Brian%20Cox_phixr.jpgBrian Cox is widely admired for commanding performances in films like The Bourne Identity, Rushmore and the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. But like most actors from across the pond, the Scottish Cox originally built his reputation on decades of tireless stage work in theaters around the word. Until the stagehands’ strike shut down Broadway, he could be seen in the role of Max, a diehard British Marxist and Cambridge professor in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. The acclaimed British transfer is a hearty feast of ideas about the power of ideologies to overwhelm individuals, as seen through the lens of late 20th century Czechoslovakia, Stoppard’s birthplace. Classic rock hits by Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones serve as high-volume counterpoints between scenes spanning the decades from Czechoslovakia’s oppressive late sixties to The Rolling Stones triumphant appearance in Prague during the nascent presidency of Vaclav Havel. We spoke with Cox before the strike went into effect.

The character you play in Rock ‘n’ Roll is a diehard communist. Where do you fall on the political spectrum?
Well, I’m not a diehard communist. I’m a socialist, not a communist. I suppose I fall left of center in the political spectrum.

Max believes that altering the psyche has no effect on the social structure. Do you agree? Yes, because the social structure is based on economics. And the money class, or feudal upper class, is what creates barriers between people. And in that sense, I’m with Max.

Do you think though there’s something to be said for Gandhi’s idea about being the change you wish to see in the world?
I also believe that too, paradoxically. Yes. But Gandhi is someone who lived a very modest life according to his beliefs. His financial modesty was very apparent. And I think Gandhi is exemplary in that way; if there were more Mohatma Gandhis in this world we would be in better shape. Sadly, we don’t have such animals, which is a great shame.

I always feel that one of the problems with all kinds of political idealism is that it’s usually let down by the lack of evolution in the individuals. There is the argument that communism didn’t fail Russia, that Russia failed communism, the Soviet Union failed communism. And there is the argument that something went wrong right at the beginning. And that’s a valid argument, I think. It’s like fundamental Christians who take up the cudgel of things that Christ didn’t mean, but it suits their own rigid and stupid agenda.

I thought that scene where one of the characters argues that communism went wrong at the very beginning of the Soviet Union was one of play’s most striking parts; it’s that argument that causes your character, Max, to lash out and smash the dinner plate. It’s all a paradox, the argument they have. They’re both on the same side, these two men, and they’re caught up in these details about the Petrograd factory committee and it just unhinges everything. But regarding Czechoslovakia, there’s something a lot of people tend to forget, which is that in 1948 the Czechs actually democratically voted for communism. It didn’t come as the result of a coup; they embraced communism. So in one sense Czechoslovakia should have been the example of how a communist society might work, but sadly it was already tainted by a corrupt Stalinist system. Stalin did a lot of damage. Stalin damaged communism almost from 1917 onwards, particularly after the split between the Stalinists and the Trotskyites and the death of Lenin. Lenin held on for a long time but he had an inability to evolve power, which happens to all dogmatic regimes. We already saw a bit of the same thing with Cuba and Castro, when he was very ill and supposedly wasn’t going to make it. It has to be something organic that is able to shift and change, and that’s something that Tom [Stoppard] has a vision of. There’s that great speech in the play about how we weren’t good enough, we weren’t good enough as individuals to live up to these ideas.

There are a lot of great classic rock songs that serve as a counterpoint to the action. What music do you listen to? I’m sort of an unadulterated Beatles fan. I also love American romantic music. I love early rock, Chuck Berry stuff, and the Mamas and the Papas. I love that naked romantic period of the mid-sixties; I find that sort has a nostalgic and tearful effect on me. But Lennon/McCartney to me were the great social movers and shakers, much more so than the Stones. The Stones were very much recycled blues. But Lennon/McCartney took it to a whole different place in terms of songwriting. I love people who sing in their own voice; I love a Scotch group called The Proclaimers. I also love Brian Wilson, the rediscovered genius of The Beach Boys. 1968’s release of Pet Sounds is what broke him because Americans in their inimitable fashion didn’t get it right and didn’t see either what Sgt. Pepper’s was about, and poor Brian Wilson was trying to move on from songs about sun-kissed girls. Unfortunately his band didn’t help, so he snapped under the pressure of it.

Have you gotten turned on to any of the Pink Floyd because of the show?
It will always be difficult for me; there’s something so quintessentially middle class English about Pink Floyd for me. It’s tough for me because I’m a Scot and come from different roots, really. I can admire them but I always found The Wall stuff questionable to say the least.

Why is that? I know there’s a lot of irony in the song "Another Brick in the Wall", but at a time when we hadn’t achieved what we should have achieved in terms of the social equality that we desired in the sixties, that song came out, and I thought, “I’m not sure how appropriate that is.” It’s appropriate to a certain level of society but there’s a whole different level of society that does need education, you know? So the jury’s still out for me. I do like "Welcome to the Machine" and some other numbers I’m getting to appreciate more. And of course [Syd] Barrett was the lost poet, but it’s a bit like wondering how great James Dean was after just a few films. Was he a great actor? I think the jury’s still out on that one. Like they always used to say of William Wordsworth, who was a contemporary of Keats and Shelley, his great disadvantage was living until he was 80.

A cell phone went off during one of your scenes when I saw Rock ‘n’ Roll. Are you ever tempted to scream at the offending party? Well, the interesting thing about cell phones going off in Rock ‘n’ Roll is that you think it might just be a music cue that’s coming too early. There are more cell phones than music cues and it doesn’t seem to disturb it. It’s so weird because I did hear a few cell phones at some point but I remember thinking, “It’s a cell phone, but I’m not bothered!”

