Brian Cox talks about the importance of roots, heritage, and not losing sight of where we come from
Brian Cox has been making waves over the last 50 years for his performances on stage and screen, and more recently for his politics.
C: Have you ever forgotten your lines on stage?
“Oh yes – at the Bush Theatre in fact. Many years ago I played a drama critic in a one-man show called St. Nicholas. It’s about a theatre critic in Ireland who heads to London in pursuit of a woman. Anyway, I go on stage and the first thing I notice is an ex-girlfriend in the audience. I think, ‘Fine’. Then I look to the other side and there’s an ex-ex-girlfriend sitting exactly opposite! So, I carry on, and of course I was slightly discombobulated by this and I lost the thread. I said to the audience, ‘Sorry ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to have to start again’. I don’t think the ex-girlfriends were ever aware it was down to them though!”
C: Are there any great historical figures that you have always wanted to play but never have?
“Everybody’s played Churchill at one point or another – except me. I liked playing Nye Bevan in Food for Ravens. One interesting character that I’m trying to set up playing at the moment is Andrew Carnegie (the Scottish American industrialist). He lived by his ‘gospel of wealth’ and was more interested in giving his money to the poor and supporting charity.”
C: Would you say that character has a connection to your political leanings?
“I don’t know if he was a Scottish nationalist, I wasn’t until recently. However, I think it’s about the fact that Carnegie started with nothing when he was a boy, and what is interesting, from a story point of view, is how he actually became the wealthiest man in the world and a philanthropist.”
“He put a lot of money into trying to avoid the First World War – and I think the thing that finished him was the fact that his capitalistic life, when he’d always used it for altruistic purposes, was to become a driving force behind the war machine. It was the dichotomy between being someone who is a philanthropist and also a capitalist, which makes for a complicated dilemma.”
“Another thing is that Carnegie, his whole life, never forgot his roots – which coincides with me, as the older I’ve got, the more aware I am of my roots. Especially this last year, with what’s been going on politically, the absolute bollocks that’s been going on.”
C: After your leaving Labour, do you have any faith in Jeremy Corbyn changing things?
“Now, Corbyn, whatever you say about him, he’s going back to core principles. He’s connected with the young people, as Will Self, and that ridiculous John McTernan, debated recently on television – he’s really touched base and it’s badly needed. This country is rapidly losing the plot.”
“The Labour Party was created in Scotland by men of principle, these were men who believed in socialism. We seem to have forgotten about the notion of socialism. Now, everybody is tainted in some way because it’s all about the compromise of ideals.”
“Blair has become a laughing stock now – but it wasn’t all nonsense. I was a supporter at the time so was very dedicated to the party, but, and the Russians have a wonderful expression for people like Blair, ‘Mice who blow up their own tails and think they’re elephants’. There’s that element in politics now, people are so riddled with ambition.”
C: Too many career politicians?
“Career, and the money they’re making, and the fact that they’re coming from the top universities and not coming from the streets. Not that coming from university is a problem, but it’s the politicians like Miliband – I like Ed – but when he came to Glasgow and had such a look of horror on his face when a little woman from the east end of Glasgow tried to talk to him! Somebody should have taken him to one side and said, ‘You don’t do that!’ Even if you don’t understand them, you make an effort to pretend to understand.”
C: What are your opinions on Nicola Sturgeon’s success with the SNP?
“I think she’s extraordinary. She’s stirred the whole thing up. This wee wifey came down and she knocked them for six!” He says beaming and leaning back in his chair. “I watched her grow through the referendum campaign and she was very studious in her operation.”
“Now, it seems like the SNP have taken up the banner for old Labour. I was never a nationalist as such – but I am all for redesigning the shape of these islands. I am a federalist. I believe we should have a federal government, in order to bring all the elements together – you can’t have an independent Scotland and a federal government being part of the same thing, however. They’re not mutually compatible. But I do feel quite strongly that that’s what we should be moving towards.”
“I noticed that during the time of the floods in Somerset, the people there knew what the problem was – but central government didn’t – and weren’t helping. In a federal society, that would be dealt with.”
C: Would you say that one of the main issues with politics these days is a lack of accountability?
