Before arriving in the big time, out director C. Jay Cox lived out his days as a Mormon missionary.
"I was praying to feel bad, but I suddenly understood that my sexuality was a gift, and to deny it would be the greater sin." "Writing gives me the freedom to create anything," C. Jay Cox says. "There’s always a chance to start something new. It gives me possibility, and everything has to start with possibility. In life, in love, in business."
He directed his first film as a child and Cox has been delighting audiences ever since with films such as Sweet Home Alabama, the powerful Latter Days, and the new Renee Zellweger/Harry Connick Jr rom-com, New In Town. A fish out of water story described as "Legally Blonde meets Sweet Home Alabama", it signals Cox’s arrival as a director in the big time; no mean feat considering 2003’s Latter Days was about a same-sex romance between a Mormon missionary and a party boy – the first film to portray openly the clash between the principles of Mormonism and homosexuality.
Born in 1962, Cox grew up on a mountain ranch in eastern Nevada just outside the town of Panaca. "My parents were small-town cowboy folk," he tells SX. "We were raised to be cowboys. My father worked for the railroad as a line foreman, but my mother was a world-champion calf roper, so we spent our summers travelling to rodeos."
When he was eight, his parents gave him a Super 8mm camera, and with it, he made a six and a half-minute film, Vampire Cave. But the boy most likely to become Panaca’s first filmmaker decided to become a missionary instead. "My parents had been Mormons on both sides for five generations. They were not religious, but for me, it was different. I’d had inklings about my sexuality, and it felt like the place to deal with that. I thought if I could be a good missionary, I could get over it. Mormon teaching says that homosexuality is an aberration, and that it is not part of your nature. It’s some unfortunate burden given to you as a trial, something you must overcome.
"I was praying to feel bad, but I suddenly understood that my sexuality was a gift, and to deny it would be the greater sin. If you deny who you are, you live a lie, and you can’t help but die a little each time you deny that." Cox moved to LA, acted in horror films, but when the AIDS pandemic occurred in the mid-80s, he started volunteering. It would be almost 20 years before he returned to the world of film.
In 2002, he wrote the script for the film, Sweet Home Alabama. "The gay character was not part of an agenda," he says. "That character was inherent in the story, and I thought it was an interesting parallel that the only one who would truly understand why the Reese Witherspoon character had re-invented herself and lied about her past was the gay character. She has to ‘come out’ in the end and tell the truth about herself, and I love the fact that their mutual acceptance of each other was not an accidental thing. It naturally complements the rest of the story."
The film, Latter Days, which he directed, did not spring from agenda either. "I wanted to write something small and personal, and the intention was not to mine my own psychodrama. It was very cathartic. I thought I’d hand over the painful stuff to the actors, but as I was directing it, it all came back to me."