Brian Cox: ‘Succession’ Star on the Art of Playing Bastards – Rolling Stone
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Brian Cox: The ‘Succession’ Star on the Art of Playing Bastards

The Scottish actor on playing the dark-hearted patriarch of HBO’s hit show — and why Logan Roy is both Shakespearean and completely emblematic of our contemporary moment

Brian Cox Succession

Brian Cox in HBO's 'Succession.'

Peter Kramer/HBO

It is a truth universally recognized that Succession, the darkly funny HBO drama about a media-dynasty family eating their own, was a slow starter. And the early feint of introducing the series’ most recognizable face in the form of Brian Cox, supporting actor extraordinaire, only to have him lapse into a coma by the end of the pilot did not exactly inspire a tune-in-next-week fervor. Luckily, the sidelining move was temporary. Once the first season found its footing, you could see the show improving exponentially episode by episode; the finale ended with a paternal hug serving as the end of an attempted coup and a chessmaster’s death blow. Full bloom achieved. A hit was born. And Cox’s empire-running patriarch Logan Roy? This bastard wasn’t going gently into the night, and he wasn’t abdicating his throne without a fight.

The 73-year-old Scottish actor has played everything from police chiefs to screenwriting gurus, mutant-hating villains to holy men, Winston Churchill to J. Edgar Hoover; long before Anthony Hopkins began hissing about eating someone’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti, Cox was the first actor to bring Hannibal Lecter to the big screen. (His take on the good doctor In Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter remains a masterclass on suave creepiness.) Any attempt to scroll down his IMDb.com page from top to bottom is likely to result in carpal tunnel syndrome.

And with Logan, the dark heart of writer-producer Jesse Armstrong’s take on the lifestyles of the rich, famous and fucked-up circa 2019, he’s given us a premium-cable character that feels close to iconic. You can see a bit of Rupert Murdoch here, a pinch of Conrad Black there and a soupçon of Sumner Redstone in his corporate-world regent, one who finds the various heirs to his vast conglomerate kingdom wanting. But the relish with which his character tells toadies and underlings — and offspring — to “fuck the fuck off,” the sheer disappointment he radiates with his drug-addicted son Kendall (played by Jeremy Strong), the way he darts his eyes during Machiavellian power plays and the absolute ruthlessness he’s already displayed in the first few episodes of Succession’s second season? That’s all Cox.

The veteran performer jumped on the phone to discuss why he thinks the show strikes a chord at this particular moment, the Shakespearean aspects of Logan Roy, and what his corporate bastard has in common with a certain American president.

You seemed to have stumbled onto a hell of a role here, sir.
When they first talked to me, way back in 2016, they sold it to me as a one-off. That’s what my agents said: “Don’t worry, you’ll be dead after one season!” Oh, ok. [Laughs] I had a long conversation with Jesse Armstrong and [executive producer] Adam McKay, and at the end of an hour, I said, “So, it’s just the single season, yeah?” And there was this endless pause and then they each said, “No, no, I think this may be more than one season…” Which I thought was good that it sort of ended up that way.

I’m at a certain age, so I’ve been doing this for a few weeks [laughs] — you’re just grateful to get a role like this now. I always thought, I’m in this for the long game. As long as human beings will get up there and say lines and audiences or cameras show up, I’m in there. Logan is sort proof of that particular pudding, in a way. Stick around long enough and you eventually get a role where you think, Yup. This is right. This is what I should be doing right now.

Even though Logan Roy is not a particularly lovely character, he’s a fascinating man. He’s a man of great stature — he has a sort of Lear-like, Shakespearean quality to him. He’s not quite what he seems, and yet he’s exactly what he seems. It’s a wonderful paradoxical role in that way.

It’s funny you mention King Lear, because you need to accumulate a life time’s worth of experience to play that part. He’s a different role if you play him in your 40s then if you play him in your 70s.
Absolutely true. The same with Logan.

But Lear is trying to give his kingdom away, whereas Logan…
…is trying to keep it all for himself. Folks have said, “Oh, Logan isn’t giving up anything without a fight.” That’s not quite right. He’s not giving up anything until people prove that they are worth it. Of course he’s greedy and selfish — he’s a monarch. The mistake that Lear makes is that he gives his empire away to a bunch of people who aren’t really fit. And of course, in classic Shakespearean fashion, shit hits the fan in a big way. One daughter won’t play ball; she refuses to kowtow to the king. So she ends with nothing, the other two divide up the kingdom, and they make a complete fucking mess of it.

