Esteemed Scottish actor Brian Cox has played a number of formidable roles over his 50-year career, including King Lear, Hamlet, Trotsky, Stalin, Hannibal Lector, J. Edgar Hoover and Hermann Goring.
Add Winston Churchill to the list. Cox stars as the titular character in Churchill, a wartime bio-drama directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) and scripted by historian Alex von Tunzelmann.
Winston Churchill is having a moment. John Lithgow has already won trophies for his portrayal of the two-time Prime Minister in The Crown. And first-look photos of Gary Oldman as Churchill show him unrecognizable under layers of latex in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hours, coming out geared to the Oscars at the end of the year.
Now Brian Cox has thrown his hat—a Homburg, to be exact—into the ring with his interpretation, which focuses on the dark but human side of the heroic leader. Set during the final days before D-Day, Churchill is plagued by doubt, depression and guilt. In his showdown with U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), whose military plans he initially opposed, he is beginning to feel sidelined and irrelevant. Only his beleaguered wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson) steadies him and keeps him from crashing. This is a controversial look at the man who, the movie notes in a sentence that ends the film, is considered to be “the greatest Briton of all time.”
Last week at the New York premiere of Churchill, Cox celebrated the film’s release with his wife (German actress Nicole Ansari-Cox) and their two young sons. The Churchill star slips into accents so easily, it’s a little startling to realize his natural voice has a slight Scottish burr. What’s also startling is the actor’s physical transformation: The film poster for Churchill shows a rotund little man with a cigar, cane and paunchy, who looks nothing like the handsome, blue-eyed man standing before me on the red carpet.
Cox explained to me how he physically transformed into the legendary leader. “As an actor we assume masks all the time, but there are masks that come from within us and we make them physically manifest,” he said. “We might need help. My head was shaved and I had it dyed blond, and the weight, I put on. I have a cleft chin, which we had to cover, and then the rest is just physically putting myself into the role, creating the role from within.”
The following are highlights from my interview with director Jonathan Teplitzky on the red carpet.
Interview with Jonathan Teplitzky
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why do you think there’s such an interest in Winston Churchill now?
Jonathan Teplitzky (JT): I think it’s planets aligning. So often someone develops something on a particular subject and suddenly it’s three or four more projects that come along at the same time. But I also think at this time there’s a whole thing about leadership going on around the world and I think Churchill’s always reflected back as one of the great leaders. “Why don’t we have leaders like that anymore?” So it brings the subject to the fore. It’s quite a long time since his death now and people are reflecting on these things. Winston Churchill’s attributes and also some of his failings are being looked at more closely and with more interest. We were actually saying today that they should get all the [actors playing Churchill] together and do a roundtable. I think it would be really fascinating to hear how each of them prepared.
MM: What made you decide to cast Brian Cox as Churchill?
JT: Brian was always destined to play Churchill. He’s the same age [as Churchill was during the events in the film]. He’s the same height. He’d been asked to do a Churchill 20 years ago and it never came off. I think in his mind he was preparing for a long, long time.
MM: What was your direction of him like?
JT: What’s amazing about working with Brian and then the cast around him—Miranda and John and some of the other British actors—they had 20, 30, 40 years experience and a lot of that’s on the stage, so a lot of the preparation was actually learning the entire script. It’s quite a dialogue-driven script, and Brian puts down very, very strong foundations.
There’s the physical side of Churchill, which is the cigar and the hat and the coat and the walking stick. And then there are the layers of emotional and psychological aspects to the character. We talked about where to pitch how big it was, because the thing about Churchill was, he was a performer in his own right. In those days [performance] was always about great oration to audiences and so there was a great—theatricality is not quite the right word—but there’s a great performance to some of these guys and the way they communicated with the world. Part of that had to come into the contrast we were trying to create, which is between the public Churchill and the more private one. And in many ways our film deals with the more private one, behind the scenes, when he’s in conflict with some of these other leaders and with his wife and with himself.
