Name a contemptible human being, and Brian Cox has probably played him in a movie. Socialist dictator? Check. Nazi military leader? Check. Pedophile? Check. Charming cannibal? Check. From his pre-Anthony Hopkins take on Hannibal Lector in the 1986 cult classic Manhunter to his love-to-hate-’em super-villains in films like X2, Troy, and The Bourne Supremacy, Cox has cornered the market on bad guys with furry furrowed brows and booming Shakespearian baritones.
Cox proves his villainous expertise yet again in the ABC1 series The Straits, now in its second season (available exclusively on Hulu and Hulu Plus, with new episodes every Saturday), on which he plays the head of a drug-smuggling family in Australia. I called Cox to talk about his latest goateed baddie, and we ended up discussing carnivorous crocodiles, cinematic facial hair, why children are smarter than method actors, and how even the monster who went on a murderous rampage in a Connecticut elementary school is still a human being.
ERIC SPITZNAGEL: The Straits was shot in Queensland, Australia. Isn’t that part of the country lousy with man-eating crocs?
BRIAN COX: Oh, yes, they’re everywhere. Queensland has the most incredible beaches, but you can’t swim in them because of the crocodiles. You can swim in the water holes.
ES: Water holes?
BC: There are these water holes up on the hillsides. Unless it’s been a particularly bad monsoon season, the crocodiles don’t get up there. I remember on the first day of our read-through [for The Straits], we were sitting in the production office, which is next to a little stream, and I looked out a window and there was a baby crocodile. It was like twenty-five feet away from where we were.
ES: At least it was just a baby.
BC: Yeah, but they’re bold. They’ve been known to walk down the main street of Cairns [a city in Queensland]. And when they get big, they get really big. Unlike New Zealand, which has nothing especially predatory, Australia is full of spiders and crocodiles and all kinds of animals that will eat you and sting you.
BC: Oh, and the most incredible collection of snakes. The brown snake in particular is quite deadly.
ES: You’ve convinced me to never, ever visit Australia.
BC: Oh, no, no. It is actually a beautiful country. Even the Australians don’t know how beautiful their own country is. Particularly where we were shooting The Straits. Most of my stuff was done on an aboriginal settlement on the south shore, opposite Cairns, which I believe was the site where the last person was eaten in Australia.
ES: By a crocodile?
BC: By a cannibal. He was eaten by a warrior foe, I believe.
ES: That’s kind of poetic. Your breakout role was Hannibal Lector, and, now, here you are twenty-five years later, making a TV show in the land of the cannibals.
BC: Huh. [Laughs.] I never thought of that, actually.
ES: Your career has come full-circle.
BC: I guess it has.
ES: You’re playing a villain in The Straits, which really isn’t new terrain for you.
BC: Not at all.
ES: The majority of your career has been playing bad people. Are they bad to you? Or do you have to sympathize with a character to really get inside their skin?
BC: You empathize rather than sympathize. Like the guy in this show, Harry. He’s a gangster, and they have these kinds of curiously spurious moral codes. For instance, he won’t touch child prostitution, but he has no problem dealing in drugs and stuff like that.
ES: Have you ever had to play somebody where you thought, “This guy’s an asshole. I can’t identify with him at all.”
BC: There are characters that have made me uncomfortable. I did a film called Rob Roy, and I played Killearn, who was this sort of greasy fallen-angel character who was voyeuristic and sleazy and really unpleasant. It was a great role, but I didn’t especially enjoy living with this awful man for the length of time it took to make the movie.
ES: If I had a thousand guesses, I never would have guessed Killearn.
ES: I would’ve said Hermann Göring. Or Stalin. Or Hannibal Lecter.
BC: Lector is just psychotic. He didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth like Killearn. With most characters, no matter how vile they are, it’s just about remembering that they’re human beings, ultimately. Hitler was a human being. Stalin was a human being. We have this terrible tragedy that just happened in Connecticut.
ES: The school shooting.
BC: The boy who did those horrible things, walked into that school with all those guns — he was clearly an outsider and clearly had personality disorders of a very deep kind. But he was still a human being. He was alienated and sad and very damaged, which is a uniquely human condition. That’s what’s interesting about these roles, playing somebody who seems so one-dimensionally evil. How does somebody get to that point?
ES: I’ve heard that you don’t subscribe to method acting.
BC: No. I find that all nonsense.
ES: So you were never like, “To truly understand how Hannibal Lecter ticks, I have to taste human flesh”?
BC: Goodness no. There are actors who do that. I don’t know if they’d go as far as tasting human flesh, but they might walk up to that line. For me, it’s just acting. It’s pretending. The best actors are children, and children don’t do research. You never see a child going, “I’m wondering about my motivation here. How can I do this toy? How can I do this train? I don’t feel train.” I did a video — you can look this up on YouTube — called “Brian Cox Masterclass with Theo”.
ES: I’ve seen it.
BC: Where I teach the Hamlet soliloquy to a two-and-a-half-year-old?
ES: It’s freaking brilliant. I would pay Broadway prices to see that Theo kid do Hamlet.
BC: I would, too. That’s the lesson there, I think. You can give children the germ of an idea, and they’ll run with it. They’ll take it. Their imaginations are untrammeled. I trust the child in me. I’ll always go back to that. All these dark people I’ve played, if I think about them too much, if I try to identify with them, they’d carry me away in a straightjacket and load me into a funny-farm van.
