When Charlie Cox enters a room, he doesn’t seem like a killer. That’s probably a good thing for him in day-to-day life, but it does make you wonder how he’s wound up playing the roles he has. The British actor’s biggest roles to date are as ex-IRA enforcer Owen in Boardwalk Empire and the title character in Marvel‘s Daredevil – both men unafraid of beating a man to within an inch of his life, or beyond it. And now he’s playing an MI6 boss involved in some very shady business. They say you have to watch the quiet ones. Charlie Cox is one of those quiet ones.
“I’m so sorry I’m late, I was doing a very confusing social media thing,” Cox gasps as he crosses a vast conference room at speed. He’s all of five minutes late. There’s no air of mystery to Cox. Quite the opposite. He’s immediately friendly and greets every question as if he can’t wait to answer it. We’re in Netflix’s head office, marooned in a room with seats for 20 (“it feels like one of us is here to be fired”) because he’s promoting a new show, Treason, for the streamer. He plays Adam, Deputy Director of MI6, who’s bumped up to the top job when his boss (Ciaran Hinds) is poisoned.
“A hero does the right thing at great cost to themselves”
It’s a show about which we can say very little, because big twists occur roughly every four minutes, but given the title, it’s not revealing too much to say that Adam makes some highly questionable decisions in episode one, breaking laws he’s sworn to uphold, which will have major repercussions for both him and his country. It’s hard to say whether Adam, who should be in jail, is a good guy or not. “I went back and forth on this,” says Cox. “I ended up feeling that what makes him a hero is that he’s able to ultimately do the right thing at great cost to himself. And he’s able to admit to and recognise past failings. I think that is the essence of modern day heroes, because nobody’s perfect.” It’s a very kind interpretation, though the law may see things differently, m’lud.
Cox works in the role for the same reason he’s so terrific as Daredevil. He has such a nice guy air about him that it’s intriguing when he behaves in any other way. “[He makes me] think of Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford,” says Treason’s creator Matt Charman, who co-wrote the Tom Hanks-starring Bridge Of Spies. “These are guys that have a deep morality to them, a sort of trust. I think Charlie has that too. When he starts to wander away from what you think he is, you think, ‘Wait, was I wrong? How far is this guy going to go?’ It’s exciting to play with that expectation.”
Treason is a spy show with lots of double-crossing and murder, but it’s less concerned with what goes on in the field than what happens to your personal life when you give everything to protect your country. “I really responded to the family element,” says Cox, who has two kids of his own. “The thing that shocked me into paying attention is that these big things happen to Adam early on and rather than them escalating into some car chase or explosion… we keep going back to how this man’s life affects his loved ones.” Treason has Cox playing a different kind of MI6 agent, one who’s mainly fighting battles with his own conscience.
Watching Treason, you might think this is an actor making a canny audition for a bigger spy series. Think again. Cox isn’t interested in playing James Bond. “Is my name even on the list?” he says, with genuine curiosity. “You’re the first person I’ve heard that from.” We’re actually not, he quickly admits. “Someone brought this up the other day and they told me there are odds [for who will play the next Bond]. Then she said, ‘Not for you, sadly.’”
He’s right – yet somehow there are odds for 69-year-old journeyman actor Colm Meaney (300-1) – and that’s fine because he doesn’t want to do it. “The honest truth is that I think there are better candidates out there than me,” he says. “The Bond itch has been scratched a little bit for me with Treason but also particularly by Daredevil. Playing a superhero is not so different.” He doesn’t think the Bond producers should be asking him, a middle-aged white man, anyway. “I think they should do something different – and I think you know what I mean. It would be a really good time and opportunity to do that.”
Even if he were asked, it’s hard to see where Cox would find the time. He’s about to be busy for at least the next year, returning to the defining role of his career, pulling on the Daredevil cowl once more.
“‘Daredevil’ will be dark on Disney+, but it probably won’t be as gory”
Cox first played Matt Murdock, the small-time New York lawyer who has a sideline as a leather-clad crime fighter despite being blind, in Netflix’s series, which ran for three seasons from 2015-18. Well-received critically and commercially, it was a great moment in Cox’s career, and one he thought was done, until he got a call a couple of years ago. “Kevin Feige [head of Marvel Studios] called and said, ‘We’d like to bring you into the MCU’,” says Cox.
To try to simplify a complex situation: Netflix’s Marvel shows – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Punisher, Iron Fist, The Defenders – exist outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made before the arrival of Disney+. When Disney started its own streaming service, with its own shows made in-house, Netflix lost the rights to show anything Marvel and the MCU basically pretended those shows and characters didn’t exist. Daredevil is, so far, the only lead character Feige has welcomed from the Netflix universe. “I was over the moon,” says Cox. “I love this character.” Feige gave Murdock a cameo in Spider-Man: No Way Home and a guest spot on She-Hulk. “He said, ‘After that, we’re not sure. We’ll see’.”
The reception to both was so good that Daredevil will now return in 2024 in his own Disney+ show, Daredevil: Born Again. Cox is excited about exploring another version of the character. “This has to be a reincarnation, it has to be different, otherwise why are we doing it?” he says. The episode of She-Hulk, in which he had a one-night stand with the title character, showed Murdock as “quick-witted and funny and charismatic and carefree at times,” which is very different from the brooding Netflix version. “My opinion is this character works best when he’s geared towards a slightly more mature audience. My instinct is that on Disney+ it will be dark but it probably won’t be as gory.” He knows there are people who will be hoping for simply a continuation of the previous series. “I would say to those people, we’ve done that. Let’s take the things that really worked, but can we broaden? Can we appeal to a slightly younger audience without losing what we’ve learned about what works?”
