In a lively and wide-ranging conversation, one of the most revered actors of his generation talks Hollywood rivalries, Scottish independence – and the future of the hit TV show
Last modified on Fri 10 Dec 2021 16.31 GMT
Over the years, I have crossed paths several times with the Dundonian actor Brian Cox. In 2002, I interviewed him for the BBC about the controversial US indie film L.I.E., of which he remains particularly proud. We met again in Shetland, where I co-curate the annual Screenplay film festival, when he was campaigning for Scottish independence. More recently we did a podcast together in which he enthused about his love of Danny Kaye in the 1955 comedy The Court Jester, a film he rewatches every year. No wonder, then, that reading his hugely entertaining autobiography, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, feels like catching up with an old friend.
In his book he recounts being at the Golden Globes in 2020, where he won best actor in a TV series as Logan Roy in the scathingly satirical Succession. Among the attendees were Elton John and Al Pacino, both of whom pointedly praised Cox for his outstanding title role in the 2017 drama Churchill – a film that was overlooked at awards season in favour of Darkest Hour, for which Gary Oldman won an Oscar playing Churchill.
“It’s the curse of Brian Cox,” the actor writes ruefully, a phrase he credits to my broadcasting partner, Simon Mayo, and me to describe the strange phenomenon of Cox turning in a blistering screen performance only for another actor to win an Oscar for playing the same role in a different movie – something that has happened more than once.
When I meet Cox in London, he’s just arrived from the airport after filming the final scenes in Italy of the hotly anticipated new series of Succession. His schedule has been mad but he’s clearly in rude health – that granite-like face regularly breaking into a beaming smile as we sit, Covid-distanced, on his flat’s balcony overlooking Primrose Hill, breathing in that strange summer cocktail of humid fresh air and traffic fumes.
He’s in a good mood, so I decide to leap in and ask about Churchill first. Is he still irked about the lack of garlands that film received? “I was pissed off,” he admits, “particularly when I saw the other movie. I thought it was bloody awful!” He’s not wrong. The scene in Darkest Hour in which Oldman’s Churchill conducts an impromptu focus group of “ordinary people” on the London underground remains utterly laughable. “I mean, Gary’s a great actor, but…” Cox sighs, waving away any perceived injustice. “You learn not to be attached, to let go. Churchill probably wasn’t the greatest script, but I think the relationship with Miranda [Richardson, who played Clementine Churchill] was second to none. She’s a great actress, and she made me raise my game. And from that point of view I thought: ‘Well, this is good work.’”
Cox’s “good work” has, of course, been widely recognised elsewhere. Born in 1946 into a working-class family of Scottish and Irish descent, he joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre aged 14, then landed himself a place at Lamda. A superb stage career followed, with Cox earning Olivier awards for Rat in the Skull in 1984, and Titus Andronicus in 1988. Meanwhile his screen roles have ranged from blockbusters such as Braveheart and Bourne to smaller movies such as The Escapist, which earned him a Scottish Bafta.
Alongside his recent Golden Globes win, Cox has also been Emmy-nominated for his performance as Succession’s Logan Roy – the venal media mogul who is equal parts Rupert Murdoch and King Lear. Crucially, Cox refuses to characterise Logan as simply “bad” – something that seems to define his approach to people in general.
“I think that at some point in his life, Logan has been brutalised,” Cox says. “And he’s in the process of committing an act of revenge on the rest of humanity, but for really quite legitimate reasons. The thing that’s so hard for him is that, like Lear, he loves his children, and he would hope to see some of that love reciprocated, as opposed to them just seeing him as a chequebook, or as the road to entitlement.”
Like The Thick of It – the Armando Iannucci series that featured Succession creator Jesse Armstrong among its writers – Succession is a comedy-drama with an “induced documentary” feel, as if the chaos on screen is unfolding around us in real time. I ask Cox if it’s all scripted, or whether there’s much room for improvisation. He rolls his eyes at the word. “I’m a great believer in the script,” he states firmly. “I don’t mind improvisation. I can improvise with the best of them. And yes, we do a fair bit of improvisation in Succession. Sometimes it can release an actor. But in general it doesn’t release me. The script releases me.” He recounts a wonderful story (included in the book) about replacing Tommy Lee Jones on the 1996 sci-fi action movie Chain Reaction, only to discover that, despite eight writers, there was no script. “You worked with Ken Loach, yes?” asked director Andrew Davis. “He improvises? And you can improvise?” Next thing, Cox is in a lift with Morgan Freeman singing On Top of Old Smokey to fill the gaps where the written dialogue should have been.
