July 06, 2000
PROFILE: Brian's Bad Self - Playing heavies isn't so bad when you know what you're doing. Case in point: Brian Cox as Goering in Nuremberg.
By Rob Kendt
Brian Cox is one of those performers you may think you don't know-a 50ish British character actor whose trans-Atlantic career in features and onstage has blossomed in the last few years but which hasn't broken through into the wider recognition afforded by a large, juicy role or two. There was his Hannibal Lecter in 1986's Manhunter, and more recently there were memorable roles in The Minus Man, Rushmore, The Boxer, Braveheart, and Rob Roy; in New York and briefly Los Angeles he appeared in Conor McPherson's one-man show St. Nicholas, and in Skylight at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.
His profile may change this month when TNT airs the historical drama Nuremberg (premiering July 16), in which Cox gives the central performance as unrepentant Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering. It's an Emmy-bait role if ever there was one, but Cox doesn't milk it in an obvious way; he gives Goering his due as a sharp, arrogant, stalwart militarist who feels, not without some justification, that he's the object of a compromised show trial. And, though defiantly unapologetic about his role in the Holocaust, of which Goering claimed he didn't know the full extent, Cox registers some impeccably well-judged moments of self-awareness, giving us the ambiguous pathos of a born soldier who has ended up on the most notorious losing side in history.
It is deeply troubling, this pathos, because what Cox gets at in Goering's few unguarded moments in his cell, singing an old German march to himself or unburdening himself to an admiring young American, is the field marshal's genuine sorrow at how things have turned out-his sense of the enormity not of the Nazis' crime but of their unequivocal damnation in the annals of history. He taps a universal feeling of loss in Goering-why did something so right (in his mind) have to end this way?-that gives us pause because it feels uneasily familiar. What crime or misdemeanor from our own unexamined lives might hang us if we were put on trial? And would we really feel as bad for the wrong we'd done as we felt for our own sorry fate and poisoned posterity?
These are the kind of uncomfortable human truths in which Cox revels as an actor, whether he's playing an outright monster, a craven opportunist, or simply a flawed but decent everyguy. In St. Nicholas, which he performed last year in a limited benefit run at the Matrix Theatre, he memorably brought to life a breathtakingly jaded, alcohol-soaked theatre critic so numb to human feeling it took a brush with even more unfeeling creatures-a den of ruthless vampires-to reawaken his sense of life.
While many English actors are cast as villains in American films because Americans love to see posh pretensions punctured-Alan Rickman vs. Bruce Willis being the classic prototype of effete snobbery vs. good ol' American know-how-Cox is cast as heavies and villains more because of his gangsterish look. He's a short, stocky fellow who moves with remarkable ease and dancer-like grace, even when playing stiffnecked men's men, and he's got impish eyes, an eloquent brow, and a telling face that suggests Albert Finney crossed with Brando. But he brings more than a sneer to the table.
"I play a lot of bad guys, and I used to get fed up with that," said Cox in a recent interview on a visit to Los Angeles. "Then when I played Goering, I thought, I should look at this as a privilege that I'm asked to play these parts, because I have an insight into what makes these people this way."
Specifically, in the case of Goering, Cox honed in on a specific form of compromise.
"Goering was tragically in denial," Cox said. "I don't think he was a bad man, but he was bad by default and by laziness. In many ways, that's the worst kind of badness. With people who are evil, at least you know where they're coming from. But people who are lazy and bad can be indefensible."
And, though he shaded Goering with some sympathetic flourishes, the field marshal has precious few moments of self-revelation. Characters with an impenetrable outer carapace, villains or not, are also a Cox specialty: One of his best filmed roles was as a closeted middle-aged homosexual in 1991's The Lost Language of Cranes; Cox captured the character's complicated torment heartwrenchingly, and his awkward coming out movingly.
"I always think that the clue to any great role is to find its secret," said Cox. "And sometimes you don't have to reveal that secret. Sometimes that secret goes on. My measure of a role is, it has to have a secret-something that the audience is not necessarily let into."
A LIFE APART
In person, Cox is open and chatty, to an almost disconcerting degree, given the often chilling quiet of his acting. Indeed, in talking about his work, Cox often resembles a painter, a novelist-a hands-on artist with an objectivity about his craft that's rare among actors.
"The characters I find more interesting are constantly falling short of their desires, and I think that's what real drama is about," Cox explained. "I don't necessarily think it's something that interests me about life; life is about working toward those desires, and realizing that morality is all a kind of invention. It's as much a fantasy as anything else; it can make for good, constructive, and sometimes pure lives, but equally, the opposite is true-that all these things you thought you believed in become burdens, and you can't free yourself because you're habitually locked into the habit of things that you're fighting. And if you don't let go, you'll never be free. You become your own worst enemy. Goering was his own nemesis. I think certain people are like this, and that's what's interesting about drama. But I'm not like that as a person."
Cox started acting at a young age, at the Dundee Rep, in the Scottish town of his birth, and later studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and worked steadily at the Royal Court, on the West End, and in British TV and film. He also married young and had two children to support. It was a settled, reasonable, middle-class actor's life-the kind which it has become increasingly hard to find, on either side of the Atlantic these days. And, as Cox explained, that may be just as well.
"I got married to create myself a family, because I've been unsettled since the age of nine," said Cox, referring to the year his father died of cancer, his mother had a nervous breakdown, and he was sent to live with relatives. "I had no sense of home until I got married when I was 21. And I lived that life for about 18 years and I lived it quite successfully, but I always had this thing-that I wasn't doing what I really wanted to be doing.
"And now I live the life I really want to live, where I can be here, talking with you [in Los Angeles], and in two weeks time I'm going to be on a film set in London. I'm a rogue and a vagabond. I'm the equivalent of a medieval player, except that my field is a much bigger one, thanks to Virgin Atlantic."
Until recently, Cox had a home in Los Angeles-a town with which he's come to terms.
"What I like about Los Angeles is it's very real," Cox said. "People don't see that. It's where the shit has finally gunged up in the asspan. It has to gunge up somewhere, and it gunges up here. You can't go any further. I find that very healthy. When you work in London or even in New York, you're constantly in a state of aspiration: It's going to get better. Here, there's no aspiration, except of the inward variety; it's all about money and success. And you realize, it's not going to get better, it is what it is-and there's something very reassuring about that; it's a great lesson to learn. You say, "OK, fine, now I can go do my work, because I'm not bogged down by a phony set of ideals, and I can do what I do within the confines of a harsh reality.'