Brian Cox on Succession’s success: ‘I’ve lost the anonymity I had for more than 50 years’

Brian Cox on Rogan Loy: ‘I don’t need a lot of lines. I need a few “aha”s and a few “f*** off”s. The character is really established.’ Photograph: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times
The Succession actor discusses his new memoir, the social mobility of the 1960s, cancel culture and his long career
 

You could reasonably argue that Brian Cox has been famous for half a century. Born 75 years ago in Dundee in Scotland, he made his West End debut in 1967. He was a star of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in London in the 1970s. In later decades, he became one of Hollywood’s most valued character actors. Films such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Bourne Identity, Adaptation and Zodiac would be immeasurably poorer without his voluminous, rumbling presence. In Michael Mann’s excellent Manhunter he became the first person to play Hannibal Lecktor (as the cannibal’s name was then spelt). You know who Brian Cox is.

Yet he freely admits it took Succession for him to achieve the level of recognition that makes it hard to buy a pint of milk in peace.

“It’s a hell of a lot different because it’s global,” he explains. “It’s a global success. And I am now recognised wherever I go. I’ve lost my anonymity, which I had for… um… Well, I’ve been in the business for 60 years and certainly for more than 50 years of that I had anonymity.”

That goes some way to confirming the impact of the HBO series. The profane, hectic, hilarious drama, which began its third season last week, stars Cox as an aging media magnate who can’t quite relinquish control to his ghastly children. The ensemble cast is terrific, but Cox’s Logan Roy looms over them all. The role sits neatly on an arc for an actor who has excelled as Titus Andronicus and King Lear.

“I sometimes forget,” he says. “My wife says: ‘Brian, people know who you are now. There’s no way you can hide. I will say: ‘Oh, really?’ That’s the price you have to pay. They know who Daniel Craig is. But I could come in and out. I was more of a chameleon. That’s what I loved about my job. And that’s why I don’t want to stop with Logan Roy.”

Succession’s Loy family: played by Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Brian Cox, Sarah Snook and Alan Ruck (2018). Photograph: HBO
Succession’s Loy family: played by Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Brian Cox, Sarah Snook and Alan Ruck (2018). Photograph: HBO

Perish the thought. Cox addresses that topic and many more in a compelling new memoir entitled Putting the Rabbit in the Hat. He has some story to tell. The book takes us from a difficult childhood on Tayside – his father died young and his mother struggled with mental health issues – to his first acting roles with the Dundee Rep, followed by training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and early professional success with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

His rich speaking voice is present in the prose. The book does not whisper, it booms. There are stories about early adventures with John Thaw and Michael Gambon. As someone from a Scottish Catholic background, he is obliged to acknowledge the tendrils of Irish heritage.

Nobody can really understand what the social mobility of the 1960s was like. It was phenomenal. I came from a troubled and humble background and the theatre was open to me

“My great-grandfather came from Derry. My great-grandmother came from Donegal, ” he says. “That was on my mother’s side. On my father’s side all the people came from the Enniskillen area. I realised then how the Irish have been treated. We’re the same people, the Irish and the Scots. My only quarrel with the Irish is that they would have their throat cut rather than say ‘no’ to you.”

That phenomenon whereby an Irish person will always try and help with directions even if they have no real handle on the desired location? “It could be this way. You could maybe try that way.” And so on.

“Yes. That’s the example I have used as well. When going to Scotland, my ancestors had to learn the word ‘no’. Ha, ha!”

The memoir is not one that settles scores – unlike, say, John Osborne’s, which gets a mention in the text – but it is, shall we say, frank in its treatment of some fellow professionals. Ed Norton is “a nice lad but a bit of a pain in the a***”; Michael Caton-Jones, director of Rob Roy, “was an a***hole”; the vanities of Steven Seagal are treated in a prologue. “To explain what I mean about ‘doing a schtick’ it’s worth looking at the example of Sir Ian McKellen” one chapter begins.

Did he worry about such inclusions?

“I was concerned to a certain extent,” he says. “Michael did behave badly in relationship to that film. I am sure he is maybe a reformed character. He has maybe changed. Everybody’s got that potential in them. I’m all for it. But at the time, he did behave like a bit of an a***hole.”

He muses on a few more encounters.

“Michael Caine, he was full of the arrogance of youth. I thought that was unnecessary. Steven Seagal? There is nothing very much to be said about Steven Seagal. He is an advert for whatever he is. But there are things that concern me – my criticism of McKellen, who I really love. He’s much more of a theatre animal than I am. He’s been an extraordinary ambassador for the theatre. He’s unbeatable and also his politics are unbeatable. But I also think sometimes his acting is a little bit grandiose.”

I wonder if it is harder for actors from Cox’s background to make it in the business today. He emerged at the tail-end of the era that saw working-class performers such as Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Caine nudge their way on to British screens and stages. Now “public” schoolboys, those from fee-paying schools, are more in evidence than ever at the top of the profession. Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow, Eddie Redmayne and Dominic West went to Eton, and so on.

