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He's the guy that you hate to love
Brian Cox plays bruising, often evil figures with tender restraint.
By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times
IT'S Sunday evening at a pub in the borough of Camden, and an oblivious young man has just bumped into Brian Cox, jostling the actor's ginger beer and lightly splashing his cardigan sweater. If this minor collision had involved just about any of the characters Cox has assayed on-screen — gangsters, cops, paramilitaries, cranks, killers, heavies almost to a man — you can bet that the young offender would be in for a withering tongue-lashing at best, a plug through the heart at worst.
But off-screen Cox, short and squat and wearing a baseball cap and black-framed glasses, is mild-mannered to a fault, and the moment passes with a brief apology and a brush of the hand over the spill. That's why they call it acting.
It may be a question of nationality as much as body type. According to Michael Billington, theater critic for the Guardian, who's watched Cox on the London stage since the late 1960s: "He's very much a Scottish actor, which implies a kind of flinty toughness that has characterized everything he's done."
You may have to dig a little deeper to find the steel in Dr. Finch, the oddly hypnotic psychotherapist Cox plays in the new film "Running With Scissors," based on Augusten Burroughs' bestselling 2002 memoir about Burroughs' warped childhood under the fitful tutelage of an unstable poet mother (played by Annette Bening) and Finch, her guru-like therapist. Alongside stray flashes of the actor's trademark flintiness is plenty of baloney: With his abundant white beard and handlebar moustache, Cox's Finch evokes an unholy cross between Freud and Santa Claus — an elfin high priest who presides absent-mindedly over the chaotic, disheveled household where the young Burroughs (played by Joseph Cross) comes of age.
Indeed, you'd have to go back to the sneaky meta-film "Adaptation," in which Cox played real-life screenwriting swami Robert McKee with scene-stealing gruffness, to find a defter use of his stentorian, classics-steeped gravitas for droll comic effect.
"He has an ability to be absolutely insane and completely understated at the same time," said Ryan Murphy, who adapted Burroughs' memoir into a screenplay and made his feature-film directing debut with "Scissors." "In other hands, Dr. Finch could have been very over-the-top, but Brian plays it so straight. Despite the villainous, crazy things Finch does, you really can't hate the guy, although by the end you're trying. Making somebody so unsympathetic sympathetic is a great victory for an actor."
Forget bruising flintiness — this may be Cox's signature hat trick. Two of his best and largest on-screen performances to date were as Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering in the cable miniseries "Nuremberg," for which he won an Emmy in 2001, and as "Big John" Harrigan, the cheery, disturbingly likable pedophile of Michael Cuesta's independent film "L.I.E."
And there's the unavoidable Lecter factor: In 1986's "Manhunter" — the first adaptation of a Hannibal Lecter novel, Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" — Cox played the diabolically brilliant serial killer, years before Anthony Hopkins turned the role into an Oscar-winning franchise. Cox didn't make Lecter lovable, actually; his take on the iconic role was instead cool, sober, calmly virile — not at all the baroque psychopath Hopkins made him. That might partly explain why Cox hasn't had Hopkins' career. But entering Hollywood's orbit slowly and steadily has had its advantages.
"People that knew me well when I was younger always said that my career was going to take off when I was much older," said Cox, sitting in the cozy Camden house he shares with his wife, Nicole Ansari, also an actor, and sons Torren, 2, and Orson, 5. (Cox also has two children from a previous marriage, one a successful actor in his own right, Alan Cox.) "I was a little bit resentful of that, because I felt I had a bit to offer, and I had a very good career. But I aim for the long haul. It made more sense, and certainly has given me more weight as an actor, to come on the scene like a tank, proceeding forward fully equipped and fully armored."
The military analogy seems fitting. With a downward gash of a mouth, craggy cheekbones, furrowed brow and close-set blue eyes that can alternately twinkle or burn, Cox doesn't have to work very hard to suggest that his characters have lived a few lifetimes before the camera discovered them. And though he does work hard ("You have to give it a lot of thought, to a two-scene part," he said), his performances are marked by subtlety and economy, even — perhaps especially — when the characters are larger than life.