Now, with Logan, he has these four kids and he wants them to be possessed of some character. The problem is that they’re not. None of them.

Who do you think is worthy of being his heir?
[in Logan voice] None of them! That’s the fucking problem! [Laughs]

The broader issue here is that we live in this age of wealth and entitlement. Look at the Kushners and Ivankas of the world — a lot of them are behaving horrible. Look at the Murdoch kids. In a way, they’re all found wanting. Because they’re basically cut off from reality. It’s something that’s a bit of a cancer in our society.

How does playing Logan and being part of this show give you insight into the mechanism of power in this country?
Well, I’m an old Socialist by nature. But Andrew Carnegie was a great influence on me as a child — he’s kind of a tragic figure. He was Scottish-American, came from a regular background, was a self-made guy and he wanted to give his wealth away. But the problem is that he got hoisted by his own petard. To get wealth, you need to make wealth, and that usually means you’re making wealth on the backs of working people. I mean, capitalism … it don’t work. It doesn’t actually make people better. It doesn’t create a better society. It just creates opportunism and all the downsides that go with it.

So Logan coming along at this particular moment…I mean, I don’t know if people have picked up on this, but Succession is a morality tale. It is ultimately about the morals of our time, and asking if the morals of our time are highly corrupt.

I can answer that one: Yes. Back in the 1980s, folks watched shows like Dynasty and Dallas because they were aspirational — we lived vicariously through them because they made being materialistic and wealthy seem like …
A fucking blast, yeah.

But Succession, for all of its lovely mansions and exclusive clubs and posh parties, does not make being rich look fun. It makes it look fucking miserable.
That’s right! It’s very Hogarth-like in its excesses, isn’t it? And it’s not inaccurate in the way it portrays the world that we live, I think — that’s why the show works! In a way, Logan is this fixed point that goes through it. He’s created the world he lives in, but look at what that world has done to his children. It’s a disaster. It’s deprived them of any moral compass. Because their father doesn’t seem to have moral compass.

Folks have said, “Oh, Logan isn’t giving up anything without a fight.” That’s not quite right. He’s not giving up anything until people prove that they are worth it.

Would you say that he has a worldview or a code that he lives by, then?
Yes, and it has to do with individual responsibility. Individual strength. Individual ambition. Unfortunately, that’s the way the world works. We all have it, whether you’re an artist or a politician or a man who climbs mountains. Logan reflects that, but he’s also brutal. His ethos is: The world stinks. And because it’s morally corrupt world, he says, Ok, then I’m not going to take any prisoners.

Someone had asked you in an interview recently what motivated him, power or family? And your answer was…
Survival. Someone had also asked me what I had in common with Logan, and I answered, “Contempt.” [Laughs] I was joking, of course. I’m not a contemptuous person at all. But I do think he’s motivated by a lot of contempt for his fellow man. Because his fellow man is not particularly admirable.

But you don’t feel that way?
There’s logic to his argument; I can see it. But personally? I don’t go down that road.

Was there a moment where, as an actor, you felt like you understood who he was and how you were going to play him?
There was one thing I had to clarify with Jesse [Armstrong] very early on. I asked him, “Does Logan love his children?” He replied, “Oh, absolutely. Absolutely he does.” That’s fine. As long as I know that, I know where I’m going.

But at the same time, I’m at the age now where a role comes along and it just happens to fit like a glove. I know those enough of these types of animals to create them from the ground up — I’ve seen them, I’ve met them, I’ve talked to them. I may not like them, but you can’t judge them.

That’s not your job.
That’s not my job. I can’t judge Logan. That wouldn’t work. And given that I’ve played so many contentious characters…you know, human beings are full of flaws. And some flaws are greater than others. About 20 years ago I played Hermann Göring in a thing about the Nuremberg Trials. There was probably not a worse person to play. Well, I mean, I played Hannibal Lecter, but you know — not a worse real person. And I really began to understand where he was coming from. No sympathy, just empathy. You think, what did the first World War do to Germany? The Treaty of Versailles had kicked the shit out of them. Suddenly, this young Austrian kid is starting to say these outrageous things, and Göring comes back from Sweden to be his frontman. It was interesting to follow the line to see how he got to that point. What were the decisions he made? Why did this go this way and not that? That’s what great about this job. You hold the mirror up to nature, like the man says. Even the bad ones are human.

