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Brian Cox Reveals Why Jim Norton Made Him Cry and What He's Really Drinking on Stage in London's The Weir

Brian Cox Reveals Why Jim Norton Made Him Cry and What He's Really Drinking on Stage in London's The Weir
Brian Cox in 'The Weir'
'What I want as an actor when I do theater is a reason to sit on the stage.'

Brian Cox moves between stage and screen work in London, New York, and L.A. with ease. The Emmy-winning Scotsman can currently be found anchoring the director Josie Rourke’s revival of Conor McPherson’s lyrical and mournful play, The Weir, playing the heavy-drinking bachelor, Jack, who finds his life upended one night in a rural Irish pub. The amiably bearish actor spoke to about everything from pub culture to how best to drink Coke Zero to McPherson’s genius as a writer.

The Weir takes place entirely in a remote Irish pub, where people trade stories and have a drink or 10. Do you recognize the sort of world McPherson is describing?
I very much know what these pubs are like. They can be quite brutal, actually, because the pub represents a fortress of sorts for men behaving badly where you’ve got all the bile and the rue and the alcohol mixing with the hierarchies and philosophies of pub life.

What’s so fascinating about The Weir is the way in which this particular pub allows for the possibility of great kindness—even love.
That’s absolutely right. What happens during the play is that Jack is actually encouraged to get back to the roots of who he is and his sense of self, and [the play’s lone female character] Valerie draws that out of him so that he gets rejuvenated.

It must be something eight times a week to hear [co-star] Dervla Kirwan deliver the emotionally harrowing monologue towards which the play builds.
She’s pretty unbeatable—the way she opens up to that moment and just goes with it. There’s a structure there of course—it’s quite crafted—but at the same time, Dervla is just so open to the experience of the moment. This really is the best bunch of actors I’ve worked with in years and what’s so good is it's a real ensemble.

You all consume a lot of drinks!
[Laughs.] There is a lot of drink! I’ve actually got to take it easy because I’m sort of trying to clean up my act as a type-2 diabetic—though I do drink my Coke Zero with a modicum of Guinness to give it the color it has.

You mean that’s not just colored water?
No, you can’t get colored water like that because it has to have a head on it.

Was it a challenge following Tony winner Jim Norton in a role that he originated in London and then on Broadway some 15 years ago?
What’s fantastic is that Jim and I go back so many years; he was a lodger at my house in London in the ‘70s, so we’ve known one another well over 40 years. That said, when I knew he was going to be in the auditorium on the first night at the Donmar I was just shitting myself, but in fact he made me cry—that’s how generous he is.

What about him made you cry?
He’s just got such a generous spirit about the work. What he made clear to me is that, like all great parts, Jack is going to be open to a range of people, so that if you can cut the mustard, you will be able to do it. I then realized that it’s not about appearances—as you know, Jim and I could hardly look more different—but about inhabiting the character: Jack is a great role in that he has sort of marginalized his own life, so that gives you a lot to act.

You’d had prior success acting Conor’s plays on stage, with St. Nicholas and Dublin Carol. Was this offer a no-brainer for you to accept?
It had been such a great theatrical event the first time around that I thought, I don’t know if I can follow that. But then I read the play and all these incredible vibes came off it, and I thought yes, I’ll do it, so that was it. What I want as an actor when I do theater is a reason to sit on the stage, and Conor gives you that and so much more.

In some ways, the testosterone-charged flavor of this play isn’t that dissimilar from That Championship Season, which you performed on Broadway in 2011.
Very much so, and it’s Irish, too. Jason [Miller, that play’s author] was of Irish ancestry, so that also is a play about coming home as well as the people who never left. Interestingly, in The Weir Jack tells us that he tried to go live in Dublin on several occasions but couldn’t make it: the archetype of the play is so powerful—and yet so particular about people’s journeys at the same time.

You act on stage on both sides of the Atlantic and juggle screen work so well. Where do you consider home?
Brooklyn, without a doubt: that’s where I live with Nicole [Cox’s second wife] and my two young sons. I mean, I can see the allure of L.A., and I like it, but it’s quite reclusive in a way—all those houses tucked up in the hills.

As you get older, does it become easier to manage that nebulous thing known as a career?
You just have to do it, you know? I mean, it’s exhausting and it’s getting a bit more tiring now, but on the other hand as actors it’s what we do and who we are: we follow our mercenary calling and we draw our wages.

How lovely that you choose to return regularly to the theater unlike others who have kissed the stage goodbye.
My feeling is that there is a certain kind of personality who also becomes more dedicated to the theater over time like Antony Sher or Simon Russell Beale, and we’re all the luckier for that. My feeling about doing theater is that I don’t ever want to give it up. I want to keep coming back so that I’m able to say, “I’m part of this as well, you know”—and then goodbye.

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