How Charlie Cox Became Marvel's Most Unconventional Superhero
By John Boone
Photo: Getty Images
Charlie Cox didn’t know he was going to become a superhero.
To be fair, if Cox didn’t know he was destined to become Daredevil, it would be tough to blame him. Few thought Matt Murdoch -- blind attorney by day and masked vigilante by night -- would get another chance in front of the cameras.
Daredevil, one of Marvel’s most influential heroes, has been fighting crime in Hell's Kitchen since 1964, winning prestigious comic book awards and drawing some of the industry’s most prolific artists. But after 20th Century Fox stuck Ben Affleck in a red spandex suit opposite a leather-clad Jennifer Garner for the critically maligned 2003 movie Daredevil, the franchise’s filmic dreams seemed to dry up.
But, as is the case in comic lore, sometimes heroes come back from the dead.
In 2012, 20th Century’s rights to Daredevil and his cohorts in Hell’s Kitchen reverted back to Marvel Studios, which had become a powerhouse production company in the meantime. A year later, Marvel was ready to try their hands at the material, and announced a landmark 60-episode deal with Netflix that would feature four of their heroes — Daredevil first, followed by Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), then Iron Fist (casting TBD) — in their own 13-episode runs and culminating in a team-up “event” called The Defenders.
It’s a structure closer to Marvel’s movie strategy — introducing heroes in their own projects, then combining them for an epic group effort — than any of their hit or miss S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric TV shows. So hey, it worked on the big screen, right?
But the reason Charlie Cox didn’t know he was going to become a superhero is because his agents sent him out for a — pun intentional — blind audition. “They didn’t tell me it was Daredevil at the time, initially,” Cox explains to ETonline. Instead, he was given mocked-up, non-specific scenes to read. “It went from there through a process of different casting sessions and screen tests.”
At that point, Marvel had enlisted nerd savant Drew Goddard, who directed The Cabin In The Woods, wrote Cloverfield and worked on Lost, to helm the series. (Goddard eventually stepped down as showrunner to develop another Marvel entity — Spider-Man — and was replaced with former Spartacus exec producer and fellow Joss Whedon alum Steven S. DeKnight). All buttoned up on geek cred behind the camera, they just needed a star who could make Daredevil cool again.
Rumor at the time was that Marvel was chasing Michael C. Hall, riding high off his Dexter fame, to front the reboot. (Hall denied ever being in the running.) But it seems Cox was always the favorite: Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada says he went to their head of television, Jeph Loeb, two years before the Daredevil returned to Marvel to say he "had found the perfect guy.” And last May, the studio made it official.
Cox says, “At some point in that process, I was able to read the first two scripts. And so it was really the content of those two scripts that I was so impressed by and immediately drawn to.”
The content was this: A new take on Matt Murdoch and his masked alter ego. None of the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of the Affleck version. Instead it would helm truer to the comics — specifically, the stuff penned by Frank Miller — as a “darker and grittier” take on “The Man Without Fear.” With violence — so much gruesome violence — and death and daddy issues and questions of morality and, well, fear.
While the Avengers are off saving the universe, Daredevil is just hoping to clean up the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. He's a different kind of superhero.
That works because Cox, who dressed casual in a black t-shirt with a scruffy neck beard for interviews at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, is a different kind of Marvel leading man. He’s something of an unconventional pick, going against the studio’s tried and true recipe of buff action stars who dabble in comedy and are named Chris.
Cox was born in London and formally trained in theater at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which was founded by Laurence Olivier and counts Jeremy Irons and Sir Patrick Stewart among its alumni. He has since appeared on the West End stage and, here in Hollywood, played opposite Claire Danes in 2007’s bizzaro fantasy film, Stardust, before landing a regular role as Irish gunman Owen Slater in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. That gives Cox more in common with a tradition Marvel villain — a Tom Hiddleston or Christopher Eccleston — than Captain America and Iron Man.
“He had the three qualities that you need,” Marvel's Loeb says matter of factly. “First of all, he’s extraordinarily charming. I don’t mean that in a whisk-you-off-your-feet kind of way. He has the ability to make you feel like you want to be his friend. That you want to root for him.”
With that comes a different sense of relatability. “Charlie, by nature, has a vulnerability to him,” Loeb says. “You feel for him. And that’s very important to Matt Murdoch. Not all our characters feel that way. You know, Tony Stark [Robert Downey Jr.] has a roguish quality about him. Phil Coulson [Clark Gregg] is the guy who’s got to have a snappier line and be able to make you follow him into battle.”
Lastly, he needs to be able to fill out a super suit. “He is, as an actor, incredibly committed,” Loeb continued. “He physically changed his body — he put on 15 pounds of muscle.”
Which makes us wonder: Exactly how long after you get the call from Marvel do you hit the gym?
“He started bench pressing while he was on the phone,” jokes Rosario Dawson, who plays Matt’s confident and de facto caretaker, Claire Temple.
“Like that day!” Cox confirms with a laugh. “I’d never had a gym membership prior to this job—I still don’t have a gym membership. I’m not naturally built like Chris Hemsworth, so it was a lot of work that needed to be done. And I had about a month.”