“Yes. Lack of responsibility, too. And no punishment. Power is hopeless without responsibility. You can’t just have power for power’s sake – it doesn’t mean anything. That’s what politicians these days have forgotten. When you have the power, you have to have the responsibility that goes with it. And the fact that this lot (of current politicians) are not even bothering to go after the people who are to blame for the financial crisis – it’s not the poor who are to blame – it’s the exploiters.”
“In Iain MacWhirter’s book, Road To The Referendum, he talks about the history of the whole economy. He talks about how Gordon (Brown) pegged the economy the same way Nigel Lawson pegged the economy, basically to property in the south, and it’s not changed! They’ve got to change it.”
“Property is continuing to go through the roof and people are having to live in a way that was unthinkable 30 years ago. I just think that people don’t see it, they don’t see that the whole economic situation has to be re-thought. We live in this kind of siege mentality.”
C: Do you believe there should be a grass-roots shake up of UK politics then?
“Oh absolutely. There’s no question. It became even more apparent to me before the referendum, when I was in Scotland and all these people were coming up to see us. I thought, ‘Who do they think we are? That we’re these funny wee men in short skirts who run around the sides of mountains hunting haggis? They’ve got no fucking idea who we are, these people.’”
C: Do you think that impression was reinforced by the media, in the fact that UK media is inherently London-centric?
“A lot of it was down to the BBC. Nick Robinson didn’t help. It’s just the whole north-south divide. This country is in a mess and doesn’t know what it is about – and it’s still feudal. That’s what shocked me about the Three Amigos coming up to Scotland. They behaved in a completely feudal way. I thought, ‘What the fuck? What’s going on here? Haven’t we grown up from all that?’”
C: Would you say that attitude, which radiates from Westminster, extends to the rest of the country?
“Well I think Parliament shouldn’t be in Westminster, it should be in Wolverhampton. That would be best. Make Wolverhampton like Canberra. Make Wolverhampton the government city. The whole London thing is just so ridiculous.”
“It’s actually been very fascinating watching it from a distance and seeing how obvious the problem is, and that nobody can deal with it. It’s like they’ve had parts of their brain removed! You think, ‘Why are they trying to maintain the status quo?’”
“But, there is a movement now as the people are understanding that something has got to change – and that’s why Jeremy Corbyn caught on, because the guy’s quietly got on with it for 30-odd years, sticking to his principals. Now everyone’s going,” he scrunches his face up and affects an upperclass whiny voice, “‘Oh, this is not safe, somebody with principals, we don’t want that’. And that’s basically what they’re saying, ‘We don’t want a man of principal’. That’s what they’re saying!”
C: If you could live anywhere in the world where would you live?
“I have no clue. I live between America and here. Although there’s certain things I don’t like about America, I go to local areas, such as Vermont, and it’s like time has stood still. The farmers still leave out their produce for you to take and you leave some money behind in an honesty box. I love to see that sharing is still alive. Trust used to be much more prevalent in society, and that was what the community was based on – sharing. I don’t think we’ve evolved enough to go beyond that.”
C: What are your opinions on the NHS or even Trident, in terms of spending?
“Trident is defunct and unnecessary. It doesn’t work and we should get rid of it. If we ever had to use it, we’d all be dead anyway. Man-power armies are a necessity, but Trident is just a waste of money.”
“I think the NHS is a great organisation, but we’ve done so much buggering about with it – it really suffers from all that needless middle-management, separating the processes from the practitioners at the tap-end of the barrel – the grass-roots of the NHS have been sacrificed.”
“It’s like career politicians – it’s all about charts and fixing spreadsheets, but really it’s about trust and the specific details. There is this notion that applying blanket-like solutions to problems can fix everything. They think everything is the same, but it’s not. Different sections of society should be able to function in their own particular ways, but laws are enforced and rules are brought down on them to stop the ‘particular’ from happening, but it’s out of the particular that we get development in society.”
C: Do you think societal development is stalling? Is social mobility the same as it was?
“After the war we had the greatest period of social mobility. I was a kid from Dundee, my mother was a widow, I had no money and I was shit-poor. I went to drama school and it was paid for, but those opportunities aren’t there in the same way. I believe in free education. I had a terrible education, but it wasn’t until I went to drama school that things improved.”
C: Do you think those opportunities are no longer there for working class people?
“No. Working class people have become separated off. And people say,”he says, affecting the upperclass voice again, “‘Oh, you’re talking nonsense, it’s not true’. It is true! Certain people do not have access to certain things and I find that increasingly sad.”
“Now you’ve got people like Nestlé who don’t think people should have the right to free water! What the fuck?”
“The first 50 years of the 20th century were hell – but out of that came Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, the national railways, the NHS – everything was organised and we could take care of it. But no, it came down to making profits and concentrating wealth in the hands of the few. And water! Look at what they’re doing with water – it used to come out of the tap and was free. Now you’ve got people like Nestlé who don’t think people should have the right to free water! What the fuck? It’s a human right, or for any animal, to get a drink of water. And we’ve allowed that to happen.”
C: Do you believe there should there be more direct action from the populace about the state of our politics or even corporate power, in the UK?
“I think we are seeing direct action, but it all gets dissipated, and that’s one of the problems – there were times when it really worked. You can’t believe that an idiot like Jack Straw was actually present at the early student movement in and was actually doing some good stuff. Now the man is scared of his own shadow. I think, ‘What happened to you guys? What did you buy into?’ It’s us actors that are supposed to be the fantasists…”
“I’ve actually always found actors to be the best realists because we have to keep body and soul together!” He says, tapping his head knowingly and laughing.
C: What have been your favourite roles to play?
“Titus Andronicus, great role. It’s about a man who blindly serves his society, and then realises he’s been shafted. He’s also suffering from his own actions.
“Shakespeare’s great like that, one of the great lines in Shakespeare is when Lear says, ‘I’ve taken too little care of this’. The great plays have this, Linda says it of Willy Loman, ‘Attention, attention must be paid.’ Attention is so important. When people forget where and who they are, in any station in life, they lose sight of what’s important. That’s why I think Titus is wonderful in that way.”
C: You’ve had several roles in common with Anthony Hopkins: Titus, Lear and Hannibal Lecter. Have you ever discussed the roles?
“No, we’ve kind of danced around it. I remember him telling me about working with screenwriter and director, David Hare, and doing King Lear,” he says, taking on a different expression and suddenly adopting Anthony Hopkins’ soft, Welsh accent: “‘Y’know David, I’ve had an idea’, and so Tony explains what it is. And David Hare says, ‘Oh, YOU think that, do you Tony?’ I thought, ‘You can’t say that to him – this is your Lear!’ But, there you go – feudal again. Know your place!
“Being Welsh, Anthony suffered from that kind of thing more than any other actor. You know they’ve had it tough – the Scots have had it tough, the Irish have had it tough, but the Welsh have had it tougher and for a longer time!” He says, wagging his finger in the air and laughing. “But no, we’ve never really talked about things like Hannibal Lecter…”
C: So no, ‘My Lecter’s better than your Lecter?’
“Haha, no! We sort of skate around that. There was one time I was in a hotel sleeping, and the phone rang, and it was a journalist to ask about the anniversary DVD release of Manhunter. And she asked, ‘Were you the first Hannibal Lecter?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I was the first Hannibal Lecter’. So the headline came out, ‘I was the first Hannibal Lecter!’ As if it was me claiming my property! And Tony’s then-missus, she said to me, ‘Well, he’s a bit upset’. So, I said, ‘Well, I am the first. But I didn’t go, I am the first.’”
C: Has your approach to work changed as you have gotten older?
“I’ve been through crises where I’ve thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But I enjoy the nature of it. I like it – there’s something quite sacred about it, without being pious about it. When you go back to Shakespeare and you talk about holding the mirror up to nature… Hamlet’s ‘advice to the players’ speech is so brilliantly written – it has it all in there about what the job’s about and what you’re supposed to be doing and why you’re doing it, and the responsibility of doing it – and that’s what motivates you.”
“I used to get very sad about my heroes, like Marlon Brando, or Spencer Tracy, being so unhappy with what they did as actors. This disdain they develop… which actually becomes disdain about self, ‘Why am I not doing something proper?’ Well, none of us do anything proper, really. Welcome to the club.”
C: Do you have any other influences?
“Meryl Streep was phenomenal. I used to hate Streep because she was so good, but I used to pretend that she wasn’t. I met her once, and I said, ‘I want to confess something to you. I really hated your work – but I didn’t – I was just so jealous of your work that I pretended I hated it!’ She was always flawless, with a tremendous sense of detail.”
C: With the current tide of British actors making it big in Hollywood, do you think Celtic actors are getting a fair crack of the whip?
“The Benedict’s, the Redmayne’s, are very good. But, I look at a lot of young actors and I don’t think they’re very good. There’s a thing that goes on in acting now where they don’t engage, there’s a blandness about them, they’re homogenised.”
“One thing I have noticed is that the younger generations don’t seem interested in the roots of their profession anymore”
C: There seems to be more commitment from the young American actors coming through.
“The British actors are better trained. American actors aren’t as well trained, in that their craft isn’t as developed. But their energy is phenomenal. British actors are playing in the slips a wee bit.”
“One thing I have noticed is that the younger generations don’t seem interested in the roots of their profession anymore. I wanted to know what my heritage was, what the roots of the theatre were. They don’t know about who’s who, about the genesis of the Royal Shakespeare Company for instance. Some might not even know who Olivier is.”
C: Did you ever get the opportunity to work alongside Sir Laurence Olivier?
“He saved my life! I was going for an interview with him and was packed up and ready to fly to London and see him. I was at the Lyceum in Edinburgh at the time, and the old guy on the stage door after the matinee said, ‘I’ve got a note here for you, it slipped down the back of your cubby hole.’ So, I’m stood there, all packed, ready to fly off, and I start reading this note. It was from Olivier’s office saying, ‘Sir Laurence cannot meet you on Monday, so we will postpone until a later time’. I thought, ‘Oh Christ, I’m not going to get my interview now.’”
“The next day I picked up the Sunday Post and the stop-press was, ‘Edinburgh flight crashes, all aboard killed’. I went, ‘Jesus Christ. Olivier saved my life!’”
He pauses theatrically, before continuing: “So, when I eventually got to meet Sir Laurence – I went down by train.”
C: Stage, film and television all represent different challenges. Which do you prefer?
There’s a lot of people who work in television and film who can’t cut it in theatre, they don’t have theatre chops. And theatre really is, for an actor, an actor’s medium. It’s where you exercise your craft,” he says, thumping the table to accentuate each word. “It’s acting in its purest form. I think television is extremely healthy at present, I think theatre is healthy. I think the BBC has problems because of the people who run it.”
C: Do you think the BBC is still fit for purpose?
“It was a very simple thing to start with. In the 1950s the first head of drama was Michael Barry. In his last years he was a principal at the London Academy – I got to know him. He told me about his meetings with Lord Reith, and when he first met him he asked, ‘What is my brief as head of drama?’ And Reith told him, ‘Well, son, your brief is to get the best, best possible drama, to the maximum number of people.’ Now that’s a simple brief! And very laudable, and if it can still manage to do that, then yes.”
C: Are there any disciplines or procedures that you apply to the characters you play?
“I always try to create an narrative arc for a role, so there’s a beginning, middle and an end. Even if it’s just for me, we know it’s a character that’s travelling through the film with an intention. It makes the character more believable and, if they’re properly placed in a movie, they really work.”
“Occasionally, there are films like The Escapist, which I’ve starred in and produced, where I’ve taken the classical observer role in the movie – y’know the Clint Eastwood role where you’re passive and all the action happens around you.”
C: Are their any directors that have been difficult to work with?
“Now, Woody Allen. I was very nervous working with him, as he doesn’t say anything! He’ll just then come out and say,” he says scrunching his shoulders up and affecting a Woody Allen voice, “‘You know, if I recognise my words, I won’t mind’. And that’s when you know you’ve been improvising too much!”
C: Where’s your favourite place to perform?
“It’s always nice to go home to Scotland. London audiences have gotten a lot better, they used to be very stiff. Broadway audiences used to be fantastic, they used to be the best in the world, but they’ve so devalued the standing ovation. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like they’ve been told to stand up and clap – and they stand up and go, ‘Well, it wasn’t that good, why are we all standing?’”
C: Tell us about your work as Rector of Dundee University?
“I love it and I’m probably going to go back for third term, which is unheard of. It’s been voted ‘best student experience’ in the United Kingdom, and it keeps me going home to Dundee, so I feel for the place and I feel connected there.”
“I’m very pro-active though, I refuse to just be that figurehead – just posing for photographs. I go in the library and do surgeries and say, ‘The rector’s here, come and talk to me’. And the students come in and air their grievances. The foreign students are particularly touching with their stories mind you, there’s some that have had tough lives.”