Brian Cox on playing Churchill

The Scottish actor tells the Haifa Film Festival about the great statesman, Brexit and the art of the job.

BRIAN COX and Miranda Richardson in a scene from ‘Churchill (photo credit: HAIFA FILM FESTIVAL)
BRIAN COX and Miranda Richardson in a scene from ‘Churchill
(photo credit: HAIFA FILM FESTIVAL)
‘He had a poetic sensibility, very Shakespearean,” says Brian Cox of the statesman he portrays in the new biopic, Churchill, in an interview at the 33rd Haifa International Film Festival, which runs through October 14 at the Haifa Cinematheque. “If they had lived at the same time, Shakespeare would have been writing plays about him,” Cox declares.
Churchill looks beyond the legend to focus on a troubled, careworn man who suffered great guilt over the lives lost under his command in Gallipoli during the First World War and who had serious reservations about the plans for the D-Day invasion in World War II.
Cox portrays a leader who summoned all his strength to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second World War, as he struggled against depression, the mental state he called “the black dog.” It’s a commanding and very moving performance, perhaps the greatest achievement in Cox’s long and distinguished career.
In his previous film to be released in Israel, The Carer, he gave another memorable lead performance as a Shakespearean actor battling illness with wit and cynicism, and he visited Haifa last year to promote it at the festival, too. But he wasn’t just playing a Shakespearean actor: He himself has had an acclaimed career in the theater, performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater, where he portrayed King Lear among many other roles.
You have probably seen Cox in more films than you realize, because he has appeared in an extraordinary variety of roles in more than 200 movies.
Among the Scottish-born actor’s best-known performances are Agamemnon in Troy; the sinister CIA baddie who truly threatens Jason Bourne in the Bourne Identity series; screenplay guru Robert McKee in Adaptation, who chastises writer Charlie Kaufman for not seeing the drama the world has to offer; the original screen Hannibal Lecter in the 1986 film Manhunter; Argyle Wallace in Braveheart; Stryker in the X-Men series; and so many other films.
Churchill features Cox at the top of his game, and that’s saying something. The actor was fascinated by this complex character, who was “haunted by the ghost of Gallipoli... he owned his mistakes, he owned everything he did.” Preparing for the role, Cox found himself surprised by “his depth... I thought he was more cut and thrust.”
The movie examines the intricacies of Churchill’s working relationships with his top advisers and US Gen.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as his partnership with his wife, Clemmie (Miranda Richardson), who, as the movie shows, was much more than just the woman behind the man.
In order to get into Churchill’s head, Cox drew on some aspects of his own past, including his mother’s struggle with mental illness.
“My mother had nervous illnesses. She had a massive nervous breakdown after my father died,” when Cox was a child. Although his mother did not receive an official diagnosis, as few did in those days, “It was part of my life, witnessing her fits of real despair... I was incredibly empathic to her, but there was nothing one could do... When you’ve lived with something like that, it doesn’t leave you.”
But in spite of all he went through, he said, “I’ve been very lucky” not to have inherited his mother’s tendency toward mental illness. He emphasizes that he was also lucky to have had a happy childhood before his father died and spoke with great affection about both his parents, recalling how his father, a grocer, was both “shy” and something of a “bon vivant,” and that both his parents encouraged him to act.
He grew up loving movies, and was inspired by films such as On the Waterfront and East of Eden, as well as comedies.
“I loved Danny Kaye, and Jerry Lewis, even.”
Cox is equally enthusiastic talking politics as well as the arts. He has been outspoken in his criticism of “this appalling Brexit.” Cox said Churchill was one of the first visionaries of a United Europe. “He believed in a United States of Europe... He was a product of the last century... A fractured Europe impinged on him, and I think he really saw the future as a united Europe.”
He sympathizes with the Scottish independence movement, but is just as concerned about the political situation in the US, where he has lived for decades. He can’t help comparing the brilliant and thoughtful Churchill, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, with “an idiot like Trump.”
As he voices his worries about the Trump presidency and the recent Las Vegas massacre, he doesn’t sound very different from any other liberal New Yorker, apart from his Scottish accent. Living and working in the US suits him, since it is so far from the British class system that he sometimes found oppressive.
“When I came to America in the late Nineties, I was already 50... A colleague said, ‘You’re great theatrical actor, how can you do that, how can you go to America?’” he recalls.
“But Michael Powell said, and I agree, that there are no big parts and small parts, there are just short parts and long parts... Movies in that way are a truly egalitarian art form, unlike theater. I love it.
I love the movies... The theater was something I came to rather than something that was immediately available...
I’m rather proud I’ve created characters like Hannibal Lecter, who was on screen for 15 minutes, or Robert McKee, who was on screen for about 15 minutes as well, but you remember these guys.”
Making every moment count is the essence of acting, says Cox: “You fill in the moments, you give it a life. And that’s the art of the job.”