Sunday, 23 December 2012

Brian Cox on 'The Straits' and villains, and 'Bob Servant' preview

Q&A: Brian Cox on The Straits and Villains 
By Eric Spitznagel 

Brian Cox in The Straits. "With most characters, no matter how vile they are, it's just about remembering that they're human beings, ultimately. Hitler was a human being."

Name a contemptible human being, and Brian Cox has probably played him in a movie. Socialist dictator? Check. Nazi military leader? Check. Pedophile? Check. Charming cannibal? Check. From his pre-Anthony Hopkins take on Hannibal Lector in the 1986 cult classic Manhunter to his love-to-hate-'em super-villains in films like X2, Troy, and The Bourne Supremacy, Cox has cornered the market on bad guys with furry furrowed brows and booming Shakespearian baritones.
Cox proves his villainous expertise yet again in the ABC1 series The Straits, now in its second season (available exclusively on Hulu and Hulu Plus, with new episodes every Saturday), on which he plays the head of a drug-smuggling family in Australia. I called Cox to talk about his latest goateed baddie, and we ended up discussing carnivorous crocodiles, cinematic facial hair, why children are smarter than method actors, and how even the monster who went on a murderous rampage in a Connecticut elementary school is still a human being.
ERIC SPITZNAGEL: The Straits was shot in Queensland, Australia. Isn't that part of the country lousy with man-eating crocs?
BRIAN COX: Oh, yes, they're everywhere. Queensland has the most incredible beaches, but you can't swim in them because of the crocodiles. You can swim in the water holes.
ES: Water holes?
BC: There are these water holes up on the hillsides. Unless it's been a particularly bad monsoon season, the crocodiles don't get up there. I remember on the first day of our read-through [for The Straits], we were sitting in the production office, which is next to a little stream, and I looked out a window and there was a baby crocodile. It was like twenty-five feet away from where we were.
ES: At least it was just a baby.
BC: Yeah, but they're bold. They've been known to walk down the main street of Cairns [a city in Queensland]. And when they get big, they get really big. Unlike New Zealand, which has nothing especially predatory, Australia is full of spiders and crocodiles and all kinds of animals that will eat you and sting you.
ES: Yikes.
BC: Oh, and the most incredible collection of snakes. The brown snake in particular is quite deadly.
ES: You've convinced me to never, ever visit Australia.
BC: Oh, no, no. It is actually a beautiful country. Even the Australians don't know how beautiful their own country is. Particularly where we were shooting The Straits. Most of my stuff was done on an aboriginal settlement on the south shore, opposite Cairns, which I believe was the site where the last person was eaten in Australia.
ES: By a crocodile?
BC: By a cannibal. He was eaten by a warrior foe, I believe.
ES: That's kind of poetic. Your breakout role was Hannibal Lector, and, now, here you are twenty-five years later, making a TV show in the land of the cannibals.
BC: Huh. [Laughs.] I never thought of that, actually.
ES: Your career has come full-circle.
BC: I guess it has.
ES: You're playing a villain in The Straits, which really isn't new terrain for you.
BC: Not at all.
ES: The majority of your career has been playing bad people. Are they bad to you? Or do you have to sympathize with a character to really get inside their skin?
BC: You empathize rather than sympathize. Like the guy in this show, Harry. He's a gangster, and they have these kinds of curiously spurious moral codes. For instance, he won't touch child prostitution, but he has no problem dealing in drugs and stuff like that.
ES: Have you ever had to play somebody where you thought, "This guy's an asshole. I can't identify with him at all."
BC: There are characters that have made me uncomfortable. I did a film called Rob Roy, and I played Killearn, who was this sort of greasy fallen-angel character who was voyeuristic and sleazy and really unpleasant. It was a great role, but I didn't especially enjoy living with this awful man for the length of time it took to make the movie.
ES: If I had a thousand guesses, I never would have guessed Killearn.
BC: Really?
ES: I would've said Hermann Göring. Or Stalin. Or Hannibal Lecter.
BC: Lector is just psychotic. He didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth like Killearn. With most characters, no matter how vile they are, it's just about remembering that they're human beings, ultimately. Hitler was a human being. Stalin was a human being. We have this terrible tragedy that just happened in Connecticut.
ES: The school shooting.
BC: The boy who did those horrible things, walked into that school with all those guns — he was clearly an outsider and clearly had personality disorders of a very deep kind. But he was still a human being. He was alienated and sad and very damaged, which is a uniquely human condition. That's what's interesting about these roles, playing somebody who seems so one-dimensionally evil. How does somebody get to that point?
ES: I've heard that you don't subscribe to method acting.
BC: No. I find that all nonsense.
ES: So you were never like, "To truly understand how Hannibal Lecter ticks, I have to taste human flesh"?