Marvel is putting a lot of faith in Daredevil: Born Again. So much faith that they’re giving it a massive 18 episodes. That’s a number unheard of in streaming shows. Other Marvel shows on Disney+ have got no more than nine. “They said to me, ‘We’re going to be shooting in 2023’,” says Cox. “I said, ‘Great, when?’ They said, ‘All 2023’. I start shooting in February and finish in December.” Aside from the fact he’ll be in production all year in New York, Cox says he knows little of what the show will entail. He says he hasn’t seen any scripts or outlines, which feels hard to believe, but he says it very convincingly.
“I was told ‘Stardust’ would lead to big things but none of that happened”
“I’m fascinated to discover why they’ve chosen to do 18,” he says. “I’m imagining there’s going to be an element to it that is like the old-school procedural show. Not necessarily case-of-the-week, but something where we go really deep into Matt Murdock the lawyer and get to see what his life is like. If that’s done right and he really gets his hands dirty with that world… I think there’s something quite interesting about that, to spend a lot of time in a superhero’s day-to-day life and you really earn the moments when he suits up.”
As evidently excited as he is about Daredevil’s return, there’s a note of caution in Cox’s answers. “You said earlier that I could be busy for years, and I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe. Hopefully’,” he says. “But if this show next year doesn’t hit the spot, then that might be it. Then it’s back to…” He doesn’t finish that thought. He’s not expressing any doubt in Marvel’s ability to make the series work, but protecting himself from great expectations. He’s not taking his big return for granted. Because he’s made that mistake before.
Back in the early 2000s, Charlie Cox was just an unknown actor. He’d done some minor bits in TV and Movies. He was doing fine. Then, suddenly, at 24, he was cast as the lead in Matthew Vaughn’s 2007 fantasy Stardust, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Claire Danes and Sienna Miller. Cox was told this was it, the big time. “I’d been on a nice trajectory as an actor, doing little cameos in some interesting movies. Then I had this leap and became the lead of a big studio film,” he says. “I was told by so many people what that would mean and what it would lead to. None of those things happened.”
His big break came to nothing. A year later Cox was unemployed. “The doors did not all open,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to my career. I almost felt worse off [than if Stardust hadn’t happened]. When you’re up-and-coming, everyone’s interested, but when you’ve had the moment and it hasn’t translated into anything… people look for someone else. There was a period of time when I felt like I couldn’t get arrested.”
Frustrated at his lack of progression, Cox decided to take himself out of the Hollywood game for a couple of years, travelling around Africa and India. He went back to acting in theatre. Then he was offered a lifeline. “Boardwalk Empire came along and they offered me three episodes,” he says. The Martin Scorsese-produced, Steve Buscemi-starring gangster series was very high profile. Even a fleeting role would be good for the CV. “I thought, at least if I go into an audition room I can reference this and they’ll know what I’m talking about.” It became much more than a notable hit on his CV. The showrunners liked the character and Cox so much that he wound up appearing in 23 episodes. His run ended, bloodily, in 2012. It was a big enough role that a casting director noticed him when they were considering actors for Daredevil. If he hadn’t said yes to those three episodes, we probably wouldn’t be speaking now.
The commercial and critical success of Daredevil raised Cox’s profile hugely. The big time was calling once again. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, this has been such a success that even when it does end, I’m sure there will be other opportunities’. And there were, but not as many as you’d think. Not the right things.” He’s delighted with the work he’s been able to do, including King of Thieves with Michael Caine and, of course, Treason, but there hasn’t been a glut of projects.
“There were opportunities after ‘Daredevil’, but not the right ones”
He doesn’t say this to moan, but to illustrate why he doesn’t take anything for granted. “You have to do everything in your power to enjoy the moments of success when you’re experiencing them,” he says. It also explains why he’s returning to play Daredevil. He’s not so proud and precious that he feels anything negative about returning to past glories. “I’m incredibly grateful Daredevil’s coming back,” he says. “I love playing this character. How much longer at my age can I play the lead in a superhero film or TV show? Not very long, probably.”
On the day we meet, in mid-December, Cox is two days off his 40th birthday. He’s feeling OK about it, he says. He’s not yet fully in training to play Daredevil again, but he knows it’s going to be tougher than when he was in his mid-thirties. “I don’t remember the last time I didn’t have any [physical] issues,” he laughs. “My shoulder’s done. My knees are in bad shape. My back’s gone.” He guffaws. He says he’s now just used to the fact his body makes a lot of cracks and crunches when he moves around, but he sees plenty of action actors who don’t let a few noisy bones slow them down. “I was at a comic book convention a couple of weekends ago and Jean-Claude Van Damme was there,” he says. “I thought, ‘his body must be making a lot of noise. When he walks around you must be able to hear him!’”
Cox’s joints might be a little louder these days, but he bears all that wear and tear proudly. He’s been knocked about most of his career, both physically and figuratively, and he’s always pulled himself back up, ready to go again. He’s at the highest point in his career right now, the leading man he always wanted to be. What comes after this, he doesn’t know, but he’s gripping his latest chance tightly as he can, determined to enjoy every minute. Whatever the industry wants to throw at him after that, he’s ready for it. Don’t let the nice guy exterior fool you. He’s got plenty of fight.
‘Treason’ streams on Netflix from December 26