ES: What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve done to prepare for a role?
BC: I try not to do anything unless a director asks me. And most of what they ask me is ridiculous. I once had a director send me a questionnaire about my character. I just replied, “Too old, too tired, and too talented.” If we’re going to sit down and answer these questions, then you don’t know what you’re doing, and I think by this time I should have a good idea what I’m doing. Do you think I just fell off the turnip truck?
ES: Have you seen the Hitchcock biopic with Anthony Hopkins?
BC: Not yet, no.
ES: Some critics have claimed the prosthetics look too obviously fake. Do you think Hopkins made the right choice, rather than gain a lot of weight, which is the usual method-acting way?
BC: From a health perspective, yes, it’s certainly better to use prosthetics than gain the weight. I’ve just been working with Tony — we did the sequel to Red. I think Tony is a magnificent actor, but I don’t think he looks very much like Alfred Hitchcock.
ES: Even with the prosthetic jowls?
BC: Hitchcock was round in the face. I’ve only seen pictures of Tony as Hitchcock — I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t want to judge him. It’s a fantastic makeup job, but he looks… rather square. Physically, he’s square. You know what I mean? Hitchcock had this rather round, baby look about him.
ES: The best movie magic can’t change an actor’s facial structure?
BC: It can’t, no. But this happens. I’m old enough to remember King George VI. When I saw The King’s Speech, I had to suspend my disbelief. I thought it was a very good performance by Colin Firth, but he didn’t look anything like George the VI. George was very skinny, with a nervous disposition, and kind of etiolated-looking. It’s very hard to recreate that.
ES: That may be a tall order even for CGI.
BC: I do have a fondness for the prosthetic element of this profession. I once did a role and told the director, “Just tell me what to do.” I wasn’t interested in the script. I didn’t have a lot of lines and didn’t want to argue with him about character. I was like, “I’ll do whatever you tell me. The only thing I want to be in charge of is how the character looks.” I wanted to look like a cross between John Carpenter and Jerry Garcia.
ES: And that felt like enough creative involvement for you?
BC: It’s very liberating as an actor to sacrifice control. The director says, “Come through here, look at that, turn on that, go there, look under the bed, take out a gun, load it.” And you just go through that series of actions. And by doing that, you’re letting the character take over. You’re not overthinking it. You’re not going over the script and making notes and creating backstory.
ES: Your only responsibility is to grow a really awesome Jerry Garcia beard.
BC: Exactly, yes.
ES: It’s funny you mention that. Whenever I look at your films, I always notice the facial hair. There have been a few goatees, a few mustaches, a few full-on beards. Does the facial hair help you define what a character is?
BC: It does to a certain extent. The beard makes a great statement, especially as I’ve gotten older. I’ve got a beard at the moment, and I’m actually toying with the idea of shaving it off. Part of the reason I’ve kept it for so long is I’m lazy and I don’t like to shave.
ES: That really is the raison d’être of any great beard.
BC: I like to play with color as well. If I kept my natural hair color, it would be incredibly white. But I find that white onscreen is kind of dead and translucent. You want something that has life to it. And that’s why I’ve sometimes gone dark or gray with my beards. People think I dye my hair because I want to look younger. It’s not about that at all.
ES: You were part of a golden age of British theater during the ’70s and ’80s. You’ve done Shakespearian plays with legends like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
BC: Those were wonderful times. I was very lucky.
ES: Everything I’ve heard about that era — it seems like everyone was drunk all the time and there were constant onstage shenanigans.
BC: We had some laughs. I remember one time — probably my favorite memory — Gielgud was playing Caesar in a production of Julius Caesar, and we had one of these mobile sets, where they could change scenery and different set pieces would come on and off the stage. So one night it didn’t come on as planned, for the scene when Caesar is murdered. Gielgud felt that since we were all inexperienced — and we were, relatively, although I think I was thirty at the time — he was worried that we wouldn’t find him to kill him. He was like, “These poor boys, they won’t know where to go because the set isn’t right. I better help them.” So he sort of obliged by almost committing harakiri on our daggers.
ES: He threw himself on your blades?
BC: He did. They were stage daggers, but they were still sharp. It’s a miracle he wasn’t impaled.
ES: Do you miss doing live theater?
BC: I do, I do. All the time. I still try to make time to do it, occasionally. It’s very close to my heart. I can still remember the first day I entered the theater as a kid, literally walked into a theater for the first time, to get a job. I was a working-class kid from Dundee, Scotland, very unaccustomed to the ways of actors. I walked into the theater, and there was a fight going on.
ES: A staged fight?
BC: No, an actual fight. With fists being thrown. It was Nicol Williamson, and he was punching the hell out of the stage manager. They were both drunk. This was ten o’clock in the morning, and they’d been there all night. I’m fifteen years old, and I walk in and there’s these two grown adults fighting on the stairs.
ES: Did you try to stop them?
BC: No, no. Another actor pulled me aside. He was the first actor I ever spoke to, and he said to me, “It’s alright, darling. A night on the tiles. You’ll want to go this way.” That was my initial impression of the theater: Two people beating the hell out of one another, and a man calling me darling. So I thought, “I’m home! This is the life for me, obviously.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)