Interviews

INTERVIEW: BRIAN COX

By • Jan 10th, 2001 •

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Interviewed by Nicole Potter, Roy Frumkes, and Rocco Simonelli

The Scottish actor Brian Cox, perhaps most famous to American audiences for his pre-Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter (now out on DVD from Anchor Bay in a deluxe edition featuring two versions of the film), has appeared live in NYC and LA over the past few years, the sole performer in Conner McPherson’s St. Nicholas, the story of a successful, embittered theatre critic who is enslaved by a covey of vampires in London and becomes their procurer of fresh human blood.

The piece is a tour-de-force about story telling, which only an actor of intelligence, great technical skill, and psychological vulnerability could accomplish. In addition, the actor needs to have the performance savvy of a stand-up comedian, for there is no fourth wall; his acting partner is the audience.

The night I attended, the audience at Primary Stages, desperate for an authentic theatrical experience, was over-anxious to play our part, straining to display our enthusiasm. It took a few minutes for Mr. Cox to calm us down, and to coax us into allowing both the emotional and the intellectual aspects of the story, and the performance, to overtake us. After that, we were captivated.

A few moments after his triumphant-but-modest bow, a casually attired Mr. Cox appeared in the lobby and chatted with well wishers and fans. After instructing a large group of friends to wait for him at Joe Allen’s, he obliged the FIR contingent by sauntering over to the Paramount Hotel cocktail lounge for an interview. This deceptively low-key watering hole is a weirdly elegant mixture of an intimate club, an airport, and cave for vampires with attitude – but that’s another story.

Nicole Potter: When you approached this piece, what was your rehearsal process?

BC: Well, I had to learn it by rote. I had a line trainer called Jonny Benzimra who would sit down and go through a page a day with me. And I had to learn it this way, because there’s no way you can rehearse this stuff. You have to get the whole thing, and then you go in and talk about dynamics, and the writer of course [who was also the director] is always talking about making his words slower. He loved to hear his words. And of course you say “yes.” But you know you can’t do that, you’ve got to get on with it. And when we opened, this was in two halves. There was an interval just after the point where I met William [the vampire]. And I was greatly relieved to have an interval. But there was a friend of mine called Harris Yulin.

Roy Frumkes, NP & Rocco Simonelli: Oh.

BC: You know Harris. He’s a really wonderful actor [most recently seen in Wim Wenders The Million Dollar Hotel]. And he came to see it and he said, “Brian it’s great. But you should do it straight through.” And I thought he was absolutely right. And then I did it in Ireland, two performances, and I tried it that way, and we came here and I said to Connor “We’re gonna go straight through.”

And he also, after a while – because he’s gotten over the novelty of hearing his words spoken for the first time, after sixty performances – was able to cut it. Which he wasn’t able to do before. Just little things. Beats. There are still beats that could be cut. But that is an enormous lesson you learn about the shaping.

NP: Well, I think the variety of tone and the variety of rhythm is what makes a piece like this listenable.

BC: And it’s a test of the voice. A challenge. Your voice has to be in peak condition, and you have to know about your voice. The dynamics. It’s a gift, this piece, and you don’t get things like this often where you can practice. With a lot of the movie work, depending upon the movie, you’re just a hired gun following what they require and drawing your wages. You’re there to provide what that film requires in terms of ballast. There’s a few extra rocks that that films needs that they’re sort of getting you to fill in.

NP: There’s always this thing about American actors working internally, and British actors working externally…

BC: I always work internally.

NP: I think most people work both ways.

BC: Absolutely. But it’s the internal clock that you listen to first and foremost.

RF: The range of your voice on stage goes from loud to almost a whisper, and the audience acclimates. But in film the mike isn’t that sensitive. You can’t really have that much fun.

BC: No, but there’s one example where I used the voice to particular effect. It was in Hidden Agenda, where I’m playing this long-suffering policeman who’s very calm, very quiet, and I suddenly shout. And I warned the sound guy. Do you remember that bit?

RF: Yes. It’s great that you had to warn him.

