All About Actors

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Where: his dressing room (Royale Theatre). 4 pm.

       Last spring Brian Cox was in New York doing a one-man show Off-Broadway, but I never made it up to the city to see the play. A few months later when I found out he was back on Broadway in Art, I jumped at the chance.

It was early September when I tried to meet him the first time, but some woman who worked at the theatre wouldn't let me see him no matter how much I explained that I lived far away and could not possibly "just come back tomorrow." She just kept giving me excuses and glaring at me like a 1950s housewife who was meeting her husband's secretary for the first time, so I knew there was no hope.

Now towards the end of his run, I came back again. This time I had research done, questions prepared, and my old Panasonic with me in anticipation of the impossible--an on-the-spot, in-depth interview.

When Cox arrived, I explained who I was. He remembered being told about my September visit, but was never informed as to why I was there. He then proceeded to juggle his post-matinee schedule to accommodate me, and as you read along, you'll realize that was just the beginning of the multitude of positive attributes I learned today about Brian Cox.


Project plugs are always in order, of course, and you can catch Cox in the following upcoming films: Wes Anderson's new film Rushmore, the Mark Wahlberg-starring crime drama The Corruptor, this summer's feel-good indie Mad About Mambo, the headed-for-Sundance The Minus Man, and the latest Kevin Costner baseball flick For Love Of The Game. If you think that's a lot, Cox has his dance card filled up with definite plans stretching into the new millennium.

"My intention is to work in film until September, then try and get a bit of a break because I want to do another play by Conor McPherson. Next January I'm coming back to New York to do another play, and then I'm going back to England after that to do another play.

"I'm just trying to really step up. I want to do more theater. I actually rediscovered doing theater from being in America. Because I didn't come here to do theater. That was the last thing I came here to do. I came here to do movies. But I work in a way that can be quite tiring. I mean, I actually really do need a break, and I want to do other things as well. I'm going to do some writing. I've written two books. I've written a book about Russia and a book about playing King Lear called The Lear Diaries."


Over the past several years, Cox's career has taken on a much higher profile here in America with his appearances in hit films such as Braveheart and The Long Kiss Goodnight, his award-winning solo performance Off-Broadway in St. Nicholas, and currently as part of the British replacement cast of the Broadway phenomenon Art. To his credit, Cox does not offer any of that "Oh, gee whiz, I just stumbled across the ocean" nonsense as an explanation, or complain about the path of his career. He is ambitious without being unsatisfied and realistic without being bitter, and this sudden flurry of activity has been by his own design.

"My film career has been very intermittent. I did Manhunter, and then I did Hidden Agenda. I'd like to have done more movies, but I had kind of done my film career. People kept saying, 'Why don't you do movies? Why don't you do movies?' So I said, 'All right, I'll do them.' Then I did a whole bunch of crap films. Like, blech!" Cox hangs his tongue out in disgust.

"Now people say I'm overexposed. But it was very important to me to do American movies and play Americans, and finally I've done that. I've done three American movies now which have been quite successful, and I want to do more. But only really interesting things, and you're not always asked to play interesting things. I do movies and play supporting roles, and it doesn't always interest me.

"Movies are fine, and they pay well. That's the biggest advantage, and sometimes it's their only advantage. But I don't mind. I'm a professional. I do the work. There's work I do for me, and there's work I do for my earnings. And if it means I can do a good play or a small movie, I'll do a piece of so-called rubbish to subsidize what I'm doing. The money's great, and it keeps you floating and all that. But I don't use money for things. I mean, I have a few things. I have a little art collection which I'm very proud of, but I use money to travel. That's the big advantage for me--the fact that I can be in L.A. I can be in New York. I can work in London and do a play. I can do a film in Berlin. That, I love.

"But my main thing is really just being free in my work and never getting stale and being in a position where I can reinvent myself. I suppose I've always followed my own beat. I've never followed a career pattern. As soon as I set something up, I immediately want to walk away. But I do want people to recognize me. It's beginning to happen, but I had spent so long in Britain and one kind of career which was really to do with high art. I didn't do popular stuff, and now I'm really trying to do just stuff where I'm recognized for who I am.

"One of the reasons why I came here to America was to broaden my base, and it seems to have worked. I hope it has anyway. I think it was a sensible move. At the time I thought, 'What am I doing? I'm crazy!' People said, 'My God! What are you doing? You're fifty!' I just said, 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I just have to go out there.' I also believe that you have to take risks. You should never stop taking risks, and I'm very glad I did it. I really am." 


While he is always referred to as "the Scottish actor Brian Cox," he explains, "I'm actually Scots-Irish. My family moved to Scotland in the time of the famine. When people were coming here to America, my family moved to Scotland. So I technically am actually Scots, but my family was all Irish.”

He then launches into a detailed description of his ancestral background and upbringing, which you can get a better grasp of in his book Salem To Moscow. "It tells you the whole story of my family. My dad died when I was nine, and then my mother was institutionalized because she had a massive nervous breakdown. I write about all of this in it."

