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Brian Cox: ‘Acting is not about celebrity’

Brian Cox in rehearsal for Waiting for Godot. Photo: Aly Wight Brian Cox in rehearsal for Waiting for Godot. Photo: Aly Wight

When you want something done, ask a busy person. So when artistic director Mark Thomson wanted a memorable start to the Royal Lyceum’s 50th anniversary year, who better to call than the man known as Scotland’s busiest actor, Brian Cox. The season opener is Waiting for Godot, directed by Thomson, and Cox stars with fellow Scot Bill Paterson. It will be the first time that either has played Beckett and also the first time they have worked on stage together.

CV Brian CoxIt’s a bit of a change from Cox’s first job at the theatre. The Dundee-born actor was in the very first Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, back in 1965. That was his first job after leaving LAMDA, and for the first play of that opening season he was understudy to Tom Conti in The Servant o’ Twa Maisters.

The intervening years have seen Cox rise to the heights of Hollywood stardom, working with the likes of Brad Pitt in Troy and Matt Damon in the Bourne Supremacy, creating the first Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter and appearing back-to-back in the 1995 Scottish blockbusters Rob Roy and Braveheart.

These days, at the age of 69, he doesn’t appear to be letting up. His next role, he reveals when we meet in a cafe near his Edinburgh base (he lives in New York), will be playing Marlon Brando.

Surprisingly small in stature, but big and warm of handshake, Cox has come straight from the technical rehearsal for Godot. Yet, he still sparkles and jokes. Dropping into Brando character and a near-impenetrable drawl, he goes on to explain that the project – The Road Trip – will be a version of the perhaps apocryphal story that Brando and Elizabeth Taylor were special guests at a Michael Jackson concert in New York, on the night before 9/11. When the planes hit the twin towers, Jackson invited them to escape the city and share a limo back to LA.

It was to the cinema that Cox was drawn as a child in Dundee and for which he is known worldwide, but it is on the stage that he earned his acting spurs and to which he returns, time and again. Indeed, it is his attitude to his craft – best described as punctilious – that both won him fame as a classical actor and has got him into trouble in recent months.

Cox in Titus Andronicus at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1987. Photo: Sarah Ainslie
Cox in Titus Andronicus at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1987. Photo: Sarah Ainslie

During a recent talk, he explains, he had the temerity to point out that one of the problems he has with young actors is that a “sort of blandness comes into them, they don’t know how to play status any more, they try and play everything on a kind of level playing field”.

He’s been heavily taken to task for his comments, notably by The Guardian’s critic Lyn Gardner, who Cox says jumped down his throat saying that he doesn’t like young actors. He vehemently denies this, while reiterating that in a classical play, “the one thing you have got to understand is status, you have got to understand where you are in the order of things”.

Another area in which Cox’s strong views have been criticised is over the importance of history. But he is unrepentant. “It is important to know the roots of things, where you are from and how acting developed,” he says, citing “the passing of people like Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates, people of that generation, they belonged to something which was quite revolutionary, previous to that it was the Oliviers, it was the Gielguds.”

It’s not a question of knowing everything inside out, but “that sense of a continuum, and where these actors broke ground in very different ways. It just needs attention, if nothing else. I think one of the problems of the day is that history started five minutes ago.”

Born in 1946, Cox’s history is a little bit longer than five minutes. At school he wanted to be an actor, but didn’t know how to go about becoming one. He describes his education as a “disaster”, although he was always a good communicator – the reason why, at primary school, the headmaster would call him out of lessons to go and run his messages. “My education just drifted away,” he says. “I failed my 11-plus, my father was dead and my mother was institutionalised for a little while, so I was very much left to my own devices and it was about survival really.”

Fortune came to his aid when a job came up at Dundee Rep and he was encouraged to apply. “It was a nothing job, just a general factotum, but it meant that I was in the theatre. As soon as I got in the theatre, I felt immediately at home.”

Cox in St Nicholas, 1997. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Cox in St Nicholas, 1997. Photo: Tristram Kenton

He worked for the secretary to the artistic director, running messages by day, taking the money to the bank first thing in the morning, and washing the stage before each performance. But “by stealth” he began to get the odd speaking part, a couple of lines here or there. Meanwhile, he was observing all the time, looking at actors’ work ethic, working out where he wanted to train himself.

Cox says that the LAMDA-trained actors already stood out. Beside a “tremendous” work ethic, “they were very prepared in the way they seemed to know their way around the text, there was just something about their mechanism which was good.” But the deal was sealed when the voice coach Kristin Linklater was brought up from LAMDA to work with the cast.

“She was quite simply one of the best voice teachers,” says Cox, “way, way up there. I was very lucky to be invited to go with the other actors to the classes she ran.

“It was an eye-opener to me and I thought, ‘I want to go to the school that this woman is at.’ So the decision was made. Blow me – four weeks after I arrived she left and went to America.”

If Linklater was missing from his time at LAMDA, the school served him very well indeed. His first voice teacher, the noted clan chief John MacLeod of MacLeod, who was also a singer, was a suitable substitute, while the principal at the time was Michael MacOwan, who had first produced such Eugene O’Neill plays as Mourning Becomes Electra in the 1930s, at what was then the Westminster Theatre. On leaving, he got an interview with Tom Fleming, who was just setting up the new Royal Lyceum company in Edinburgh. Besides a lot of understudying, there were a few parts for him to play, and he joined a company which included the likes of Una McLean, Eileen McCallum, Callum Mill, Russell Hunter and Conti.