BC: I said, I’m suddenly going to break through. You can actually tell people, especially in comedies, “Don’t shoot me here. Frame the whole body.” Because if you’re up close, you’re not getting the whole body language. A lot of film makers don’t understand that. Filmmakers nowadays aren’t theatrically grounded enough to understand the need for that. I mean, choreographers like Stanley Donen, when you see his films, even his dramatic films, he’s got a great sense of that… You see a Cary Grant film like Charade and it’s an absolute example that you have to see the whole, that slightly stooped thing that Grant did, his whole physicality, it’s very very important. There are very few directors who really understand that in terms of performance.

RF: Yes, I remember with The Long Kiss Goodnight, wanting more long shots. And yet I knew they had all the money in the world, so I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting them.

BC: Well, they didn’t… You know, I hardly ever watch the films that I’m in for that reason…

RF: Well, let me tell you, then, that one of the most enduring images in film altogether is of you lying there in that prison cell in Manhunter with your legs casually propped up against the wall. Have you seen that one, I hope?

BC: Yeah. That was a unique experience because everything came together working with Michael [Mann].

RF: Was the feet on the wall your idea?

BC: Yes. My idea also to have the two pair of socks. I understand those people. I understand how they work. And I understood how to make that work. The difference between me and Tony Hopkins, for example, was between insanity and madness. My guy was insane. His Hannibal was mad. The insane man is the man…

RS: …who thinks everybody else is insane…

BC: …and that’s his rationale. I got a review for it in The Wall Street Journal. The review was for this play, but it said I was the best Hannibal Lecter of all time.

It’s very odd. I’ve had problems with it, too, because Tony got rather knocked. I did an interview one afternoon in Holland. They said, “You played Hannibal Lecter, didn’t you?” And I said, “Yes.” And they said, “You were the first weren’t you?” And I said, “Yes, I was the first.” And that’s how the article went. I was quoted as saying “I was the first Hannibal Lecter.” We used to have the same agent, Tony and I, and I called, and I spoke to his wife Jenny, and I said, “You know, I’m really sorry about that.” Because, each to their own, what he did was so completely different from what I did, that it wasn’t really possible to compare them. And also, I have a very different way of working in films than I do in the theater. I work in a tighter way in film. I like Spencer Tracy. Tracy is my image for the cinema, whereas my influences in the theater have much more to do with British influences, people like Olivier, and taking risks. But I don’t like a lot of British acting which is very described acting. There’s this notion, and I think it’s nonsense, that one actor’s only good in cinema, and another’s only good in theater. I really think they’re entirely different disciplines, but they need to be treated with equal respect.

RF: I suppose, but the stage is really an actor’s medium.

BC: Yes, it is, and you’re in control of the edit. Yet even an actor in film can be in control of the edit. It is possible to play a scene and to know how to finish it. I’ve done that. I’ve given the editor the finish for the scene.

RF: I don’t mean to press you, but can you think of an example.

BC: The one that comes to mind for me is at the end of Hidden Agenda, where I hesitate for a moment, there’s a kind of beat, I just do something with my back. I allow a moment of ambiguity, which just gets right at the bottom of the scene. And there’s a moment of calm in the end of the telephone scene in Manhunter. Which was my idea for the end of the scene. But I’m really more interested in giving choices and letting directors decide. It’s such a director’s medium. And the reason I don’t watch them is that the writer is so abused in cinema.

RS: We know. We’re screenwriters.

BC: Unless you’re Shane Black and you’re paid three million dollars and you’re relatively untouchable. I mean, I did Chain Reaction, for example, and it had twleve writers. John Wells came in for a weekend, for example, to do a polish on one scene.

RS: The Hollywood idea is that if there are twelve writers it will be twelve times as good.

BC: But this is a proven nonsense. Usually if a film has more than one writer, for my money, you know it’s going to go down the tubes.

I mean, I love Andy Davis enormously. He’s a wonderful man, and I enjoyed working with him. But there was no script. They had one, but they kept throwing it away. And I said, “Well, there must be a script for Tommy Lee Jones” because Tommy Lee Jones was going to do it, but he didn’t. And they said, “Oh, there’s a Tommy Lee Jones script, but that isn’t going to be your script.”