BC: Goodness no. There are actors who do that. I don't know if they'd go as far as tasting human flesh, but they might walk up to that line. For me, it's just acting. It's pretending. The best actors are children, and children don't do research. You never see a child going, "I'm wondering about my motivation here. How can I do this toy? How can I do this train? I don't feel train." I did a video — you can look this up on YouTube — called "Brian Cox Masterclass with Theo" [above].
ES: I've seen it.
BC: Where I teach the Hamlet soliloquy to a two-and-a-half-year-old?
ES: It's freaking brilliant. I would pay Broadway prices to see that Theo kid do Hamlet.
BC: I would, too. That's the lesson there, I think. You can give children the germ of an idea, and they'll run with it. They'll take it. Their imaginations are untrammeled. I trust the child in me. I'll always go back to that. All these dark people I've played, if I think about them too much, if I try to identify with them, they'd carry me away in a straightjacket and load me into a funny-farm van.
ES: What's the most ridiculous thing you've done to prepare for a role?
BC: I try not to do anything unless a director asks me. And most of what they ask me is ridiculous. I once had a director send me a questionnaire about my character. I just replied, "Too old, too tired, and too talented." If we're going to sit down and answer these questions, then you don't know what you're doing, and I think by this time I should have a good idea what I'm doing. Do you think I just fell off the turnip truck?
ES: Have you seen the Hitchcock biopic with Anthony Hopkins?
BC: Not yet, no.
ES: Some critics have claimed the prosthetics look too obviously fake. Do you think Hopkins made the right choice, rather than gain a lot of weight, which is the usual method-acting way?
BC: From a health perspective, yes, it's certainly better to use prosthetics than gain the weight. I've just been working with Tony — we did the sequel to Red. I think Tony is a magnificent actor, but I don't think he looks very much like Alfred Hitchcock.
ES: Even with the prosthetic jowls?
BC: Hitchcock was round in the face. I've only seen pictures of Tony as Hitchcock — I haven't seen the film, so I don't want to judge him. It's a fantastic makeup job, but he looks... rather square. Physically, he's square. You know what I mean? Hitchcock had this rather round, baby look about him.
ES: The best movie magic can't change an actor's facial structure?
BC: It can't, no. But this happens. I'm old enough to remember King George VI. When I saw The King's Speech, I had to suspend my disbelief. I thought it was a very good performance by Colin Firth, but he didn't look anything like George the VI. George was very skinny, with a nervous disposition, and kind of etiolated-looking. It's very hard to recreate that.
ES: That may be a tall order even for CGI.
BC: I do have a fondness for the prosthetic element of this profession. I once did a role and told the director, "Just tell me what to do." I wasn't interested in the script. I didn't have a lot of lines and didn't want to argue with him about character. I was like, "I'll do whatever you tell me. The only thing I want to be in charge of is how the character looks." I wanted to look like a cross between John Carpenter and Jerry Garcia.
ES: And that felt like enough creative involvement for you?
BC: It's very liberating as an actor to sacrifice control. The director says, "Come through here, look at that, turn on that, go there, look under the bed, take out a gun, load it." And you just go through that series of actions. And by doing that, you're letting the character take over. You're not overthinking it. You're not going over the script and making notes and creating backstory.
ES: Your only responsibility is to grow a really awesome Jerry Garcia beard.
BC: Exactly, yes.
ES: It's funny you mention that. Whenever I look at your films, I always notice the facial hair. There have been a few goatees, a few mustaches, a few full-on beards. Does the facial hair help you define what a character is?
BC: It does to a certain extent. The beard makes a great statement, especially as I've gotten older. I've got a beard at the moment, and I'm actually toying with the idea of shaving it off. Part of the reason I've kept it for so long is I'm lazy and I don't like to shave.
ES: That really is the raison d'être of any great beard.
BC: I like to play with color as well. If I kept my natural hair color, it would be incredibly white. But I find that white onscreen is kind of dead and translucent. You want something that has life to it. And that's why I've sometimes gone dark or gray with my beards. People think I dye my hair because I want to look younger. It's not about that at all.
ES: You were part of a golden age of British theater during the '70s and '80s. You've done Shakespearian plays with legends like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
BC: Those were wonderful times. I was very lucky.
ES: Everything I've heard about that era — it seems like everyone was drunk all the time and there were constant onstage shenanigans.
BC: We had some laughs. I remember one time — probably my favorite memory — Gielgud was playing Caesar in a production of Julius Caesar, and we had one of these mobile sets, where they could change scenery and different set pieces would come on and off the stage. So one night it didn't come on as planned, for the scene when Caesar is murdered. Gielgud felt that since we were all inexperienced — and we were, relatively, although I think I was thirty at the time — he was worried that we wouldn't find him to kill him. He was like, "These poor boys, they won't know where to go because the set isn't right. I better help them." So he sort of obliged by almost committing harakiri on our daggers.
ES: He threw himself on your blades?
BC: He did. They were stage daggers, but they were still sharp. It's a miracle he wasn't impaled.
ES: Do you miss doing live theater?
BC: I do, I do. All the time. I still try to make time to do it, occasionally. It's very close to my heart. I can still remember the first day I entered the theater as a kid, literally walked into a theater for the first time, to get a job. I was a working-class kid from Dundee, Scotland, very unaccustomed to the ways of actors. I walked into the theater, and there was a fight going on.
ES: A staged fight?
BC: No, an actual fight. With fists being thrown. It was Nicol Williamson, and he was punching the hell out of the stage manager. They were both drunk. This was ten o'clock in the morning, and they'd been there all night. I'm fifteen years old, and I walk in and there's these two grown adults fighting on the stairs.
ES: Did you try to stop them?
BC: No, no. Another actor pulled me aside. He was the first actor I ever spoke to, and he said to me, "It's alright, darling. A night on the tiles. You'll want to go this way." That was my initial impression of the theater: Two people beating the hell out of one another, and a man calling me darling. So I thought, "I'm home! This is the life for me, obviously."
Source: Esquire


