Flexing at fashion week, starring in a streetwear campaign, hosting a James Bond-themed game show – Brian Cox’s last few months aren’t quite what we’d expected from an actor following up a career-defining role in one of the most acclaimed TV dramas of the decade. But for Cox, one of Britain’s best-loved and most famously bullshit-proof screen legends, these kind of off-the-wall choices are the latest in a career of calculated swerves, in which he’s played everything from comic cops to serial killers to Shakespearean kings with equal devotion and ferocity. As Cox says, “I just want to keep working.”
It’s a toasty September day in London when Cox calls from his book-lined study, where he is memorizing lines for his forthcoming role as Johann Sebastian Bach in The Score at Bath’s Theatre Royal. It’s the first in two highly anticipated returns to the UK stage. (He will also appear in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in London next spring.) He’ll return to TV screens in November with Prime Video’s forthcoming James Bond spin-off 007: Road To A Million, a slickly produced game show that comes soon after (though independently of) Amazon’s $8.5billion acquisition of MGM in 2021. Road To A Million follows a series of contestants racing around the world via various iconic Bond films locations and vehicles to compete for, you might have guessed it, £1 million. Cox revels in playing “The Controller”, the show’s shadowy and knowingly hammy villain, tasked with frustrating the contestants’ efforts.
In a sprawling and unsurprisingly open conversation, Cox let loose on the Hollywood actors’ and writers’ strike, the reception to his recent and much-talked-about memoir, and his unlikely late life turn as a celebrity – or as he calls it, “this whole icon thing.”
Was your work affected by the strikes?
I knew that I was going into two big theatre commitments. So that has not really affected me, and I do voiceovers as well. So, I’m one of the lucky ones. The voiceover work is interesting, because one of the central issues of the strike is the question about AI and digital likenesses. Using AI, Disney recently recreated James Earl Jones’ voice as Darth Vader in Star Wars with his permission. It does pose ethical dilemmas. I think it’s a human rights issue. We really need to break it down to two sections, the financial thing, which is the deal, but there’s also this AI thing, and that to me is a bigger issue. And it’s an issue for the court of human rights because there is nothing more human than owning your own identity. There’s just a clause in the contract that they [the studios] are offering at the moment which says, ‘We will pay you £50 for your image, and we can use it in perpetuity.’ [Writers’ and actors’ union SAG-AFTRA have said the offer is for “one day’s pay”.] That’s got to be stopped. I hope that James Earl Jones has been paid for the AI version of [his] voice. It’s the thin end of a wedge.
Tell me about how this 007 project came about. People might see it as a sudden change of direction – but those have been a theme of your career.
Yeah, that’s part of that tradition. I just thought it was witty, and I liked the idea of it. And, my involvement was not huge. It was a no-brainer, really. [Actors] get precious about ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ I don’t buy into any kind of, “I’m special” thing. I’ve never bought into that notion. That way lies a dusty death, quite frankly.
In your memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, you describe yourself as being a kind of itinerant pragmatist, always going from job to job.
That’s the way my career has been. I didn’t expect to get the success I did at my late age. It just happened. I happened to play a great role in probably one of the greatest TV shows that’s ever been done. The one drawback about this whole thing is the loss of anonymity, because I prided myself on my anonymity. Now it’s hard for me to go anywhere.
You’ve described it as suddenly becoming “the fuck-off man”.
[Fans] always want me to tell them to fuck off! So I do tell them to fuck off. I’ve got to be pragmatic about it. People on the whole can be very polite, but sometimes they do get a bit aggressive.
Have you ever auditioned for a Bond film?
I’ve been ignored over the years as far as James Bond is concerned. One of the kind of cockeyed reasons I did [007: Road to a Million] was I thought, well: really? If you were ever looking for somebody to play a Bond villain [it would be me]… so this is sort of my way of getting back at them.
I’ve heard you talk about that before, having so often played the bad guy – why is it that Hollywood loves to cast British actors as the villain?
They love all that. It’s funny because America is such a naive country in many ways. A fucked country in other ways, these days. But one of the reasons for my success when I made my foray into movies was because they don’t trust the [British], they see them as suspicious.
And hyper intelligent.