Other experiences have proved more invigorating. “On Succession, I’ve been working with Mark Mylod [the director whose credits include the hit TV series Shameless]. He’s wonderful – very hard-working and very meticulous. Anyway, I have this scene in the new series where a certain thing happens – I won’t say what, because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s embarrassing, and involves something about Logan’s youngest son, Roman, that is a little… disappointing. The first time we did it I just roared: ‘RAAAAAH!’ But then we did another take where I put my head in my hands and went: ‘Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?’ until I’d exhausted it. Because that’s it. He wants to know why. I mean, he knows it – he’s not a good dad, and he doesn’t give a fuck – on one level, although on another level he gives greatly a fuck.”
Whether or not that moment makes the final cut remains to be seen (Cox doesn’t tend to go back and check such things, preferring to move on once the on-set work is done). Yet talk of it reminds Cox of another improvised incident that came as they were filming the end of the first episode of the new series, for which he had a novel idea. “It’s at an airport in Sarajevo and it looks as though Logan’s going to be losing the firm. He’s not going to be CEO any longer, which is part of the theme of the third series. And so I did this scene where he’s outside the hotel, and he’s alone and very still. And I had this discussion with Mark who said: ‘We need a bit of craziness.’ I said: ‘Well you know Mark, I’m not sure that works but OK I’ll try it.’ So we’re on this long narrow road by an airport, and I was on the phone, and I started to walk. There was all this traffic, so I thought: ‘I’ll just walk in the main road.’ So I did that and they went fucking nuts! ‘Get back! You’ll kill yourself! Don’t go down there!’ I said: ‘You wanted me to do something crazy so…’ And they’re going: ‘Not in the cars!’” He roars with laughter at the memory. “I thought what a great thing it would be if I did that in the scene – suddenly having the first assistant running in screaming! It would be very Brechtian! Anyway, then Mark came over and said: ‘I think that was a little too much!’”
I suspect that part of Cox’s ability to get under the skin of characters such as Logan Roy comes from his ability to find the things they have in common. In Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (a term that refers to the work that must be done before you can magically pull a metaphorical rabbit out of the hat), he writes about the trauma of losing his father at an early age, and worries about his own shortcomings as a dad to his four children. I ask how these experiences have affected his portrayal of someone who is, in his words, “not a good dad”. His answer is typically free-form.
“Look, the one thing Logan and I share is our disappointment in the human being. Like this farce that we all watched of Bezos going up in the sky, started by Branson. What the fuck are they doing? He went up there for 11 minutes and then came back down. And you go: ‘So fucking what?’ And then Branson goes: ‘We need a lot more spaceships.’ And you think: ‘No we don’t! We don’t need a lot more spaceships! We’ve got enough! The world’s gone nuts!’”
Bringing things back down to Earth, I ask whether Logan may have started out with good intentions? Did circumstance and disappointment turn him toward the dark side?
“He probably wanted to create a world which he then realised he couldn’t create, so he thought: ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to take what I can.’ And I think he got on to that jag a long time ago, so the idealist in him went. Remember, we still don’t know about his relationship with his mother, or his relationship with Rose, his sister. I think Tennessee Williams’s sister was known as Rose. She had problems, and he had this very complex, heartbreaking relationship with her. And I thought it was interesting that Jesse chose that name.”
There’s something of the wounded bear about Logan in the first episodes of the new series, isolated as his children seem ready to turn on him. Does he become a more sympathetic character in this series? “To a certain extent he does, but then he reverts to form. I can’t really talk about that, or give anything away. But his son betraying him really brings a lot of stuff home. But he’s such a battler. He’s limitless in his ire.”
So is this the end of Succession, or will there be more?
“That’s a question I can’t answer,” Cox says. “It really depends on the writers. If they feel they can stoke other stuff out of it… I mean, it is morphing into other areas. It’s becoming much more of a…” He pauses, searching for the right phrase. “I don’t want to say ‘humanist document’ because Jesse would hate that. But the show has taken on its own life, it’s creating its own life. And that’s a big advantage. So as long as that life is there, and as long as the writers are inspired to do stuff, then it could go on.”
And do you have to be there for that to happen?
“No, they can kill me off,” he says, before adding slyly: “But I think they’d miss me. Originally, I was supposed to die at the end of the first series. But I think they realised that Logan is the centrifugal force of the piece. Everything has to spin off him, and the kids’ vices are all about their father, and relating to their father. Do they love their father, and if so how do they show that love?”
Cox is clear that, whatever viewers and critics may infer, Logan’s relationship to real-life bogeymen such as Murdoch or Trump is at best incidental. “Trump is a bad script,” he says, echoing fellow Scotsman Bill Forsyth, who famously stated in a 2012 Guardian article that if he’d ever written a villain as one-dimensionally horrible as Trump, no one would believe in him. “Brendan Gleeson did him recently [in The Comey Rule] and I feel for the man. Trump’s just a terrible script. But Logan is Jesse’s creation.”
