The Fantastic Mr Foxes
Actors Mr James and Mr Jack Fox talk family ties and following in your father’s footsteps
An audience with not one, but two Mr Foxes is all erudition and wit – they’re talking tech, telly, films, girls and boarding schools. There are shared memories and divergent interpretations, belly laughs and outraged splutters, accusations and rebuttals – even a dispute over an imaginary Ferrari. With fathers and sons, ’twas ever thus.
“Jack doesn’t watch enough films. He watches all the crap!” says the 78-year-old star of such classics as A Passage To India (1984) and The Remains Of The Day (1993). “He goes to the cinema, but he doesn’t have any taste about what’s good. But he just thinks I’m an old twit. I remember loving Bob Dylan, but my dad wouldn’t listen! He was probably right.”
Still, in some areas, Messrs Fox senior and junior do meet in the middle, in terms of both culture and character. “We have the same sense of humour,” acknowledges Dad. “And Jack has turned me on to some shows. I’m so dated that my favourite shows are 24, The West Wing, Suits, some Family Guy. I’m really, really old-fashioned in that sense – I didn’t dig The Sopranos, which he wanted me to like. There was a show with Alec Baldwin that he wanted me to go for… He got me on to a druggy one about South America, which was very violent… He got me on to Breaking Bad, which I did love until it got too bad! So we have the same taste in some ways.
“But like lots of young people,” he continues, “Jack doesn’t have much curiosity about the past. He’s not much interested in anything that came out before 2000. Everyone’s got this very short-term memory about what matters. So this is where we don’t have complete unity.” Such opinionated plain speaking, it seems, is Very Dad.
“There’s a hierarchy in the family,” the younger Mr Fox notes cheerfully. “So while Dad will listen to everyone, he’ll be outspoken about the thing he wants to say.” This family, of course, is Britain’s preeminent acting family. Mr James Fox is the brother of Day Of The Jackal’s Mr Edward Fox (father of Ms Emilia Fox and Mr Freddie Fox). The elder siblings of Mr Jack Fox include Mr Lawrence Fox (ex-husband of Ms Billie Piper) and Ms Lydia Fox (wife of Mr Richard Ayoade). Given this profusion of genetically entwined performers, Fox gatherings are lively affairs.
“We had lunch the other day with my brother, and Dad was talking about foreign policy, Trump and America – and he had no fear of who might overhear us in the pub. Dad goes: ‘This is what I think, this is bullshit…’ He just doesn’t care,” beams his son with filial pride.
Messers Jack and James Fox are sitting in a west London studio sporting pieces selected from MR PORTER’s Father And Son Day edit of blue shirts, which supports the UK’s first Robotic Surgical Fellowship programme at The Royal Marsden hospital. The money raised will help fund a fellow to undertake specialist training each year for the next 10 years.
Mr Jack Fox has arrived at the studio in west London from the Chiswick home he shares with his girlfriend, the actress Ms Samantha Barks. His father has endured a hellish car journey – clogged roads, baking heat – from his new house in Camberwell, south of the Thames, where he lives with his wife, Ms Mary Elizabeth Piper. Mr James Fox’s current obsession is the arrival of swifts, the migratory birds, which have flown in from Africa to feed. He loves their swooping and chattering.
“Dad will stand in the garden and talk to them. Not in an Alzheimer’s way!” says Mr Jack Fox.
“Wasn’t that a nice touch? Lovely,” says Mr James Fox.
Father and son, it’s clear, are wholly comfortable in each other’s company; their body language, actual language and speaking volumes are very much in synch. As much was evident on the West End stage in 2015. The pair starred in a critically acclaimed production of Dear Lupin, a play based on the letters written by war hero and racing correspondent Mr Roger Mortimer to his errant son Charlie. The two-hander ran for some 110 performances – at the end of each of which the younger Mr Fox had to watch the elder Mr Fox die. It was their first job together. But, unsurprisingly, the actors seemed to connect on an almost telepathic level.
