Brian Cox knew things had changed when strangers began asking not for an autograph but if he could tell them to “f*** off”. The 73-year-old actor has long been a familiar face of the stage and screen but his much-feted role as Logan Roy, the fearsome, foul-mouthed patriarch at the centre of the HBO drama Succession is, he says, “something else entirely”. Cox’s Logan presides over a vast media empire and strikes fear into his adult children, who compete for his favour in the hope of winning the keys to the kingdom. When he read the part, he knew it was a good one – “I have an instinct for these things. I signed up immediately”. Still, he didn’t anticipate his character’s ferocious barbs turning into an off-screen party piece.
The first time he was asked was at a get-together at the actor Rosanna Arquette’s house in Los Angeles, where Ronan Farrow was doing a reading from his book, Catch and Kill, on the alleged crimes of Harvey Weinstein. The place was packed, mostly with women, several of whom approached Cox at the end with a special request. “I thought, ‘Is this really appropriate at a #MeToo event? Me, an old white dinosaur telling young women to f*** off?’ But these, apparently, are the times we live in.”
I meet Cox at his publicist’s office in London. He is small but sturdy-looking; his white hair is swept back and his beard neatly trimmed. Most arresting is his voice, which is gentle but plangent, reflecting half a lifetime spent declaiming in Shakespeare plays. Cox, who has just been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series for his role in Succession, is fighting off a cold and has a long day of promotion ahead of him. He’s not complaining, though. “In 2021, I’ll have been in this business for 60 years,” he notes, “and my sell-by date is coming up. I’ve had success but I’ve never had it like I have it at the moment.”
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He recalls Michael Elliott directing him in Moby Dick at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in the early Eighties. Cox had already done some television and made his West End debut as Orlando in As You Like It. Nonetheless, Elliot said: “Brian, it’s going to be the long haul for you.” A working-class actor from Dundee, Cox was different from his public school-educated peers. “I didn’t know how to do that thing that they did,” he says. “I wasn’t a good networker and I didn’t know how to smile.”
Now, of course, he has scores of grand stage roles under his belt, among them King Lear at the National and Titus Andronicus at the RSC. Entranced by great American actors such as Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy, he moved to the US to get a foothold in the movies, and was quickly cast as Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller Manhunter. He was on screen for less than 10 minutes, but made enough of an impression for Hollywood directors to see him as a reliable screen villain, casting him variously as Agamemnon in Troy, the dastardly Stryker in X-Men and the bent CIA boss in the Bourne films (he was, however, passed up for the part of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs in favour of Anthony Hopkins).
Cox won an Emmy for his role as Hermann Göring in the 2000 TV series Nuremberg, which remains one of his favourite parts. “I had to unpick the perceived idea of who Göring was, and that’s what I love about what I do. Shakespeare talked about holding a mirror up to nature, and that’s really the job. It’s to show what people are really like. When I played Lecktor, I showed a man who was plausible, but also insane.” Earlier this year, he earnt rave reviews as Lyndon B Johnson in The Great Society on Broadway. The work was demanding and caused his diabetes to return, for which he smilingly blames his co-star Richard Thomas (best known for his role as John-Boy in The Waltons), who played the vice-president Hubert Humphrey. “He would offer me sweets between scenes and I’d think, ‘Yeah, why not?’ And now my blood sugar has shot up.”
He rejoins the Roy clan in May when filming for Succession’s third season starts. “The show is a morality tale for our times,” Cox reflects. “We’re at that point where people [in public life] say and do the most outrageous things as a matter of course. In Succession, people love the characters, even though if they sat down and thought about it they might feel quite disturbed by that. We present [the Roys] as real people in a real situation, and Logan as the central dilemma. It’s much more insidious than just saying, ‘Well, he’s just Donald Trump or Murdoch.’ Both of those men inherited their wealth and businesses. Logan is a self-made man who came from nothing. He is a misanthrope who is basically disappointed with the human experiment.” Cox laughs ruefully. “It’s where Logan and I agree.”
One of the first things he asked the writer Jesse Armstrong after reading for the part was whether Logan loves his children – the answer was yes. “That was important,” he says. “Logan knows his children are disappointing, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for them. So it’s all about trying to empower them but only to a certain extent because they have to empower themselves.” I ask if Cox can relate to this, albeit on a smaller scale, with his own offspring (he has two adult children, Margaret and Alan, from his first marriage, and two teenage boys with his current wife, the German actor Nicole Ansari). “It’s a big problem that I have to try to get them to understand my roots,” he reflects. “They can’t contemplate it.”
Cox was born into almost Dickensian poverty. His father died from pancreatic cancer when his son was just eight years old, leaving behind huge debts. His mother subsequently had a nervous breakdown, was subjected to electro-shock treatment and spent much of the rest of her life in institutions (she died in 1973). “So I was on my own,” Cox says with the matter-of-factness of one who has told the tale thousands of times. “But I had these wonderful sisters who were much older than me – my eldest sister, Betty, who was my rock, is now 89. But I had no template as a father. I’ve never known how to be a father. I’m not good at setting up boundaries, because I never had any.” The problem with parenthood, he says, is that it’s an experiment – “and it failed miserably with me because of the situation we were in and the tragedy in my family. But it did instil in me a sense of survival. It’s been a case of that ever since.”
Cox looks back fondly at the Sixties, an age of social mobility from which he clearly benefited. In his early teens he would bunk off school and go to the cinema. He failed his 11-plus and eventually left school at 15, instead getting a job mopping floors and running errands at Dundee repertory theatre. He immediately felt at home there and, at 17, got a scholarship to drama school in London. “The government took care of me. My fees and expenses were paid because I had nothing. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.”
Cox now has dual citizenship and spends equal amounts of time in America and Britain (he has homes in New York and in London’s Primrose Hill). “I’m still an active member of the community here,” he maintains, “even though I’ve become disaffected with the politics.” He voiced the Labour Party election broadcasts in 1997 when Blair came to power, but was disappointed in what came next – “they had the biggest chance to really reset the agenda and they didn’t. So I sort of retrenched.” In 2014, he campaigned for Scottish independence and supports the SNP. “I look at Nicola Sturgeon and she’s a credit. She could be the leader of this nation. She is truthful and honest. I look at the [current Labour Party] and I see antiquated socialism, so out of touch. Then we have this lying, public schoolboy [in power]. After Trump, it’s like Groundhog Day. I compare it to the building of the Tower of Babel. Nobody knows how to pass the bricks because they can’t speak to one another. There’s been a breakdown in language, and the moral imperative has gone. As we say in Scotland, ‘we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns’. But that sense of egalitarianism, it no longer exists.”
Cox is known for putting a lot of research into his acting projects. This might involve copious reading around real-life characters, or quietly observing different types of people to see how they behave. Recently, he met the billionaire and former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who gave him unexpected insight into the mindset of the political elite. Bloomberg had come to see The Great Society and, afterwards, the pair got chatting about Vietnam. “This was just before he announced his presidential bid,” recalls Cox. “He said he never went to Vietnam – he had just missed it. But then he added, ‘Mind you, I could never have gone in as a private. I would have to have gone in as a lieutenant.’ I said, ‘Ah, really?’ But it was such a revealing remark. There’s this sense, with these rich men, that they are not exactly better than everyone else but simply a rank above. For them, it’s not an opinion but a statement of fact. With the Roys and in real life, this is where we are.”
Succession will return to Sky and NOW TV in 2020; series one and two are available on Sky Store now