MM: How did it feel to deconstruct the myth around Churchill, who’s always been portrayed as heroic, even with the bottles of cognac and endless cigars?
JT: It felt really good because I’m an Australian and Brian’s a Scotsman. [Writer von Tunzelmann is from New Zealand.] We have a completely different view from the British… Gallipoli [the site of a battle where many soldiers from Australia and New Zealand died] which is mentioned a lot in the movie, was a huge, iconic event in Australia. Churchill was one of the great architects of that and so vilified because of it, but what attracted me to this project was taking an iconic leader like that and actually discovering the man or the human being beneath it.
There’s a million portrayals of the great mythological leader but this drew out his emotion. People don’t also realize that Churchill was very un-British in his emotional expression. He was very emotional. He would just walk down the street and hug people. That was a very sincere part of his make up. He really cared about them, the everyday man and woman, and it really affected him, the amount of people who died in these operations that he was an architect of.
The film’s also about getting old. You get to a certain point in your life where younger people take over and the way you go about things change. He was having to cope and deal with all of that at a time when some of the most momentous decisions were being made. At the same time he was consuming vast qualities of alcohol but also [suffering from] very significant downward spirals of depression, so I think all those elements combined to put him in a quite isolated and vulnerable place. And so in many ways his relationships with everyone in the film are dramatic and conflicted. He’s a man getting old, trying to find what his significance in the world still is.
MM: Are you prepared for the backlash?
JT: We’ve discussed it a little bit. Sometimes the backlash when you talk about historical figures is almost a contradiction in terms: People want to keep this person as a mythological icon and not examine the failings and the vulnerability and the humanity of a person. I think if we’re going to learn anything from history, you can’t just make the winners the good guys and the losers the bad guys. On a human level, understanding the inner and darker struggles that a person’s gone through only makes their achievements all the more significant.
Interview With Brian Cox
The next day, at the Carnegie House on West 57th Street, Brian Cox conducted interviews seated underneath a black-and-white photograph of (who else?) Churchill. “Welcome to Churchill Corner,” he told me.
MM: Your director said you had an entertaining story about what inspired you in getting into the role.
Brian Cox (BC): Not inspired, exactly. I was trying to place Churchill’s humanity. You know, all babies look like Churchill and Churchill looks like all babies. Then I thought of the idea of the cigar he was always smoking—it’s like thumb-sucking. Then one night I was sitting with my boys watching Family Guy, and I looked at this character and thought, “My God, Stewie Griffin is young Winston Churchill!” So suddenly a light went on in terms of the character. Also Stewie has that very English accent. And of course, also like Churchill, Stewie’s very misunderstood. The only person who really understands him is Brian, the dog. His parents don’t understand him, and I think Churchill was in a very similar state with his own parents, but at the opposite end of the class system. They were very posh people.
BC: There’s a zeitgeist element to it. I think it also has to do with the notion of principle, which may be absent now. Perhaps we need a reminder of principle, a reminder of the values that create great countries—values which are slightly absent in this country at the moment. And I think Churchill is a reminder of when you really are at the sharp end of what happens, when the wolf is at the door and is rapidly coming through and you’re trying to keep it at bay as long as possible. He had a vision of what his country meant to him, what he could give his country and what fascism meant. That’s the other thing—he would’ve been no Brexiteer. He believed in the United States of Europe. He was very futuristic in that movement. He was rather ahead of his times. Now is a time when people want to be reminded of those things. And also because behind the iconic notion of him is a human being, an incredible human being.
MM: It’s interesting that the director is Australian, you’re from Dundee, Scotland, and the screenwriter is from New Zealand. Do you think this gives you some new insight into the man and a less reverential look at him?
BC: No, but I’m not like those two, because he was my MP.
MM: He was the MP in Dundee, but he switched sides, going from Labor to Tory. Didn’t he go out of favor in Scotland?