Past articles would have you believe that Cox undoubtedly has suffered a "tormented childhood" as a result, but his heartfelt sentiment for the siblings who raised him is in total contrast with such reports. 

"I was very lucky actually. My family has been really very supportive and wonderful. I've got three sisters, and they're sweet. They're beautiful. I've got a brother. They're all older than me. I'm the baby. We're quite a close, healthy family. It's very good. I'm just very touched by my family."


That loving foundation gave Brian Cox the incentive to follow his dream of becoming an actor. Of course, it also helped that he began his training in the environment of the 1960s British theater.

"At that time, there was a greater social mobility in the theater. The blue collar workers and the children of blue collar workers were really coming out into the field of the arts. Going to university. Getting grants. My mother was a widow, but I got a very good grant. Kids can't get grants now. They can't get scholarships. It's just impossible. So I was very lucky that I was part of a socialist system that really did me proud. That's why I've always been a socialist, and as far as I'm concerned, education should be free. It should be for the best of all. Everybody should have equal opportunity.

"It's slightly retrograded over the '70s and certainly through the Thatcher years because she virtually destroyed any sense of real community because she didn't believe in it, which was just her problem," Cox states with repulsion. "But a lot of us working class boys went to the cinema because that was our theater. We didn't go to the theater because England is such a class-ridden society, and only certain types went to the theater. I actually did go to the theater in the end. We had a very enlightened teacher who had a theater club that went to every Wednesday matinee, and it was part of our education. I was very lucky to be part of that. It was great. I loved it, and the live thing was so new to me. When I was a student, a young Anthony Hopkins and a young Michael Gambon and a young Derek Jacobi were all part of Laurence Olivier's company, which was the greatest acting company ever. It was just sensational.

"My roots were more to do with people like Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien and Jimmy Cagney. I felt part of that. I never felt connection with English movies. I had more connection with Angel With Dirty Faces than with something like The Lavender Hill Mob and those English comedies because they were so English. And England, for a Scot, was as alien as-" Cox relinquishes whatever simile he was going to use, and his frustration seems to be increasing as he starts over.

"That's what people-" He stops himself again and lets out a deep sigh. "Americans don't quite grasp the fact that England really is another country for us," he expresses with deliberate patience. "And in order to make it when I was a young actor, I had to go to England because I had to learn how to speak. I had a very strong Scots accent which needed to be tempered."

TH: What did you sound like?

BC: I talked like- (A slew of words come out of his mouth, which I can't begin to spell phonetically, let alone properly.)

TH: I beg your pardon? (laughs) We need a translation.

BC: (laughs in a repetitive, rumbling chuckle, obviously getting a tremendous kick out of speaking in his native tongue) And when they count in Dundee--where I come from--they go- (None of what he says sounds anything like the numbers they teach you on Sesame Street!) 

TH: That's not English!

BC: It's English, but it's very strong.

TH: It's odd though because since I've been living down in Atlantic City, folks are always saying, “Theresa, when are you going to get rid of that New York accent?" And I'm like, "What New York accent?”

BC: (laughs)

TH: I didn't know I had a New York accent.

BC: You don't say, "I ax you," do you?

TH: Yeah, I do apparently.

BC: (trying not to laugh at me) You do say it?

TH: I don't hear it, but other people do.

BC: (laughing) That's funny.

"But it makes all the difference for a kid growing up where I came from to learn how to speak the Queen's English. It was very hard because it was a massive cultural shift, and I always felt that it was very hard work for me to work in the theater. It was always very, very demanding, and I never felt that the English theater was my world.

“Actually, I don't regret it one minute because it's an enormous discipline. I loved it. If I hadn't had my training, I just simply couldn't do this."


One thing Brian Cox can do better than many of his contemporaries is convincingly portray American characters. He never seems like other British thespians, who look completely uncomfortable trying to say phrases like, "Yo! How ya doin'?" Even during our conversation, he slips in and out of regional dialects with ease and speaks fondly of his memories as a fascinated, movie-going youngster.

"My American's quite good. I love the challenge. I love assimilating to be American because when I was a kid, I used to speak in American. When I first came to New York--which was the first place I came to--I kept thinking I was in a movie. I kept saying, 'I've walked into the middle of a movie, and there's a hidden camera somewhere.' Everybody talked like I heard in movies! It was really weird because the American cinema of the '40s and the '50s was really powerful to grow up with. I used to fall asleep at the movies and wake up and break out. I was always in the movie theaters. It was my world."

These recollections are strong support for Cox's own carefully thought-out theory about how all artistic yearnings are set in stone during one's impressionable years, and the way in which that creativity should be nurtured.

“All your influences are really from a very early age and very palpable, and they form particularly as an artist. Everybody has an amazing story, and some people harness that in a creative way. They become artists. Writers write about their experience. Then they use what they know to leap into what their fantasy world is and what their powers of imagination are. It's all there. It's all in the programming before the age of 15, then the rest is a replay.

