How does one prepare to act across Michael Caine? Or Michael Gambon? Ray Winstone? Jim Broadbent? Tom Courtenay? You don’t. Instead, you pinch yourself and fall into a state of trust. Having spent a lifetime preparing for the moment to square off against titans, Charlie Cox finally found himself in the room. It was go-time. And he went.
King of Thieves is an enjoyably quirky crime caper that hides a “Based on a True Story” reality beneath its levity. The audience comes for that parade of classic British gangster actors only to have the rug pulled out from them when genuine human monstrosity takes over. Cox plays the mysterious young gun in the group; a character that doesn’t quite make sense amongst the headlines, but one the actor had to understand if the narrative was to make any sense at all.
I spoke to Cox over the phone. We begin the discussion with his utterly brilliant co-stars, and how a person even begins to integrate themselves into such a magnificent gang. We talk about finding the humanity to a real-life specter of a character, digging deep into research, and making the truth work for you above all else. The conversation concludes with a look at the differences between the serialized television storytelling of Daredevil and the sudden bursts of narrative provided by film. Oh, and we discuss Cox’s possible future with Matt Murdock.
Here is our conversation in full:
I think we just have to start with your co-stars. I mean, yeah, this is an astounding group of actors that you have found yourself amongst.
Thank you so much. Yeah, it was great, man. Obviously, those guys have been my heroes, icons of British cinema, worldwide cinema. And they’ve been heroes of mine since I was a child. So getting to share the screen with them, and meet with them, and work with them was an absolute thrill.
What was your strategy on incorporating yourself into that camaraderie?
Just shut up and listen to the stories. You know what I mean? Don’t say anything, just try and keep a low profile and let them do all the talking and learn as much as possible, that was my game plan.
What did you learn?
I don’t know if you can actually articulate that kind of stuff. I don’t know of any one thing that I learned from those guys. All of them were incredibly nice and kind and generous with their time with everyone on set. They were also incredibly professional and prepared and never late and all that kind of stuff, which as a young actor, I … even though I’m not that young anymore, I always find that very, very encouraging when heroes of mine are also good people and professional.
Obviously, you pick up on all sorts of things from an acting point of view, from a craftsmanship point of view, you learn stuff from everyone you work with. But if you’re working with the likes of Caine, and Gambon, and Broadbent, and those guys, you’re obviously gonna pick up on a lot more.
Basil, your character, he’s kind of this specter in the story, this special ingredient we all want to know more about after the events have unfolded. How do you go about understanding somebody like that as an actor?
Well, because in this instance, because we knew almost nothing about Basil, it was really the one character that we got to invent a little bit. We were forced to make decisions that we still don’t know if they’re right or wrong. So, the trick for me … Obviously, I went through the script. Everything that was in the script, I took. That was my job is to bring the character in Joe’s script to life.
The interesting element for me was trying to explain why in this group, of all these criminals and thieves, why he was allowed to be there. He’s so much younger than the rest of the group. What did he bring to the group, and what was his motivation? Why were they friends with him, or why was he even friends with them? Why didn’t he have mates of his own age that he was hanging out with? So that was the stuff that was most interesting me as a character point of view.
Well, how do you answer questions like that?
Well, first I had to figure out what do I need to make sense of? What is being presented here that doesn’t quite add up? And for me, it’s exactly that. Basil is the catalyst. He’s the one that had a key that got them in the building, which started the whole thing. He’s the catalyst for this, and he’s this great alarm specialist and computer whiz.
That explains why they need him, right? That tells us why those guys needed him because he can A, get them in the building, and B, he’s good with computers, which they’re not, because they’re all in their 70s, right? So, that explains why they need him. But why does he need them? Why didn’t he tell this? Why didn’t he take this key that he had?
Why didn’t he take that to a bunch of mates that were much more physically capable, and therefore more likely to pull off this heist successfully? So that’s what I had to explain. And so, what I came up with was this idea that he’s brilliant with computers and he’s an asset for this job in particular, but he’s also incredibly socially awkward and uncomfortable. And as a result, he doesn’t have any mates and is a bit of a loner and isn’t trusted by people, because he’s got this untrustworthy energy about him, which in the thieving world is a big problem, because if you can’t trust a thief, you’re liable to lose all of the score.
And you’re finding the answers to those questions as you interpret the script, or are you branching out into your own research?
Yeah, everything, everything that you can think of. Reading the script as much possible, talking to the people who’ve researched it. Reading any books, or any material you can get hold of, transcripts from the police, anything you can get hold of really, just anything that might shed a light on it all. And then you take the scenes. For me, I go back to the script as much as possible, and then you start playing around with some ideas. You just wait.
