This weekend, Marvel Universe LIVE! comes to Raleighs PNC Arena. The pyrotechnics-and-stunts spectacular features Marvel superheroes brought to life by actors, live special effects, and in the case of the Hulk an 8-foot-tall suit powered by two car batteries. All told, there are 25 characters, played by 53 performers.
Some play multiple roles: Joseph Cox, 33, spends a portion of each show playing bad-guy foot soldiers as such cannon fodder, hes forever getting knocked off tall platforms, just to climb back up again and rejoin the fight. As winged superhero Falcon, Cox showcases his aerialist and acrobatic talents. His most recognizable role, though, may be as S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury.
Thats a lot of stunt driving, flipping cars really just sort of a take-charge, commanding presence onstage, Cox says. Samuel L. Jackson played Nick Fury in 2012s The Avengers and other Marvel films, and Cox has taken the celebrated actors lead. Thats what Im channeling here, trying to bring that energy and that presence to the role.
Yet, for Cox, the Raleigh stop is a homecoming. He spent much of his childhood in Durham, and he traces the beginnings of his career to teachers at Hillside High School. They showed him that dancing and acting could be his livelihood, which led him to take his talents seriously.
Today, Cox is a professional performer, living on the road and traveling with high-profile shows like Marvel Universe LIVE! and, previously, The Lion King Broadway musical and he owes it all to a handful of local educators.
I had some strong teachers who had a lot of faith in me and my abilities and encouraged me to pursue more serious training, Cox says. Drama director Wendell Tabb gave his students practical lessons in professionalism, while dance instructor Lisa Wilder recognized Coxs potential. She was really a solid foundation where I hadnt had any before. I wasnt really interested in pursuing arts as a career before that.
A triple threat
Tabb, who still heads Hillsides drama program, regularly takes students overseas to perform. He ensures they know what to expect in auditions, and he encourages them to diversify their talents; in his productions, no one is just an actor, but students also fill director, stage manager, or costume designer roles. This way, they have multiple skills.
I trained them to be able to, as an artist, work for themselves, Tabb says.
Cox took Tabbs lessons to heart, and cultivated a broad skill set. Accordingly, his roles in Marvel Universe LIVE! require acting, high-flying acrobatics, stage combat and stunt driving. Coxs earlier work with Dolly Partons Pirates Voyage in Myrtle Beach, S.C., involved high dives and swordfights, while The Lion King, as a musical, required yet another subset of his skills.
Not only is he a talented actor, but he is an amazing singer and dancer, Tabb recalls. He was what we would call a triple threat.
Cox holds a bachelors degree in contemporary dance from the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem but also has a background in martial arts. With that schooling and experience, the stage combat and the physically demanding stunts required for Marvel Universe LIVE! come naturally to him.
Im really comfortable with that, but also the high falls and falling stunts, aerial work, he says. You have to have a certain level of physicality coming into it and then once you have that, you use that and it maintains itself. During a shows run, then, he doesnt necessarily have to spend hours in the gym rather, the performance is his workout.
In superhero mode
Today, Cox effectively lives on the road. This, too, feels natural, both from traveling as a kid and with Tabbs drama program. Coxs brother still lives in Durham, and so do his high school friends. Hes excited to share with them what hes done since high school.
At Hillside, though, the door is always open for Cox to come back and see his old teacher; arts alumni are always welcome. The students who are there love that, Tabb says. Its helpful for them to see how Hillsides drama program can translate to a performing arts career. Joe has been one of those students who has returned back.
And why not? After all, his career arc is a Hillside success story. From the drama program there to the School of the Arts, and from The Lion King musical to Pirates Voyage, even a major franchise like Marvel wasnt out of his league.
It wasnt much of a leap to push into superhero mode, he says.