What do Albert Finney, Rod Taylor, Timothy Spall, Richard Burton, John Lithgow and now Brian Cox have in common? They have all played British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on film. In Cox’s case, he is in a new film called simply Churchill, opening in South Florida this Friday.
The classically trained, Scottish-born actor looks a great deal like the pudgy politician who led the United Kingdom during and after World War II, but then he had to shave his head and gain 30 pounds to affect the resemblance.
“Well, I didn’t want to do any of the prosthetics or the fat suit, any of that stuff,” says Cox. “So much to my doctor’s chagrin – because I’m diabetic – I sort of let myself go and put the weight on.” In case you were wondering, he has since taken off that excess poundage, through a strict regimen off vegetarian smoothies.
Still, Cox feels he was a natural for the role. “I think the role was written and apparently Alex von Tunselmann, our wonderful historian/writer, she had me in mind, as the producers did, as Churchill,” he says by phone. “As soon as I read the script, I knew it was mine. I felt it. The symbiosis was so powerful.
“And because I’d been involved in another Churchill project many, many years ago which didn’t really take off, I’d done a lot of my homework on him.”
Although it has taken Cox 71 years to get around to impersonating Churchill, you could say he was born to play the cigar-chomping statesman.
“I don’t know if you know this – Winston Churchill was the MP of my hometown, long before I was born. His hand was all over my city. In fact, he cursed the city when he lost his seat, because he changed parties. He made his speech from the railway station, apparently from the train, in which he said, ‘I will see the grass grow green over the industrial wasteland that is the city of Dundee.’
“My uncle Geordie told me this story when I was a wee boy, he said, ‘Oh, yeah, we remember him.’ He said, ‘He’d come in the city square and he’d been ill.’ Churchill was always ill. He was brought in on an armchair with oars attached to it, so it looked like a sedan chair. Four guys brought him in, up the steps and into the city square. ‘We shouted to the guys,’ Geordie said, ‘How much did he pay ya to carry him?’ And the guy shouted back, ‘A quid,’ which is a pound. And my uncle shouted back, ‘We’ll give you two if you drop him.’ ”
The film Churchill focuses on the 96 hours before the D-Day invasion, on Churchill’s vehement opposition to the plan and on his bouts of depression and alcoholism. “He was famous for the fact that he didn’t sleep,” notes Cox. “And now we know his serotonin levels must have been ridiculous. They must have been non-existent. And the fact that he would only sleep three hours a night, four hours a night, and the amount of alcohol that he consumed. When you really look at it, the alcohol was a form of self-medication. A way for him to get through.”
Over the years, Cox has played such real-life characters as Josef Stalin, J. Edgar Hoover and Melvin Belli, but he readily concedes that taking on Churchill was a daunting task. “You can’t deny it. But then, from a creative point of view, you have to realize it’s a portrait that you’re doing and it has to be 360 degrees. So you have to then break it down, you have to do your detective work, you have to look at the character and you have to look at the images of Churchill. What they sum up, what they invoke. His sense of isolation, his sense of independence.
“He always performed. He was a quasi-actor in many ways. That Churchillian voice was a performance,” says Cox. “It wasn’t who he was. He created it, and he created it to great effect. And it was done to bolster the people of Britain in their darkest hour, and he succeeded.”
Churchill’s objection to the D-Day invasion – code name: Operation Overlord – stemmed from his involvement in the First World War and the carnage of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign and Gallipoli. “So it was legitimate to feel that this event coming again with amphibious landings would have the same result,” explains Cox. “With all amphibious landings, the principle of them is you lose your first wave. So those boys are sacrificed straight away. Sometimes you lose your second wave, too.”
You could ask Cox what he thinks of her performance in Churchill, but he is known for not watching his film work. “I have a tendency not to watch my performances, yeah. Of course I have watched some, but it’s something I’ve never been very comfortable with,” he says. “It’s never what you think it is, what happens internally. Sometimes you go, ‘Well, that worked,’ and I feel that a little bit about Churchill. But I try to avoid anything that smacks of vaingloriousness.”