Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lecter, has made a career of picking up small juicy parts. He just cannot stop. He has made 15 films in the last two years, according to the Internet Movie Database, and even managed to make two at once, popping back and forth between New York and Prague. He can currently be seen as the sinister spymaster in The Bourne Identity, and has two new releases scheduled for the same day next month.
Even when he has a break from filming, he is continually on the move. He began this week in France, at the Deauville Film Festival, where LIE was receiving a prize, we spoke as his car picked its way through London traffic, and he is now in Canada resuming duties as chief villain on X-Men 2, which is expected to be one of next summer’s biggest blockbusters.
"I can’t think I’ve done 15 films in the past two years," he says, incredulously. "It strikes me as a bit excessive." It would strike most as excessive, the sort of figure that makes Ewan McGregor look work-shy. "I have done a lot," Cox admits. And that does not even take into account his turn in the latest series of Frasier as Daphne Moon’s dad.
Cox was born in Dundee in 1946, the son of a weaver and a spinner, left school at 15, and by his early twenties was appearing in leading roles on the London stage. He was once described as "Scotland’s answer to Marlon Brando", perhaps as much for his bulk and presence as his acting. He brings instant authority to everything he does.
These qualities have ensured a constant stream of highly-paid supporting roles opposite Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Mel Gibson in Braveheart to Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. He brings gravitas to their movies. "Usually it’s quite a pithy scene," he says. "I’m like a commando, I parachute in, do my scenes and get out."
Cox has used the money from big-budget movies to cross-subsidise stage work and appearances in smaller, independent films, though he is beginning to think it might be time to cut back on the cameos. "I’m getting a little bit fed up of it now... I did a film called Sin recently. It’s a film with Gary Oldman and Ving Rhames. It was so quick I even forgot I was in it.
"I didn’t really start doing movies until I was nearly 50 and I just wanted to get the experience of it, and now I want to follow up a bit more."
The original Hannibal
His career might have taken off much earlier. He won glowing reviews as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter in 1986, but the film got caught up in its producer’s financial problems and never got the release it deserved.
Author Thomas Harris sent him the script for The Silence of the Lambs, but he was never offered the role, and it took Braveheart and Rob Roy to put him on the Hollywood radar a few years later, by which time Anthony Hopkins had gone on to win an Oscar and establish himself in public consciousness as Hannibal the Cannibal.
Manhunter has now been remade, with Hopkins, using the title of the original novel Red Dragon. It is one of the few films coming out on October 11 in which Cox does not appear. "Let them remake it," he says. "It really doesn’t bother me one way or the other."
Cox insists actors cannot afford to feel proprietorial about roles, pointing out that while Hopkins was making The Silence of the Lambs, he was playing King Lear, the same role Hopkins was playing when Cox was made Manhunter. "I enjoyed Silence of the Lambs... I didn’t see Hannibal, because I didn’t like the book of Hannibal.
"Probably long after I’m dead, they’ll still be reviving Hannibal Lecter. Probably long after Tony Hopkins is dead, or even before we’re dead, they’ll be bringing in a new generation of Hannibal Lecters. He’s probably the James Bond of the age."
In The Rookie, which comes out the same day, Dennis Quaid plays a school baseball coach, who still harbours dreams of playing in the major leagues, and Cox is his father. "He’s a Navy recruiter," says Cox. "His son is a baseball prodigy, but he never allows his son to practice his baseball... The relationship between father and son is a very tough one." It is based on a true story.
In real life, Cox is only eight years older than Quaid, and the casting is further evidence of that Cox gravitas. Playing Quaid’s old man certainly does not worry Cox. "When I did King Lear my daughter was 12 years older than me."
In Super Troopers, another American film, also out on 11 October, Cox plays a police chief, straight man to a troupe of comedians called Broken Lizard who have been together since student days. "It’s a kind of wacky script," says Cox. "It was something I had never done."
November sees the UK release of LIE, the independent drama he has been championing at festivals since it premiered at Sundance at the beginning of last year, trailing from one city to the next, when filming has allowed. "It fits in with my itinerant lifestyle," he says.
Cox had to go to Deauville twice, once for the screening and again when the film won a prize. He seems slightly miffed there was only one prize for acting and that it was apparently between him and actress Patricia Clarkson (The Safety of Objects) and the jury gave it to her.
The title LIE is an acronym for Long Island Expressway, but also a reference to the drama, in which Cox plays an ex-Marine, who is compulsively attracted to young, teenage boys. When a youth breaks into his house he determines to try to help him sort out his problems rather than turn him over to the police. "He’s homosexual, but he’s also fatherly," says Cox.
"I admired it because it had a certain risk factor, and it seemed to me a very interesting story, because it’s a story about redemptive love really. It just happens that the man is homosexual and a pederast."
Cox never researches his roles. "I don’t believe in research," he says. "I do it from knowledge... I think we’ve all had characters like that in our lives. Big John is very much a figure in the community, a sort of ambiguous character. His sexual nature is quite dubious. Certainly growing up in Scotland I remember characters like that, people who are characters within the community."
Losing at home
Cox has made three films in Scotland in recent years - Complicity, A Shot at Glory and Strictly Sinatra - and blames poor marketing for their lack of impact. "It’s not the fact that we can’t make the films, it’s the fact that we don’t know how to distribute them."
His experience has made him wary of British films. "I would love to do something in Scotland, but it has to be good and it has to be something that’s going to be treated with respect."
He still has ties with Scotland, including a sister in Dundee, but is unsure where to call home these days. "My wife and my son are in Venice, my work is in Vancouver, my homes that I’m not living in - one house is in Los Angeles and the other is in London."
X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer had long been a fan of Cox. He offered him the lead in Apt Pupil and was determined to get him to play Stryker, an ex-military man with a pathological hatred of mutants in general and X-Men in particular, though Cox had never seen the first film or read the comics.
But this is not your usual two-dimensional, comic-strip villain, he promises. The film delves deep into Stryker’s past, a dead wife, a mutant son and close links with Wolverine, the mightiest of X-Men. "He’s the one human, but he has more flaws than any of the mutants, which I thought was quite interesting... very classical." Audiences will have to wait until next year to see it, but in the meantime there is a string of other Brian Cox movies on the way. In some, Cox may have only a small role. But he has a tremendous knack of making those small parts seem very big indeed.