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He's the guy that you hate to love

Brian Cox plays bruising, often evil figures with tender restraint.

October 22, 2006|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

London — IT'S Sunday evening at a pub in the borough of Camden, and an oblivious young man has just bumped into Brian Cox, jostling the actor's ginger beer and lightly splashing his cardigan sweater. If this minor collision had involved just about any of the characters Cox has assayed on-screen -- gangsters, cops, paramilitaries, cranks, killers, heavies almost to a man -- you can bet that the young offender would be in for a withering tongue-lashing at best, a plug through the heart at worst.

But off-screen Cox, short and squat and wearing a baseball cap and black-framed glasses, is mild-mannered to a fault, and the moment passes with a brief apology and a brush of the hand over the spill. That's why they call it acting.

"I've got this reputation of being a bruiser, but I'm not a bruiser at all," said Cox, 60, whose long resume of film, television and theater roles on both sides of the Atlantic includes a large share of dubious but fearsome authority figures, from Titus Andronicus to Col. Stryker, the villain of "X2: X-Men United." "I would be helpless in a fight. I've never struck anybody in my life. I used to always hear the term 'bull-like,' but I think that's just because of my shape."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
'Deadwood' network: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about actor Brian Cox said the western series "Deadwood" was on Showtime. It was on HBO.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
"Deadwood" network: An article last Sunday about actor Brian Cox said that the western series "Deadwood" was on Showtime. It was on HBO.

It may be a question of nationality as much as body type. According to Michael Billington, theater critic for the Guardian, who's watched Cox on the London stage since the late 1960s: "He's very much a Scottish actor, which implies a kind of flinty toughness that has characterized everything he's done."

You may have to dig a little deeper to find the steel in Dr. Finch, the oddly hypnotic psychotherapist Cox plays in the new film "Running With Scissors," based on Augusten Burroughs' bestselling 2002 memoir about Burroughs' warped childhood under the fitful tutelage of an unstable poet mother (played by Annette Bening) and Finch, her guru-like therapist. Alongside stray flashes of the actor's trademark flintiness is plenty of baloney: With his abundant white beard and handlebar moustache, Cox's Finch evokes an unholy cross between Freud and Santa Claus -- an elfin high priest who presides absent-mindedly over the chaotic, disheveled household where the young Burroughs (played by Joseph Cross) comes of age.

Indeed, you'd have to go back to the sneaky meta-film "Adaptation," in which Cox played real-life screenwriting swami Robert McKee with scene-stealing gruffness, to find a defter use of his stentorian, classics-steeped gravitas for droll comic effect.

"He has an ability to be absolutely insane and completely understated at the same time," said Ryan Murphy, who adapted Burroughs' memoir into a screenplay and made his feature-film directing debut with "Scissors." "In other hands, Dr. Finch could have been very over-the-top, but Brian plays it so straight. Despite the villainous, crazy things Finch does, you really can't hate the guy, although by the end you're trying. Making somebody so unsympathetic sympathetic is a great victory for an actor."

Forget bruising flintiness -- this may be Cox's signature hat trick. Two of his best and largest on-screen performances to date were as Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering in the cable miniseries "Nuremberg," for which he won an Emmy in 2001, and as "Big John" Harrigan, the cheery, disturbingly likable pedophile of Michael Cuesta's independent film "L.I.E."

And there's the unavoidable Lecter factor: In 1986's "Manhunter" -- the first adaptation of a Hannibal Lecter novel, Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" -- Cox played the diabolically brilliant serial killer, years before Anthony Hopkins turned the role into an Oscar-winning franchise. Cox didn't make Lecter lovable, actually; his take on the iconic role was instead cool, sober, calmly virile -- not at all the baroque psychopath Hopkins made him. That might partly explain why Cox hasn't had Hopkins' career. But entering Hollywood's orbit slowly and steadily has had its advantages.

"People that knew me well when I was younger always said that my career was going to take off when I was much older," said Cox, sitting in the cozy Camden house he shares with his wife, Nicole Ansari, also an actor, and sons Torren, 2, and Orson, 5. (Cox also has two children from a previous marriage, one a successful actor in his own right, Alan Cox.) "I was a little bit resentful of that, because I felt I had a bit to offer, and I had a very good career. But I aim for the long haul. It made more sense, and certainly has given me more weight as an actor, to come on the scene like a tank, proceeding forward fully equipped and fully armored."

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