Interview Date: 11/15/2010
Run Date: 12/02/2010
Being both a little person and African-American, it's an inescapable for a talented and highly experienced performer like Tony Cox that most roles refers to his stature and, usually, his ethnicity. On the other hand, few actors of any size or pigmentation have managed the kind of indelible, stereotype-busting comic performance he assayed in his best known film, 2003's "Bad Santa." Working alongside two absurdly intense comic performers, Billy Bob Thornton and the late Bernie Mac, Tony Cox created a memorable villain in the outspoken and conniving Marcus, getting some of the film's biggest laughs while frequently playing straight man to Thornton's drunken criminal layabout and Mac's larcenous store detective. Of course, it was a long time getting there and just one role in a long and highly diverse career that also includes a noted turn alongside Jim Carrey in the Farrelly Brothers' 2000 "My, Myself, and Irene."
Though Cox is proud of many of his other roles, most of them are comic and, now in his fifties, the actor is clearly looking to branch out as much as Hollywood will let him. To that end, Cox's latest part promises to go at least slightly beyond the usual roles an actor with dwarfism might be given. The first English-language vehicle for Korean superstar Jang Dong-gun, "The Warrior's Way" features Cox as Eight-Ball, the leader of a group of carnies who becomes a father figure to a young woman (Kate Bosworth) bent on revenge against a vile and powerful all-purpose evil-guy (Danny Huston). The debut of writer-direct Sngmoo Lee, the film seeks to blend Asian-style martial arts fantasies with classic westerns and highly stylized "300" style actioners.
I forget to mention his most recent major role in Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnussus" when I met with Cox during the middle of a press day held at the Beverly Hilton. Otherwise, we hit most of the highlights of his career by the end of our talk, including his start and how he was inspired by such great little person performers as master showman Billy Barton and actor Michael Dunn. I also learned the folly of not taking everything you read on the Internet, definitely including Wikipedia and IMDb, with a decent-sized grain of salt. I now find myself embarked on a crusade to tell the world that Cox is no vegetarian but, in fact, an enthusiastic carnivore.A quick note to explain my first question: Unlike most such events, the complete film of "The Warrior's Way" had not been screened prior to the press day. Instead, the night before, we writers were treated to some clips, a panel discussion, and some really delicious Japanese food at a reception afterward. It appears that Rogue Studios was anxious to have the film written about, but not reviewed
Bullz-Eye: So, Eight-Ball -- I was just going over the notes, unfortunately, there weren't too many clips of you last night...
Tony Cox: Oh, okay.
BE: He's kind of an authority figure and a father figure?
BE: Have you played many parts like that?
TC: No, I haven't. It was a different role for me. I'm really over the carny people, the unofficial leader. It's not that I've been really voted that, it's just that it just happened...Really, the carny people are just really like what we call "misfits." You got the bearded lady, the strong man, me, for being a little person. We've got this group and it's this bond because we're different.
BE: You're probably tired of answering questions about "Bad Santa."
TC: No. Hey, "Bad Santa" is the one that put me on the map.
BE: It truly is...[Marcus] is not exactly a leader, but he's an authoritative guy. I think you and Peter Dinklage are the two little people who've done that so far that we've really seen recently.
BE: But do people stop you a lot, asking you about "Bad Santa"?
TC: Oh, man. Everywhere. Even when I go overseas, it's "Bad Santa." Sometimes it's "Me, Myself, and Irene," but "Bad Santa" is the one. Everybody talks about "Bad Santa" and what they want to know is "When are you going to do another one? Is there another one?"
BE: [Laughing] I wouldn't mind seeing it.
TC: Me, neither.
BE: I found a clip last night of you, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bernie Mac kind of drumming.
TC: Oh, yeah.
BE: You remember that?
TC: No, I don't. We were drumming?
BE: It was one of the restaurant scenes and you were obviously waiting for the take to start.
TC: Oh, it must have been the negotiation scene, when we were at the table and everything. Yeah, I know what you're talking about. Yeah, I was messing around the table 'cause I play drums.
BE: Right, you were a drummer before you were an actor.
BE: I understand you have a black-belt.
BE: Did you get to use it a little bit in ["The Warrior's Way"]?
TC: No. They didn't know that I could do martial arts. I told them once I got there. It was later on, but I wasn't really in shape to do anything.
BE: I understand you also like to ride horses. Did you get to do that?
TC: No. I'm wondering where did that come from.
BE: It's not true?
TC: No, that's not true.
BE: Is the ranch in Arizona also a fabrication?
TC: I have no idea where that came from.
BE: It's on IMDb and Wikipedia.
[Writer’s note: Cox's IMDb "trivia" section seems to have disappeared since this interview.]
TC: They also have that I'm a vegetarian. Man, I love meat. They said that on the flight going to Vancouver. They said, "So, we have your vegetarian meal." I said, "Vegetarian meal? I want some meat!"
BE: That was on the Internet, too, though I wasn't going to ask about it.