You told New York Magazine that you’ve seen some plays in town recently that you thought were good but more like great television drama and not the best use of theater. Have you seen anything in New York yet that you thought was a better use of theater? Well, I have but it was imported, it was Black Watch, which is to me a remarkable piece of work. You know, when I said that it was more in sympathy than criticism because young American writers have nowhere to practice, nowhere to put their work, and it’s not their fault that American theater has remained a little behind the times in certain areas. I saw a play at Playwrights Horizons, 100 Saints You Should Know, that explored themes of alienation and materialism in American and faith and how these religious TV programs are around to pick people up. And it was done in very conventional terms which we in England would do as excellent television drama. But here you don’t really have such a thing; here when writers retreat to television they do their work within the scope of television, which has a culture of itself, which is sometimes interesting and sometimes schlocky.

But it’s very interesting that most theater here is bound by 19th century psychology and Strasbergian notions of what should be theater that I don’t always agree with. And then you have a reviewer like McCarter who writes for New York Magazine, who wrote a review of Black Watch. And he couldn’t handle the movement, it was just too much for him because he’s not up there culturally to handle it. Because the movement is one of the most extraordinary things about Black Watch, the boldness of the movement and the actual choreography of theater was quite extraordinary. It had a totality of theater about it, which isn’t always what theater should be but it’s not explored nearly enough: How do you tell stories in theater that is different from the way stories in television are told?

We had this in the ‘50s when we had this kind of social explosion with Osborne when plays were suddenly stripped and the boulevard conventions were suddenly used in an entirely different way. And Stoppard is a very boulevard writer, his convention is boulevard, but he turns it on its head, that’s what’s interesting about him. He’s always been ahead of himself but that’s why it took him so long to get a play at The Royal Court, you know, because he wasn’t telling those stories about social depravation; he wasn’t interested in that, he was interested in ideas. So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was, in one sense, an extremely unfashionable play to write in 1966; it was almost a throwback to poetic dramas by Fry and T.S. Eliot and stuff. But it meant that he could establish his unique, European voice in perfect English; that’s Tom’s greatest advantage as a writer, it’s in his blood, that’s who he is, he’s always been the immigrant. Shaw does the same as an Irishman; he looks at English mores and is still one of the greatest – if not the greatest – political writers.

On the topic of film, when you were working with Wes Anderson on Rushmore, did you have any idea that he would become so successful?
Yeah. I thought Wes was very determined. He’s very crafty and clearly had a vision of himself as a filmmaker that he was going to pursue and he has continued to do so. It’s very interesting to see filmmakers who don’t get produced anymore like Woody Allen, who has to go to Europe. It’s difficult in the society because it’s so oriented toward the opening weekend, which of course is like an albatross now, I think.

Because of new media?
Yes, and also there’s a communal aspect to the marketing which is bogus, the idea that the people who matter most are going to the movie on one weekend. The idea is that all these people are going to the cinema on one weekend, but it’s actually exploiting the sense of community and basing film production on the lowest common denominator.

He’s worked with most of the same actors again and again, but not you. Why do you think that is? I don’t know, maybe I was difficult. [Laughs.] No idea. He’s never asked me. I think you’ll have to ask him. I suppose I did embarrass him once when I ran into Ben Stiller when he was filming Royal Tenenbaums. I was walking up Fifth Avenue and Ben Stiller was running out of an apartment to film and he was quite exhausted and I just ran up to him and said, “What is it, scale plus ten?” And he said, “How did you know?” [Laughs] That’s how Wes gets his films made without huge budgets [by paying stars SAG scale wages]. Maybe Wes didn’t like that? It was a joke!

What’s the most memorable fan interaction you’ve had?
Well, this was more of an audience interaction but it’s actually quite funny. Years and years ago I played King Lear in London, and at one point of the play I was in a very voluminous gown and I had to throw a steel crown into the wings. And one night I went to throw the crown and it caught on my gown. Instead of going into the wings it flew into the first row of the audience and hit a woman in the face. She turned to her boyfriend his shirt was suddenly stained red with her blood. I could see it perfectly but no one in the audience could see it. So she ran out of the theater to find help. There was no way I could stop the play, so once the scene was over I ran to the nurse’s station and found the woman. It turned out that she was okay, but there was a lot of blood, even though it was a superficial cut, because a lot of blood gushes out of the head. So after the play I managed to get them back to the dressing room and gave them drinks and we managed to get them a year’s pass to The National Theater. They could have sued us but they were delighted. I always think about it when I have to smash that plate in Rock ‘n’ Roll because America is the land of litigation.

Anyway, some fourteen years pass, and I think in 2004 I’m doing a play in Edinburgh and I get a letter from a man that reads “Dear Mr. Cox, I am coming to see you in Uncle Varick and I would very much like to come around after the show and say hello to you with my new wife. You will find I will not be sitting in the front row because I know how dangerous it is when you’re onstage. My former wife received a nasty cut from you once. So we will be sitting in the middle of the stalls where we will feel safer. And I hope to come and introduce my hopefully unadulterated wife to you after the show.” It was a very, very funny letter because he’d been through a whole life with that woman and then in his second marriage had to warn his new wife about going to see Brian Cox because I nearly did the first wife in!