Ever since Charlie Cox’s breakout role in 2007 blockbuster Stardust he’s been quietly adding to his CV, chalking up roles in Downton Abbey’s pilot episode and a long-running supporting part in HBO’s acclaimed Boardwalk Empire. Now he’s taking the lead once again in Paula Milne-penned Cold War thriller Legacy, playing trainee spy Charles Thoroughgood who is tasked with re-establishing contact with Victor (Andrew Scott) – a Russian university acquaintance – with a view to ‘turn’ him.
He certainly looks the part, modelling an almost comically large tie and some rather fetching sideburns. “It feels like a clown tie,” he exclaims. “On the first day I said, ‘This is a joke. It’s not real.’ I feel like I should have a squirty nose as well.” As for the sideburns, he’s quick to point out they’re not his off-duty look. “I’m not sporting them, although [Legacy’s director] Pete Travis has got massive sideburns so I couldn’t really say, ‘I hate these, they’re ridiculous.'”
But while Cox makes light of his appearance, his role in Legacy – which sees Milne and Travis reunite for the first time since the critically-acclaimed Endgame – is heavy stuff. Once a bomb disposal expert, Charles is recruited by MI6 after his best friend is killed. “He wanted to be more involved in what is referred to as the front line of any war, be it the Cold War or the war in Belfast, and he saw a move to MI6 as the way to go about that.”
The story takes a twist when Victor reveals a secret about Charles’s father – a revelation that has ramifications both emotionally and professionally. “I think the family aspect to this film is a little unique because when you think about the Cold War and films documenting it, you think about what the implications were in a general sense – as a country. But the case that Charles is working on goes from being a case – exciting but formulaic – to personal, and yet he still has to do his job and treat it as impersonal.”
Part of the “personal” exploration is in Charles’s relationship with Anna (Romola Garai) – a fellow spy. She’s married – to yet another MI6 insider – but her connection with Cox’s character soon moves from professional to romantic… “It’s beautiful because nothing happens and everything happens between them,” explains Cox. “And you’re hopefully left at the end wondering where they go from here. It’s not a conventional love story – there’s so much potential but at the same time so much that is preventing it.
“I’ve worked with Romola before and I introduced her to her husband. He’s one of my best mates so before I found out she was doing Legacy, I got a text from him saying, ‘Buddy, you’re going to be kissing my wife.'”
But Cox’s admiration for his co-stars isn’t limited to Garai… “Andrew Scott happens to be one of my favourite actors of all time – I saw him on stage a few years ago and we share the same agent so I got his number and texted him saying, ‘I really hope we get to work together one day’. And then literally six months later this came up. He’s just extraordinary.”
So, forty years on, why does Cox think TV and film audiences are still so fascinated by the Cold War? (Legacy is part of a BBC2 season focusing on the period.) “The nature of there being no actual fighting that people were really aware of is kind of intriguing. Impending doom is so much worse than when something actually happens because at least when it’s happened you can rationalise it in some way and take some action. When you’re waiting for something that could happen, that’s really hard to deal with because your mind goes into all the different scenarios.”
Would he have made a good spy? “No, I’d make a terrible spy and I discovered this because I have a friend who comes around before I start working and we go over the script and talk about things. I got a text from him saying, ‘Osterburg rendezvous in Highbury fields. Third bench from the ice cream truck. Find note. Remember code. Destroy note. Follow instructions’. He’d set up some sort of spy thing.
“So I set off from my house and there were people on the bench. I went up there and said, ‘I dropped something’. It was taped to the bench so they immediately looked at me like I was an absolute lunatic. Then I went to a bin and got out my lighter and lit it and the plastic that was sticking it came off and attached itself to my hand. I was trying to be really covert and there was smoke coming out!
“Eventually I met up with him and he had photos of me from the moment I left the house. I was the worst spy ever. It was so nerve-wracking – it made you think that if you were doing something like that for real it would be a real buzz. These people are living on a knife edge every single day and I think that’s quite an interesting thing to remember. Their daily life is a thrill.”
Some would say the same about the cutthroat acting industry where a promising acting career can easily stutter and stagnate. Cox has tasted success, but equally struggled with a feeling of worthlessness. “I’m not very successful in LA. I don’t tend to work there and I thrive on confidence and feeling like I have a valid interpretation of a character or a role.
“In London – because things happened rather quickly for me when I started – I go in and the casting directors know me, I’ll often meet the director and be given time and that really helps me. In LA, I got there and they couldn’t give a s**t. I was auditioned by one of the casting director’s assistants and never hearing anything. It’s all heat and what you’ve done and if there’s a buzz around you.”
Don’t miss Charlie in Legacy – tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2