Escapist, The: Brian Cox plays Frank Perry

The origins of The Escapist lie in a short film called “Get the Picture” made by director Rupert Wyatt (and producer Adrian Sturges) intended as a show-reel from which he hoped to develop a feature project.
Rupert explains, “I made a short with Brian (Cox) called Get the Picture and it was the opening scene of a feature film, set in a war zone which I was hoping to make and we’ve remained friends ever since.”

“When I was talking to Brian about getting a first-feature off the ground, he suggested writing something with a very strong central character that he could play. Well, it’s not every day a director gets an offer like that from an actor of that stature, so I went home and I was thinking about a film which would be contained and which I could get finance for. Brian and I had had long conversations about the Hollywood greats like Spencer Tracy and Bogart and Wayne and so my mind went towards a genre subject and the prison one was one which I’ve always loved. So I quickly wrote a draft of The Escapist and sent it to Brian, very anxiously, wondering if he’d like it. And he immediately wrote me a very nice email saying he loved it and here we are! So he was the inspiration for it and he’s stuck by it ever since which has been fantastic.”

Producer Adrian Sturges admits that “Brian’s casting drove the development of the project. We were quite conscious from the beginning of the kind of budget we could raise for a first time feature director so we deliberately went about creating a very contained story; and well, it doesn’t get much more contained than prison! But it’s also a genre that Rupert has liked for a long time and which Brian is passionate about, so it’s a good match.” Sturges adds that “Brian’s involvement got the project properly under way and Rupert and I begun to look for a prison to film in; the location being a leading character in its own right. Having failed to find anything really cinematic in the UK we went to Ireland where we’d heard about Kilmainham jail. We were then fortunate enough to meet and go into partnership with Alan Moloney and Susan Mullen and their company Parallel Films, one of the leading production companies in Ireland. Parallel became completely involved in the production, securing finance in Ireland, and the film – which shot mostly in Dublin with an Irish crew and in London for the escape sections – became a true coproduction between the two countries.”

Brian Cox doesn’t need to prove his capabilities as a screen actor, having established himself as one of the most versatile and in-demand actors working in movies today. Why was he so enthusiastic about working with Rupert? “We did a short film with which won some prizes. I remember that when we shot that I had the flu and he lost his first assistant and it was raining. I saw him through a fog but he was in overdrive and worked brilliantly under pressure. We talked about working together on a feature and then he gave me this great script. There’s not a bit of fat on it. And the original script had everything in it; it doesn’t explain or show it just does. It’s really a wonderful gift he’s given me.”

Cox continues, “The thing that sold me on the script was this man was virtually silent for the whole film, all internal and then at the end of the film everything is unleashed, when he talks to the king of the prison. In a way he wants to explain something very profound, which I think the audience will love. To me it’s kind of epic, it’s like Spencer Tracy’s last speech in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The story has a mythical quality crossing Hades to reality or redemption.”

Cox plays Frank Perry, a ‘lifer’; a prisoner who has been in prison so long that he is completely institutionalised. Yet something happens to him to reawaken his passion for life.

Cox explains, “He’s a guy in need of redemption. He’s at a point now where he’s kind of settled to his fate but he realises that the world is not just about him and it has been for so long. He has a daughter who he hasn’t seen since she was about six. And at the point where the movie takes places he’s reached a crisis and he decides that he has to see her so he wants to get out. But also I think the thing that’s working on a subconscious level is that he’s just had enough. He’s got to get some fresh air. He can’t go on in this state. So the whole story is driven by him. It’s his vision. And then along the way he finds that redemption comes from an unexpected place, from the young lad Lacey [played by Dominic Cooper], who reminds him of himself. It’s a great story.”

It was Cox, of course, who first brought to the screen one of the most famous prisoners in film history; Hannibal Lector in Manhunter. What challenges does playing a character ‘on the inside’ bring to an actor? “The thing about being a prisoner is that it’s very precise; the fields of reference are very particular. It’s like courtroom drama. There are many elements of cliché, it’s a very clear game and therefore in terms of creativity it gives you a very limited sphere to work within. You can’t be glamorous. It keeps you very centred.” And in portraying Frank, he believes that the key is a kind of distance. “The guys who are in control are quite decadent; like some nutty Roman emperor. Within that system they’ve been allowed to achieve that kind of power because no-one else is interested. Frank is old world; these guys are younger and corrupt. That’s what’s fascinating to me; that hierarchy is a given and it’s wonderful to be working in a world like that.”

Reflecting on his recent string of successes and how this film relates to the kinds of characters with which he has become associated, Cox admits that “Frank is a bit different from the kinds of roles I get cast in nowadays and in a way its closer to what I wanted to be as an actor. He’s much more feminine; he’s a tough but sensitive man and it’s in the line of those great or Mitchum or Brando characters that I loved so much growing up.”