Who do you think of when you think of a character actor? Maybe Harry Dean Stanton, or Peter Stormare, or Bob Balaban, or Margo Martindale? These are all great actors who have been in way more movies than many of us may realize. Character actors, or those labeled as such, tend not to be the first name on the marquee—sometimes, they may not even appear on the marquee—but they are often the best or most memorable part of whatever they appear in. Take Christoph Waltz (that’s two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, to the likes of us): Even he is often slapped with the “character actor” label. So what makes a character actor?
A character actor usually plays a secondary or supporting role that might be considered too eccentric or odd for a leading woman or man. They often adhere to stereotypes or tropes—think, “femme fatale” or the “town drunk.” Many actors are typecast as a particular character—like Dame Maggie Smith as the “matriarch” or “noble.” Others might be labeled character actors for their chameleon-like skill at inhabiting a number of different personas.
In this series, “And Also Starring…” we’ll be highlighting our favorite character actors, the ones who, when you watch their movies, make you think, “Wow, they were great. How come they’re never the lead in anything?”
For this first installment, we’ll take a look at Brian Cox, whose versatility has been matched only by his ubiquity.
Growing up, my friends and I noticed something: There was an actor who kept popping up in all the movies we rented, but his name and picture never appeared on the front of the VHS. Now, this was before the Internet or computers had become omnipresent, and it was certainly before the days of IMDb and Wikipedia. So when he appeared, it was almost as if by magic. “Look,” one of us would say, pointing at the screen. “It’s that actor again, what’s-his-name.” This happened over and over again with such frequency that we made a little story out of it, about how this one actor was secretly behind every movie ever made. That actor was Brian Cox.
Though he may be far from a household name, if you go to IMDb you’ll see that there are over 200 movies and T.V. shows to Cox’s credit, many of them from the mid-to-late- 90s. It’s no wonder he kept popping up! Still, the frequency with which he’d appear in movies bestowed on him a certain kind of aura, at least to me, and my close circle of friends. If you came of age in the mid-90s as I did, then you might know him as Argyle Wallace in Braveheart (1995) or Dr. Nelson Guggenheim in Rushmore (1998). With all those credits to his name, I guarantee you’ve seen him in something.
Cox is one of those “chameleon” actors, who can play, with equal ability, both the good guy (Captain O’Hagan in Super Troopers) and the bad (Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter). He can steal the scene, as he did as writer and guru Robert McKee in Adaptation (2002), or blend into the background as he’s done in some of his many other films and television credits—the most mind-blowing to me as a child was when he popped up in that episode of Red Dwarf.
Cox is a trained Shakespearean actor who has appeared on stage both in England (where he won an Olivier Award for Actor of the Year in a Revival, performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company) and on Broadway. Yet it feels pretty safe to say that he will never be as recognized for his considerable chops as he should be—at least in terms of the awards sitting on his mantle. Although maybe his new show on HBO, Succession, will change that—even the trailer screams, “Golden Globe!”
So let’s take a moment to consider and cherish this performer who goes beyond his “character actor” label. And while you’re at it, go see one of his movies, whether it’s an action movie like The Bourne Identity, X2: X-Men United, or a horror movie, like The Ring, or a family flick like The Water Horse or…Woah, I just realized that he’s in Zodiac. You stay here; I’m going to go watch it. No, on second thought, you go see a Brian Cox movie, too, and we’ll meet back here for our next installment of “And Also Starring…” soon!