TC: I have to get that changed.
BE: You know what it actually said, though is that, at the ranch you don't own, you raise cattle, but you will eat those cattle [laughing]...
TC: I raise cattle but I don't eat meat?
BE: You'll eat your own cattle as a kind of tribute to them.
TC: No. Now they got me into some other stuff. No, I love meat, man. I'm not a vegetarian.
BE: Okay, I'll do my part to correct the record on that one.
TC: Thank you.
BE: Now this I'm pretty sure is true, at least I hope so. Your first movie was a Roger Corman film called "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Hype."
TC: "Dr Heckyll and Mr. Hype." Yeah.
BE: That to me is really interesting because Roger Corman is this kind of amazing figure, and the guy who wrote it -- even though I get the impression it was maybe not the greatest movie ever made -- he was the guy who wrote "Little Shop of Horrors."
BE: You didn't know that?
BE: Do you have any memories of that?
TC: Very little. I remember working with, what was his name?
BE: Charles Griffith.
TC: He was great, the director.
BE: Also the writer.
TC: He was great. I remember he hired me. I remember the scenes I had to do. I remember showing them I could do the nunchucks. I did the nunchucks in that.
BE: Wow. Cool.
TC: Yeah. I think that was the thing that took it over the top to where I got the job. He said, "Man, that's great." I remember that from the interview. The actor was, uh...
BE: Oh, yeah. I forgot to write it down, but there was a very big star in it...
TC: He was really nice to me.
BE: Anthony Quinn?
TC: It wasn't Anthony Quinn.
BE: It was somebody of that caliber, I cannot remember who.
[Writer’s note: It was the superb English actor and legendary drinker Oliver Reed, who was very much of the same larger-than-life caliber as Quinn, but from a later generation.]
TC: He was really, really nice to me. I remember, it was fricking cold. We went to Griffith Park. It was freezing around 10 at night. I had a good time with it, though.
BE: I also noticed that you were on a TV show, "Pryor's Place."
BE: That's a little bit of history. Not only was it with Richard Pryor, but also the writing staff. I know you worked a lot with Sid and Marty Kroft.
BE: The writers were just a really interesting combination, [hugely talented, hugely edgy writer and comic] Paul Mooney...
TC: Yeah. Paul is out there, boy. I worked with Paul a couple of times, on that show and then I did something for BET which he was a writer on.
BE: The other writer is someone I've met a few times, Mark Evanier, who's more of an old school comedy writer. Lately, and going back to "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," you've done a lot of spoof movies. Is that something you enjoy doing?
TC: Yeah. I really did. I got a chance when I did "Date Movie," I guess it was right after I did "Bad Santa," maybe a few years later. What I liked about it was that it gave me a chance, even though it was comedy, they gave me a chance to play "Hitch." Hitch is an average size person and put my little take on it. I really enjoyed it. Those directors [the notorious Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg], they gave me an opportunity to do what I wanna do. Just do it, man.
BE: You got to be Indiana Jones.
TC: Yeah, that was great too, in "Disaster Movie."
BE: Going through your resume, you do see a lot of movies that refer to "African-American Little Person."
BE: Has it gotten better lately in terms of getting roles that maybe don't refer to size or ethnicity so much?
TC: Yeah. I would say so. Even from the comedies like "Date Movie" and "Disaster Movie," and stuff like that, people are really looking at it as, "okay, he's an actor, we can use him." It just took a while to get out of that. Not to say that it's completely gone, but it's getting better.
BE: That's good. So, looking to the future a little bit, I write for an online men's magazine, so the title "Guns, Girls, and Gambling" certainly works for us. Is that a fairly large role for you that's coming up?
TC: It's pretty nice. I stand out in the movie, I'll put it like that. It's a good role for me, it's something different. I really want people to see this. It's another side of me.
BE: It's got a really interesting cast. Now, what kind of movie is it, really? I didn't quite get that from what I was reading. A comedy?
TC: No, it's not a comedy. I would say it's an action film.
BE: You've worked with a lot of really interesting, strong directors. You were with Tim Burton on "Beetle Juice." You were in "Bird"...
TC: Clint Eastwood.
BE: Do you have any particular memories of doing those?
TC: Yeah. What I remember about Clint Eastwood in "Bird" was the fact that he shoots and, boom, you go to the next. He doesn't mess around. He'd usually shoot it once or twice, and that's it. He's gone. Forest Whitaker, he was just a great actor. I knew Forest was going to be big, and the same thing with "Beetlejuice." I remember telling Tim, "You're going to be big soon." He had something, I can't explain it, but I just felt like this guy was always thinking, it seemed like. He was just like a kid, also. At lunch time they would play basketball -- which I whupped everyone out there in Horse. I told Tim, I said, "Tim, you're gonna be big." He said, "okay." I said, "I'm telling you." Right now, Tim is pretty big.