"It's a sense of knowing the value of what you do, and creating that bit of life in an instant," said Cox. "It's a sketch." His approach to accents is a good illustration: Though Cox's characters have spanned the U.S., Britain and Europe, he doesn't tend to sweat the finer points of regional dialects. He's learned that the merest inflection can do the trick, and that anyway the real work of the actor lies elsewhere.
"My thing is, I'll never be 'the guy from there,' wherever there is," Cox explained. "If you're trying to do 'the guy from there,' you're going to be meticulous in a way that nobody is meticulous in speech. In every accent you'll hear other accents. There's no one accent for a given region. So I do it sort of by osmosis — by smell as much as anything else. It's impressionist as opposed to realist." Summing up his impromptu acting lesson, he said, "I always feel you can do amazing things with really short bits of material."
The bits have grown juicier and more memorable, as Cox has reaped the rewards of a tireless apprenticeship in movie roles often intended for, or abandoned by, other actors. He's plied his trade high and low, from the sword-and-sandal epic "Troy" to the Steven Seagal action flick "The Glimmer Man," from the Spike Lee meditation "25th Hour" to the gross-out comedy "The Ringer." He's donned breeches for "Rob Roy," a baseball cap for "The Rookie" and gone through more changes of hairstyle than Christina Aguilera (as he put it, "I never thought I'd turn into Alec Guinness").
After the inarguable calling cards of "L.I.E." and "Nuremberg," though, Cox increasingly gets first dibs. He was Murphy's first choice for the role of Finch, and the director plans to cast him as President Nixon's Atty. Gen. John Mitchell in his next project, "Dirty Tricks," with Meryl Streep as his wife, whistle-blower Martha Mitchell. Tom Stoppard reportedly wrote the role of Max, an unrepentant Marxist professor, in his London stage hit "Rock 'n' Roll" with Cox in mind, and director David Fincher called him directly for the role of showboating lawyer Melvin Belli in next year's "Zodiac."
Cox was also handpicked for the part of Jack Langrishe, the flamboyant Irish impresario who alighted this season in the mud-and-blood-encrusted Old West of the Showtime series "Deadwood."
"David Milch is probably the most exciting man I've worked with in Hollywood," Cox raved about the show's prolix writer-creator, whose scripts are as dense with vividly profane verbiage as they are with ruthless, Jacobean machinations. "My speeches are so complicated, and they've got to be played with such lightness of touch; David has written me these tomes. It's one of the best roles I've ever had to play."
If his roles show few signs of softening — he'll next play a hired killer in an indie film called "The Keyman" — some colleagues think he's mellowed a bit. For one, he recently accepted a C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire), an honor just shy of knighthood, which he'd vowed never to do; he explains that he did it for Scotland and for his family.
An outsider in England
DIRECTOR Trevor Nunn, who worked with Cox for the first time this year on "Rock 'n' Roll," suggested that the reason they hadn't collaborated before was the actor's often outspoken criticism of England's institutional theaters and the "Oxbridge mafia, the David Hares and Richard Eyres," who dominate it. Nunn, who went to Cambridge and ran the National Theatre from 1996 to 2002, would clearly fall into that suspect group. But far from holding a grudge, Nunn thought Cox's often prickly candor made him a perfect fit for the unrelenting Max.
"Brian is very articulate and forthright, and doesn't at all see the role of the actor as being subservient or indeed somebody who should suffer fools gladly," Nunn said. Referring to a popular British hard candy known for its consistency, he added: "Like Brighton Rock, he goes all the way through, and therefore the really truthful things in him must come out." On the other hand, Nunn feels that Cox's young family has "given him a kind of second youth that is very apparent, not only when they're together but throughout his work."
Cox and Ansari recently bought a home in Sherman Oaks, and they're likely to be ensconced there by early next year, though a possible Broadway transfer of "Rock 'n' Roll" may complicate matters. Cox said he also feels drawn to his native Scotland, and he plans to work at the new National Theatre of Scotland. Walking back to his Camden house from the pub, he continued extemporizing about the acting craft: "You can never let the audience get ahead of you; you can never nest. I don't like acting where somebody takes time off to 'act.' "
But he could just as well have been describing the accumulating pace of his all-fronts-at-once career when he said, "My thrill with acting is the momentum — the relentlessness — of it."
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