Everyone seems to be fixated on playing “Spot the Mogul” with Logan Roy — which real-life media billionaire is he supposed to be? He appears to be an amalgamation of lots of different figures, but is there anyone in particular you’re drawing from regarding your performance?
Not really. You keep a lot of fuckers in the cupboard, then you occasionally open it up and go, “Oh, look, that one!” Then you take him out, brush him off, give him a bit of electro-shock treatment to bring him back to life and there you go.

The thing I like about Logan the most, possibly, is his mystery. I don’t always understand him. Logan doesn’t even understand Logan! His corporate life — oh, he knows that. But his private life? He has no sense of his own real character outside of a boardroom. That’s why the relationship with his wife gets so interesting and complicated in the second season. So in a sense he’s not based on anyone specific. But how I play him? He certainly resembles people I know or I have bumped into.

You had a solid stage and TV career in England for decades before you started pursuing a screen career outside the U.K. — you didn’t come to Hollywood until your 40s, right?
I first came to Hollywood in the mid-‘70s, actually. I had this weird thing were I was summoned to meet John Schlesinger and Robert Evans. I didn’t even know why I was there. But they were making Marathon Man, and they were going to be doing some reshoots. I thought my moment had arrived. Then when I finally talked to John, it turned out that he was going to be directing Julius Caesar back at the National Theater and wanted me to play Brutus. I was sort of disappointed, because it was like — oh, my moment had come and gone!

But the thing was, by the time I did make my way to Hollywood, I’d done everything I needed to in the U.K. When I first came here, no one asked my school I’d gone to, what my accent was, none of the questions I got when I was back home. Look, I love London, but the system still feels like: Everybody has to know their place, and that’s your place, period. America felt like a liberation from all of that. There was an aspirant quality that I always used to love.

I came to America because I wanted to do movies. When I was a kid, that was my influence. Cagney, Bogart, Martin & Lewis, Spencer Tracy. I kept thinking, that’s there stuff I wanna be doing. I don’t want to be doing Doctor in the House or things like that. I didn’t associate with that stuff; as an Irish immigrant living in Scotland, I associated with what was American more than what was English. Your country is made up of people on the move from one place to another. Which is why I get very upset when people in power seem to forget that, or not understand that concept in the first place.

Given how prolific you’ve been, can you tell which role someone associates you with when they approach you in public? Can you sense when it’s someone who knows you as Hannibal Lecter versus someone who knows you primarily as Logan Roy?
Yes, and it happens all the time. I remember when Nuremberg aired, within two hours a few people stopped me in the street and said, “Göring, great job!”

That is a sentence that really requires context.
[Laughs] Sometimes I’ll go for a long while without anybody saying something, then five different people will suddenly go, “Captain O’Hagan! ‘Shenanigans!!!'” in a single hour. I once met Ed Koch, the old mayor of New York, when I was eating in this restaurant on Seventh Ave. He told me, “You know, you’re in my favorite film.” “Oh really, thank you, sir, what film was that?” “The Lost Language of the Cranes.” I don’t know if you remember the movie, but it’s about a man whose son is gay and, in dealing with his child’s sexuality, then comes out as gay himself.

This was Ed Koch’s favorite movie of yours?
It was his favorite movie ever, according to him. So…yeah. You never know which role is going to resonate with which person. For a long time it was, “You’re the guy from Manhunter!” And then out of nowhere, you unexpectedly get “You’re the guy from The Lost Language of the Cranes.” It means they can’t pin me down.

You’re about to play Lyndon B. Johnson on Broadway in the second of what’s being called “the LBJ plays,” The Great Society. What do you think Logan and LBJ have in common?
They’re both powerful men. They both have vision. Well, Logan has a kind of vision: “We’ve done some good work, we’ve entertained people…now fuck off.” [Laughs] What they have in common is the idea of thwarted power, which creates more power. When Logan is thwarted, his game steps up considerably. He doesn’t get defeated about it. I’ve been reading through the script of The Great Society, and I keep getting struck by how Johnson was continually thwarted by balancing what was happening in Selma versus what was happening in Vietnam. His ignorance of foreign policy was painful, and that was his undoing. But you look at what he accomplished with Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights bill — it’s phenomenal. So they’re men who do well when backed into a corner. But other than that…

You don’t see Logan trying to enact any Civil Rights bills?
[Laughs] Civil isn’t a word I’d normally associate with him.

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