Brian Cox on playing 'Succession' tyrant Logan Roy
Everyone’s favourite carbon-black comedy drama is back for season three this weekend. Here, the Soho House member and actor talks to Laura Craik about his career-defining role, humble beginnings, and shares the words he lives by in an exclusive video
Photography by Ben Parkes Video by Maya Skelton Music by Curation Music
Brian Cox is not like Logan Roy at all. Why would he be, any more than he’d be like Winston Churchill, Hannibal Lecter or any other part he’s played with gravitas over the course of a Golden Globe, Emmy and Olivier-winning 60-year career? Maybe because, like Cox, Logan Roy hails from Dundee. Originally, the character was meant to be from Quebec. But towards the end of the first series of Succession, they changed his birthplace – to no one’s surprise more than Cox’s. ‘I went to Jesse [Armstrong, the writer] and said, “What the hell’s going on?” And Jesse said, “Oh, I thought it’d be a little surprise for you”. And I said, “It’s a hell of a f**king surprise”.’ One thing Cox and Roy do have in common: they both like to swear.
To ask Cox what it is about Logan that has resonated with viewers is to elicit a considered 800-word response. ‘Openly, he’s kind of crude, but he’s also a mystery of a person. You don’t quite know where he’s come from. I’ve grown to have enormous respect for him. At first it was difficult for me; I kept thinking “who is this guy? What’s his motivating force?” And Jesse put it very simply. He loves his children. He treats them terribly, but he loves them. But the love is not reciprocated, in a way, because of entitlement. It’s a modern fable for our times. We see it now with wealth, like Richard Branson going on about how we need more spaceships. What are you talking about? Go up in your bl**dy spaceship – lovely, grand – but you’re adding to the carbon footprint. Bezos is the same. Where are their heads? Up their a**es! Logan’s not like them. He’s a bit like Murdoch, but he’s not like them, because he doesn’t overextend himself. He knows what his business is, and what his territory is. He’s not got those crazy ambitions, he just likes money.’
‘The one thing that Logan and I have in common is disappointment with the human experience, and the idiocy of humans’
He also likes being cruel. His manipulation of one child against the other is the stuff of TV legend. ‘The one thing that Logan and I have in common is disappointment with the human experience, and the idiocy of humans,’ says Cox. ‘He sees humans as being so treacherous. That gives fuel to who he is. I can’t talk about it, but the next season is incredible, because we’ve…’ He catches himself before revealing any spoilers. ‘We’re also doing another season, with filming starting in June 2022,’ he continues. Now that’s a spoiler of a welcome kind.
Cox’s pathway has taken him from his birthplace of Dundee to London, where he studied acting at LAMDA and still keeps a home, and to New York, where he lives with his second wife, Nicole Ansari. It was during a visit to London that he struck up a conversation with a man keen to impress on him how much he and his wife were enjoying Succession. ‘We’re loving it,’ said the man. ‘But my wife has her moments. Can you ask them to go a little easier next season?’ The wife in question was Elisabeth Murdoch. Many people have assumed that Succession is based on the Murdochs, the parallels being obvious. ‘Well, of course it’s inspired by those [media] families, but it’s purely coincidental,’ says Cox, adding, ‘They all watch it like mad.’
Cox spent the pandemic in upstate New York, appreciating nature (‘thousands of chipmunks running around!’) and noticing the changing of the seasons. ‘I’ve always been attracted to the notion of grace, and learnt I’m more graceful than I thought I was. A state of grace means that you’re open, non-judgmental, and prepared to accept. A lot of people fought against lockdown and couldn’t deal with it, because of fear of boredom. I’ve never been bored in my life. It’s been too busy to be bored. But that’s also what the imagination does – you’re never bored.’
As if stirred by some memory, he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a neat little handbag that belonged to his mother in the 1930s, explaining that it had recently been unearthed by a friend and sent to him yesterday out of the blue. Inside were several old photos of her, along with a letter. ‘Can I read it to you?’ he asks.
The letter is long and eloquent – the work of a fine mind that never had the chance to be explored. ‘This is the tragedy,’ he agrees. ‘The fact that women have been so thwarted, particularly at that time, because of two world wars, and them being expected to be baby machines. My mother clearly had something extraordinary.’
Whatever gifts his mother had, she has passed down to her son, as evidenced by his new autobiography, Putting The Rabbit In The Hat, a rags to riches story that charts Cox’s humble beginnings in Dundee and rise to fame at a time of unprecedented social mobility in the 1960s. Sentimental but never mawkish, frequently hilarious, it’s full of anecdotes about friends and co-stars including Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, and Brad Pitt. But it’s also a searing social history of Scotland: its politics, its alcoholism and its treatment of women, not least his mother, who struggled to care for six children single-handedly after being widowed. ‘This was a particularly tragic time, so we weren’t really looking at the funny side of life during this period,’ he observes. ‘But subsequently, I do look at life as being slightly ludicrous.’
It’s the luck of the draw, perhaps, that Cox is enjoying what is arguably the most high-profile role of his career aged 75. Does it feel like Succession has brought a new level of fame? ‘Well, it has,’ he grins. ‘I can’t deny it. It’s delightful. I feel I’ve served my time. I’ve been in this business since I was 15. This is my 60th year. My apprenticeship is finally over. You see people come and go in this profession; people who blast in and then suddenly burn out. I just knew that I still wanted to be doing this at my age, and I’ve been incredibly lucky.’
Succession season 3 is out on 17 October; Putting The Rabbit In The Hat by Brian Cox is available to preorder now.