Exactly. They didn’t realize actors like Alan Rickman and myself are both working class boys made good.
Both Sean Connery and you came from very working class backgrounds, and you’ve spoken about how difficult it is to make it as a working class actor today.
Nowadays there’s no pathway. Nobody realises what the 60s was like. It was the King’s Road and miniskirts, but it was also a period of incredible social mobility. It was a bit like what we’re going through now with diversity. I went to drama school exactly 60 years ago, in 1963. I was 17. I had the best time of my life, and I was welcomed. There was a pathway that one could follow. That doesn’t happen anymore. I think it’s sad that in this country, our tradition has always been the theatre, as opposed to television, and it seems to me that we’ve kind of screwed that up.
007: Road To A Million is about contestants going to extremes to win prize money. You’ve always been very forthright about having to make money from a very early age.
The British don’t like to talk about that at all. That’s why they’re so fucked.
One of my favourite lines in your book is about the difference between British agents and US agents, and the fact that American agents will just say, “Fuck you, pay me.”
That’s the big advantage. You know, this is why I eventually moved to the States. I was in my 50s when I made that move. British agents are always saying, ‘“well, you know, [the production] has got certain problems.” I am not fucking interested in their problem. I’m only interested if they pay the money.
Are there cases now when you look back and regret not taking certain roles, like Game of Thrones [Cox has written that he was offered the role of Robert Baratheon, played by Mark Addy] when you see what they could have become?
No. [That] one was only limited; I’d be dead within four episodes [Baratheon dies in episode seven]. So, I saw the shortness of that. And again, it was early days, so the fees were not particularly wonderful. They did very well on it, but initially it was “suck it and see.”
In 2022, Cox’s memoir won widespread critical acclaim. In the book, he writes about his early life growing up in Dundee and his father, a grocer who died of cancer suddenly when Cox was eight. Cox’s mother subsequently suffered a breakdown, and underwent an early form of electroshock therapy, with devastating consequences. Cox writes movingly about his experiences growing up poor, including a story about how he and his brother would be sent to the local fish and chip shop at closing time to beg for leftover batter bits when they couldn’t afford to eat. He is also excoriating about many of his colleagues in the acting world, among them Steven Seagal, Johnny Depp and Quentin Tarantino.
You have said in interviews that poverty is “a demon” in your life. Do you still feel that way?
Oh, yeah. It hasn’t left me. Interestingly enough, when the book came out, everybody said, “it must have been terrible for you, as a child.” And that wasn’t the case. When you’re surviving, you survive. There’s nothing you can do about it. I think my humour has kept me going more than anything else. When I was younger, it was an awful situation. My mum was batshit crazy for a while, and she destroyed herself through electric shock treatment, which was in its purest form then, and that really destroyed a lot of her memories. She couldn’t even remember who I was for a very short period of time. So, when you witness that you kind of take it on, but in many ways it didn’t affect me or hurt me. It’s just the reality of the time. This story about when I used to have to go to the fish and chip shop [for scraps, because the family couldn’t afford food] on a Thursday night, I sort of dramatize the extreme situation. it didn’t happen every time.
Those are the memories that sit with you though – they become formative.
They become crucial. The other thing that really annoyed me is my mother used to forget about me. So when I didn’t have a key I’d be sitting on the stairs for a couple of hours, because my mum had gone wandering somewhere. That used to piss me off. But at the same time, I was aware enough to realise that my mother wasn’t well, and one had to be compassionate. That was a lesson that you don’t normally learn that young.
You write about what you went through as a kid with tremendous empathy. And I wonder at what point you were able to look at to look back and understand what had happened from that perspective? I’ve found that having children has been a tremendous excavator of the past.
I love that phrase: excavating the past. We spend a lot of our lives excavating the past. Especially in my job, I’ve got to constantly see the human dilemma. What is it like to be alive? What are we doing, and to what end are we doing it? Also, I mean, I’ve come to a point now where all belief systems I find completely phoney. I don’t believe in anything. I’m a humanist. I was raised a Catholic, so I’ve got all those Catholic conditionings whether I like it or not there, but at the same time, I really don’t believe in God. It’s a brilliant fantasy, but it’s a fantasy.