Bob Servant Independent, a new comedy for BBC Four
L-R Jonathan Watson, Brian Cox, Rufus Jones and Pollyanna McIntosh (credit: BBC/Euan Myles)

BBC Four’s new comedy series, Bob Servant Independent, follows the trials and tribulations of Bob Servant (Brian Cox) as he endeavours to sell himself, relentlessly, to the good people of Broughty Ferry.
The series stars Brian Cox with Jonathan Watson, Pollyanna McIntosh, and Rufus Jones and will transmit on BBC Four from early January.
The Scottish town of Broughty Ferry doesn’t know what’s hit it. The sudden death of the sitting MP has resulted in a by-election that could change the political map of the UK. Bob Servant (Brian Cox) has been waiting his whole life for this level of attention and he’s willing to do anything to keep it.
Bob sells himself as a man of the people but doesn’t really like people. He also has absolutely no understanding of the political process and uses the by-election campaign as a heaven sent opportunity for self-promotion.
His campaign manager is Frank (Jonathan Watson), Bob’s long-suffering best friend and neighbour, and their love-hate relationship is a central aspect of Bob Servant Independent.
Brian Cox said: “As a Dundee man I am very excited to be in this comedy set in Broughty Ferry. With the comic writing skills of fellow Dundonian, Neil Forsyth, and the audacious spirit of Bob Servant it captures the very essence of the unique East Coast humour.”
As the series progresses, Bob has an increasingly fractious relationship with the favourite to win the seat, a slick professional politician called Nick Edwards (Rufus Jones). Bob also struggles to deal with Edwards’ campaign manager (and wife), Philippa Edwards (Pollyanna McIntosh), a smart, no-nonsense woman, always two steps ahead of Frank.
The two campaigns jar markedly while the series builds to the natural climax of election night.
Writer and creator of Bob Servant Independent, Neil Forsyth, added: “It’s hugely exciting that Bob is making it onto the telly, and that Brian is once again involved and leading a brilliant cast. He’s been a supporter of the Bob Servant cause for a long time. To be honest, Bob would probably be disappointed that he’s been overlooked to play himself, but even he would reluctantly accept Brian taking up the challenge."
Bob Servant Independent is written by Neil Forsyth and produced by Owen Bell.
It was commissioned by BBC Four and Cheryl Taylor, former Controller, Comedy Commissioning, and Mark Freeland (BBC Four) and Ewan Angus (BBC Scotland) are the co-executive producers.