BE: As far as name directors they don't get that much bigger right now. Now, you've really run the gamut. For people like me who are sort of aficionados of exploitation films -- you were in "Penitentiary 2"...
BE: You were in "Leprechaun 2."
TC: Yeah. I sure was.
BE: The kind of people who make those movies are often really interesting. Did you have any bizarre or unusual experiences on any of those?
TC: On "Leprechaun"?
BE: Any of the very low budget films that you did.
TC: Not really. I just remember in "Leprechaun" I kind of enjoyed it because I got a chance to ride a go-cart. I thought that that was fun. But, other than that, just trying to work and trying to make it.
BE: Okay. Going another way, of all the films that you've done is there one, especially your part in it, that didn't get the attention and love it deserved from the public?
TC: No, not really. I think "Bad Santa" -- it got the attention. I get a lot of talk from that. No, I'm looking to do bigger and better things. When I get that lead role, that's when the attention will come, whether it's good or bad.
BE: Are there any plans for that? Have you thought of maybe producing something yourself?
TC: Yeah. That's what I want to do. Have a few people that write and that I'll write with them. Hopefully, we'll be able to sell the script and be able to do something.
BE: Yeah, get that money together to do a feature. You know, it's funny today being a known person and with the Internet -- is it funny to you that I know that you married your high school sweetheart? And is that part right?
TC: Well, we went to school together, but she wasn't my high school sweetheart.
BE: But you met in school. Close enough!...So, what else have you got coming up that you want to brag about it?
TC: "Guns, Girls, and Gambling," that's the one. I really think it's going to be a pretty good action film. It's going to be great. Christian Slater, I got a chance to work with him -- boy, he's really up on that energy. Gary Oldman...
TC: Chris Kattan. That's a movie that I can't wait until it comes out.
BE: And I just remembered that, according to the IMDb, you're going to be an Elvis impersonator.
TC: Yes! Yes! Yes! Yeah. That's the first time I've had some sideburns. That was weird.
BE: [Laughing] What's your favorite Elvis song?
TC: " All Shook Up."
BE: I'm partial to "Marie's the Name." Did you get to sing in the movie?
TC: Oh, no. If I sing, everybody's going to run. Uh-uh.
BE: You were a musician first. How did you get from that to being an actor? How did you make that transition?
TC: I had been playing drums ever since I was two. I started out with pencils. Maybe about three or four years before I got to high school, they stopped the musical program. So I never learned how to read music, but when I got to the high school I played in the school band because all you had to do was remember the beat...It was just drums. But, when you get to college, you have to know how to read music. It wasn't my fault, but because they didn't have it at the school, I couldn't read. That first day, I knew that I was in trouble. All of my other subjects wouldn't have been a problem, but it was just a music thing. I had to think of something else I wanted to do. I used to watch "Wild, Wild West" with this little guy, Dr. Loveless. I had also seen [trailblazing little person actors] Billy Barty and Patty Maloney who were in "The Love Boat," I thought it was a great episode and I [thought] "I know what, I can do this." I had said that just before I went to college. My aunt and uncle had come down just before I went to college. He was saying, "You're too good a musician. You have too much talent to be here. You need to leave and you need to come out and live with me." So, when it didn't work out, that was when I came out and got into acting school, graduated top of the class, and boom.
BE: I'm glad you mentioned all that. According to the Internet, again, you were somewhat inspired by Billy Barty. I'm old enough to remember Barty on television quite a bit, and he had a children's show out here.
TC: Billy was one of the guys, along with the guy from "Wild, Wild West," you know...
BE: Michael Dunn.
TC: Michael Dunn, yes. Who, to me, I wanted to be more like because Michael Dunn was really a great actor. He also had a talent on the side that he could sing real good.
BE: I didn't know that.
TC: Unless he was mouthing it.
BE: Did he sing in the episodes?
TC: Yeah. If he was mouthing, he did a great job. He had this great voice, and [his singing] sounded like his voice.
BE: We'll have to look that up because I have to admit I'm not up on my "Wild, Wild West" -- I used to watch it, but...
TC: Oh, that was the show.
[Writer’s note: It turns out that Tony Cox was absolutely correct about Dunn. He was a very accomplished singer who had a nightclub act with actress Phoebe Dorin, assuming that we can still trust anything we see on Wikipedia. Fortunately, I also found a clip of Dorin and Dunn singing together very sweetly on "Wild, Wild West." I'm pretty sure he really was an outstanding singer.]
BE: So you'd say that Dunn was your favorite little person actor?TC: [His example] was that I'd put my talents more toward. Billy was good, and I enjoyed Billy. Actually, when I first came out here, the first interview I went on, actually I went in the room with Billy. I remember I was a little nervous, and he could see me. He looked over at me and he said, "Son, don't worry. Everything will be all right. Any thing you don't understand, just kind of watch me and go with it." Just by him saying that and for me, having seen him in my hometown on TV, it was like, "I'm all ready now." I didn't have to look at him. I went in and, actually, we both ended up getting it.