritage of an actor is based on cinema mainly. I felt strongly that I needed to revisit my roots as a member of the working class by taking on more roles in cinema because in Britain, the theater is more geared towards middle- and upper-class society and the cinema is for working class society.
If your intent was for roles in the cinema, why not just stay in the U.K. instead of finding work in the Hollywood studio system?
Mainly because there are no British films of consequence anymore. I always thought to myself that in order to do what I wanted to do — I needed to finish my acting career in the cinema. So in 1995, I came to America and landed four movies just like that –Long Kiss Goodnight, The Glimmer Man, Desperate Measures, and Chain Reaction. I took those roles because I wanted to learn because I’ve never worked in the studio system — I just wanted to learn about movies. I had done a few roles in such films as Rob Roy and Braveheart but in 1995, I decided it was time to do what I’d always honored, which is American films. I’ve finally done what is expected of a British actor historically and now I can do what I want to do.
Describe your experiences playing the role of Herman Goering in the television film Nuremberg.
Goering was great — a very interesting role like that of Big John Harrigan in L.I.E. It was a different role because you have to make it flesh and blood.
What types of research did you do for the role?
I don’t do research. Research is bollocks. Research is an excuse for a lack of talent. People shouldn’t research the role, its acting. We all know about Goering. Yes, I watched some films but this emphasis you Americans have on research drives me fucking nuts. It’s like the death of acting. I think there should be an award for research — for the best-researched role of the year.
It’s not about research — it’s about doing it. It’s all about the imagination — there’s the script and you just do it. You may not even know who Goering is and that he got himself in prison for doing all of these horrible things during the war. If I did research for all of the child molesters for the role of Big John Harrigan, I’d be a nut case by now.
So do the coming years hold more leading roles, such as L.I.E., in American cinema for Brian Cox?
Slowly, I’m getting there. Hopefully, I will be holding more leading roles by the time I reach 70. Everything seems to happen in its own time. It’s all made sense to me but hasn’t made sense to other people — what’s for you won’t go by you. You come to things in your own time and with my career, I have been very lucky with the varieties I’ve experienced. I’ve worked in Russia, I’ve taught in the Moscow Arts Theater, and I’ve written books. Acting hasn’t been my whole life thought I enjoy it now and I hope to direct as well.
What’s next for Brian Cox?
Well, I’ve got a new comedy called Super Troopers, The Affair of the Necklace with Hillary Swank, a new film with Willem Dafoe called Morality Play, the new Spike Jonze film Adaptation, and new American TV series called The Court.
Original photos by Jennifer Wanderer, wanderermedia.com