What about Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper mogul at the heart of Citizen Kane. Does he cast a shadow over Roy?
“Not really, because the Succession writers come from the world of gags. They’re comedy writers essentially.”
But Citizen Kane is full of gags…
“Well yes, that’s true. Kane is full of gags. He was amazing, Welles. But he was so misunderstood. They never got him. And his life became really rather sad. You know, he had a house at the top of Sunset Plaza and they used to say that you knew Orson was in town because there’d be a big pair of white underpants flying at the house. I always think that’s a wonderful image – this flag of his white underpants. But the Kane thing hadn’t really occurred to me until you said it, but now I think of it, yeah there are elements of Kane in there.”
Our conversation veers from Orson Welles to Steven Seagal, who features in the prologue of Putting the Rabbit in the Hat as someone who, like Trump, has a delusional view of his own talents. Other targets of Cox’s ire include Rob Roy-director Michael Caton-Jones, whom the actor upbraids for committing the crime of being more concerned with the choreography of a shot than the text. (Cox nevertheless recounts enjoying juggling roles in Rob Roy and Braveheart, the latter despite its “terrible script”.)
As a rule, however, Cox errs on the side of generosity – almost to a fault. “Everybody in this book is either dead or cancelled,” he writes as he cheerfully recalls working with Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer. Time and again, I suggest, when it looks like he’s going to stick the knife in, he instead draws back and asks: Where did this person come from? How did they get here?
“Well, you’ve hit it in one, Mark, because that is the job. You don’t judge. You can’t judge. And it’s hard. I mean, take Trump. I can’t look at the man, he just makes me feel… vile. But at the same time he’s clearly an abused child; he’s clearly been indoctrinated by this horrible father, who’s also been indoctrinated. And he’s got this strange mum, from the Western Isles for Christ’s sake, who completely didn’t know where the fuck she was and therefore couldn’t relate to these horrible children. And Donald is as stupid as anything. He’s a dumb fuck of the first order. But he’s become that – that was the process that happened. And I have no sympathy for him whatsoever, I think the man’s a waste of space. But at the same time, like it or not, he’s a human being.”
I’m reminded that Cox won an Emmy for playing Hermann Göring in Nuremberg, another role that required him to look long into the abyss and try to divine something human.
“That is really the source of what I do,” he says. “The questions. Who are these people? What did they do? What is Hannibal Lecter? And that was the thing that came out of Nuremberg. Even though I did it after I did Hannibal Lecktor [as the character’s name is spelled in the 1986 film Manhunter], it’s this lack of empathy, this inability to empathise. When Will Petersen says to him: ‘You’re insane’ – well, once you’ve gone down that road, there’s no argument.”
I mention that Cox writes that he has never spoken to Anthony Hopkins about Hopkins’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Lecter – the other infamous example of the curse of Brian Cox.
“We don’t speak about it, which is a good thing. Because round about the time of The Silence of the Lambs, some Daily Mail journalist rang me and said: ‘This role, you played it first, right?’ And I said: ‘Yes, that’s right.’ And then that was the headline – ‘I PLAYED IT FIRST’ – as though I was being vainglorious. And I was well and truly pissed off. And Tony was upset about it, quite rightly. So I just thought: ‘OK, I won’t talk about it ever’, because I think Tony did a great job. But then I think Hannibal is like that. It’s like Hamlet. It’s open to interpretation – to different people doing it from their different points of view. I based my version on a killer called Peter Manuel – Martin Compston did a TV thing about him [the three-part ITV crime-drama In Plain Sight]. Manuel scared the shit out of me as a 10-year-old boy. But I love Tony – his range is just astonishing.”
Besides Hannibal, the other character whom Cox has famously made his own is Titus Andronicus – the tragic Shakespearean anti-hero whom he played in a renowned 1987 RSC production, brilliantly directed by Deborah Warner, which he has called “the greatest stage performance I have ever given”. It’s a blood-soaked work, filled with rape, mutilation, and children being killed and cooked. Yet Cox insists that the play also contains a key element of vaudeville.
“Yes, absolutely vaudeville!” he laughs. “There’s this ludicrous element to Titus – this old warrior soldier general who is now in this state of being neither comic nor tragic but just kind of ludicrous. But it’s also incredibly moving because of the sort of extremes he goes to. And this act of cooking the kids in a pie and serving it – it’s people being pushed to the extreme. And it’s also about authority, and about a young writer getting his rocks off. When you do Lear, that is infinitely more depressing. Because it’s about endless rejection. Titus isn’t rejected. He kind of motivates everything. And it all goes horribly wrong – his life, this whole edifice, cracks open. That’s why I played it looking like one of those statues – covered in clay, cracked. That was one of my images for the role; a sort of broken statue, with bits of flesh coming through it. To me it’s one of the great roles because it sort of sums up what I feel about life – that life is ludicrous.”