I kind of feel like you’re waiting for an idea that sticks. You’re waiting for something that goes, that helps explain it. From that, it’s like a puzzle piece. Suddenly a puzzle piece seems to fit, and then you start building around that piece that you get. It sounds like a bit of an abstract process, but I think that it is. With every character that you play, there are elements to that character that make sense to you, who you are as a person, that they just seem to fit.
And those are the easy ones. Those are the easy moments. But then there’s also scenes or moments that you don’t quite understand. They don’t seem to make sense. It’s not familiar to you in terms of who you are as a person. Those are the moments you have to really concentrate on because those will help explain who this guy is and how different he is to who you are.
You’ve worked with James Marsh before. How has your relationship with him evolved from project to project?
Well, the nice thing about working with the director for the second time is that you’ve already got a dialogue. You already understand each other. You’ve already got past any kind of miscommunications that people have when they first meet or anything like that. James, we could be very frank with each other. He can say something, and I know what he means, quicker than I would with someone I just met.
What were your conversations with him around Basil?
I got the job, and then we very quickly were in rehearsals a couple of days later almost. I got the job very last minute. And so, whenever I could get hold of him, I would just try to get a sense of what he was imagining, and I would tell him what I was thinking. And then I would have a new idea and I’d communicate that with him. And he’d tell me how if that was in keeping with what he imagined.
Similarly, with Joe Penhall, the writer, I was doing the same thing with them. And then it just starts to make sense, or it starts to reveal itself, and it seemed to be in keeping with what James and Joe wanted and what they imagined. You kind of build it. You start with one idea, and you just build it.
If you’re communicating a lot with the director, then hopefully, you remain on the same page. I always imagine it must be very difficult if you’re a big, big, big movie star and you get offered all these roles without any audition or anything like that. Often you might turn up on set on the first day with this character that you’ve built, and if the director doesn’t agree with you, then you’re in a bit of a spot of bother because you’re already feuding, you know?
That would be a predicament.
I remember years ago when I did Stardust with Robert De Niro, he was insistent that we all got on the phone and read the scenes out loud. I remember he wasn’t due to arrive until his scenes were being shot in the film, but in rehearsals, I was with Claire Danes and Matthew Vaughn, and we all got on the phone with Robert De Niro and read the scenes out loud.
How does your experience working on a one-and-done like King of Thieves or Stardust differ from something like your work on Daredevil?
Yeah, it’s very different, very, very different. I mean, the main difference is that you don’t have a complete journey. You don’t have a start, and a middle, and an end. Obviously, with TV, the hope is that if the show is successful, you can keep making a continuous story. You want to have a satisfying conclusion to each series, but you also can’t wrap everything up entirely, otherwise, you don’t leave the door open for more seasons to come.
In many ways, it’s a bit more like real life in that regard. It’s just a different form of storytelling. With a film like King of Thieves, you get to look at the whole picture of it. You get to see the whole thing and tell that story in a concise period of time, a two slot, or whatever it is. With a TV show, you’ve gotta keep telling the same story almost, but also find new really interesting ways to make those stories compelling to watch and compelling television.
Well, you had three helluva seasons with Daredevil and The Defenders spin-off. Do you feel like you got everything out of that character that you wanted?
Yes, and no. I feel very lucky that we got to do as much as we did, and I got to play that character for the four/five years that I did. Obviously, that’s been one of the great highlights of my career, and I’m eternally grateful to Marvel because they’ve given me that opportunity. When you got a show that does get the response that this show had, especially in our last season. People seem to respond to it better than they had even the previous seasons.
It’s always gonna be slightly bitter for you in the end, because you want to keep doing it. The way to look at it for me right now is that we got to end on such a great high. And hopefully, the show will then live on in people’s memory as being a really quality three seasons of television, rather than what sometimes happens, and I’m not saying this would be based on the creatives behind Daredevil, but sometimes it’ll happen, especially with genre shows is they do begin to dip. You’re grasping at storylines, and it can begin to become a bit absurd, and maybe the benefit with ending when we did is that we’ve side-stepped that land mine.
Do you feel like you’re done with Mr. Murdoch? He’s in your past, time to move on?
I don’t quite feel that yet, maybe because it’s so recent. I’ve been living with the idea that I would play this character for five years. I don’t feel like overnight you suddenly feel like you don’t associate yourself with that character anymore. So I think that takes its time. Also, I’m just like other fans of the show. I occasionally look up online and see what the rumors are, and you hear all sorts of things about whether it can have another life on another platform, or at a later date.
I slightly live in hope that will present itself at some point in the future. I think it’s pretty clear that that’s not gonna be in the next year or so. I think it’ll be a bit further down the line. But I don’t know, because I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. I don’t know what the rules are, or what the conversations are. I’m not privy to them.
King of Thieves is now playing in select theaters as well as Digital HD and VOD.