The following is an excerpt from Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, a memoir by the actor Brian Cox.
I did 25th Hour with Spike Lee in 2002, and he’s simply one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. People associate him with African American subject matter, which is fine and fair enough, but they don’t realize that he’s a consummate cineaste. His knowledge of the cinema is second to none.
What’s more, I’ve never known a director to be so diplomatic. Ed Norton was in the film and he’s a nice lad but a bit of a pain in the arse because he fancies himself as a writer-director. He and I had this scene set in the bar owned by my character. Spike set it up immaculately, but Ed came in and was saying, “Now, I’ve done some work on the script and I’ve got a few ideas and I’d like you to think about them. I’ve rewritten a few things in there …”
Spike was like, “Oh, good, let me see.” He had a look at Ed’s notes and then said, “Well that’s very interesting. Okay, so what we’re going to do now is …” and put Ed very firmly in his place.
It was done beautifully. Seamless. It was taking Ed’s points on board but making sure Ed knew that we were doing things his way. And the fact that he did it without upsetting Ed, who after all does have a reputation for being a little volatile, was really quite an achievement.
That’s an amazing gift Spike has, and it transfers to the screen. I rewatched Do the Right Thing recently. I hadn’t seen it in years, but it’s a flawless movie and absolutely timeless in the sense that it’s as relevant now as when it was made, possibly even more so.
There’s a skill right there, to be able to hone something as brilliant as that. For me it comes from, firstly, that diplomacy he has, which allows him to get the best out of the people round him; secondly, his incredible filmic knowledge and literacy when it comes to the medium; and thirdly, his vision, which is immense. It’s a shame that he’s pigeonholed as a black filmmaker because to me he’s one of the great filmmakers of any ethnicity, and I’d put him up there with Bergman, Hitchcock or Antonioni.
He’s also been very canny with money by making a lot of commercials, which is a pretty lucrative business. Presumably having that kind of money behind him allows him to concentrate on doing the kind of films he wants to make, and as a result barely an Oscars ceremony passes by without an appearance from a Spike Lee joint.
As we’re on the subject, 25th Hour was written by David Benioff, who of course went on to be showrunner for Game of Thrones. I’m often asked if I was offered a role in Game of Thrones—reason being that every other bugger was—and the answer is, yes, I was supposed to be a king called Robert Baratheon, who apparently died when he was gored by a boar in the first season. I know very little about Game of Thrones so I can’t tell you whether or not he was an important character, and I’m not going to google it just in case he was, because I turned it down.
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Why? Well, Game of Thrones went on to be a huge success and everybody involved earned an absolute fortune, of course. But when it was originally offered the money was not all that great, shall we say say. Plus I was going to be killed off fairly early on, so I wouldn’t have had any of the benefits of the long-term effects of a successful series where your wages go up with each passing season. So I passed on it, and Mark Addy was gored by the boar instead. (I lied. I did google it.)
The money thing is par for the course. There’s always been a tendency for American productions to treat British actors differently from American actors. In other words, to get them cheap. When I first went to America, I discovered the problem with British agents, which is that they always see the other person’s point of view. In America they don’t give a shit about the other person’s point of view. They just protect their clients. They’re like Goodfellas: “Fuck you, pay me.” British agents, on the other hand, are like, “Well, they can’t really afford that sort of money, Brian, they haven’t got that much. So do you think you could do it for less?”
It used to drive me up the wall. I’d be like, “I don’t want to know about the other side. I’m not interested in their problems. I’m only interested in doing the deal,” which is how U.S. agents operate, and although it sounds mercenary it’s also healthy because it’s no nonsense, everybody knows where they stand.
So anyway, with a Game of Thrones, or any show like it, there’s a risk element. You could sign up to do a Game of Thrones and it gets cancelled, and you don’t know why it gets cancelled because you thought it was great, but there you are.
