Brian Cox: ‘Do I think that artists should be political? Yes.’

Actor Brian Cox on the state of the world today

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Many actors dabble in political activism. Listening to Brian Cox speak, it’s hard not to think that he is a political activist who dabbles in acting.

Ostensibly he’s at the Cambridge Union to talk about his new movie ‘Churchill’, a historical drama set during WWII. But that’s not really what he wants to talk about. No, Brian Cox is here to talk about the world and why it’s in the state it’s in.

Ready to take on the capitalist establishment. (photo courtesy of Freddie Dyke)

The timing is intentional, one presumes – he’s speaking a week after Donald J. Trump became President of the United States of America. Trump, Cox argues, ‘obeys no law beyond his own power’ – indeed, he is ‘strikingly similar the tyrant predicted by Plato in his Republic’, a comment that is typical of the intellectual level of his speech. But his savaging of Trump pales in comparison to the attack he mounts upon various political figures closer to home.

‘Possibly sociopathic…an evil entity’ is how he describes former Lord Chancellor Michael Gove. Gove, along with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, is ‘a culture of slime-mold upon the dunghill of the political landscape.’ Ouch. It isn’t just his tenure in government which riles Cox; he’s particularly irked by Gove’s interview of Trump. It shows ‘the resentful jealousy of the ill-born meek man’ that Nietzsche predicted in his writings. It isn’t every day that visitors to the Union quote Nietzsche, but then again Cox isn’t your average celebrity.

An ‘evil entity’? Cox seems to think so.

When discussing Brexit,  Cox envisages a Brexit Britain as ‘a stagnant cricket pitch, with a permanently inconclusive game underway, watched by thousands of braying hedge fund managers.’  It’s not a pretty vision.

But Cox has no intention of remaining in it. During the referendum on Scottish independence Cox was a strident supporter of leaving the Union. He’d historically had a mistrust of the Scottish nationalists, who he’d once thought of as a reactionary ‘Walter Scott’ party. But in recent years he identified them as being ‘keepers of social democracy,’ as such explaining his defection.

Whilst he bears no particular malice towards the current Labour party leadership, he wryly notes that ‘Corbyn is very interested in the debate, but not so interested in running the show.’ To Cox, Scottish nationalism is the medium by which the people of Scotland can escape a ‘Westminster Parliament [that is] out of touch with its citizens.’

Plays the game but he is not in it to win it

Among all the politics, it’s easy to forget that Cox is an actor, and a very well-respected one too. He began on stage, and says that he ‘tries to go back to it when he can.’ Shakespeare is, of course, his touchstone – he comments that ‘what I love about Shakespeare is his examination of the human character.’ His favourite Shakespearean role is, somewhat unconventionally, Titus Andronicus; he argues that the eponymous play shows ‘a sense of how ludicrous life is.’

Away from the stage, he’s had plenty of experience on the silver screen, from ‘The Bourne Identity’ to ‘Troy.’ His latest film, ‘Churchill’, is a dramatisation of the period leading up to D-Day. In the rare moments when Cox isn’t talking about politics, he rhapsodises about the film’s screenplay – ‘one of the best scripts I’ve ever read’ – but also about the man he’s depicting.

One would have thought that as left-wing a man as Cox might be ambivalent about the arch-Tory Churchill, but Cox says that ‘I really admired him. He was a big baby; but I like babies.’ The film comes out this spring; it’s clearly a role that Cox has enjoyed playing.

A ‘big baby’, according to Cox.

But even Cox’s art is intimately wedded to his politics. He’s sharply critical of the state of popular culture today. In the modern world, he says, ‘all human intimacies have been reduced to the level of transaction…art in the service of commerce fails.’ But that doesn’t mean that he’s a pessimist. In fact, he argues that ‘art can offer a path forward more clear than the one we can envisage for ourselves.’ That’s why he views it as being a solution to the political chaos of our present time – ‘it, in essence, is about showing something new.’

Few actors these days are able to combine presence with erudition in the way that Cox does. Whilst many are full of grand political ideas, for the majority, these are more an affectation than anything else. Not so with Cox. He clearly lives and breathes politics, and cares deeply about the issues facing the country today. And his belief in art as a solution to many of these issues is as thought-provoking as it is refreshing.

Perhaps it’s time we listened to him?