I don’t know that there’s any actor whose voice I love hearing more than that of Brian Cox. Even when he plays madmen like Hannibal Lector (spelled Lektor back then) in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” there’s something soothing about the Scottish actor’s voice. It’s the same for his characters–it’s seldom that he plays anyone out and out crazy or off-kilter without at least a dose of that easy sly, cool, charm (his best role might be as the sadistic announcer in the PS2 game “Manhunt”).
That charm is on display as criminal patriarch Harry Montebello in the Australian series “The Straits,” which recently concluded on Hulu. I spoke with Cox about playing the head of an Australian crime family as well as his work on the docudrama about the origins of “Doctor Who” on the BCC (and how misreading his contract accidentally got him a role on a recent season of the series).
When I spoke with Cox, it was during a break in filming for “An Adventure in Space and Time,” the Terry McDonough-directed feature written by “Sherlock” co-creator Mark Gatiss. That film, part of the BBC’s 50th anniversary celebration for “Doctor Who,” chronicles the creation of the series back in 1963. Cox plays Sydney Newman, who was the head of BBC Drama during the mid-60’s. Around that time, Cox was a student and didn’t get the bug for the series as many young people in the U.K. did at the time. But he has that tendency to describe each Doctor with the possessive, saying that his eldest son’s Doctor was Tom Baker.
It was his second experience with the world of “Doctor Who,” after a fateful misreading of his contract lead to Cox playing the voice of the telepathic Ood in “The End of Time.” “That was an accident,” he laughs. “I thought I was actually doing a commercial for ’Doctor Who,’ I didn’t realize I was appearing in it until I got to the studio.”
There was no room for fandom when he was younger–Cox tells me that early on, the only thing that interested him was acting. “I’ve been in the theater for over 50 years,” he says, confessing that his earliest conscious memory is of wanting to act. Over the years, he’s had the chance to play quite a few geek-friendly and out there roles, meaty characters who steal the scenes–from Weapon X director William Stryker in “X2” to his turn as a mad, deposed monarch in the short-lived NBC miniseries “Kings.”
But he likes to mix it up: “I’ve been doing this television comedy series for the BBC out in Scotland, something that’s called ’Bob’s Servant Independent.’ And the irony is that this guy, he comes from my hometown–in 50 years it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything in my hometown.” Looking back on his career, Cox says that the nice thing about it is how it’s allowed him to take these kinds of chances with off-the-beaten path parts so he’s not simply typecast as one type of character or another.
It works for Cox, who sees every role as a job, not some second identity that needs to be occupied. There’s a great “Esquire” piece from last year where the actor talked about his profession as the “job of pretending.” He got a chuckle out of Daniel Day-Lewis BAFTA acceptance speech where the actor joked that for the past 55 years, he’s been playing himself non-stop, poking fun at a reputation for living as his characters for the duration of his roles.
Cox doesn’t go in for that kind of habitation, but he says he wouldn’t decry anyone else’s process–he just doesn’t see it as being all that complex. “Children don’t have the problem with acting that grownups have–it is the act of pretending, children do it[…] You never see them research characters. They simply use their imaginations.” He says as actors, adults tend to forget the power of imagination, that they too often get tripped up by trying to find the psychology of a character–what happened to them as a child.
He’s deliberate in his choices in roles, saying that when he made the move to Hollywood in the mid-90’s (by then he was in his 50’s with a distinguished career in U.K. films), he wasn’t concerned about the size of the roles, but instead their shapes. If a role was clearly defined, he would be attracted to it regardless of the amount of time he had onscreen. He looks back at the words of filmmaker Michael Powell who said that “There are no big parts or small parts–only long parts and short parts.” Cox wants to make sure that whether his part is big or small in a movie, it’s clearly defined and makes an impact on the audience.
He was attracted to George Montebello of “The Straits” because of the character’s archetype, describing him as “a guy who’s always been on the run in this strange part of Northern Australia.” George meets a woman, falls in love, and starts a dynasty, of sorts, building a smuggling empire out in the wild.
Cox laments that he only got the 10 episodes to play George (the series’ Australian backers at ABC One decided not to pick it up for a second season at the end of last year). “To me, it kind of has an equal standing of ’The Sopranos’ or any of those things,” Cox says about the dynastic crime drama. “I thought it was very much of its own character,” he adds, saying that he was pleased with how the show represented the rich diversity of the continent, particular with the mixed ethnicity family George establishes out in the straits. For all of its crime trappings, Cox sees the show as a “parable of business,” an allegory for making money.
He has these parting words for anyone on the fence about seeing “The Straits,” offering “It shows all aspects of that life, and all of the characters involved. It’s very unique, it’s very unique to Australia. No other place can do it.”
You can view “The Straits” on Hulu Plus here.