There is that horrible aspect of [cancel culture]. But there is a reverberation of it which is mindless. And ‘woke’ is the same. We are so hypocritical about our righteousness

“Well, I think it’s tragic,” Cox says. “Somebody like me, from my background, will not have access in the same way. I have to be very careful. The public schools have come of age because the facilities are phenomenal. The Eddie Redmaynes, Benedict Cucumber… Not ‘cucumber’ – Benedict Cumberbatch. There was a structure that allowed that. Dominic West. So I have to be very careful about that, even though I don’t believe in public schools at all.”

He moves back to the core issue.

“Nobody can really understand what the social mobility of the 1960s was like. It was phenomenal. I came from a troubled and humble background and the theatre was open to me. When I walked into Dundee Rep at the age of 15, I knew I was home.”

Brian Cox attends the Succession European premiere in London on October 15th. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty
Brian Cox attends the Succession European premiere in London on October 15th. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

Cox’s social and political views spread across an arresting spectrum in the memoir. A committed socialist, he writes at length about his journey from firm British Labour Party supporter to loyal follower of the Scottish Nationalist Party. But, like so many others from his generation, he expresses concern about (his words) “cancel culture”. He talks about a “McCarthyist, vengeful element, which gives rise to an awful lot of collateral damage”. Does he really believe that is out there?

“I think there is such a thing. And it’s mindless,” he says. “You can’t just say ‘that’s wrong’, because you’re not acknowledging the history. You’re not acknowledging where it’s come from. There is, of course, the horribleness of Harvey Weinstein and his abuse of actresses. I know someone who was raped by him in a corridor. So there is that horrible aspect of it. But there is a reverberation of it which is mindless. And ‘woke’ is the same. We are so hypocritical about our righteousness.”

He goes on to tell a sad story about his mother. She sighed on being told that Caroline, his first wife, was in a fragile state after delivering stillborn twins. “Ah, Brian. We’ve all dropped bairns,” she said.

“Before I was born, my mother had six miscarriages,” he says. “Now in a cancel culture, you would say: ‘Oh, it’s terrible what that woman said, “We’ve all dropped bairns”.” This is the reality we have to acknowledge. We cannot sigh and say: ‘Let’s start again.’ It would be delightful if we could start again, but unfortunately we have to deal with the sh** that we’ve had and acknowledge it.”

All these guys with sgian-dubh – knives stuck in their stocking. I was a Catholic boy. I never wore a kilt. That was something that Protestants wore

In the book, Cox speaks warmly of Mel Gibson, who, it hardly needs to be said, has run into his own difficulties over the years. He feels his case offers a telling case study (though, it should be noted, Gibson has just signed on for the upcoming John Wick TV series).

“Mel is a very good example,” he says. “He had to listen to his father’s horrible Roman Catholic propaganda. And he had to deal with that all his life. So in such a way, he became conditioned to believe in certain things. That has caused enormous confusion and enormous pain for him. That contributed to his alcoholism. Mel Gibson is a very sweet, dear man. He is not the monster everybody makes him out to be. He is one of the kindest, most considerate people I’ve ever come across.”

Cox was not just a Labour supporter. He was the official voice of the 1997 ad campaign that helped bring Tony Blair to power. He still thinks Blair “meant well” but that he lost his way with Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush. The Iraq conflict figured significantly in his crossing the aisle to the SNP. But Scottish nationalism also changed its face.

“I used to look at the SNP and think, this is a joke,” he says. “All these guys with sgian-dubh – knives stuck in their stocking. I was a Catholic boy. I never wore a kilt. That was something that Protestants wore. The only time I ever wore a kilt was onstage. Now I periodically wear the kilt. In fact, I’ve even invented my own tartan. The kilt is very comfortable. It was synonymous with certain things I was not interested in. And then I watched Scotland and that party [SNP] move to a kind of egalitarian position. At the time of the Iraq crisis, I thought there was a much more responsible sense of social democracy going on in Scotland. I was so impressed by that and I thought, this party has grown up.”

Cox figures high on a list of best actors never to have been nominated for an Oscar. But there are worse ways to move into your 76th year. Married to Nicole Ansari since 2002, he divides his time between London and New York. He has never been in greater demand and, as we have already established, he has never been more famous.

'...I’ve been in the business for 60 years and certainly for more than 50 years of that I had anonymity. Photograph: Lia Toby/Getty Images
'...I’ve been in the business for 60 years and certainly for more than 50 years of that I had anonymity. Photograph: Lia Toby/Getty Images

Everyone has an idea where Logan Roy came from. Is there a bit of Rupert Murdoch in there? Does he carry traces of Citizen Kane?

“It’s totally my creation. And it’s totally the creation of the writers,” he says. “They’ve drawn from my virtues as an actor in terms of what is unsaid. I don’t need a lot of lines. I need a few “aha”s and a few “f*** off”s. The character is really established. That’s a great advantage, in that I am getting on and learning lines is more difficult now. But it’s also an advantage in the sense that it gives him more inner life. The great thing about the character is people don’t really know who Logan is. He is the most misunderstood character.”

He is now chuckling about his beloved anti-hero.

“People say he’s such a bastard. But he’s got these awful children.”

Don’t cancel Logan Roy.

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat is published on October 28th.

Season 3 of Succession is currently on Sky/ Now