I did a series for the BBC called The Game in 2014, which I thought was excellent. Written by a guy called Toby Whithouse who had written Bridget Jones’s Diary and Being Human, it was a spy thriller set in the 1970s. Tom Hughes played the lead. He was good. Johnny Aris was in it, and Johnny I’ve known since he was a child. His dad was Ben Aris, a wonderful actor who died of leukemia, sadly, and Johnny was at school with my son, so I’ve known him since he was twelve. Vicky Hamilton, who I love as an actress, was in it, too.
In other words, it was a very happy job. What’s more, it brought me back home, which was great because I’m always looking for opportunities to return to the UK. Unfortunately, there’s nothing enticing financially, but there is in terms of the quality of work and The Game was something I thought was great.
But they canned it. It was one of those where a new set of bosses come in, and being very keen to assert themselves, go, “Oh, it’s not my show, so we’ll cancel it.”
Another case in point was The Straits, which I did in 2012. Also a series. See, when you get older, like when you get to my age, you’re looking for … well, I hesitate to say security because that sounds as though I’m selling insurance, but maybe continuity. You’re after something that you might be able to do for a few years, that’ll keep you level and on the straight and narrow, so that you’re not out there on the hustings going, “Gi’ us a job.”
And when I look at these series, like The Game or The Straits, I’ll always be thinking, Oh yeah, there’s potential, I can do that, that might go to a second or even third series. That’s what’s reassuring about Succession. Hopefully we’ll do a fourth series, and that’ll probably be it, but it will have been a great run.
The Straits was a sort of Sopranos set in Australia and I played the head of the household, Harry Montebello. The idea was that he was originally from London but had gone on the run and ended up Down Under, where he’d settled down. So far, so great, and I loved working in Australia. Not the first time I’d been there—I went in the mid-1980s to chaperone Alan, who was making Young Sherlock Holmes—but it was the first time I’d been in this particular bit, Cairns, close to where James Cameron filmed Avatar. It’s a beautiful area in the heart of crocodile country where you can watch a crocodile wandering along the main street at any given moment. Literally. You just see these prehistoric creatures mooching around like they own the place, which they do, because anybody with any sense clears out sharpish.
But the power of my love for Australia was not enough to fuel the future of The Straits. Nor was the fact that The Straits was rather good, even if I do say so myself. No, the powers that be decided to cancel it after one season. Just as The Game was lost, so The Straits were sunk.
But, like my mum always said, “If it’s not for you, Brian, it’ll go by you,” and I suppose that if either The Game or The Straits had taken off then I wouldn’t have ended up with Logan Roy, so I can’t complain. Just that at the time it feels like a bit of a knock-back.
Harry Potter. That’s another one they ask me about. Harry fucking Potter. I think someone had a burning cross held up for me not to be in Harry Potter, because all my pals were in it. I think the part I might have played was the one that Brendan Gleeson got, Mad-Eye Moody, but Brendan was more in fashion than I was at that point, and that’s very much the way of the world in my business, so he got it. Also, he’s much better than I would have been.
Meanwhile, I turned my nose up at the part of the Governor in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a role that was eventually played by Jonathan Pryce. The guy who directed Pirates was Gore Verbinski, with whom I made The Ring, and he’s a lovely chap but I think I blotted my copybook by turning down the Governor. It would have been a money-spinner, but of all the parts in that film it was the most thankless, plus I would have ended up doing it for film after film and missed out on all the other nice things I’ve done. Another thing with Pirates of the Caribbean is that it’s very much the “Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow” show, and Depp, personable though I’m sure he is, is so overblown, so overrated. I mean, Edward Scissorhands. Let’s face it, if you come on with hands like that and pale, scarred-face make-up, you don’t have to do anything. And he didn’t. And subsequently, he’s done even less. But people love him. Or they did love him. They don’t love him so much these days, of course. If Johnny Depp went for Jack Sparrow now, they’d give it to Brendan Gleeson.
So no—no regrets about Pirates, I don’t think.
PUTTING THE RABBIT IN THE HAT: A MEMOIR (Quercus Publishing) Available Now Waterstones.com