Brian Cox has earned a reputation as an actor’s actor, which may be why he’s always working and in demand for both big studio movies and independents, and though Cox has appeared in memorable supporting roles in movies like the first two “Bourne” movies, X2: X-Men United and The Ring, his best work has always been when he’s played the lead in smaller movies like Mike Cuesta’s L.I.E., the movie that first got Cox attention over here in 2001.
His new movie Red is a return to that territory, based on Jack Ketchum’s novel about a widower whose dog is killed by unruly teens, sending him on an obsessive quest for justice. Directed by Lucky McKee (May) and Norwegian filmmaker Trygve Allister Diesenfor reasons explained below–the movie premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival along with the prison drama The Escapist, another independent movie starring Cox which opens later this year.
Cox is one of those British actors who can be riveting even if he were to read from the phone book as we learned when ComingSoon.net got on the phone with him. He’s also fairly outspoken as our questions would often lead to all sorts of fun tangents, talking about past work and other movies that have absolutely nothing to do with Red. But hey, Brian Cox can do no wrong in our book so whatever he wants to talk about is fine by us, and we even got him to talk a little about his reunion with his L.I.E director and co-star Paul Dano in two upcoming films.
ComingSoon.net: You had two very different and very interesting movies at Sundance this year, but how were you approached to do “Red”? Were you familiar with Jack Ketchum’s story or his work beforehand? Brian Cox: It was Lucky McKee who got ahold of me, he kind of came to me and said, “I’m doing this script and I’m very interested in you for playing the role.” He sent it to me and I read it, and at that time, it wasn’t financed, and I said, “Yeah, sure, come back to me when you have something more positive.” He came back, it was probably a year later, and he was launching it. He had done well as a student at UFC and he did a student film which was very successful, and then he did this other film, which was less successful because it was a studio film, and I think studio films can sometimes be very hard for young directors, especially if you don’t know the studio system. The script came and I thought it was the most beautiful script and I also liked Lucky, because he wanted to do it in a very pure and very classically simple way, very unadorned and just tell the tale. He had a vision of it. We started work on the movie and we were filming in the L.A. area, but we never had a proper producer. I don’t know what it is about producers, but on a movie, there’s always about six guys, but no one actually seems to do the work. (Chuckles) So we didn’t have a proper line producer and I think the budget was getting out of hand, and I think Lucky just had his head down, him and his DP Jerome, just trying to shoot the movie, and we shot at least, probably just under 70% of the movie, and finally, one Thursday I got a call from my manager saying, “You know, they’re going to shut the production down. The guy who is the financier who now owns the film, his father actually owns the film, and Brian was Lucky’s manager, and his father was financing the film, and he panicked and shut the production down, I think needlessly. I think he couldn’t sort it out, but he’d never produced a film before and he wasn’t really the producer, he was more of a broker. So anyway, I think there was a bit of acrimony and I think Lucky felt very betrayed and decided that he wouldn’t go on with it, I think stupidly. I think he should have finished it, because we did get it finished. People have a lot of pride and people say about compromise and all that.
Doing movies is so hard anyway, and my view is that you just take the road of least resistance. It’s not always compromise, it’s just the fact that you’ve got to find a way of doing things that are going to make it financially sensible. I’ve been around enough to know that if you shoot a movie for two million dollars, that’s the deal. You don’t say, “Oh, this was really a two and a half million dollar movie”, there’s no point to do that. You have to shoot it for the money you say you’re going to shoot it for.
CS: I guess you must get asked about the Lucky situation a lot, because you answered something I was going to ask you about later. You’ve done smaller movies like this, as well as bigger studio movies over the years, so do you prepare any differently as an actor to make a movie like this? Cox: The thing about the big budget movies is that you have your star and then you have your hardware, and occasionally, you may have a script (laughs) like the “Bourne” movies… when I saw “Michael Clayton,” I couldn’t believe it, I said, “This is the man who wrote ‘Bourne,’ this is a really good movie. What happened? Why did it never work? Why did always have all these writers?” I think that’s just the studio system. It’s not so much Tony Gilroy’s fault. It’s an egalitarian system. Anybody can write anything. “Oh, yeah, he can do that scene and she can do that scene, and we’ll have that person do this part.” I come from a much more feudal… where the auteur is the king, I think sometimes too much so, you know, the Woody Allen situation or the British Mike Leigh situation, where it’s the writer/director and in the Hollywood system, that is fairly frowned upon unlike you’re clever like Bryan Singer and you have your own posse of writers you employ and bring in. He is one of the ones who knows how to make that system work, but also, I go, “Fine, it’s okay, it’s good.” We waste a lot of time and a lot of money is wasted. On a smaller movie, you can’t afford to do that. You have to stick to the budget, and you have to do the movie, and somehow or other, the work is what is focused on. The whole thing about big movies is that so much of it is done in post-production and sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s less successful. What I loved about the smaller movie is the writing, the delicacy of the subject, the subtlety of the writing, the fact that it’s not in your face.