“We do have that,” agrees Mr Jack Fox, who appeared in Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, playing posho Ralph, and Genius, the recent biopic series about Mr Albert Einstein that was part directed by Mr Ron Howard. “When I met the producers and read for it, they then said, ‘James, would you like to have a chemistry read with your son?’ And he said: ‘No, if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me… I just didn’t want to interfere.’
On the contrary, clarifies his son: during the two-month run, the veteran star of stage and screen offered judicious advice. “Actors giving each other notes is a really tough thing to do, and you really should never do it. But dad’s way of doing it was very clever. He’d say: ‘I liked it when you did that…’ So you could learn, but it was a very gentle, guiding thing. That was hugely helpful to me, because I was quite green on stage.”
Mr James Fox has been acting for almost seven decades, having started as a child. Then, he said, “I had a tremendous break when I was 23 years old in a film called The Servant.” The cult film, co-starring Mr Dirk Bogarde and with a screenplay written by Mr Harold Pinter, won him a Most Promising Newcomer Bafta. “That can make a lot of difference [to your career]. I was very successful in my twenties; that was my peak period, if you like.”
His son, despite his birthright, has enjoyed a steadier career progression since leaving Leeds University with a degree in philosophy and theology. Did his father have any qualms about the baby of the family – born when he was 46 – joining the family profession?
“You have qualms because it’s such a difficult job,” he admits. “But Jack wanted to be an actor, and I don’t think you can stand in the way of what someone wants to do. You know, Jack and I have been pretty close, because after university, while he was getting his foot on the ladder, he lived at home again. He saw my career – now, admittedly that was by the time I’d reached my sixties, and that isn’t a time when you’re expecting your best work. But he certainly would have seen the downside of being an actor – and also been around the buzz of it, because other people in the family are also in the profession. So I think he got a pretty good idea of what it is.”
“Oh, that’s a good question. I haven’t been asked that before… Well, I think he respected himself. Now as a father and a grown-up, I think it’s pretty important how you think about yourself. Other people only perceive you as you perceive yourself.”
And, in turn, what has Mr Jack Fox learned from his father? “If I can be half as good a dad as he is, I’ll be happy. And I don’t mean that in a wanky way. I don’t think you’re a ‘good dad’ or a ‘bad dad’. I just think you’re a striving dad – there are struggles that every dad is going to have. My dad is someone who is constantly striving to be better at life – be more patient, be less frustrated, [learning] how to get Google Mail on your iPhone or install an app. He’s always pushing to improve – and he was pretty good to start off with. Anything Dad turns his hand to, he can do – annoyingly.”
This Father’s Day, an entire pack of Foxes will descend on Camberwell, ready to pay homage to the Old Man.
“We doff our caps and sing a few hymns!” laughs Mr Jack Fox. “No, my mum will normally cook some big, unbelievable roast of beef. There are kids, grandkids, lots of us just flocking there. Dad will get cards – although he’s funny with presents. It’s the one thing he can’t act. He can’t pretend he likes something. Often he’ll try and return it to you!”
“He’s so observant,” hoots Mr James Fox. “That’s what I love about Jack; he’s so sharp. He’s dead right about that. He’s got me nailed!”
Warming to his theme, the younger Mr Fox suggests that his father “is not a materialistic guy. Well, that’s not 100 per cent true. If I bought him a really nice Ferrari he’d probably love it more than me, my siblings and all the grandkids combined!”
Hearing this slanderous accusation from his son, Dad splutters in indignation.
“That’s not true!” he says, pointing out that they wouldn’t all fit in a two-seater sports car. “I actually like being around more than one of them at a time. In my twenties, sure, one was more than enough. But in fact, as you get older, they don’t want you round – you’re so boring, why would you want to sit in a Ferrari with an old-timer? You wouldn’t want to do that. Nobody would!”
A boring old-timer? Hardly. This cool and charismatic father-and-son pair need to get back on the stage pronto. A comic double-act is there for the taking. Maybe in time for Father’s Day 2018?
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