Having made his name on the West End, Broadway and Hollywood, Emmy Award-winning Scottish actor Brian Cox chats to Shane Hannon about his Irish ancestry, his most memorable roles, and his support for Scottish independence.
Brian Cox is one of those unassuming actors that made his name in the theatre before breaking into the crazy world of Hollywood. Growing up in Dundee as the youngest of five children, Cox joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre at the tender age of 14 before going on to drama school in London at seventeen. His years of acting experience and deep, smooth voice make him one of the most sought after actors of his generation, and the sheer length and diversity of his filmography attest to that.
Younger audiences may know him best for his role in films like The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Ringer (2005), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). However Cox had to bide his time acting on stage before he could break into film and early on was recognised as a great Shakespearean performer, spending seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in the 1980s and 90s. “I wanted to go into films initially but because on the British Isles there’s much more of a theatre culture I got caught up in that and I ended up working more in the theatre than in the cinema.”
One thing many don’t know about Cox is that he was the first actor to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen, in Manhunter (1986). The role came about with a stroke of luck, “I did a play on Broadway called Rat in the Skull where I played an Irishman. It was a huge success and a woman who had come to see me interviewed me for Manhunter.” His booming voice helped greatly as he was told to face away from the casting agents when auditioning; he got the part.
Cox based his decidedly evil character in Manhunter on infamous Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, and he has since been inevitably cast as the bad guy in many productions. Notable examples include his portrayal of the genocidal Col. William Stryker in X-Men 2 (2003), the evil Agamemnon in Troy (2004), and Nazi Hermann Goring in the 2000 TV docudrama Nuremberg, for which he won an Emmy and was nominated for a Golden Globe. Asked whether he finds it tough to play these characters Cox says “They’re no tougher than the good guys but in many ways they’re quite rich because of their flaws so it’s quite interesting to play them.” He wasn’t always happy playing these unlikeable characters however; “There was one time in my career where I got fed up playing bad guys. And then I realised it was quite a privilege to really get inside someone and see human frailty and why they become a certain type.”
As a proud Scotsman, his featuring in the 1995 films Rob Roy and Braveheart were personal highlights. In the latter Cox played Argyle Wallace, uncle of the main protagonist William (played by Mel Gibson.) “I had played William Wallace in a TV drama about twenty years before that in the early 70s called Churchill’s People and I kind of knew about him. He actually went to school in my hometown and committed his first crime there by killing a 14 year-old boy.” Cox notes that the film itself was “marvellously made” and heaped praise on his co-star and the film’s director Mel Gibson.
Interestingly, Cox is quite insistent on not watching back over his own work once it is done. “It’s very rarely that I would. My wife has been kicking me up the butt about that and telling me I should see more of my own work.” He is working on it however, “I’ve tended to look at more of my work over the last couple of years but I’m only interested in the doing of it rather than watching myself do it.”
A referendum on the question of Scottish independence takes place on September 18th this year, and Cox is throwing his support behind the Yes campaign. When asked why he is taking this stance Cox replies that “Scotland still has a sense of egalitarianism which is kind of missing in England. And now the North-South divide is more acute than it’s ever been – the rich in England are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” He is of the opinion that “… we have to get back to a sense of the particular which we have lost, not just in Scotland but in British politics generally.”
Cox is a proud Dundonian, and in January 2013 was re-elected by the students for a second term as Rector of the University of Dundee. He is however also proud of his Irish ancestry; “All my great-grandparents were Irish. My mother’s father was Jimmy McCann, and his father was Patrick McCann from Derry, and his wife was Sarah Maguire from Donegal. On my father’s side, the Cox’s and the Boylan’s were all from a townland to the east of Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.”
Cox is currently appearing in a West End adaptation of Conor McPherson’s award-winning play The Weir. McPherson actually began writing his first plays as a member of UCD DramSoc when he was a student here. The play also stars Peter McDonald, an actor who graduated from UCD in 1994 and was also a member of the college’s dramatic society. The play is currently selling out at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre; Cox plays an old garage owner called Jack Mullen, a character he describes as “one of your old bachelor types, a bit of a hard drinker and very much a kind of livewire.” He himself describes the play as funny but moving, and since its inception in 1997 the Royal National Theatre in London saw it voted in a poll one of the 100 most significant plays of the twentieth century.
Brian Cox seems especially adept at balancing opposites; his Scots homeland with his Irish heritage, portraying evil with playing nice, and acting on stage versus on screen. Long may this great actor’s balancing act continue.
Brian Cox is currently starring in the West End alongside Ardal O’ Hanlon, Peter McDonald, Risteard Cooper and Dervla Kirwan in Conor McPherson’s play ‘The Weir’ at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in a strictly limited season until April 19th.