In The Good Heart, hitting theaters today, Brian Cox plays Jacques, a curmudgeonly bar owner with a bum ticker looking to pass his place onto Paul Dano’s character, a gentle street kid named Lucas. It’s the first time Cox and Dano have worked together since the intense 2001 drama L.I.E., in which Cox portrayed a conflicted pedophile named Big John. That same year, Cox also played the police chief in Super Troopers, which should tell you a lot about the ridiculously long and varied résumé of the 63-year-old Scotsman. Vulture got Cox on the phone last week to talk about reuniting with Dano, the death of the critic, and how crappy the writing in Avatar was.
Had you and Paul discussed doing another movie together after L.I.E.?
No, I hadn’t seen Paul for a number of years. It was the director’s idea; he knew Paul. I think he was an admirer of L.I.E., and I think that he very much put us together again. When I worked with [Paul], he was a teenager, so it was a great to get together after so many years. Because we had a knowledge of each other, we could use that, in a way.
Paul hasn’t done a lot of high-profile stuff since There Will Be Blood. What do you think of his career choices?
Paul is probably going to end up as a director as much as an actor. He’s very specific in wanting to do the work in a very particular kind of way. He’s a theater-brat boy; he’s not a Hollywood boy at all. He comes from a different sensibility altogether; he’s certainly not interested in the celebrity or the fame. It’s quite good, he’s very serious about what he does. It’s a very heady business: He can very easily go one way, but he’s far too smart for that.
The Good Heart premiered on Xbox Live before it hit theaters. What do you make of these new distribution models?
One can’t knock the distribution thing because it means that your film gets seen — you’re very grateful for that. But there’s nothing like an audience, a conglomerate of people having a communal experience. The nature of the beast [is] that’s happening less and less. Because of the way cinema is operated, as a market force … the whole blockbuster element, everything is so event oriented. It’s okay, but there’s something about that family feel: It’s like the difference between little-league baseball and major baseball. The artistic element, the artistic side of cinema, is very, very neglected. It was a given before and people didn’t bother about it in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. And with the great Jaws opening weekend, they said, “Uh-oh, we can do something different with it.” And we’ve been living in that model for 30 years, and I think we need to move into a new model, and how we do that is we set up cinemas to make them more audience friendly, rather than fast-food cinema joints.
Is that why you still do theater, for the communal aspect?
The theater world has its own problems. Because it’s too expensive, it’s creating a certain kind of audience. In England it’s a little bit better. I mean, I like the cinema. I’m a populist — I go back to the cinemas of the fifties and the sixties when it was thrill for me. I still get the buzz. I like the premieres because they’re all about people seeing the movie. It’s not, “Oh, let’s go see Clash of the Titans, ten past five showing, let’s go have a popcorn.” That’s a little bit like fast food.
What else would you change about the industry?
What’s missing is the critical art. They’ve become so low grade. They have these horrible star systems that they have to give, all these little markers: Guy’s sitting on a chair, he’s falling asleep, and he’s standing up — those little markers they do. It’s such nonsense. If you want to talk about a piece of work, you want to talk about it intelligently. There’s a real lack of good criticism around. There are people out there — Anthony Lane, Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott — that I think are very, very good cinema guys. But it’s tough for them.
Where do you place the blame for that?
It’s like anything. We live in a something-for-nothing society, and the big killer is the computer … we’re seeing it now: I’m stuck in Serbia, with this volcanic business, and it’s very interesting, this whole volcanic thing, because people can’t do what they take for granted. We take so much for granted. Why can’t I be in London tomorrow? I can’t be. I expect to be in London when I want to be in London. Go to the airport, get on the plane, what have you … and we don’t say, “Hang on, look at it from a more nuanced point of view.” And I think it’s certainly true of the Internet. Everything is becoming devalued in a way. And it doesn’t help the industry, because it means we can spend that amount of money on that because it’ll make a certain amount of money back. But it doesn’t mean that it’s any good.
Did you see Avatar?
What’d you think?
I thought it served a function, but again, I felt that it was a little simplistic. I thought the blue people were actually interesting. The human characters were very simplistic in their wants and needs, and so it was sort of a “wham-bam, thank you, ma’am” movie. There was no delicacy about it. Of course people fell in love with the whole physical imaging of it, and how fantastic it was. And it was. You cannot deny its technical achievements. But story and performance also count for a lot. And it wasn’t exactly one of the greatest-written scripts ever. It was linear. It was alpha followed by beta — it just went through the alphabet. There was no original sensibility at work.
Back to your movie — did you do any kind of research for it?
There’s not a lot of these bars left, and I kind of know them already. It’s like the time that land forgot. It’s like when kids play house. It’s a rainy day and you invited everyone back, and the world outside was the enemy and your object as a group was to get through that afternoon. And that’s what those bars represent. They can go and be in the nothing zone, not have any opinions, and just drink.
You’ve been cast as a bad guy many, many times, including The Good Heart. Do you understand where people see that in you?
I think they cast me as a riffle-making character, a character that makes riffles. And I think that’s my intrinsic nature. And whether it’s from a villainous end … I suppose I play people that are against the grain of life, and I suppose those are characters I’m in touch with. I’ve been slightly opened up, I don’t play as many nasty people as I used to. But I had a real problem with that. Then I sat down and I had a talking to, and I said, “Someone needs to play these nasty people. They’re very important.”