Sir Winston Churchill is known as one of the most revered politicians of all time, the prime minister who helped bring the United Kingdom out of World War II through his inspirational speeches and broadcasts. Cigar lovers know him also to be an unabashed enjoyer of booze and premium smokes.
But behind the iconic figure and rousing speeches stood another man, a different Churchill who had to face military failure and political ridicule. A new film called Churchill explores the dichotomy and lesser-known side of the great prime minister—a man who remained utterly focused on his duties while coping with extreme doubt and severe depressive episodes.
Churchill debuted last Friday, just shy of the anniversary of D-Day, which happened 73 years ago today. It's playing in selected theaters now, and stars Brian Cox as Winston Churchill, along with Miranda Richardson, who plays his wife, John Slattery, who plays Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and Julian Wadham, who plays Gen. Bernard Montgomery.
We sat down with Cox inside The Carnegie Club in New York City. Born in Scotland, Cox sat in a chair next to a portrait of Churchill, answering questions with a rhotic accent.
NAGY: The film does a great job of humanizing Winston Churchill, a man of such historic stature that he almost comes off as mythical to some. How was this achieved?
COX: When you deal with an icon like Churchill the thing is you have to present the man, what the man is, and make you understand that it's the man that creates the icon, it's not the icon that creates the man. And when you see a man who has as many flaws as he has, but is as human as he is, it gives you the dimension of what you're dealing with. He's not some kind of super-man, he's like you and me: he's flesh and blood. But, he finds himself in this extraordinary situation where he becomes the leader. At the age of past 65 was when he became prime minister. And he inhabits this one thing, which is this anti-Fascist notion that he was determined to protect the country through his rhetoric and through his broadcasting. He did an amazing job, but at the same time, there's always got to be some kind of cost. You don't get away with nothing. And his cost was his depression. His addiction to alcohol and the fact that the world was changing. The new boys were on the block—Eisenhower and Montgomery, who were very much part of the new boys. Churchill was part of the old brigade.
Q: There was a great scene involving Churchill, cigars and one of these new boys: Eisenhower. In the scene, the viewer sees a more vulnerable side to Churchill, a side where you see he may be capable of mistakes. Can you illuminate?
A: Yeah, he certainly made himself a lot of enemies throughout his life. He was the MP of my hometown [Dundee, Scotland] before I was born, but he wasn't liked because he changed parties. They didn't like that act and thought it was betrayal. My family is predominantly Irish and, of course, Churchill was involved in the forming of the six counties. And he was involved in putting Michael Collins and Edward Carson in a room together, which was a brilliant idea, but sadly, that whole process sealed Collins' fate.
Q: Churchill is one of the most admired and studied politicians in history. What did you do to prepare for the role?
A: Well, I learned the lines (laughs). And that is the biggest challenge of all, really. Normally in film, people learn the lines the night before a scene. I had to learn the script like three weeks before we started filming because I had to know the script backwards and forwards because of the volatility of the man. I had to be able to have his energy, that kind of drive that he had. And you can't do that without real total familiarity. You got to have everything at your fingertips. That was the great thing about the role and the great script. There were certain elements that you pick on like the construct of Churchill, that there was a Churchill that was this kind of Churchill for the cameras and all of the sort of physical idea of Churchill. But it's all a construct, even if you listen to the speeches, the way he speaks in his speeches with his falling inflection. All of that. It's all kind of designed.
Q: And that shows in the movie when he pores over each word of his speech.
A: That's right. He kind of did this. And it was part of his shtick. He did have a shtick. The other thing that is really appealing to me about Churchill is all babies look like Churchill (laughs) and Churchill looks like all babies. So immediately there's that kind of infant quality about him.
Q: One interesting thing too about this movie with the cigar aspect is so often in films and plays, it's always the antagonist who smokes cigars. It's usually used to instantly show who the villain is. But in this movie, it's the protagonist that is seen with a cigar. How did you plan the cigar into the role?
A: You can't avoid it when playing Churchill. I really loved using the cigar. The cigar, actually, going back to the baby idea, is a form of thumb-sucking. It's exactly the same principle: It's a comforter. And Churchill's great comfort was his cigar. And, of course, his booze as well. But the cigar is this thing he can carry with him on a constant day-by-day. There was some questions of "Should we do the cigar in this scene?" But then I realized I was doing the cigar more and more and more because it was who Churchill was! He was an inveterate cigar smoker. I mean he is the cigar smoker of all time.
Q: Well, there's a reason he has a cigar size named for him.
A: That's right.
Q: Do you enjoy cigars personally?
A: I like Cuban cigars [Montecristo]. But I don't smoke so much now because I'm at an age now where you don't smoke.
Q: Did you draw on any past cigar experiences then?
A: I played cigar smokers in the past. I know how to prepare a cigar properly—clipping them, lighting them and such. So I knew a bit about cigar etiquette. And that's very important for playing Churchill.
Q: Winston's relationship with his wife, Clemmie, was complex. What can you say about how it was presented in the film?
A: Well, she was his rock. And she was so important to him, given his age and given the fact that he was under siege. At this time [in the film], he'd been ill with pneumonia. The last thing you should be doing is smoking cigars when you have pneumonia and wash it down with whisky and Champagne at breakfast. She realized that she was the protector of the legacy. If you read Eisenhower's diaries, all his demurring about Churchill is all there, but you'll not get a word of it from the Churchill family because they'll do anything to protect the positive nature of his legacy. So in a way we are in a stage now where we can investigate Churchill and not lose the respect, or even the stature of him. In fact, if anything, we enhance his stature. His legacy in incredibly important.
Q: In the picture, there's a lot of cigar smoking. He's just walking in and out of buildings with a cigar. Was it weird smoking on set?
A: No. But it was ironic because in Scotland [where the movie was filmed] you're not allowed to smoke in public anywhere. You aren't even allowed to smoke in acting productions. So some of the cigars were electric. They were designed at various lengths. Occasionally I would light up a real cigar, but you would see it in a very specific way. But mainly, when I was in the street, I'd be smoking electric. So we had to be very circumspect about when we lit up a cigar because they didn't like it. They didn't mind the electric because it's just vapor and not like smoking real cigars. But I actually enjoyed the real ones. That's why I tended to use the real cigar whenever I could.
Q: Were you a Churchill follower before this film?
A: As I said, Churchill was the MP of my hometown. So I kind of knew about Churchill ever since I was this high (holds hand a few feet off the floor). So he was a figure, he was a mythical figure. And he was a controversial figure. Always was. And I think he was controversial his entire life. He wasn't universally loved. Arguably, he could be the greatest Briton of all time. Just because of that four-year period. Just because of how he held the country together. And he really did hold the country together with his broadcasts. With the Winston Churchill legacy. That legacy, that iconic thing that he had. My parents, who weren't big Churchill fans, did acknowledge that he was the guy who got us through the war. Nobody else could have done it.
Q: Do you have any projects coming up that you can talk about?
A: I'm going to be doing series for HBO, which I start in September. We have done the pilot and they picked it up and I'm hanging fire, waiting to begin. It's called "Succession," and it's about a media family. About a family who own newspapers and television stations and who are quite ruthless. And I play the patriarch.
Q: Something akin to "Newsroom?"
A: Whereas "Newsroom" is a little bit more heroic, this is not quite heroic. More focused on the nefarious doings of the family. But funny. Very witty.