I remind him that, like the best works of Grand Guignol horror, his celebrated portrayal of Titus was met with audiences fainting, vomiting, and running from the theatre.
“It was!” he says proudly. “And it’s completely cathartic for the audience. When I was in the Barbican, there was this woman sitting at the side, and she’d just witnessed Lavinia coming on with her hands cut off. She started going: ‘Help me, help me!’ And I led her to the vomitorium, and they carried her out. And I remember at the first matinee people were taken out in the interval because the intensity in that theatre was astonishing. People still talk about it to this day.”
How does it feel to be on stage when that’s happening?
“You become a medium for something. If you’re open to it, you allow something to come through you. And it’s despite you, it really is.”
Alongside his passion for theatre, Cox has long taken an interest in politics, famously lending his rich, sonorous voice to Labour’s election campaign in the 90s. But his allegiances shifted later as he became a flag-waver for Scottish independence, throwing his weight behind the SNP. I ask him where he currently stands on the political map.
“Oh boy,” he says, as if shouldering the weight of the world. “You know, I was a big Labour man for such a long time. Then the whole ‘weapons of mass destruction’ thing happened, falling into the clutches of the late Donald Rumsfeld, and that poisonous vice president Dick Cheney, and the idiot savant that is George W Bush. The hubris of Blair just made me go: ‘Who does this man think he is?’ And I helped him, because I did ‘the Voice of Labour’. I was really excited. I thought: ‘This is the beginning of something.’ But we were never quite able to do it…” The thought trails off, and he looks at me with a weary shrug. “You know, as a kid I always thought: ‘Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Where do I fit in? How do I do my job?’ I’d always been a bit… [he waves his hand in a gesture of uncertainty] like that about Scottish nationalism. And I don’t like the word ‘nationalism’ – I hate that word.”
But Brian, the party you support is literally called the Scottish National party.
“I know, I know,” he says, with a mixture of frustration and amusement. “But they won’t be. Because there’ll be other parties, and the paradigm will have to shift when we become an independent country.” The use of “when” rather than “if” is more casual than pointed, as if an independent Scottish future is inevitable. But as ever, Cox immediately balances such certainty with a note of ambiguity.
“I’m very disappointed with the battle that’s gone on between Nicola and Alex,” he says. “But Nicola is doing an astonishing job. And I think it’s up to the women anyway. I think women should be running the show. I’m a white dinosaur.” He recalls having a DNA test taken at the genetic genealogy company Oxford Ancestors, where one of the analysts told him: “‘Men will eventually die out. Women will be able to self-fertilise.’ I said: ‘Wow, so you mean men will just… disappear?’ He said: ‘No, we’ll probably be kept on as playthings.’ I thought: ‘What a wonderful thing. That makes total sense.’ I just love that idea.”
When I mention that our time is nearly up, Cox says: “Oh, but I’m enjoying this. It’s like confession!” In which case, perhaps this would be the moment to address the subject of Sir Ian McKellen, whom Cox clearly loves, but whom he playfully charges in his book with leading a little too much on the “front foot”.
There’s a moment of uncharacteristic silence, as Cox seems suddenly to find himself on the back foot. He looks at me sheepishly, shakes his head and says: “I’m so worried about that bit… Do I really put it in for him? Do I?”
I reassure him that he delivers the perfect shit sandwich – a minor criticism flanked by hearty compliments. He looks relieved. And then he launches off again.
“Well, I do think he does it,” he says, emboldened, “but it’s horses for courses. He’s a ‘front foot’ actor and he’s been extremely successful for it. I would not take it away from him. And he is more of a man of the theatre than I am. He loves the theatre, he’s passionate about the theatre, he goes out on a limb to do certain things. But sometimes, there’s just a little bit of… heart missing. A little bit of just what I call expiation. When, no matter who you’re playing, you’re committing an act for the audience, and it’s about that thing that they have to go through, or they do go through with you. Rather than just going: ‘Oh wow, pyrotechnics!’ There’s something when you’ve got to go right into the audience’s inner core. Right into wherever their soul may be, or this [he presses his chest], in here. And I think that sometimes he’s so busy being other than that. I mean, it’s fine, it works. And he’s probably the most successful actor in England.”
So what are you worried about then?
“Oh, I’m just worried that Ian McKellen will never speak to me again,” Cox says ruefully. “Because I like Ian McKellen. We’re friends!”
Series 3 of Succession starts on Sunday 17 October in the US, Monday 18 October in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV and Monday 18 October in Australia on Foxtel and Binge
Putting the Rabbit in the Hat is published by Quercus (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply