Brian Cox seems to have made a career out of being everywhere at once, popping up in Hollywood blockbusters next to Brad, Jake, Matt and friends one minute and lending his actorly weight to a low-key television drama or a play at London's Royal Court the next. In the past seven months alone, he's been a scientist with a death-wish in the BBC's re-make of The Day of the Triffids, the beleaguered ex-Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, in On Expenses and the voice of an Ood elder on Doctor Who.
In Hollywood he's become something of a rent-a-baddie, playing Agamemnon to Brad Pitt's Achilles in Troy, stitching up Matt Damon as a bent CIA man in the Bourne films, as the evil Stryker in X-Men 2. Back in 1986 he played Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann's cult thriller Manhunter, which pretty much made his career, despite the fact that he was on screen for fewer than 10 minutes. He was famously passed up as Lecter (the spelling changed) for The Silence of the Lambs in favour of Anthony Hopkins, though he didn't much care, since at this point he was carving a starry reputation on the British stage, having been lauded for his Lear at the National and his Titus Andronicus at the RSC.
With this kind of pedigree I expected him to be a bit of a bulldozer, and to have one of those booming voices that can be heard in the next postcode. On the contrary, his voice is quiet and lilting and, even though he has an opinion on anything you care to bring up, his manner is gentle. Settled on a sofa upstairs in the library of the Covent Garden hotel, in his leather waistcoat, dark, patterned neckerchief and groovy brown suede trainers, he rather melts into the furnishings. This, you realise, is the secret to his success, bringing old-school gravitas to glitzy blockbusters while never outshining the star of the show.
Cox is 64 but seems younger, probably due to a hairdo that hangs a little below his shirt collar and, despite his natural greyness, seems to have been dyed in odd little patches of black and reddish brown. These are the remnants, he says, of assorted parts that have required a variety of shades. "You'll notice I've kept some grey in my temples," he rumbles. "My last shred of dignity."
He is in London to record a television advertisement for Age UK, the new charity that has launched from a merged Age Concern and Help the Aged. Cox is one of several actors to lend their faces to the campaign – others include Sir Ian McKellen and Eleanor Bron. None are being paid for their work; they are, he says, doing it out of concern for the elderly and the fact that "we are all facing eventual deterioration and death, no matter how old we are". Our unwillingness to face this fact is something that concerns Cox. "We have no culture about death, even though it's one of life's only certainties," he says. "We need to learn how to deal with people who are dying, to not treat them like they're already in the coffin. My father died when I was eight, so I've had death with me all my life. Of course, we can't live with that knowledge of impending death every day of our lives, but we need more of an understanding. Modern science has prolonged life and now America has a society where they're trying to abolish death. Seriously, they're actually trying to get rid of it."
Cox has lived in America for the past 15 years – first in Los Angeles and now in New York – and likes living in a society that isn't obsessed with class. During rehearsals for his first play in New York, he remembers asking the stage manager to fetch him a cup of tea.
"He looked at me with absolute astonishment and said, 'Why don't you get your own tea?' And I thought, 'Yes, absolutely right. Why don't I get my own tea?'"
Cox believes that his relentless work ethic stems from being a working-class Scot trying to prove himself in an industry dominated by mostly upper-class actors and directors with an ingrained sense of entitlement. Certainly, his schedule is quite astonishing. During his three-day stay in London, along with the ad and our interview, he's also squeezing in a series of meetings about new projects, two costume fittings for Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes' forthcoming directorial debut in which he plays Menenius, and a date with his eldest son, Alan, who lives in London and is also an actor.
All this comes hot on the heels of two recently completed films, one called The Good Heart, about a New York bartender who takes a homeless man under his wing, and another called Red, an ensemble piece with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren. Cox is particularly excited about this project, since he got to canoodle with Mirren, whom he hadn't worked with since 1974 and whom, as he tells me with great glee, he's fancied madly ever since. "In the middle of all this mayhem we have this geriatric romance going on. When I looked at the script I thought, 'Wow, I've really scored here. Here I am, little me from Dundee, opposite this unbelievable creature'."
Cox bemoans the fact that he rarely gets to play the romantic lead, which he puts down to his looks, or lack thereof. "I was always more Jerry Lewis than Robert De Niro," he sighs. "I have got quite a romantic streak in me, though that's never been exploited. I love Cary Grant, I love his ease and his wit. He was a beautiful man without any real vanity. You could take him and put him in any time. I think Clooney has that quality but I, sadly, do not."
The truth is, however, that Cox has never wanted to be the star of the show. He's too canny for that. "I never wanted the opening weekend of a film sitting on my shoulders," he maintains. "I wanted to keep working. I never wanted it to get overblown. Being a character actor is a more interesting route. You get more variety and people cut you a lot more slack. You don't earn as much but you can keep working. And that's what it's about for me. I'm not one of these people who goes, 'Shall I do this project, or shall I do that project?". A lot of people hire me to supply dimension and if they pay me a lot of money, I'll do it and if they don't, I won't."
Come on, I say, surely there are parts that just aren't worth the money, that are just too excruciatingly naff?
"What? No!" he exclaims. "Listen, I have a home in New York, I have a place here in London, I've got two kids going through school and I spend all my time in the air. I recently worked out that I earn about 35 cents in every dollar I make. I have a manager, a publicist, an agent, I have all these people depending on me and they're like my family now. I'm effectively working for them!"
Cox's childhood reads like something out of Dickens. He is the youngest of five siblings, with 16 years between him and his eldest sister. When his mother gave birth to him, her womb almost came out with the baby and, following a rushed hysterectomy, she nearly died. When he was eight, his father died of cancer, after which his mother developed an obsession with cleanliness, had a series of breakdowns and was eventually institutionalised (she died in 1973). Cox was brought up by his eldest sister and one of his aunts.