“The good thing is Daredevil doesn’t have super strength,” Cox continues. “He’s a regular human being. He’s a wonderful martial artist and gymnast and he has these heightened senses, of course, and he’s had the training. But I was able to justify [going] down the route of a more lean, Bruce Lee type, than” — here Cox does a muscleman flex — “a bulked up superhero.”
So maybe he won’t have the God of Thunder’s out-of-this-world biceps. Or pecs like Captain America’s — pecs you should say the pledge of allegiance to. But Elden Henson, who plays best friend and law partner Foggy Nelson, offers up one other attribute worth appreciating: “I don’t know if you know this, but Charlie, he has a great ass,” he says. “I’m not kidding, dude, that thing is gooood!”
“I’m like, ‘Damn, dude, do you work out?’ And he did!” Henson recalls. “He worked out like three hours every day before he would even come to set. I was like, ‘Dude, you’re insane.’”
In fact, Cox transformed himself a little too much for some fan’s taste, unwittingly sparking some controversy online, with a vocal contingent writing articles titled “’Daredevil's’ Big Hairy Problem” and leaving comments like, “We need to #EXPOSE [producer and Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige's anti-body hair agenda.”
They’re sad Cox waxed his chest.
“I’m part of that group!” he yells in surprise when we inform him of the movement. “I had no idea!” Then he ponders the question and actually offers up a serious answer. “Look,” he explains, “that was a creative choice. And a painful one.” In the comics, Cox points out, Matt is perfectly smooth. “These panels are so iconic. And obviously, you want to mix things up a little bit...but at the same time some of them are so iconic that you really have to adhere to them. And I think that that was a battle I lost.”
You can prepare all you want to be a superhero, but the real test is when you’re in action. Marvel’s Daredevil, as it officially became titled, started shooting in the summer of 2014, on location in New York, with Brooklyn and Long Island standing in for the now-too gentrified Hell’s Kitchen.
And as with all things Marvel, the set was shrouded in secrecy, “Literally we were speaking in code with each other on set — let alone [off set],” Dawson says. “This was definitely kept really, really quiet.”
Even Cox, the star of the show and the titular superhero at the center of it all, didn’t always know who was who.
“We actually shot a lot of episode two first,” he says, chuckling before he can even get to the punch line. “There was a scene very early on where we’re both on a rooftop. I’m wearing the black vigilante costume, and Rosario was wearing all white. And I still was unclear about a lot of things. I remember going up to Rosario and saying, ‘Are you Elektra in this?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t think so? I think I’d know...’”
(As far as we know, she’s not. She a refurbished Night Nurse.)
But in an era of paparazzi and Twitter and, god forbid, spoilers, the battle to keep the show secret seems like it was as intense as any of the action in the actual shoot. “It would be terrible,” Dawson says.
“We’d be filming and I didn’t get three episodes ahead, I’d get like an episode ahead,” she continued. “I’d mention something to one of the actors, like ‘Oh, OK, I’ll see you in the next one.’ And they’d be all, ‘I’m coming back?!’ I’m like, ‘Oh sorry! Was I not supposed to say anything?!’”
Which isn’t to say those action sequences and stunts weren’t equally grueling for Cox, who takes the largest number of beatings. The most impressive part of the show — and how it distinguishes itself from its cousins in the Marvel cinematic universe — is how much it packs in a punch. Knock down, drag out fights that leave heroes and villains alike broken and bloody.
For True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen Page, Nelson & Murdock Law Office’s secretary and a would-be love interest for Matt in the comics (though her backstory and romantic interests aren’t quite the same this time around), even being in the background of fight scenes felt decidedly real.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Stare at the green tennis ball and pretend it’s a dinosaur!’” she says. “When I’m watching Daredevil have a huge fight, I got to really watch those guys do that. It takes out all the responsibility of going, ‘Oh no!’” she fake-gasps. “You just go, ‘OH MY GOD! He almost hit him!’”
Add on topof that the thing that makes Daredevil unique amongst his super peers: He’s blind. “Charlie did a tremendous amount of work with people [to prepare for playing blind],” Henson says, noting that Cox would help teach “etiquette” to his costars on set.
“It’s a tricky thing to do, to play blind so it doesn’t look over-the-top or like a caricature,” he continues. “He really took great care and had a lot of patience with making sure he got it right.”
Blind. Buff. Vulnerable. Charming. It takes a lot to be Marvel's new hero.
Loeb seems confident Charlie will reset the bar for Daredevil — even if you are the rare fan of Affleck’s take. When asked if there was a concerted effort to distance the series from that film, he says, “There are fans of the Daredevil movie, [and] that’s fantastic. Be fans of that. But that is not a movie that was made by Marvel. This is something which is us. This has our DNA all over it.”
And if Cox is feeling the pressure of carrying a new superhero franchise on his shoulders, or pioneering new ground for the Marvel Empire to conquer, he doesn’t let it show — but that might just be because he hasn’t seen any of the episodes yet.
Apparently even Marvel’s superheroes don’t have the clearance level for that.
All 13 episodes of Marvel's Daredevil are available to binge on Netflix April 10. Watch this exclusive behind the scenes feature from the set of Daredevil: