If you find that most movie star biographies concentrate on gossip at the expense of genuine insight to the craft of acting, then this one is for you. For the bulk of his film career, Cox, outside of such films as Manhunter (1986), L.I.E (2001) and Churchill (2017), has been in the main a supporting player and not even the kind of supporting actor regularly commended by Oscar voters, rather the type of artist whose face you recognize and welcome in small but important parts. Probably you will be unaware that he was more of a titan on stage, winning two Olivier awards – the British equivalent of the Tonys – and nominated another twice as well as wins and nominations for theatrical productions in America.
So he makes no distinction between the various mediums – film, television, stage – in detailing the development of his craft. His first seminal moment came from the David Storey play In Celebration when director Lindsay Anderson having spent 90 minutes trying to slow the actor down for one segment eventually in frustration explained to the actor the reason for takings things slowly: his character returning home for the first time in years would spend time reacquainting himself with the house, taking in what had changed and what was familiar. In other words, “I learned to be a character rather than describing or acting it.”
When he moved into films, he had enough self-awareness to realize he was never going to be the leading man (even in the cult Manhunter, he was billed third or fourth in the credits) and determined he was “going to earn my wage as a character actor and that what I really wanted to do was create characters similar to those I loved from the old films… (where) characters just zing at you, no matter how small the part.”
He also appreciates his co-stars, especially the superstars. Of Keanu Reeves, he pointed out: “Despite choosing interesting work and being an interesting guy, he still had a reputation as a bit wooden…He took himself off to a small theatre in Canada and played Hamlet. He stuck at it and he’s actually become quite good over the years. He’s become rather good because he’s learned his job.” He has similar praise for Brad Pitt. “Like Keanu the initial appeal is all about the heartthrob looks, so he’s had to learn on the job; he’s had to dedicate himself to his craft…I love that ambition, that dedication, not to be better looking or more famous or have a sexier partner, but to be a better actor.”
When an actor has 234 credits in film and television you can tell instantly he’s a character actor. While occasionally Cox has appeared in high profile ventures – Braveheart (1995), X2 (2003), Troy (2004), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – more often you would find him turning in bit parts in smaller pictures that you have possibly never heard of like The Water Horse (2007), Citizen Gangster (2011) and Morgan (2016). Sometimes he pulled out a television plum, Nuremberg (2000) for which he won an Emmy or British comedy Bob Servant Independent (2013).
With such a variety of movies, he has a wealth of anecdotes. He took over the role intended for Dustin Hoffman in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and replaced Tommy Lee Jones in Chain Reaction (1996). He has stories to tell about Sir Laurence Olivier, Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, Steven Seagal. Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Farrow, John Schlesinger and a dozen others.
But he doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino or the acting of Sir Ian McKellen. “I really don’t have much time for Quentin Tarantino. I find his work meretricious. It’s all surface. Plot mechanics in place of depth. Style where there should be substance. I walked out of Pulp Fiction.’ Of McKellen he observes: “He is a master of what I’d call front-foot acting. It’s very effective…but it doesn’t quite fulfil what I believe is one of the key functions of acting.”
He was paid $10,000 for Manhunter while Anthony Hopkins walked away with a million for Silence of the Lambs (1991). He turned down Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Game of Thrones. Terrorists nearly boarded his plane during 9/11. His mother suffered from mental illness. His father died when he was young.
After a half century of as many downs as ups and little likelihood that publishers would be knocking on his door for his autobiography, he suddenly became a massive star thanks to Succession. Supreme acting skills that had been ignored by the Hollywood cognoscenti were crucial to Logan Roy becoming one of television’s most popular – and hated – characters. His great talent is stillness, to be able to convey myriad emotion without speaking a word.
But publishing an autobiography is not the true mark of success. Being in demand is. As well as future series of Succcession, he already has in the can the following films – The Jesuit, Skelly, Prisoner’s Daughter and Mending the Line and is currently shooting The Independent, in all of which he is either top-billed or second-billed, a far cry from sixth or seventh billing in supporting roles.
2 thoughts on “The “Succession” Man – Brian Cox”
Always a gent, had many positive conversations with him in back-rooms at EIFF parties, baseball cap always in place…
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Lucky you. I had a feeling I was introduced to him when I interviewed Lindsay Anderson because he was in the play but Anderson would have been snippy about it.
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