I mean, I went to see “Dark Knight” the other day, which I thought was a good movie, but it’s interesting because I looked at this movie and I thought, “It’s a good movie. Christopher Nolan is a good writer and he knows what he’s doing.” But in the end, when it got down to all this business about which boat is going to blown up, I thought, “This is just a load of crap. This is just the stupidest moral stuff coming into a movie that’s basically a cowboy movie.” I just kind of think, “Hang on, you give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” You really have to understand that you can’t suddenly cover your ass on a movie and say, “I’m really making this a really important movie.” Singer does it, but he does it in kind of allegorical way. The ‘X-Men’ movies, the best onesthe last one was just hopelessbut “X2” was the allegorical nature of it was what was so interesting and the comic book was used to a certain effect and sometimes it works, but most of the times, you’re just dealing with hardware. I want to see a cinema where these films, like “Red,” like “The Escapist,” get their position that they deserve, and that the cinema managers are not afraid, because audiences like these movies. They actually like sitting in the cinema, and it goes back to when I was a kid. I went to see “Bad Day at Black Rock.” I would sit there and it was a wonderful movie to sit down and watch. I think we’re missing something in the cinema. Ever since “Jaws,” we’ve gotten this opening weekend phenomena. We’ve really lost something about the art of cinema-going, about it is to go and see a movie, how it is to… like “The Last Picture Show,” what that sort of celebrated. Because people haven’t changed, people love the movies, and they would like to see them. People come up and say, “Why couldn’t I see your movie?” and you say, “Well because the distributors couldn’t wait to get it on DVD, because they weren’t interested in putting it in the cinemas. They wouldn’t fight for it to go into the cinemas or were they creatively constructive in a way to get it into the cinemas. It’s something that’s a pet peeve of mine now.
CS: As far as “Red,” you talk about audiences liking certain kinds of movies and revenge movies are ones that audiences have thrived upon for decades. This movie is more of a smaller character-driven one but were you familiar with the genre? Cox: Absolutely. That was the kind of movie I liked. I love those kind of things. I mean, “Bad Day at Black Rock,” the guy finding out what happened to the Japanese guy, it was one of the great movies. The other thing about those films is the performances, these vignette performances, Walter Brennan, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, those guys knew what they were doing. They were so smart and John Sturges’ use of them as a director is so smart, and that kind of element, it’s also about the visceral nature, about human beings, as opposed to human beings seen through comic books. I feel that the whole comic book thing, it kind of creates this distance, like E-mails. The best way not to communicate with anybody is to send them an E-mail.
CS: As far as your character Avery, whenever you play a character, you must try to justify what they do, so do you feel that what he ended up having to do was justified? Cox: The thing about Avery is he doesn’t want revenge. It’s very clear that he wants justice and he wants responsibility and the fact that it gets pushed too far, and then he becomes guilty for a different reason. He does acknowledge that and he acknowledges that he’s not too enamored of his actions and the fact that his own crisis was coming to a head, the things that he had not attended to in his life, his own sons and his wife, and the way he feels and the fact that he was in a passive state that whole time. I think that’s what’s interesting about the movie, and that’s the questions in the movie. It’s not “Death Wish.” It’s not Charlie Bronson saying, “I’m going to blow everybody away.” It’s a guy saying, “You killed my dog and I want somebody to own responsibility for that.” It’s interesting that by bringing truths home, that family cannot handle the truth and it can’t handle the truth of its own dysfunction.
CS: You got to work with a lot of younger actors and a lot of genre actors in the movie. What was that experience like, you having come from a very different background than many of them? Cox: Well, that was great. Also, those kids, so many of the young directors nowadays are raised on genre films. There’s very few directors who will go back to the films of Robert Rossen or the early films of Sidney Lumet or anything like that. Their points of reference is usually George Lucas and “Star Wars” or Steven Spielberg, and you go, “Okay, they’re talented guys.” Their scripts aren’t always that great and they’re incredibly sentimental and sometimes a little simplistic and there’s a whole other cinema out there, which was pretty amazing. So you work with these guys… the actors are different. The actors just want to act and they just want to do the work, and particularly the young ones, they’re very good.
CS: I noticed that you were working with Paul Dano and Michael Cuesta from “L.I.E” on two different movies, so can you talk about those? Is “Tell-Tale” very much a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s story? Cox: It began as a genre movie. It’s a son of man, that’d be Josh Lucas, he’s kind of driven by this thing that he has a heart transplant, he carries a heart of someone who has been basically murdered, and he’s carrying the heart and the heart seeks revenge. I play this cop who sort of helps him, and the other film, which is also about a heart transplant, which is ironic, the Dano film, is written by this brilliant director called Dagur Kári, who is an Icelandic guy, and that is sort of a half improvised film. That’s not fair, it’s a third improvised and the rest is very structured, but that’s a story of two guys, a man who is looking for an heir. I play this older man who runs this bar who is pretty miserable and he’s cut himself off from everything and he meets this kid, he meets him in the hospital, and he then finds him under the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge and he’s living there after trying to commit suicide. So he tries to reclaim this boy and says, “Look, I want you to take over my bar” and he indoctrinates him in the culture of the bar and these crazy regulars who live in the bar, and he behaves appallingly to the regulars, like a dictator in a way. It’s a brilliant film in a sense that it uses these set comic pieces to tell a much darker tale, and it’s wonderful being reunited with Paul, because I just think he’s an incredible kid, and I think one day he’s actually going to be a pretty amazing director, but he’s a fantastic actor and he’s learned so much. He went to Columbia, and he’s just very smart, and he’s so perfect in this role as this kind of idiot savant, savage kind of kid, and I play this old war horse whose very bad tempered. Since that was a Sundance Workship (film), hopefully that will be at Sundance next year.
CS: “Tell-Tale” goes back to Poe and genre, and I know you mentioned liking revenge flicks, so do you have an affinity for genre? It seems like you’ve gotten into that heavily in recent years. I talked to Bill Nighy and he’s gone in that direction, as well. Cox: Well, we tend to do them as British actors, because of our classical background, and they are the classic American films. The thing I love most is the comedies. The way I want to move is more into the comedy area, because I just think as I get older, I just want to laugh more. (chuckles)
Red is playing now in New York at the Cinema Village and opens in other theaters in the weeks that follow. Also check out our interview with screenwriter Stephen Susco here.