A gross example of that was, having improvised all kinds of dialogue for weeks on end, finally Morgan Freeman had had enough of it. Morgan and I are walking at the base of the Chicago River, right under this tunnel, four hundred feet down, where the source of the river bubbles up. And there was this elevator that goes up four hundred feet. So Andy Davis says, “You’re coming along, you get off your little golf carts, and then you walk briskly to the elevator and you get in and the elevator goes up and we hear, ‘bang, bang, bang!” The gun shots. So I thought, this shot is just going to involve silence, tension… And Andy suddenly says, “I’m going to need some dialogue.” And Morgan… I think it was his last day, and he’d had it. He’d been very good all along. And he looked at me, holding this cigar which he used in the shot, and he said, “I ain’t gonna say a thing.”

So Andy turns to me with this smile and goes, “Brian?”… So I went away and I wrote this long speech about how we’re getting too old for all this, which isn’t even in the movie, and we do this scene, and Morgan’s not saying anything, and I’m thinking “Once we get into the elevator I’ll be fine.” However, I keep talking, because they [the camera crew] get into the elevator with me. And it’s this four hundred foot elevator and it’s going up very slowly. So I’ve actually run out of things to say. So I start singing “On Top of Old Smokey.” Which isn’t even in the film; if it had been in the film it would have been rather bizarrely wonderful. Morgan and I about to have a shoot out, and I’m using this song to cover my anxiety.

We get to the top, and I’m still singing, and Andy interrupts, saying, “Keep going, keep going. That’s in the public domain. Start singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ So I sing “Amazing Grace” which isn’t in the movie either.

And then doing the film with Barbet Schroeder (Desperate Measures), and the trouble we had on that movie. Peter Guber wanted this, and wanted that. We started out with this wonderful bit of material, and they said, “Oh, you want a border on it? We’ll take this little bit out and we’ll put this bit on.” And it became a sort of patchwork quilt after a while. Neil Hemenis had written a wonderful script for that. He was writer number two, and he very drastically took a big stand on it, decided he was going to change it, and did. And I thought it was great, and it was his script I agreed to. But it’s not the script I ended up doing. They give you script changes, and before you know it your part is reduced — it’s not there.

RC: They also have no conception that if you put a scene here, it has an affect on scenes thirty minutes or an hour later. (laughs bitterly) Or if you pull a scene out, scenes later on don’t make any sense. They can’t grasp that.

BC: This is the problem. At least on The Long Kiss Goodnight, Shane had written a script and you knew what you were doing. You knew where you were going, you did your work, and you got out. But most films, such as Kiss the Girls, are the same. We started with one script, then we had another script, then we didn’t have an ending…they went through so many variations… Morgan and I again had a scene at the end of the movie which never even made it. We never even shot it. And I had agreed to play the role because of the complete role I was providing. I don’t mind how big the part is, just so long as it has a beginning and a finish. You can’t do anything with a part that is just endless middle.

RF: I guess we’re all just curious to know what it must have been like working with Steven Seagal.

NP: You are anyway.

BC: Well, he was a very interesting fellow, Steven. Because he’s kind of a paradox. He sought me. He’d seen Manhunter. It was one of his favorite movies, and he wanted to work with me. He had a very good script which they wouldn’t let him do, which is a fantasist story about a man who did a kind of face-changing thing.

NP: Isn’t that Face-Off?

BC: It probably is Face-Off actually.

I had put off and put off coming out here and doing movies. I was staying at home doing theater and doing television. Because British television used to be wonderful.

NP: It still is wonderful, when they bring it over here.