Character profiles

Bob Servant (played by Brian Cox)
Businessman, raconteur, optimist and a man of endless ambition, Bob Servant is a hero for our troubled times. Born and bred in Broughty Ferry, Servant sees it as his natural fiefdom. This belief stems largely from Servant's dominant position in Broughty Ferry's notorious ‘Cheeseburger Wars’ - a period of riotous appreciation for the snack that caused madness on the streets and lined Servant's pockets. Now retired and living in his stylish riverside house, with its much-admired (by him) extension, Servant is looking for a new cause. When it’s announced that Broughty Ferry is to have a by-election, one man is ready and willing to step back into the limelight. Bob Servant, Independent.
Frank (played by Jonathan Watson)
Bob Servant’s great loyalist is Frank, the ultimate right hand man who has spent decades under Bob’s close tutelage. Frank was Director of Sauces on the cheeseburger vans and now has a similarly impressive title – Campaign Manager for Bob Servant Independent. It’s a job he takes very, very seriously. Nothing would make Frank happier than helping his best friend and mentor win the by-election.
Bob’s View on Frank – “The Dean to my Torvill.”
Nick Edwards (played by Rufus Jones)
A Westminster protégé, Nick Edwards is a career politician who descends on Broughty Ferry to wow the locals and pick up what he sees as a safe seat. He heads up an impressive operation. Slick, well-funded, highly organised, the Edwards campaign is everything that Bob and Frank are not. Nick has come here to win a by-election but no amount of political training could have prepared him for the experience of taking on Bob Servant.
Bob’s view on Nick – “Wet behind the ears.”
Philippa Edwards (played by Pollyanna McIntosh)
The power behind the Edwards throne, Philippa Edwards is a smooth political operator here to guide her husband to by-election success. Elegant, highly intelligent and domineering, she is greeted with utter confusion by Bob and Frank. The cheeseburger industry was not a place for powerful women. For Frank, who as Campaign Manager is Philippa’s direct rival, she is all his nightmares come true.
Bob’s view on Philippa – “Basically just a pretty Hitler.”
Lady Provost (played by Victoria Liddelle)
Rhona McDonald is the Lady Provost of Broughty Ferry. A long term observer of Bob Servant, she is dismayed to see the arrival into the race of a man who made money while “reintroducing scurvy” to Broughty Ferry. She is impressed by the urbane Edwards, and watches in horror as Bob somehow battles himself into the by-election race.
Bob’s view on Lady Provost – “You give someone a special necklace and they think they’re Mother Theresa.”
Anders (played by Greg McHugh)
An ambitious young DJ at Broughty FM, Anders sees the local radio station as a stepping stone to greater things. The opening episode sees Bob and Anders go toe to toe in a political debate that leads to a serious, dog-based controversy. Later in the series Anders moderates a dramatic debate between the candidates, trying to keep some sort of control over a combustible evening.
Bob’s view on Anders – “I see a lot of myself in him. And I think he’d ditto that.”
Kirsty (played by Shirley Henderson)
When Bob visits the local Church to “mop up the religious vote”, he chances upon the intriguing figure of Kirsty. It’s love at first sight as Bob pursues Kirsty around the church and tempts her to a dinner date, where events take a decided turn for the worst.
Bob’s view on Kirsty – “Some of the best skirt I’ve ever seen in Broughty Ferry, including tourists.”
Stewpot (played by Antony Strachan)
Landlord of Stewpot’s Bar, Stewpot has seen a lot of life and a lot of pain. The last thing he needs are Bob’s regular visits. Only Bob Servant would choose a local pub because he feels he’ll be the most impressive drinker there.
Bob’s view on Stewpot – “Easily the worst landlord of the worst pub in Broughty Ferry. Easily.”
Reverend Thompson (played by Derek Riddell)
Broughty Ferry’s minister Reverend Thompson knows Bob through reputation. When Bob comes bumbling into his church to chase “the religious vote”, Reverend Thompson has his measure from the start. On election day, he’s the confused recipient of a dramatic donation from Bob.
Bob’s view on Rev Thompson – “Leader of the God mob.”
Jim “Hendo” Henderson (played by Alex Norton)
Bob Servant’s Achilles heel is his pre-occupation with Broughty Ferry’s “boo boys” and the historical lack of respect that they’ve shown him. Jim “Hendo” Henderson was a schoolboy contemporary of Bob and his first ever boo boy. An intimidating man, Hendo is a distant, terrible memory for Bob until he makes a spectacular reappearance. He and Bob revert to playground taunts, with tragic results.
Bob’s view on Hendo – “The Worst of the Worst.”
Margo Servant (played by Sheila Reid)
Bob’s mother Margo is a sweet old lady with a surprising turn of phrase. She’s spent 58 years trying and failing to reign in her son’s outlandish schemes and over-ambition. Now she’s given up. Ensconced in Broughty Ferry’s ‘Cheerio and All the Very Best’ Nursing Home, she wearily hosts lively visits from Bob and Frank. She views Bob as a continual source of worry and embarrassment, but she clearly has a soft spot for Frank.
Bob’s view on Margo – “One of the main reasons I’m here today.”

