Actor Brian Cox on joining the fraternity of Churchills

by Russell Baillie / 10 June, 2017

Brian Cox as Winston Churchill.

Brian Cox joins a long line of distinguished actors.

When veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox signed on to play the lead in Churchill, a film that delivers a psychological study of the statesman as D-Day approaches, he got a message from a predecessor. It was from John Lithgow, the American actor who had played the British Prime Minister in 2016 Netflix television series The Crown.

“Welcome to the fraternity of Churchills,” said Lithgow in his good-luck message to the next guy who would deliver those rumbling lines between puffs on a cigar.

It’s quite a club. Past members have included Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Timothy West, Bob Hoskins, Brendan Gleeson and Timothy Spall. As well as Lithgow in The Crown, last year was also when Michael Gambon starred as Churchill in British telemovie Churchill’s Secret about his final years in office.

And after Cox’s Churchill comes Gary Oldman’s in The Darkest Hour, a film written by New Zealander Anthony McCarten about the first weeks of World War II.

Cox isn’t sure why there’s so much Winston in the wind. After all, most of the productions were kicked off ahead of events like Brexit and the leadership change.

Cox had earlier wanted to do a film about Churchill’s relationship with Roosevelt and America’s entry into WWII after Pearl Harbor. But when he was offered a different Churchill script, by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann and directed by Australian film-maker Jonathan Teplitzky in his second WWII-related feature after The Railway Man, Cox signed on.

Cox last month. Photo/Alamy

It’s a part that is like Lear,” Cox tells the Listener in Auckland. “It has taken on that stature and it’s up to people to do their Churchill and do it the way they would do it.”

Cox should know. He once wrote a book about playing Shakespeare’s tragic king on a global tour by Britain’s National Theatre.

Rather than a mad king wandering the moors, Cox’s Churchill spends much of this time battling his demons on a barren beach. He’s racked with worry that the D-Day landings will prove as disastrous as Gallipoli, a campaign he oversaw as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I.

He’s portrayed as being at loggerheads with Allied commanders Eisenhower and Montgomery, to whom he proposes a different invasion plan at the 11th hour. It’s a portrait of a great man seemingly unravelling under the pressures of leadership, his ill health, depression and heavy drinking while having only his wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson) to confide in.

Just turned 71 and possessed of a commanding, burred baritone, Cox would seem a good fit to play Churchill aged 70. Yes, he had plenty of other screen Churchills to refer to as well as footage of the great man himself. But the influences on his performance extended to an unlikely character in the outlandish cartoon Family Guy, which he watches with his teenage boys at home in New York. Specifically, the acerbic talking-baby character of Stewie Griffin.

“He’s just like Churchill, he even looks like Churchill and he’s brilliant, cantankerous and exasperating and frustrated because nobody gets him – only Brian the Dog. And I just thought that is Winston Churchill.”

But there are different Churchills even within Cox’s portrayal: he’s as much vulnerable old man as inspiring statesman. “He is very much a constructed personality. He has constructed this rhetorical person. The only thing he hasn’t constructed is his depression – that is the real him.”

“He was a very theatrical person. He was a poet, he was painter, he was a politician, he was a soldier, he was a strategist, he had all of that in him.

“The great thing about him at the end of the day was his humanity, warts and all. He was flawed, but that kind of adds to his greatness.”

It’s a rare lead role for Cox, who has been often cast as the villain in the likes of the Bourne and X-Men movies. He was the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter on screen in Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptations of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon.

“I have actually played lead roles before in the cinema. It’s just that people don’t often see them because of the politics of the cinema, and I have been a victim of that. I am not complaining about it. It’s just the way life is.”

Churchill is in cinemas from June 15.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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