"It was tough," he recalls with the matter-of-factness of someone who has told the tale so often that it is no longer painful. "Losing my father so young was hard, but my childhood up to that point was pretty good. I was the youngest so I was very spoilt. But after that it just changed. There was nobody to guide me. My sisters had their own kids and my brother left and went into the army to deal with his grief. This is why I have had to learn how to be a parent, and I'm still learning. Because I never really had any."
A dead loss academically, Cox, by secondary school, would bunk off lessons and go to the cinema. These were the days of the double features, he says, and he was mesmerised by what he saw. He loved the glamour, the escapism and was, for the first time, inspired to do something with his own life. Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy and James Cagney became his heroes. He left school at 15, got a job sweeping the floor at the Dundee Rep and later got a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Drama. From there, he worked everywhere from the Birmingham Rep and the National in London and on Z-Cars and Radio 4's Play for Today.
Looking back, he thinks his career has been as much down to serendipity as skill. "Like Blanche DuBois, I depended on the kindness of strangers," he chuckles. "People were very good to me. In my mind, my early career was like a sheer cliff face. You can't see anything and you're clasping on for dear life and suddenly there's a hand-hold just out of reach, and if you can just stretch you can probably make it. Sure, I had a determination that was fierce. But that's because there were no alternatives for me."
Cox's first marriage to the actress Caroline Burt fell apart amid money worries. So involved was Cox with his career that he missed the formative years of his children, something that he has forever regretted. When he and Burt got divorced, Cox made the decision to stay in London in order to be near his family. This was when he had just finished Manhunter, and his stock was high in Hollywood. "I was at the point of going to the States," he says. "I was hoping that we would all go, but in the end it didn't work out that way. Such is life."
Instead, Cox immersed himself, with great success, in the theatre, an institution with which he admits he has a love-hate relationship. "When I was a kid, I was really interested in movies. To my mind, movies are essentially the product of an egalitarian culture and theatre is essentially feudal, for audiences as well as actors. So my slight resentment in theatre is that it's always been this separate thing, the patronage of the great and all that."
Even so, in recent years, and in between assorted blockbusters, he has returned to the stage, playing Humbert Humbert in Lolita at the National Theatre and a Communist professor in Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll, a part written with him in mind.
Now he has two sons, aged five and eight, with his second wife, the German actor-director Nicole Ansari. Recently, he tells me, he was at home looking after his youngest son while his eldest was away at a sleepover. The pair settled down to watch This Is It, the posthumous Michael Jackson movie. As the song "Billy Jean" started up, Cox's son got up and began to dance and didn't stop until the song had finished. "These things are too good to miss," Cox reflects poignantly. "When you have a second family, you realise what you didn't do first time around and it shames you."
His children remain his greatest worry and his greatest delight. He describes bringing them up as "like trying to hold a glass of water without the glass. I saw my therapist recently. He said, 'Don't worry, you can't do anything about children, you cannot control them, they are impossible.' I said, 'Oh thank you, that's such a relief.'"
Our time is officially up and his son is waiting downstairs, but Cox is on a roll so we carry on talking during the photo shoot, where he shares his views on religion – "Christianity is going down the plughole" – and tells me with great pride how he has been made Rector of Dundee University and where he will hold regular surgeries for students.
I ask him what, as a New York-dweller, he misses about British life and, quick as a flash, he says "good conversation". "OK, maybe that's a bit harsh, but it's a very bad time to be in America," he says, back-pedalling. "It's the age of culpable ignorance, which was fostered by the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld cabal, and I think that's spread into the land a little bit."
He says he loves coming back to London for "a bit of sanity" and to revel in the British sense of irony. He says, "If a German says 'I like that tie', or if a French or American person says 'I like that tie', then they like your tie. If an English person says 'I like that tie', it doesn't necessarily mean they like the tie at all. In fact they probably hate it."
Cox bellows with laughter at this thought and exclaims "Isn't the English language wonderful?" and suddenly I get a glimpse of the exuberant and hugely charismatic figure who has won over audiences, actors and directors over the past 40 years. Or as Cox would have it, "little me from Dundee".
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HIS GREATEST ROLES
Humbert Humbert, 'Lolita', National Theatre, 2009
In a one-man staging of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Cox delivered a powerful monologue from within a prison cell. He succeeded in getting right under the skin of the nymphet-obsessed Humbert Humbert.
Agamemnon, 'Troy', 2004
Cox played King Agamemnon in Wolfgang Petersen's blockbuster, loosely based on Homer's 'Iliad'. The film's critical reception was mixed, but Cox was highly praised for his tempestuous performance.
'King Lear', National Theatre, 1990
Having played the Duke of Burgundy to Laurence Olivier's Lear in 1983, Cox took the title role in Deborah Warner's National production. Cox wrote 'The Lear Diaries' about the all-consuming role.
Dr Hannibal Lecktor, 'Manhunter', 1986
Despite having under 10 minutes of screen-time, Hannibal the cannibal was Cox's break-out role. Although Michael Mann's thriller wasn't a huge success on release, 1991's 'Silence of the Lambs' and more interest in Dr Lecter (as he was later spelled), helped to confer cult status on the film.
Argyle Wallace, 'Braveheart', 1995
Cox deemed the movie 'John Wayne in kilts', and also appeared in another highland fling that year – 'Rob Roy'. Cox chose to play Argyle Wallace, William's uncle, because he felt it was dramatically rich, despite it being a small role.
By Holly Williams