You are someone who has played the very worst of humanity. Some actors struggle with that, but you seem to wear it very lightly.
You shouldn’t complain. You just have to go with it. You don’t have to stay there. That’s the problem. You’ll get young American actors who’re going to make it a constant religious experience. It’s not about that. We are transmitters of a particular kind of energy. Don’t get in your own fucking way. That’s the job. It’s like working with asbestos – just be careful when you wash your clothes.
You are very forthright in your opinion of other actors. In the paperback version you added an addendum, in which you didn’t quite apologise, but clarified some of those points. Have you had any reactions from those people in person?
Only one situation, which was a writer, I won’t say who. But curiously enough, I’d written something about a certain actor who was working with a certain writer, and he had said certain things. And I put it in the book, and this person got in touch with me and said, “I was really hurt by that.” And I went, yeah, but that’s not about you. It’s not about him. This isn’t your story. It’s his story. People are sometimes oversensitive about themselves. I think probably I am quite strong, but so many people are quite frail in relation to their careers.
There’s a fantastic quote from you talking about vulnerability, which was, “I’m too old, I’m too tired, and I’m too talented for any of that shit.” When was the last time you felt self doubt?
Oh, God. I was born a Catholic, and you know, that goes with the territory. You can still have self confidence, but you can also have a lot of self doubt. At the moment, I’m learning this huge tome, playing Bach, and I’ve got very little time to do it. So my state of self doubt is probably at 100 degrees.
Are you in a place in your career where you have a level of choice that you didn’t have before?
My level of choice – it’s interesting. I did a Santander ad, which I thoroughly enjoyed, because it was very well directed by Tom Hooper. And then I did the Bond thing. And I loved it, because it was so – and this is not in a bad way – incidental. It’s like voiceover. I love the variety of what we do. That’s why you can never codify a person because you never know, they move in different directions. An example of that is Ed Norton, who is a bit of a pain in the ass. He’s obsessive. But also, he’s actually become a rather good director. I saw the Brooklyn film he did [2019’s Motherless Brooklyn], and I thought it was really well done. So, I had to eat my words, and then say, “You know, he’s done what he wanted to do.” You’ve got to hand it to him. Yeah, that’s why it’s hard to write anybody off. I mean, the only person I probably wrote off was Steven Seagal.
Cox is married to actor, producer and writer Nicole Ansari. He has four children: Alan and Margaret, from a previous marriage, and two sons with Ansari, Orson and Torin, who were born in the early noughties, when Cox was in his fifties.
What did you learn about being a father the second time around?
It’s always been hard for me. Children, when they’re small, need guidance, they need protection, looking after. But after a point there comes a time, I think, when they’re their own animals, and you have to take that into account. That was the only way I could work as a father. I wasn’t… I don’t think I’m a particularly good father because I’m not hands-on. I’ve never been. I don’t believe in that. I believe you’ve got to give more free scope to kids, to allow them to be who they are, as opposed to who you want them to be.
That sounds quite healthy, in an age where there’s so much talk about helicopter parenting.
Yeah, exactly. And I think you know that that has been a problem. And I think a lot of people have suffered greatly from the fact that they’ve been over-pressurised when young. I’m very blessed in that way, because I had nobody, I had to make it up myself. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but at the same time, I do think we try to overbear our children too much. Let them be children.
You’ve recently starred in a new Kith campaign, and have earned a reputation as something of a hypebeast. What prompted that?
That’s a recent thing. I was never really conscious of how I dressed until I worked with a stylist. I think it was to do with being nominated for all those awards. And this Indian guy called Venk Modur, who’s a genius, he came and got me some stuff that I would never have thought to wear. In a way, it’s a bit like creating a character. And then when I was asked to do the Kith campaign, I just said, “as long as it’s fun.” So, we had some fun with it.
What makes you feel optimistic?
I’m a born optimist. I look at my own life: I think I’ve done rather well. But I’ve also worked for it. I’m very blessed in that sense. At the same time, I have to acknowledge we are not serving ourselves. It’s all about money, at the end of the day. That’s what our strike is about, the whole AI thing, how the writers are being treated – it’s got to stop. We just have to keep pressing.
~ Story by Oliver Franklin-Wallis / Source: gq-magazine.co.uk