A star of Hollywood and the West End, Brian Cox has achieved his goal of not being just a Scottish actor. As he prepares to visit Yorkshire he tells Tony Earnshaw where his journey began.
To understand Brian Cox is to understand his roots. A late child of older parents he admits to often conning his aunts to take him to one of the several cinemas that dotted the streets of Dundee where he grew up in the 1950s. For a six-year-old boy, life revolved around “the pictures”.
But not classic English movies. Instead young Brian gravitated towards Hollywood and that new breed of actor exemplified by mumbling Marlon Brando and the hysterical James Dean.
“There were two cinemas round the corner from where I lived,” the 67-year-old recalls with a smile.
“You could see as many as eight films in a week if you were clever enough. And I used to see it all. It was also something about being a Celt. I never really responded to English cinema. As I’ve got older I’ve responded to the Ealing comedies.
“I always responded more to Jerry Lewis, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, that kind of comedy. I’m ashamed to say I love Jerry Lewis. Me and the French,” he laughs. “When I was a kid there was something very appealing about Jerry Lewis to me. I was sad when he split from Dean Martin. And I loved those John Ford westerns with John Wayne.
And then the dramas. “My mother loved Spencer Tracy because he was a Catholic! So I used to see a lot of his movies when I was a wee boy – all those comedies with Katharine Hepburn. Tracy is still one of my gods, one of the great actors of all time, also Brando and James Dean.
“I remember going to the pictures to see Giant and I fell asleep. I woke up at four o’clock in the cinema in Dundee and had to break out having sat through, I think, three performances of Giant because it was a long movie.”
Cox is remembering his youth as part of a trip down memory lane courtesy of Bradford International Film Festival, which is hosting its 20th edition at the National Media Museum. Cox is the headline guest and will be present to receive the event’s lifetime achievement award.
In a 40-year career on stage, on television and latterly as a busy and prolific character actor – catch him in everything from Braveheart to X-Men 2 by way of Troy, The Bourne Supremacy and Manhunter, in which he played Hannibal Lecter before Anthony Hopkins – Cox has been festooned with awards. But the one in Bradford is special.
“To get a lifetime achievement award is more legitimate because it’s not a competition. It’s a recognition of the body of one’s work. We all like awards but the problem with the Oscars and the Baftas [is that] you’re competing. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, one performance to another.
“A lifetime achievement award really gets to the nitty-gritty. It’s about your work. It’s not about the single performance. Each piece of work that I do has its own value, you know?”
Cox has worked with the festival to select a representative bunch of films: Manhunter, Rushmore, L.I.E., The Escapist and The Bourne Supremacy. They showcase that intriguing personality, the itinerant character actor. It’s a term coined by Morgan Freeman. I suggest to Cox that the cap fits him, too.
“Very, very much so. That’s a fair description: I look in the mirror and I do see an itinerant working actor. That’s my job and I do it to the best of my ability. I physically go to town on stuff. I change my appearance, I change my look. I never know what it’s going to be until I start on the work, start looking at it and preparing it. Then it has its own life and its own identity.
He adds: “The Bradford season shows my work because a lot of films I appear in from a character sense. You get that with Rushmore. Then of course the Bourne films have got their own speciality, or Troy, or X-Men 2. The blockbusters are covered by The Bourne Supremacy and the other films are the films that I’m particularly proud of.
“L.I.E was a film that everybody advised me could have been a dangerous thing to do because of its subject: the guy’s a pederast. I just thought it was a really good script. And The Escapist was a script that was written for me so I acted in something that I was very keen on, just the whole thing. I saw it from the moment it first came off the typewriter.”
Cox often thinks back to his father, who died when he was eight. He was, says Cox, “a great party giver” who would put his little lad atop the coal bunker where he would entertain the adults with impressions of Al Jolson. Cox was an articulate kid. It was natural that he would eschew traditional education for drama school.
At 15 he was mopping the stage at his local repertory theatre. Later there was a period of learning at LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. It changed him from a working-class boy from Dundee to a worldly traveller. It also made him self-absorbed and scarily focused on the day job.