BC: He switched sides, but he was our MP long before I was born. He was our MP in Dundee for 14 years. When I was a kid this high [puts his hand to chest level], I remember my uncles telling me the stories about him. One story in particular, he came into the city square on a chair. He was ill, and they were carrying him around in what was like a sedan chair. My uncle shouted to the guys carrying him, “How much did he pay? How much did he pay to have you carry him?” The guy said, “A quid,” which is a pound. My uncle shouted back, “I’ll give you two quids if you drop him.” So that was the Churchill I knew [laughs].
MM: Then you weren’t exactly a fan?
BC: It wasn’t that I wasn’t a fan. I was brought up to think very suspiciously of him. And then I was brought up to think up my own view of him. In fact, ironically, my first wife [Caroline Burt] was an advisor—she was a debutante and she was an advisor on social etiquette to Anne Bancroft for the 1974 film Young Winston [in which Bancroft played Winston Churchill’s American-born British socialite mother]. I’d forgotten all that. She would go out to Anne Bancroft’s hotel and we’d order tea and she would explain what you do and what’s what and all that.
Then in 1999 I was doing a thing about Nuremberg, where I played Hermann Goring and after we’d finished, the production company said, “What would you like to do?” And I said I’m really interested in Churchill and Roosevelt and their relationship. Anyway, that script never happened. It never came to fruition. And when I was sent this script I just thought, “Wow, this is something else!” I was so impressed by the script, the sheer talent of Alex and her grasp of the subject and her boldness and her real understanding of his humanity.
MM: You’ve said in the past that you were happy not having starring roles because you didn’t want the burden of an opening weekend on your shoulders. Now in Churchill you’re in every frame of the film. What made you change your mind?
BC: You know, there’s leading actors and there’s leading actors. There are films which have a little bit more value than other films. And I don’t mean value in terms of monetary value; I mean value in terms of the quality of the work. I think this film has that. I feel strongly about this film. And also I’m at an age now where box office is not my responsibility. I do my work. I can only do what does me good. I can’t do anything else, and as my old friend Fulton McKay said to me once, “Follow your mercenary calling and draw your wages.” So there’s an element of that always in what we do because we go from job to job to job and sometimes we’re working non-stop and sometimes we’re “resting.” If it’s going well, don’t knock it. As Zero Mostel said, “When you got it, flaunt it!”
MM: Talking about Zero Mostel, you gained a lot of weight to play Churchill. How hard was it to take off?
BC: I have a doctor who helped me. He put me on a very specific diet of vegetarian smoothies and I lost 35 pounds. You drink these smoothies three times a day and then in the evening you have vegetables and then after 10 days you add a little fish and you get your protein. And it works.
MM: You’re very busy. From IMDb it looks like you have six projects coming up, including Adam McKay’s Succession. It’s described as being about a dysfunctional media family.
BC: Succession is a TV production. We start that in September. It’s inspired by Conrad Black; it’s inspired by the Murdoch family. It’s inspired by anybody who’s a family that’s in the media.
MM: Your sons were at the premiere last night. You’ve played some pretty horrible people on screen, but here’s one film you can show them. What did they think?
BC: I think they were rather pleased. They were rather affected by it, and my 15 year-old said, “Dad, surely something must happen with this one? Are you going to be nominated for something?” I said, “Boys, you don’t think like that. You just do the work for the work’s sake and anything that comes along is a bonus, but as soon as you start thinking in that way you’re screwed.”
MM: What did you learn about yourself doing this film?
BC: Well, that I could still learn the lines, which was a triumph at my age. I suppose I learned that physically I was in better shape that I thought I was to do this role and that it’s important to take care of yourself. He didn’t take care of himself. [He points to the picture of Churchill.] Mind you, he did live until he was 90 so he didn’t do too badly. MM
Churchill opens in theaters June 2, 2017, courtesy of Cohen Media Group.