Interview: Alex Cox, actor and director

Art & Lit Stage

Alex Cox, director of Repo Man, Straight to Hell and Sid and Nancy, actively eludes categorisation: “it’s just rationalising rather than organic, labelling for labelling’s sake is a kind of mental disease!” His impressive resumé includes directing, acting, writing, illustrating and teaching. With so many talents, what does he consider himself to be? “I don’t really define myself in such a way, it would be very limiting. I just exist day to day.”

Often described as a cult director, Cox objects to even this categorisation: “it’s a catch-it-all phrase for people or work that the speaker isn’t quite sure how to categorize.” However, his most popular films are considered cult classics. Despite the popularity of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, his favourite work remains Walker: “it’s the most difficult and structurally interesting”. Is he disappointed then that it has received relatively little attention? “I guess it’s like being a neighbour with 12 children; everyone notices the big ones, but you’re like ‘What about this weird little one at the back?’ But hey, you’re just happy if someone notices one of them!” The disparity in recognition between his films no doubt has a lot to do with his early films being produced by Universal Studios and therefore much more widely distributed.

So what does he think of contemporary big studio films? “I saw True Grit recently; it’s interesting. The new film’s ending is very good, but it lacks any kind of legendary quality or meaning.” Being a fanatic of the spaghetti westerns, he considers John Wayne to be inimitable: “I mean it’s JOHN WAYNE! He has this considerable weight and history behind him.” Dennis Hopper dying in John Wayne’s arms was a “sociological artefact” and this “serviceable movie can’t get the emotional depth.”

Cox’s varied career started here in Oxford: directing at the Oxford Playhouse during his time at Worcester College. One of his earliest forays was directing a production of Cabaret: “I had this big fat guy playing the Joel Grey part, he was good but so different! It showed me that a character doesn’t have to be one thing or another.” Although primarily involved in film, he loves theatre and would love to do more, but “It’s a different world and it’s very hard to enter a world you’re not part of.” He also enjoys acting, and has appeared in several films. Mainly involved in Mexican films, he feels lucky to have been able to get work at the tail-end of the Mexican movie boom. You’ll also see him cameo as minor characters in many of his own films.

As well as working on a book project at the moment, following his success in illustrating Three Dead Princes, an “Anarchist fairytale” written by Danbert Nobacon last year, Alex is also preparing to take up a teaching post as a film artist. This may seem a long way from the strange-looking punk who appeared on our screens in the BBC’s Moviedrome in the late 80s (“That look was a BBC thing, but those are my T-shirts”), but a desire to instruct and encourage runs through much of his work, from educating the masses in film literacy, to his book XFilms – which reads as an instruction manual to aspiring independent film makers.

“My idea is that we’re the prime movers and the subjects of our own stories…I try to communicate how important it is to be an actor and not just acted upon.” In his films, “It’s not so much about always being victorious…more about doing the right thing or reaching for something…it’s very important to acquire knowledge.”

Although wanting to encourage future generations, Alex is not optimistic: “You guys are in for it! I’m glad I’m 99 years old.” The free market culture, he feels, has deprived us of our future: “We sold the farm for some magic beans and they’re still in the ground! We’re still standing, staring at them, waiting for them to grow. It is outrageous how my generation has disrespected the following generations, how we could privatise and rip off so egregiously.” Although he remains interested in the future of the film industry and how the medium might change from its current narrative to something more interactive, he feels that “We’ve got bigger things to worry about, like, where are all the people in Los Angeles going to get their water from, what are we going to do when the petrol runs out or when all the animals are dead and we’re living in bunkers underground with a radioactive wasteland over our heads? THERE ARE BIGGER THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT.”

So is the former Punk enthusiast going to be leading a revolution? “Oh no, revolution has to be a full-time thing, and you can’t do it with just one man.” But he still considers punk philosophy and ideology to be “something intrinsic that pre-exists language.” So the descriptor of “punk” is just one of many we employ to try to communicate this; “Punk, surrealist, Dadaist, anarchist… it’s about who we really are…how important it is to realise our authentic desires…that we’re not denied our part of the fun.”

Being a strong admirer of the surrealist movement as a good way of telling a story, Cox finds little to admire in abstract art. “I don’t see anything in that, though I do admire them taking the money…It’s too easy. It’s hard to be a representational artist.” It seems then that art to Cox is communication and the telling of a story. This then is why he admires his influencers so much: “Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa, Arturo Ripstein, Lindsey Anderson, John Ford, Sam Pecking… They’re all pursuing their own things and are technically very good. They have something to say, and communicate something original.”

–Alice Hallewell