As a young actor Cox was immersed in the theatre. Among the titans with whom he worked was Laurence Olivier, then coming to the end of his immense career. Cox himself has played Titus Andronicus, Lear and major roles in Hedda Gabler and Peer Gynt. He’s currently on stage in Conor McPherson’s ghost story The Weir at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre.
Over the years he’s morphed into the kind of actor – and the kind of man – he always believed he could be. LAMDA was a huge part of that.
“I’m still very proud of my training and I urge everybody to do it because it’s not just about being an actor; it’s about learning about yourself,” he says with candour.
“That time at LAMDA taught me a lot about who I was and where I came from, how to use myself, how to exercise myself in terms of plays – what you were doing in plays. But it’s also a metaphor for everything else. It touches into all aspects of your life: presentation, social graces, how to behave. It’s about behaving and thinking. Thinking and behaving.
“I had to go to LAMDA. I could have gone to a Scottish school but though I am Scottish and very proud to be I didn’t want to be just known as a Scottish actor. I wanted to learn how to speak and I had an accent. I was a Dundonian and the Dundonian accent… my first wife couldn’t understand anything that anybody said in my family. I had to translate for her. So I had to learn to speak and LAMDA had a very good voice [coach]. And blow me but within five weeks of me arriving she left and went to America!”
Mention of Scottish actors invariably leads to Sean Connery, the former Edinburgh coffin polisher who cleaned up his thick brogue and became the epitome of working-class boy made good.
Yet early on Connery was accused by some who believed in the merits of Received Pronunciation of needing subtitles on screen whenever he spoke. Cox dismisses such comments as unfair and inaccurate.
“Sean’s actually got a beautiful voice,” says a defensive Cox of his countryman. “I don’t know where the swishy sound came from – that Connery ‘S’ – because he never used to have that when he was younger. I think it’s just come with age or bad Scottish dentistry.” He says it without malice.
Cox regards Connery as “a very good example of what was possible”. Before Bond he was active on British TV. Cox remembers seeing him playing Alexander the Great in Terence Rattigan’s play Adventure Story and also Hotspur in An Age of Kings, which was produced by ex-Bradford Civic producer Peter Dews. Thus his career comes full circle.
“Peter Dews was my first big employer so Bradford indirectly has played a big part [in my life]. In my early career it was Peter Dews who gave me all my early breaks. He was wonderful. He had a voice lahk thaht. He would always say, ‘Now, don’t start, luvvie. It’s not a play about thaht’, when you got onto a point.
“He was wonderful – a wonderful teacher and a wonderful rationalist. He was particularly great at Shakespeare, which is what he excelled in. A pioneer. I met him very early on when I was 19. He brought me to Birmingham Rep. I was there with Michael Gambon, Tony Higgins, Anna Calder-Marshall, Oliver Ford-Davies. [It was an] amazing time. And Dewsy was there. He used to say – because I had weight problems – ‘I was a fat Mercutio. I was very good.’ He was a very funny man.”
Health issues in recent years, including a battle with diabetes, prompted Cox to return to the stage. The experience has revitalised him. He denies he was ever a theatre animal and describes the fraternity as “all part of a feudal culture”. Cinema, he counters, is egalitarian.
But having worked with Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson he retains an admiration for what they did. Pushing 70 he feels the need to try and emulate them.
“Olivier was a heroic figure in my life. When I first went to London and I saw him on stage his audacity was quite transformative. So I’ve come back to that kind of theatre heritage again and I love it. And we’re good at it in this country. It separates the boys from the men.”
Given his status at home and abroad one assumes offers come to him by the sackload. Has he ever pursued a job. Cox smiles again.
“The only role I actively pursued was Agamemnon in Troy. I think it was offered to somebody else and they were dickering with it so I went for it. I met [the German director] Wolfgang Petersen and I knew it was my role. I just had to pursue it but that’s the only time I’ve ever done that. And I wouldn’t do it again.
“It can be an expensive spirit and a waste of your own shame focusing on something that’s not for you. I go back to my Mum. She always used to say, ‘Just remember, Brian: what’s for you will not go by you’. So I’m very philosophical about the work I get. I believe that if you do something there is a purpose to it and that purpose sometimes pays off years later. It’s very weird how it works in this business.”