Where it all began

In 2006 I read about scam-baiters, people so frustrated with spam that they reply offering similar frustration to the spammers. I opened an email account in the name of Bob Servant, choosing the name so I could sign off emails “Your Servant, Bob Servant.”
That was the beginning of a seven year journey to Bob Servant Independent being broadcast by the BBC in January 2013. It’s been a process that has stuttered and apparently ended on a few occasions but, one way or another and often down to blind luck, has led to this six-part BBC Four series that will introduce Bob Servant to the nation.
I wrote three Bob Servant books (including his autobiography Hero Of Dundee) and a radio series (The Bob Servant Emails) which transmitted on BBC Radio Scotland and Radio 4. However, the television adaptation was itself a four year quest for me and producer Owen Bell. Owen had been given one of the books by a friend’s girlfriend and contacted me asking if I’d considered adapting the character for radio or TV.
We completed the radio series first and managed to persuade Brian Cox to play Bob after I met a mutual friend in a pub. The fact that both he and Bob are Dundonians undoubtedly helped.
Getting Brian on board was the first step, the next was finding a premise that allowed Bob’s pompous, self-regarding character to be given free reign without taking him out of the confines of his hometown, the Dundee suburb of Broughty Ferry.
I decided a by-election, with Bob standing as an independent candidate, would give us what we needed. A lot of writing and re-writing from me and skilful script development by Owen eventually led to BBC Four commissioning this series with BBC Scotland.
We shot in Scotland in 2012, with Brian padding about Broughty Ferry in Bob’s distinctive leather jacket and bunnet combo, ably assisted by his sidekick Frank (the hilarious Jonathan Watson). Watching it unfold was a thrilling conclusion to a long journey.

Ten things you didn’t know about Bob Servant

1. Bob Servant is a business tycoon. Many in Scotland remember his victorious role in Dundee’s notorious Cheeseburger Wars, when his “Armada” of cheeseburger vans scoured the city to sell their questionable products to a delirious public. His enemies point out Servant singlehandedly brought back scurvy to the city’s hospitals, a claim Servant dismisses as “typical boo boy material.”
2. Before the cheeseburgers came a window-cleaning round described by Bob as being “the largest in Western Europe”. In both endeavours he was eagerly assisted by right hand man Frank. On the vans Frank was Director of Sauces, with the window-cleaning he was Bucket Chairman. Frank was also briefly Manager of Sponges but lost the role within days in a situation for which Frank readily admits he “only had himself to blame”.
3. Bob’s house bears an extension that is testament to both his success and ambition. A large glass extravaganza, described by the Council planning committee as a “carbuncle dripping in arrogance”, Bob refers to it more warmly as the “Anything Goes Annex”, an area where he encourages people to “be themselves and let their worries drift away like geese”.
4. Bob’s age is a matter for some debate. He claims, with fool-proof logic, that he “can’t fully remember” the day he was born and therefore doesn’t know his date of birth.
5. Bob is a respected man of letters. The three Bob Servant books have been published in the UK, North America and, most impressively of all, in Dundee where they famously outsell the Bible. They have been called “a Dundonian Lord of the Rings” (by Bob) and “absolutely terrific” (by Frank).
6. Bob has also worked as an Agony Uncle. In the two years that he answered readers’ problems for a Scottish magazine he advised over 20 men to divorce their wives “with immediate effect” for crimes including winking and having arrogant walks.
7. The arrival into politics isn’t something that Bob decided on a whim. Absolutely not. As long as he can remember he has walked around Broughty Ferry looking at the punters, and their “sad little faces” and wondering what he can do to help them. This is his chance.
8. Frank is extremely proud of his role as Bob’s campaign manager. More than anything, he is proud of his special notebook which he currently sleeps with, cradling it like a baby. He’s also invested in a new suit and the shortest back and sides in Broughty Ferry.
9. Bob is currently single despite extensive efforts to the contrary. His autobiography contains a chapter entitled The Great Skirt Hunt which shows both the depth of his attempts at gaining a girlfriend, while also hinting at the attitude that has perhaps handicapped them.
10. Bob is greatly looking forward to the transmission of the TV show. He believes it will be “permanent Beatlemania” for him in Broughty Ferry. He has printed off a thousand close-up photos of his face that he will be offering for signature (for a fair price) and is also planning to market “Bob cameos” where he will attend social events for five minutes during which time he will tell “a couple of belters and have the punters laughing like penguins”. He is targeting birthdays, retirements and funerals.

Source (including photo): BBC Media Centre

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