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Brian Cox Calls Out American Theater: ‘Great Television Drama’

Brian Cox in Rock ’n’ Roll.Courtesy of Rock ’n’ Roll

When you spend an hour chatting with the extremely voluble — and opinionated — Brian Cox at Café Reggio, you’re likely to hear some pretty interesting stuff. In this week’s issue of New York, Boris Kachka interviews Cox, currently starring on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll. But there’s a lot more we couldn’t include in the magazine, like Cox’s thoughts on Ian McKellan’s nude scene, actors who claim the theater is sacred, and the state of American playwrighting. (Hint: He’s not impressed.)

What do you think about Ian McKellan getting naked in King Lear?
That doesn’t surprise me. Ian Holm was nude as well, and this has become a fashionable thing. Whatever gets you through the day.

You did Lear years ago. Do you think it’s the ultimate accomplishment?
It’s a great achievement for an actor from a certain background, but I really do think that’s all crap. It’s one of those things that we’ve suckered up to for so long. Some notion of “Then I did my Lear.” I’ve done that and it’s fine, but you go on. It’s great writing, great plays. I’ve seen good Lears, but I’ve had better times in the theater than watching a production of King Lear, I’ll tell you that much. I personally like Titus Andronicus — that’s my choice. I did it, and I had a great time.

Spoken like a chronic player of villains.
Yeah, but Titus is a much more complicated man.

Is that why you like playing bad men? They’re more complicated?
There was a time when I got fed up with playing a certain kind of role, and then I realized that, actually, you’ve got to be able to really examine the flawed nature of the human condition. I mean the heroic nature of the human condition is wonderful and I’ve done a few of those in my time. But the flawed nature of the John Harrigans [the pederast in L.I.E.] and the Herman Goerings — I mean we meet those people in the street every day and we don’t know what their lives are.

And what’s it like to do a Stoppard play?
It’s tricky stuff, because he doesn’t support you in the way that other writers support you. That sounds like a criticism, which I don’t mean. I mean that there’s a very clear musicality to his writing. And in a way it’s so specifically Stoppardian, that if you go off it, it doesn’t work. It’s ultimately about putting into the pot of the play, not about taking it out.

What do you think of movie actors who come to Broadway proclaiming that theater’s always been their secret passion?
Totally pretentious. I have a lot of problems with theater — especially in England, because the culture is very feudal. When I was a child, cinema meant so much to me. The actors who really moved me would be Spencer Tracy or James Dean or Marlon Brando or Bogart.

Is there anything you’ve brought back to theater from your time in the movies?
The great thing about film is that it has a disposable element. You do it and it’s done. That’s a great thing to bring back to the theater, because sometimes it can get a bit precious. Just play it through, get rid of it. Don’t play the grace notes, don’t worry about them.

Have you seen any theater while you’ve been in New York?
I always find the American theater is slightly locked in the nineteenth century. Everything is psychologically based. And I’ve seen some really good stuff recently, but I’ve seen some plays that in England would have been called television drama.

Anything in particular?
Well, I saw a play at the Atlantic [Scarcity, by Lucy Thurber], and I saw a play, 100 Saints You Should Know [by Kate Fodor, at Playwrights Horizons], which were really good pieces but I thought they were like great television drama. What was interesting to me was that there is no outlet for writers like that, so naturally they’re going to be done in small theater. TV and cinema don’t allow that, there’s nowhere you can do those debates. I’m not saying it doesn’t work as theater. It’s just not the best use of theater.
—Boris Kachka

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Brian Cox Calls Out American Theater: ‘Great Television Drama’