Veteran character actor Brian Cox has become an ever-present face on cinema screens in recent years, starring in everything from Oscar-winning drama Adaptation to blockbusters such as X2 and The Bourne Supremacy.
Appearing at Bradford Film Festival yesterday to collect a Lifetime Achievement award, he spoke to Mark Butler about his belated conquering of cinema, becoming a cult hero, and being the first actor to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen.
Hi Brian. Many congratulations on the award.
“Thank you. I was very touched. It’s an honour to receive it. It’s quite interesting, because it really has been a lifetime for me. I started ridiculously young. I’ve been working since I was 14.”
You’ve become one of the most prolific big screen actors around over the past 10-15 years. What’s driven this impressive work-rate?
“It was partly my own doing. I kind of delayed everything, and then crammed all of my film work into a relatively short period. I’ve been making up for lost time!
“I always wanted to do movies, but I got sidetracked. We have such a tradition of theatre in the UK. We’re a feudal society, and theatre is a feudal medium. It was what I grew up in. But my influences as a child were always American cinema.
“I got to the point where I’d played King Lear and had a huge career in theatre, and I decided to go to LA. I wanted to make movies. I wasn’t interested in doing the best movies under the sun – I just wanted to get practice. It wasn’t really until I was in my fifties that I got a proper film career. My regret is that I didn’t do enough movies as a young man.”
What do you enjoy about making big blockbusters like Troy or X2, as opposed to more intimate projects?
“Those projects are good. They’re well paid! You also tend to have more time when you work on a big movie, which can be an excellent thing.
“I’ve been quite lucky and chosen well. I was in the best Bourne film, in my opinion, and I was definitely in the best X-Men. Troy was remarkable to be a part of too, and the wonderful RED films of course.”
I was going to ask you about that. They look like they must be a lot of fun to film.
“They’re great fun. Helen Mirren and I hadn’t worked together since we both did a play in 1974. We ignited. It was brilliant. We kissed in the second one – something we hadn’t done in more than 30 years!”
Have you got any particularly entertaining stories from the set?
“There are lots of stories. The one I really like is when I had to carry Helen in the first one, and she was surprised I could do it because I’d turned 60. I was there running along with her and she whispered in my ear: ‘Not even my husband can do that’. That made my day.”
Two of your films in particular have built up huge cult followings in recent years. Horror flick Trick R Treat has become a Halloween staple for many people. Were you aware it had acquired such an enthusiastic fanbase?
“Yeah. We had a big re-launch of it last year. That was an interesting film because I did that as a favour. I’d never even read the script.
“Mike Dougherty, who wrote X2, asked me to be involved. And I told him my only condition was that I wanted to choose my own make-up – and I wanted to look like John Carpenter [laughs]. I ended up looking more like Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead!
“Mike loved the idea. I came on set and told him: ‘Look, I’ve not even read this, but I’ll do whatever you need me to do’. It was so freeing.”
They’re apparently working on Trick R Treat 2 now. Have you been approached to return?
“I think my character’s been consumed by zombies. But maybe they could bring me back as a zombie?
“Who knows! What was the second film you were going to mention?”
Super Troopers! It’s a comedy that’s slowly but surely built up a massive following.
“I love that movie. It’s the best Broken Lizard film. They were great guys. They keep talking about doing the second one. And I keep asking them about it!”
So I take it you’d leap at the chance to come back for Super Troopers 2?
“Yeah. I would do it in a heartbeat. I enjoyed making the first one so much.”
One film I have to ask you about is Manhunter, where you played Hannibal Lecter for the first time on screen. For me, I’ve always felt your portrayal was particularly terrifying because of how plausible it was.
“It was an interesting role. And Michael Mann is a very psychological director, which played right into my court.
“Hannibal felt like a very dangerous, plausible individual. I remember seeing these films of Ted Bundy, and thinking about the highly delusional way these people see themselves. The guy who influenced me was Peter Manuel, who haunted Scotland when I was a boy. He murdered about 15 people.
“He actually defended himself in court. He was very clever, very plausible, and almost succeeded in trying to pin it on someone else. I remember getting an extraordinary frisson from the story.
“With Hannibal, I wanted to play him like that. I didn’t want to do what Tony did later – that very theatrical thing. It was very successful, and he’s a great actor, but I wanted something more intrinsically evil. I’ve always said Tony played him mad, and I played him insane.”
Are you proud to have been the first actor to play such an iconic character on screen?
“I feel very proud to have had the opportunity first. But I don’t feel possessive of the character. That role is going to be done time and time again.
“I have to say though that the mistake Thomas Harris made was to fall in love with the character. He’s lost his mystery since. You never really knew who he was originally, and that was what I liked about it.”
Looking back on your career as a whole, which film would you say you are most proud of, and why?
“There are three actually. L.I.E, The Escapist, and The Good Heart. I worked with Paul Dano on two of those, and we developed a really good relationship. He’s an amazing young actor.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done films that have played for the long haul. That’s what a lifetime achievement award is all about. My success has been cumulative, rather than instant. And in that way I feel blessed.”
In an audience screentalk after our interview, Brian shared more great stories from his life and career:
On his childhood love of cinema:
“As a boy growing up in Dundee I played truant so I could go and see Giant with James Dean. I fell asleep, and woke up in the cinema at four in the morning. The place was completely locked up, I had to break my way out, and I ended getting arrested. I was nine.”
On playing Ahab in Moby Dick on stage:
“My leg fell off. The peg wasn’t tight enough, and when I had to climb up the mast at one point the thing just went. All these actors were trying to screw it back in while I just hung there.”
On being in Deadwood:
“I’ve always wanted to do a Western. But I was playing a cowardly stage manager rather than a cowboy.”
On being happy not taking the lead:
“I wanted to be a supporting actor. I watched the Hollywood demise of two very big actors whose careers depended on the opening weekend: Michael Keaton and Andy Garcia. They’re great actors, and have reinvented themselves brilliantly since, but being a star doesn’t always work out.”
On meeting Spike Jonze:
“I went to see him about Adaptation when he was in London, and all the fire alarms went off in the building where he was living. He was running around in his underpants. It was like something out of one of his films.”
On being the only Scottish actor in both Rob Roy and Braveheart:
“Quite frankly, Braveheart is very silly. I told Mel Gibson that. I said: ‘I’m sorry, I really prefer Rob Roy‘. It had a fantastic script.
“Liam Neeson’s Scottish accent was atrocious though. He couldn’t do it to save himself. But he’s very big, so I thought I’d leave well alone rather than offer some tips!
“I’ve always maintained that Liam Neeson and Mel were the wrong way around. Rob Roy was a short wee guy and William Wallace was about six foot seven. They should have played each other’s parts.”