The TDF Interview: James Cosmo
James Cosmo has a very impressive CV and an acting career which spans over six decades which includes such TV highlights as Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy and 90s hit Roughnecks. His film roles have been just as varied: Trainspotting, Braveheart, Troy and Whiskey Galore (out 19 May) to name a few.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the legendary actor a couple of weeks ago to chat about his illustrious career and The Pyramid Texts, a black and white film in which boxing is as much of a character as the ageing boxer recalling his life and fights, amid loss and grief.
The film is called The Pyramid Texts, what is the correlation between the tile and the old Egyptian text?
JC: The correlation is in the way the Egyptians wrapped their dead in bandages. The direct symbolism is when you see in the film the protagonist wrapping his hands in bandages, in preparation for a match. He’s been doing this forever; for every single bout, throughout his whole life. As you find out at the end of the film, it's taking his son’s spirit on a journey into the afterlife, like the mummification of his son, the bandages representing the protection he never gave him.
There is a sense of theatricality to film. Was it intended to be a play?
There is. It was always meant to be movie; Geoff did have an intention to take it out on the road as a one-man-show. Before doing the film, I thought it was a good idea. After I made the film, I decided not to. I didn’t want to go there again with this character. I didn’t want to be that man again.
You mention this in past interviews, that it’s the hardest role you played. Can you explain why?
I would say, this is the most demanding role. As an actor, you get sent scripts and they say you are going to do this and that and you do it because you need to earn a living. With The Pyramid Texts, the way the film is set up, it flags up the fact that if you're not going to commit completely to this character, then it’s going to be awful and embarrassing. So I made a decision that you are going to give everything you have to the character, go through everything that he is going to go through. In a way, that’s what drew me to it, cause never in 53 years as an actor, have been faced with a part like this.
Well the film does solely rest on your shoulders. The film is basically you. Did you feel the pressure?
I can’t say that I felt comfortable doing it. I felt that it was one man’s story and if we were to have other people in the story, it wouldn’t work. I think it's brave for Geoff Thompson and the Shammasian brothers to have audiences sit there for 45 minutes, telling one man’s story, not cutting any of it, with almost no other footage apart from Ray telling history about his grief, humanity, about love, fear; about the basic primal instincts and taking all that in and becoming more empathic to his story.
Why was the film shot in black and white?
The Shammasian brothers paid a great deal of attention to the sound landscape of the film, which is incredibly subtle. The change is so subtle, between voice to music to the sound of the rain and all these other sounds that are constantly drip fed into the film. I agreed with them; that black and white tends to focus the viewer, on these sound details as well focus in on the actors as there is less attention being paid to the surroundings. Also black and white cinematography allows the viewer to colour in, in their own minds.
Do you have any affiliation with boxing?
I do. My son, who you see in the film, is a boxer; a terrific boxer in fact. I enjoy the drama of boxing. When they get into the ring, man against man, you see extraordinary things. Incredible bravery, humanity, you see love. I find boxing an emotional sport.
I am surprised you say ‘love’. As for me, when I think of boxing, I think of it as a violent sport.
Well yes, don’t get me wrong it is violent but two people are consenting to putting themselves in the ring to get beaten up. For the character, boxing was a way for him to tackle his fears.
Yes, there is quite a lot said by the character about fear. Was he driven by that?
We are all afraid of life and death. We are animals at the end of the day, afraid of losing people and things we hold dearest. And the character in the film does lose his son. Then he is made to confront this fear that has been realised.
Your IMDB page is truly impressive
Thank you. Well, I’ve been around for a while.
It is impressive given the acting profession can be ‘hit and miss’ for a lot of striving actors. What would you attribute your success to?
I completely believe in fate. I am going to annoy a lot of people to say that it’s down to luck. I am no better or worse than any other actor. I’ve just been blessed. Of course, I have had bad moments. But when these parts in Braveheart or Troy came along, I would think to myself 'Really? How many actors could have played this part? 100? 200? 500? So many actors could have played it better than you'. But I was lucky 'cause I got the chance.
So what’s next for you?
Well, I am doing a sitcom with John Cleese. It’s for the BBC. It’s John’s return to the BBC after 25 years. Don’t remember the name, I’m sure it’s on the BBC website. [It's called Edith, Ed] It’s a funny script, which I am totally looking forward to sinking my teeth into. I’ve never done a sitcom before.
The Pyramid Texts is available to rent now from Amazon Video and iTunes.