"People say, 'Oh, but I've had this childhood, and I had this happen to me.' Well, I have a friend of mine called Brian Dennehy who said, quite rightly, 'All bets are off after the age of 25.' Bad behavior after that isn't justifiable because, actually, everybody has bad childhoods. We've all been struck by something, so nobody's exempt in that way. These people who kind of make a fuss about it are indulgent, and the thing about art or anything of creation is that you have to weigh up the subjective nature and the objective nature of it. The fact that it feeds you is great, but then you've got to do something with it. It's a craft. It's a skill. You utilize your experience and what you've been through. That's very important, and people don't understand that enough."

Cox practices what he preaches, and his convictions find their way into his working relationships.

"Basically, the priority is the piece that you're working on, which is to do with the writer and the ideas that are in the work. It's not to do with the director's concept. I'm not interested in what a director is going to do with something. I'm more interested in what a director can learn from a piece of work because I learn from a piece of work.

"Every piece you work on is a learning process, and directors who don't learn are boring to me. They're boring--these directors who have this rigidity--and I'm not interested in anything which smacks of controlling. There's taste. There's discretion. There are all those elements, which are very important. But what I'm really into, and what I want from a director, is how he or she responds to material and how the material feeds him or her. If it's your own material, even more so. You can't hold onto it. You have to let it go.

"The whole business about the act of anything in any relationship that requires investment in creation is you always have to let go. You can't say, 'I don't want it to get like this.' It doesn't work like that. If you made the right ground, it has a life of its own. There's nothing you can do about it, and you just must get out of its way. When people stand in its way, they say it's because 'I want to guide it and steer it. I want it to be this.' And it's not that. It just flows out of you, and that's the best way. It has to flow. You have ideas. You have views. You have vision. But it's the freedom that's important, and that's something that people have to really learn. They have to let go. It's the most important thing, and the directors who do are great. The ones who don't are mediocre."


Needless to say, anybody who has such an assured outlook on his work would certainly carry it over into all aspects of his existence. Brian Cox has been through a hell of a lot worse than any mere failed audition or bad review, and he knows the value of life and is appreciative of every moment, no matter what comes along.

"If you look at a life, a great life is like a wonderful piece of geography with coastlines and rivers and waters and bits of flora and mountains and flatlands. It's like the topography of life. And if you really give over to life, it feeds you an enormous amount. A good life is one where you respect what's been given to you. You don't take it for granted. You don't say, 'I deserve it.' You can't ever be smug about it. But you can always be in a state of grace and say, 'Thank you for this. This has been wonderful.'

"I love the fact that my life has been a constant surprise to me. Things are constantly awakening to me and truths are constantly presenting themselves. I mean, a lot of things have gone wrong in my life. I've had a lot of downs, a lot of tragedy, a lot of rejection. It still happens. But the periods of light, on the whole, have outweighed the periods of dark. But the dark is necessary because life has to have its shadow.

"I consider myself very lucky and very blessed, and I realize that now. I've learned to love myself more, which is one of the nice things, and I thank God on a regular basis for being so kind and so good to me. I have no complaints."

TH: So you're just ready for those surprises, huh?

BC: Absolutely. Keep open. Keep flexible.

TH: See? You had no idea you were going to be sitting down here with me today.

BC: No, not at all.

TH: And look at that.

BC: (smiles) Exactly. That's exactly the thing I mean. You come and you stand at the stage door and you think, "Oh, Christ. Am I going to see him? I'm waiting here, and it's now twenty to two. And the last time I came..." (starts to scratch at something on his arm)

TH: And a lot of actors would just say, "What do you mean you haven't published in four years? Why should I talk to you?” 

BC: (paying more attention now to his arm than to what we are saying to each other) And also you acknowledge-

TH: (cuts him off) What are you messing with? (gets up to see what it is)

BC: (slightly taken aback) I don't know.

TH: Oh, you've got a little cut there.

BC: Yeah, a little thing. (scratches it again)

TH: (slaps his hand) Don't pick at it. You don't want to get it infected.

BC: (grumbles and shifts in his seat)

TH: Sorry. You were saying?

BC: It's just very important to be open to whatever comes along like this afternoon because you never know. It's very important to be open to everything. You just never know what's going to be.


Whenever I finish an interview, I can always get a sense of how well it went by the person's attitude towards me immediately afterwards. While every conversation has been pleasant and insightful, there is an enormous difference between someone offering addresses and phone numbers and wanting to stay in touch, and someone who just mumbles some thanks and stands there stone-faced until I get out. Cox had to answer a phone call, and I took that as my chance to leave as quietly as possible. But I must have done something right because as we shook hands goodbye, he gave me a wink and a smile.

On the bus ride home, I thought about all the numerous times he called himself "lucky” and “blessed," but it is actually the world that is lucky and blessed to have this man called Brian Cox in it. AAA


© Copyright 2023 All About ACTORS All Rights Reserved. Photo provided by the actor or his representatives. Photo credit: Barbara Bordnick



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Saturday, 02 December 2023

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