Churchill is about to be released in Australian cinemas and I recently had the chance to speak with star Brian Cox about stepping into the shoes of the infamous leading character.
Matt: How did this project first come across your radar?
Brian: It came to me via a small company called Salon Pictures and producer Paul Van Carter. It came out of the blue. They told me they were doing a film about Churchill and that they wanted me for the role. I read the script which was written by a young woman, Alex von Tunzelmann, who is an historian and specialises in historical accuracy. I felt “this woman knows her stuff.” It’s such an original take on Churchill but when you examine it, it’s completely on the money.
He went through this difficult time towards the end of 1943 where he was ill and had pneumonia in the lead up to D-Day. He had doubts about the plan which was related to what happened in Gallipoli during World War I which was a failure and affected a lot of Australians. He took full responsibility for that. He actually resigned from the government and went into the wilderness for quite a long time.
Churchill was very ambitious, rather bumptious and a bit of a know-it-all. He was smart as anything, a great journalist and a great writer. He already had an extraordinary history in the Boer War. It was fascinating to me that he had this crisis in World War II which, as is inferred from Alex’s script, never left him. He felt very bad about it.
Matt: An interesting element of the film is that it doesn’t portray Churchill in a positive light. He’s very stubborn to pretty much everyone around him, including his wife. Do you think this will be an eye-opener for audiences? To see a side of Churchill that isn’t as well known?
Brian: He was certainly stubborn but the interesting thing that came out for me was that after we worked on it for several weeks and had started shooting, the army advisor pipped up and said “you know, we actually put Churchill’s plan for D-Day into a computer at Sandhurst 30 years ago and the result was extraordinary.” He said the result was that the war would have ended 6 months earlier.
When Churchill had an idea, he was like a dog and wouldn’t let it go. Unfortunately, it was a shift in time and he was part of another generator. He was 70, he was quite frail, he’d been ill and he suffered from depression. Also, the war was getting to him. The losses were mounting. You’d have to be deeply incentive not be affected by some of that.
D-Day turned out to be a success but there were a lot of mistakes and a lot of guys died. Ironically, it was the Americans who came off worst. I looked at actual videos of people manning the landing crafts and for some, none of their guys even made it to the shore. At Utah Beach they lost 1,200-1,500 men in the first 20 minutes. That’s something that kind of stokes the fire of Churchill’s difficult with what happened.
Matt: Can I talk about the research that you had to do for the film? Do you have access to any material you hadn’t heard of or seen before?
Brian: Actors work like detectives. You piece things together. One thing that’s interesting in the wake of Brexit, I discovered that Churchill had a plan in the early part of the war to give French people citizenship of Britain and vice-versa. That would help create a fermented Europe that was beginning then. He could see the difficultly of what was going on.
Another thing I learned was about the protection of his image and this is where his wife comes into play. She was fierce in protecting him and did so. It’s why so much information about Churchill was kept hidden and is only coming out now.
A strong example is that there’s a video of when Churchill sat for a portrait with the English painter Graham Sutherland. It has a red background which dominates the painting. Churchill is only in the bottom third and he sits slumped. He’s probably in his late 70s by this point. He’s got a button undone on his fly. It’s a “warts and all” portrait.
The video is of when the portrait was revealed in Westminster Palace. He’s making a speech and if you look at his wife, she’s closely got her eyes on him. She clearly has seen the painting but he hasn’t. When it comes to the moment of reveal, he turns around, looks at it for a moment and says “oh, I see I’m a victim of modern art.” The painting was given to Churchill and she had it destroyed. She set fire to it. That’s to do with protecting the image of her husband. Her presence in his life was very formidable and very necessary, particularly as he got older.
It’s also worth noting that there are two Churchills. There’s the private man who had a great sense of humour. He was child-like at times. I’ve always said all babies look like Winston Churchill and Winston Churchill looks like all babies. When you think about it, the smoking of the cigar is like thumb sucking. It’s a comforter. This film delves into that private side which all made sense to me.
There was an element of Churchill that was unlikeable. He was the MP of my home town and so I grew up with a great ambivalence towards him. He cursed my town. He made a speech from the railway station that “I will see the grass grow green over the industrial wasteland of this city”. He was right. Now though, there’s no question in my mind that just like Mandela and Napoleon, he was a man of destiny and that destiny lay with the success of World War II.
Matt: Talk us through the physical aspects of your performance. What was the process for getting Churchill’s looks, mannerisms and voice down pat?
Brian: I really wanted to try to avoid any kind of fat suit or prosthetics. I’ve always had a battle with my weight and I’m a diabetic which is also dangerous. I decided to just let myself go. I’ve just subsequently lost about 30 pounds in weight. I’m still broad in the shoulder and in the chest but I don’t have the gut any more thank God. That was one thing.
I shaved my head and had my hair bleached. I also had to fill in my chin because Churchill didn’t have a cleft chin. For me, acting is always an internal process. Two of my favourite actors are Spencer Tracy and Charles Laughton. Laughton had this great thing of “thinking a part” and he became the character that way. Tracy did the same.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
Brian: There’s a couple of films I’m doing called Being Dead and then another film in Canada with Greg Kinnear, Amy Adams and Blythe Danner called Strange But True. I’m then going to do a TV series for HBO. I’ve already shot the pilot. It’s about a media family who are in the process of deciding the succession plan for their father and who is going to take over when he retires. It’s a family that owns newspapers and television stations so it should sound familiar.
I play the patriarch of the family. The first episode is about him giving his empire away but it’s also about him taking his empire back. The series is called Succession and it has the lovely Australian actress Sarah Snook who plays my daughter. It’s written by Jesse Armstrong who has been involved with Armando Iannucci and worked on shows like Veep and Peep Show. It’s produced and directed by Adam McKay who made The Big Short. It’s really good and they loved the pilot so we go to series between the end of July and September.