The great Brian Cox talks playing the great Winston Churchill
Many iconic actors have found their inspiration for many famous characters in many unlikely places. For Scarface’s Tony Montana, for instance, Al Pacino channeled a curious mix of the Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán and, well, Meryl Streep. The former because he had “a certain lion in him” and the latter for her portrayal of an immigrant “from another country and another world” in Sophie’s Choice. Michael Fassbender based his role as the psycho-android David in Prometheus on Olympic diver Greg Louganis’ stiff, measured steps when on the high board. And Andy Serkis finally nailed the voice of Gollum for The Lord of the Rings when his cat walked into his living room and started hacking up a hairball. “I’d always thought Gollum’s words should be generated involuntarily,” remembers Serkis. “But I hadn’t really figured out what that meant until the cat wandered in and started coughing its guts up.”
As for the legendary stage and screen actor Brian Cox, when he was preparing to tackle the role of the legendary British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, his inspiration came to him in a flash. “There was real-life footage for me to draw on, obviously, as well as, say, Albert Finney’s version of him,” says Cox. “But there are also definite traces of Stewie Griffin, from Family Guy. I mean, there’s a slight physical similarity, but it was also his sheer precociousness.”
Cox is no stranger to playing famous leaders – “I played Stalin a few years back,” he observes, “but my prosthetic nose kept falling off” – but, even by his standards (he’s also been Hitler, Trotsky and Goering), to get to play Churchill presented a unique opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
The subsequent movie, Churchill, is a moving, fascinating and intimate look that’s far more interested in the man than in the icon, set in backrooms rather than on the beaches that define his career to this day. “The problem with Churchill,” says Cox, “is that you always fall into this trap of ‘the Churchillian voice’. But what I discovered was that that voice was very much part of his oratory style – something he created. So there is a bit where I do my ‘Churchill’, but for most of the film I really don’t talk like that because he was very quick and much more mercurial in his language.”
As a result, Cox’s performance is at once familiar and alien, as the PM focuses himself on the run-up to D-Day in the summer of 1944. Dedicated to uncovering the truth behind the image, it ignores the brilliant bombast of Churchill’s famous speeches and looks instead at a man haunted by his own history. “Churchill was a man who made mistakes, but always admitted them,” says Cox of how he was obsessed with not repeating the disaster of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, when thousands of young men were killed and wounded. “The vision of the beaches in this movie is the vision of the destruction in Gallipoli.”
For the movie, which shot in Cox’s native Scotland (though he now lives mainly in New York), the actor put on ten kilos, shaved his head and osmosed the key Churchill characteristics. “There were elements to the man that were really quite childlike. That famous jutting bottom lip was very much like a kid pouting,” he says. “The cigar that was constantly in his mouth was, I think, like a thumb for him to suck on.” The result is a truly unique take in a crowded market, with Gary Oldman soon to play Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and John Lithgow having recently done a turn in The Crown. (“I didn’t compare notes with Gary,” says Cox, “but I did get a lovely note from John, congratulating me on my performance.”)
And as for what the big man would make of today’s political landscape, Cox is in no doubt. “Churchill would have been horrified. Horrified,” he says. “Modern politicians don’t have his determination, his rigour. All these little Englanders like [Nigel] Farage. Churchill would have hated Farage. Brexit would have horrified him. He was always a massive Francophile. He wasn’t like the bunch of chancers we’ve got now, who are not a patch on him. Boris Johnson can bleat all he likes, but he ain’t no Winston Churchill.” Churchill is in cinemas from Thursday June 8.
Brian Cox’s memories of…
Australia Top tourist tips “Even Australians don’t know how beautiful their country is. Particularly where we shot The Straits. My scenes were done on an aboriginal settlement on the south shore, opposite Cairns. I believe it’s where the last person was eaten by a crocodile in Australia.”
Embarrassment The meal-time faux pas “At dinner we were talking about the casting of a role. A well-known name came up. I started being rather disparaging about this man’s ability, and then became aware of a cool shift in the atmosphere. My friend said, with panache: ‘Brian, I don’t believe you’ve met Valerie. Valerie is the fiancée of.…’”
Hannibal Lecter Food for thought “I was first past the post [in Manhunter] and I’m very proud of that. I think the problem came when [Thomas] Harris started to fall in love with the character. He was someone you didn’t want to be anywhere near, but became someone you wanted to spend time with.”