Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Brian Cox

Acting Hard

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Brian Cox is poised to be far more than just the trivia question he's been for the last ten years: who played the original Hannibal Lector?

Yes, Cox played a brief scene as the famous cannibal in Michael Mann's excellent 1986 film Manhunter, which was based on Thomas Harris' book Red Dragon.

"It's a great film," Cox concedes in a wonderful, husky Scottish-turned-English accent. "If [producer] Dino De Laurentiis had his way though, he'd expunge it from human memory. It's a source of permanent embarrassment. That's why they're remaking it. Fine. Let them remake it, but it'll never be as good as the original."

The permanently scowling, grizzly-faced Cox is in San Francisco promoting his new film L.I.E. (Long Island Expressway). In the film, he plays a child molester who learns to interact with a young boy (Paul Franklin Dano) on more than just sexual terms. Despite his appearance, and these two devilish roles, Cox comes across as a warm and generous fellow. "He is not essentially an evil man," Cox says of his L.I.E. character. "But he does have a predilection that people find repellent. When you put those things together, you have a wonderful dramatic source. You don't get roles like this every day. I thought, 'this is a great role,' and then I thought, 'this could be professional suicide.' I knew people would shy away from it, but then I thought, 'what is my job if it's not to do thing that are difficult?' Otherwise there's no point in doing it."

In 1995, Cox was 49 years old, and very well established in English theater. As far as films, he had only really acted in Manhunter, and he began to worry that he would never break into films, which was always his first love (his favorite film is The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye). So he came to Hollywood and began taking any film offer that came along, just to get his feet wet.

"I had to make up for lost time, so I did movie after movie after movie," Cox says. During this period, Cox played wildly varied supporting roles in such acclaimed movies as The Boxer and Rushmore, cult movies like The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Minus Man, and questionable titles like The Glimmer Man and Mad About Mambo. Right at the start, two roles in big films came along at the same time, both Scottish fighting epics: the Oscar-winning Braveheart and its far superior cousin Rob Roy, directed by Michael Caton-Jones.

Cox agrees. "I turned down Braveheart, because I just infinitely preferred Rob Roy, he says. He wasn't interested in playing "one of those endless redheads in kilts." But director/star Mel Gibson continued to pursue him. And so the well-fed and average-height Cox accepted a role that he liked but was described as "tall, thin and cadaverous."

Unfortunately, there was a strange rule at the time that no Scottish actor could be in both films, and director Caton-Jones was very upset. So Cox promised him that he would look completely different in both films: he would wear an eyepatch and long, gray hair in Braveheart, and no one would ever know the difference. Caton-Jones agreed. The only thing that remained was a phone call to Gibson. "I said, 'I've got this great idea. Do you think I could play it with one eye and long gray hair?'" Cox laughs at his own deception.

Cox begins to say that he's wanted to be an actor since about age 4, but corrects himself. He's always wanted to be an actor, period. As a young boy, he performed songs for his family on top of their coal bunker, which had a curtain that drew closed around it like a miniature stage.

When Cox was old enough, he got a job in a repertory theater, taking the box office money to the bank and cleaning the stage between shows. Soon, he was onstage acting. "I believe in the art of acting. I think it's a dying art. I don't think people do it enough. I come from a background where we used to do four nightly reps. We'd do as many as 26 plays in a year. You'd change your hat and your costume and your performance every fortnight. That's what acting used to be. Today, actors are far too mollycoddled. They don't work nearly enough. They don't really do enough different work." Cox laughs and adds sheepishly, "maybe I do too much."

Cox finally feels happy in his career with six years and some thirty-odd, solid movie roles behind him. He's now in a league with his film heroes Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis. Up next for the former cannibal is a role in a mid-season replacement TV series called "The Court," in which he plays a Supreme Court Justice. The next few months brings several new films as well: The Affair of the Necklace co-starring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, and Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Cox hopes to continue along this path, and even hopes to direct someday.

On top of all this, the busy Cox has one more major role coming up, that of new father. "My girlfriend is pregnant," he says shyly. "She's going to have a little boy. I now have a 31 year-old son, and I have a 23 year-old daughter. I was never ready for it when I was younger. I'm probably more ready for it now. The hours should be better because I don't sleep as much as I used to when I was younger. It'll be interesting. It'll be another challenge. It's coming into a very nice space."

September 16, 2001

See also: Manhunter (1986), Rob Roy (1995), Braveheart (1995), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Minus Man (1999), The Affair of the Necklace (2001), L.I.E. (2001), The Rookie (2002), The Bourne Identity (2002), The Ring (2002), Adaptation (2002), 25th Hour (2002), X2: X-Men United (2003), The Reckoning (2004), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Troy (2004) and Red Eye (2005).

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