BC: Not as wonderful as it once was. The whole television industry’s been undermined. And I made a decision suddenly, in October, 1995, to just get on a plane. My agent in LA had said, “You must come, you must come and do certain things.” So I thought, “Okay, I’ll go.” And I’d had it in England, I thought, I need to change. I wanted to experience working within the studio system just to see what that was like. So, the first person who was seeking me was Steven. And I’d rather stupidly turned down Under Seige, but I was so caught up in my life in England, I didn’t know who Steven Seagal was at the time. And so Tommy Lee did it. Then I met with Steven. And he was perfectly affable. He’s a Buddhist, and he’s also, of all of all those heavy action stars, the only one who’s genuinely not very right wing. In fact quite the opposite. People like Willis and Schwarzenegger are slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. And he’s the other way. I think he’s had a lot of bad press about it, and it’s basically because he’s charmless, which is unfortunate.

Actually I found him very nice. He was polite to me. I went to his house a couple of times. He meditates, he’s got a table laden with health food…and he’s got an ulcer!? He’s eating this food with the telephone on the table, ringing. And I said, “Steven, you’ve got to stop this.” He was doing all this dealing – the opposite of his marshal arts and akido. But he’s caught up in the Hollywood thing, and it’s not altogether his fault. He’s been exploited by it.

In terms of our acting styles, he comes at it from a different world. The director came up to me and said, “I have to tell you that I’m afraid that Steven will not do any off-lines with you.” And I said…”Oh, I’m so relieved.” Because quite honestly, I would have found it a distraction. This way it meant I could go home early and get on with it.

But he’s a nice man in many ways. A bit Clintonisque in his relationships with women.

NP: New adjective. Clintonesque!

BC: It’s a good word, it should go in the dictionary. Clintonesque.

RS: A womanizing, materialistic, ulcer-ridden Buddhist. I don’t know if that’s what they had in mind at the temple.

RF: Sometimes film lines find their way into the popular consciousness. Bogart lines, lines from ‘The Honeymooners’. And there’s one of yours that gets said a lot.

RS: “Dream much, Will?

RF: We use that one at least once every few weeks.

RS: In situations you would never imagine. We find a way to make it apply. Because we have no lines of our own so we must fill up our conversation with yours.

BC: That film has done me more good… I think if I had done Silence of the Lambs it wouldn’t have done me as much good as that film. Even Anthony Hopkins winnng the Oscar has done me a lot of good. I wish I had the money, that’s all.

RS: I guess it forces people to go back and look at Manhunter, and then when they do, your performance is completely different than his, so one isn’t disappointed.

BC: And it stands. It’s done. That’s the great thing about film. If it’s worked it’s there, and I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done about four films which have been very good. Which have stood up, and I’m very proud of. The Boxer was one, Manhunter, Rob Roy. The character I played in Rob Roy, I think I realized almost as much as one could. And I did a film in England, which nobody’s seen, called Food For Ravens. Which is about a dying politician, written and directed by an English writer called Trevor Griffiths. It was a great piece of work. The other thing I did which I enjoyed was The Lost Language of the Cranes, which is about a gay father and son. It was a very good script, and was well directed by Nigel Finch, who actually died of AIDS. He was more of a documentary than a dramatic film director, and he ran Arena, which is a big documentary series in England.

RF: Parenthetically, was that you underwater with Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight?

BC: No. Sometimes I wish I had been underwater. Because this man called FX Smith did a body cast, and it was very scary because when it sets, oh, my god, it gets heavy and I got a little…I was a little long under there. I think it would actually have been easier to be underwater.

RF (pulling out the Manhunter disc jacket): Before you run, I would love to get an autograph for my son, is that okay?

BC: Sure. What’s his name?

RF: Christopher.

RS: When are you going to start telling people that your real name is Christopher?

BC: How old is Christopher?

RF: He’s twenty-eight, so you can write anything.

BC: You remember another one of my lines from the film, “Send me something wet”? I’m going to write that. “Send me something wet” is truly disturbing.

RS: But this is Christopher. He may actually send you something wet.

Brian Cox, following his colorful portrayal of Goering in TNT’s Nuremburg (on DVD via Warner Bros Home Video), will soon be seen in one of the hits of the 2001 Sundance Festival, L.I.E., as a sympathetic pedophile. The Anchor Bay double-DVD of Manhunter is now in the stores, as is a single-DVD edition of the theatrical cut.

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