Scorsese's adaptation of Brian Selznick's 530-page children's novel "The Inventions of Hugo Cabret" is earning rave reviews from critics. It was No. 5 at the U.S. box office during the Thanksgiving weekend, even though it played on 1,277 screens -- about a third of the number of screens on which each of the other films in the Top 5 could be found.
"It seems to me, Marty makes films for himself. He is an artist, a true artist, and he makes the movie that he wants to see. My first line in the movie had the word 'malfeasance' in it, which I barely understood, and I said, 'Aren't you worried some children won't understand that, let alone the grown ups?' And he said, 'No, it's the right word to use there,'" Cohen told reporters during a recent press conference in New York.
Scorsese "is one of the last remaining artists and I think we should respect that," the actor added.
"The movie is not focus-grouped and it's not tailored for a 7-year-old in Iowa or Berlin or anywhere to appreciate," Cohen said. "Marty made a work of art in the same way [pioneering French filmmaker Georges] Melies did. I think that's a beautiful thing and an incredible achievement for a filmmaker to be able to do that."
"Hugo" is about an orphaned boy, played by Asa Butterfield, who secretly lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris and takes care of all its clocks. Hugo, who has a gift for fixing broken machines, strikes up a friendship with the once-great but forgotten filmmaker Georges Melies, as well as his wife, Jeanne, and their goddaughter Isabelle, played by Ben Kingsley, Helen McCrory and Chloe Grace Moretz, respectively.
Cohen plays a by-the-books train station inspector who rounds up unattended children and either returns them to their parents or sends them to the local orphanage.
The actor acknowledges the inspector is Hugo's nemesis but insists he is not a villain. Instead, Cohen surmised, he is a decent man trying to fulfill his purpose.
"When I first approached the character, I wanted to know why was he so obsessed with chasing children," the actor explained. "Was he a classic villain? Or was there a reason for his malice? And I sat with [screenwriter] John [Logan] and Marty and we started to talk about how he was a World War I veteran and maybe he was injured and we came up with the leg brace. Originally, it was a false leg which the audience wouldn't have realized until the first chase and I would turn a corner and my leg would fly off into the camera in 3-D. Unfortunately, practically, I was made aware that I would have to strap up my leg for four months in order to do that and I wasn't prepared to do that and, ultimately, we used a leg brace."
Cohen said he and the filmmakers decided the inspector might himself have been orphaned as a child and raised in a workhouse.
"And this was the only structure he knew and that's what he tried to impose on these young children," the actor said.
Cohen also confessed he enjoyed playing a character so different from those he portrayed in his outrageous R-rated comedies "Borat" and "Bruno." He said he was particularly fond of how the inspector demonstrates his humanity through his budding romance with a lovely flower girl named Lisette, played by Emily Mortimer.
"We didn't actually have a kissing scene, but there was a bit of romance in there. So that was a little bit different," Cohen noted. "He's a bumbling authority figure. And he's dark, but he does have some beauty and softness underneath him. So a bit like my other characters. You know, he's a mix of things."