“It was an amazing time, doing Victor Carin’s version of The Servant o’ Twa Maisters and using this great stage designer, Abd’Elkader Farrah, who was incredible – a bright and visual man sadly no longer with us. Tom really wanted to put Edinburgh on the map, he wanted to make it an international theatre, but unfortunately it only lasted a year. Tom resigned, there was a falling out, and then Clive Perry came in and the rest is history.”

Brian Cox in Uncle Varick at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, in 2004. Photo: Douglas McBride
Brian Cox in Uncle Varick at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, in 2004. Photo: Douglas McBride

Dundee Rep had been a start, but the Lyceum was where Cox first performed as a fully fledged actor. And when Conti left the company, he took over his role in Servant o’ Twa Maisters.

Cox left for Birmingham Rep and had “the time of my life” playing Mercutio, Iago to Michael Gambon’s Othello, Peer Gynt, Bolingbroke, Othello and Orlando, all in the space of two years.

“That was where I really earned my spurs as an actor, because I was doing all these major roles and I was only 22,” he says. “So I had quite a good start, quite a good kick-off. But I didn’t have this home, I didn’t have this thing about Scotland really, at all, l loved being Scots but it all went on the back burner and I wasn’t a part of the scene up here any more. I had kind of peaked too early here, went off somewhere else and did my stuff.”

He did return to perform on stage in Scotland with a pair of Ibsens at the Edinburgh International Festival – first in 1968, with When We Dead Awaken, and the following year with the Scottish Actors’ Company at the Lyceum in a version of The Wild Duck, directed by Fulton Mackay, which was televised on STV.

“Then I sort of closed the book on Scotland. I didn’t appear on stage again in Scotland until 1991 – I mean I did television, I was doing a lot for the BBC – but I never worked in theatre again in Scotland until the 1990s. I came back here to do King Lear, and then I realised how fantastic the audiences were.”

He returned to the Lyceum in 1993 for The Master Builder in Kenny Ireland’s first season as artistic director and, a decade later, for Thomson’s first season, taking the title role in Uncle Varick, John Byrne’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya.

In the intervening years, Cox followed twin paths. He was working on a film and television career, but on the stage he wanted to work classically, working extensively, at least in the 1960s and 1970s, in the Royal Court in London and the Royal Exchange in Manchester, with Michael Elliott – “who was probably the greatest director I have ever worked with”.

Brian Cox Q&ALater he moved on to the National, but was somewhat disillusioned there – he recalls a “horrendous” production of Tamburlaine with Albert Finney, directed by Peter Hall, which ended up rehearsing for eight months as the opening of the Olivier theatre was put back. Nonetheless, he stuck in there, because “everybody said I was more a National Theatre actor than a Stratford actor. I bought into that”.

In 1985, he had two New York hits in a row when Strange Interlude transferred from the Duke of York’s and Rat in the Skull from the Royal Court. The latter had won him an Olivier the previous year, and in the US it led directly to him being offered the role of Lecter in Manhunter.

However, once filmed, he was out of work for eight months, and his first marriage fell apart. By the time the film opened – to great notices – and he should have been on the verge of a film career, he needed to be in the UK, to be close to his children. “So I took the job at the RSC really because I had to be in the country and I needed a regular job.”

After a season at the Barbican, he went to Stratford and took on his big, defining role: Titus Andronicus, directed by the young Deborah Warner. It was a revelation on several levels.

“I acted the way I wanted to act – as opposed to the way people thought I should act,” he says. “Deborah was very good because she allowed me to be who I wanted to be as opposed to who I thought other people would like me to be. That element plagues the performer.”

That allowed him to delve into his black Scots humour, to find the truth in what he describes as the “definitive” Shakespeare he has done. “It is a production which has not been matched since because it was so out of this world. On the first matinee we had eight people carried out of the theatre by the St John’s Ambulance. It was so graphic, It was so in your face and it was also very funny.”

Later, he returns to the subject, adding: “I really don’t believe in the division of comedy and tragedy, I believe it is a sliding scale. Really, all great works of drama embrace both. That is why I love Titus Andronicus. I think it is a great play because it embraces the ludicrous, and life is much more ludicrous than tragic, to me.”

Now, however, there is Godot to wait for. A new challenge – he is full of praise both for Thomson as a director, particularly his sharp eye, and for his fellow performers – but Beckett is another matter. “It is to do with the capricious nature of Beckett, because he really isn’t actor-friendly in any way, shape or form. In fact, he basically despises actors, but unfortunately he needs them. He asks you to do very, very difficult things which are quite detailed and like little clues you can easily miss.”

The play, however, seems to be striking a chord with Cox, in the way it deals with human beings as habitual animals. “As my character says, habit is the great deadener. Habit makes you not experience anything, because you are so busy replaying yourself. And I realise that what I have tried to avoid in my life is replaying the same stuff and buying into any kind of accepted idea of what the nature of being a successful actor is. I absolutely loathe that. It kind of dries me up. Especially now, with the whole nature of celebrity, which is such a killer. The most habitual thing that could be is celebrity.”

Brian Cox top tipsHere, perhaps, is the real truth in Cox’s attitude to craft and history. Having the former and understanding the latter are what allow an actor the freedom to be themselves, rather than a celebrity, narrowly defined by sentiment.

As he says of talent shows: “It is not about celebrity, there is a much wider base to acting than what they require. There is a whole delicacy about acting. For me, the great actors were the delicate actors, the actors with fineness.

“We are not really giving enough credence to craft. It is not that there aren’t people who really want to do the job, but that they don’t get the opportunity. They are denied the opportunity.”

It is a theme he returns to: “We go on about race in casting and again I am all for interracial casting, but we don’t attend to the fact that it is a class thing that certain kids have not got access to the theatre any more. For someone like me, starting now would have been virtually impossible.”

That, certainly, would have been a real tragedy.

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