Succession’s Brian Cox on Logan Roy in season 3: ‘He’s more complicated than his rages’

Mark Lawson talks to Brian Cox ahead of Succession season three.

Big RT Interview: Brian Cox (GETTY)

The role that has made Brian Cox a major TV star of the 2020s – family-feuding media tycoon Logan Roy in HBO’s Succession – fulfils a prophecy by a fellow Scottish actor who became a TV star of the 1970s. Fulton Mackay (Mr Mackay, strict prison warder to Ronnie Barker’s Norman Stanley Fletcher in Porridge) was a great mentor to young Cox in his early career and the pair became close friends.

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“One day, Fulton said to me,” says Cox, slipping into a perfect impersonation as actors can, “‘Brian, Brian, stop worrying about becoming a star! Forget ambition and just concentrate on being a good actor.’ It was the best advice I ever had because I realised it was about putting in the work. If you do the work, when something like Logan Roy comes along, you think: ‘This is what it was all for. This couldn’t be a better fit.’”

Mackay’s advice was earned wisdom – he was in his 50s when he was in Porridge. Cox had to wait even longer, landing his defining TV role at 71 when Succession premiered in 2018, more than 50 years after his small-screen debut in a Wednesday Play on BBC One.

Cox has always been an actor of great versatility. He’s played Shakespearean leads for the RSC and National Theatre and was a British communist academic in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll in London and New York. He was the first big-screen incarnation of Hannibal Lecktor and graced both the Jason Bourne and X-Men franchises. He’s played both Hermann Göring (in the 2000 mini-series Nuremberg) and Winston Churchill (2017 movie Churchill), and heavyweight US figures from J Edgar Hoover to Lyndon Johnson.

Succession’s patriarch felt to Cox like the culmination of this varied career: “Logan Roy has got classical elements, but also comedy, and he’s mysterious as well; you don’t quite know where he’s coming from.”

From reading the pilot script, written by series creator Jesse Armstrong, Cox knew he had to do it. “But I had one question for Jesse: ‘Does Logan not like his children?’ And he said: ‘No, no, no. He loves his children.’ Once that was in place, all the toughness and viciousness make sense. Logan knows that he has put his children in this position and so he’s responsible for who they are and their problems. What they don’t get is that the whole thing is a game, which it is to him.”

Cox was acclaimed for his King Lear at the National Theatre in 1990, playing a paranoid and enraged patriarch who tries to rule his empire by dividing his daughters, much as Logan manipulates and humiliates his children Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Connor (Alan Ruck), and their partners, including Tom (Matthew Macfadyen). Roy’s surname derives from roi, the French word for “king”, making him “King Logan”. Did Cox immediately make the Shakespearean connection? “Yes. Absolutely. That was my first reaction to it, and my way into it. But I realised it had to be done with more understatement.”

Like Roy, Cox has three sons and a daughter – Margaret and Alan, from his first marriage, and teenagers Orson and Corin from his second. The actor says he gets “very nervous” before the most Lear-like scenes of family division, such as episode three of series two when, during a family hunting weekend in Hungary, Logan plays the sadistic game “boar on the floor”, in which the patriarch tests the honesty of his entourage by forcing those he judges untruthful to kneel on the floor and then fight for thrown sausages.

“I’ve got a similar scene in the new series, and I’m aware of having to be careful of – forgive the expression – shooting my load in a theatrical way, in the moments when he goes completely demonic. I can’t do that too often. He’s infinitely more complicated than his rages. You don’t want too much of it.” Even so, it’s hard to imagine the scene played convincingly by an actor who had not conquered classical tragic theatre: two moments – the sudden delivery of one word as a whisper, and this paternal puppet master settling his hands on the shoulders of a child – are direct echoes of Cox’s Lear.

Brian Cox in Succession
Brian Cox in Succession
HBO

Succession’s power props (private jets, helicopters, yachts, limos) presumably also help to inhabit the world of the super-wealthy? “They do – though, after a while, you just wish there were fewer shots of getting in and out of cars. Much of our recent filming in Italy [standing in for Croatia] involved getting out of cars on airport tarmac and into planes, or the other way round. The first day was 37 degree heat at Florence Airport. Poor J Smith-Cameron [who plays lawyer Gerri Kellman] got heat-stroke. We did another scene and I said, ‘I’m not getting out of the car.’ They said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Logan Roy wouldn’t get out of the car in this heat.’”

Because Rupert Murdoch is the best-known example of a dynastic, media-owning billionaire, Succession was initially interpreted as a satirical exposé of that family – gaining fascination in the UK from airing on Sky, which Murdoch then owned. Subsequently, references to media tycoons have widened: in the second series, Logan urinates from the prow of his luxury yacht, in a manner attributed to the late Robert Maxwell; allusions to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Silvio Berlusconi can also be detected.

“There are bits of all of them in Logan,” says Cox. “But also the family have increasingly become their own thing. And, actually, one of the reasons I like Logan is that he would never do what f***ing Branson or Musk or Bezos did: ‘Let’s go up in the sky because we need more spaceships.’ No, we don’t need more spaceships. What is happening to the planet that we need more rubble up in the sky? We don’t need to go into space. Where’s their head, their sense of proportion, their living in the real world?”

The first two series coincided with the unlikely presidency of another divisive businessman. “Our first read-through of the pilot episode was the day Trump was elected. Everyone was going off to Hillary [Clinton] victory parties, as they expected them to be. I didn’t, I’d never been a big fan of hers; I think there’s a big argument for saying she lost it as much as Trump won it because people just didn’t like her. My cousin in America, from Dundee originally, said he was voting for Trump as he couldn’t vote for Hillary. So I said: ‘Then don’t vote!’”

Did Cox draw on Trump for Logan Roy? “Yes, he’s in there. But Trump is essentially a man with a bad script and Logan is a man with a good script. My old mate Brendan Gleeson has just played Trump [in the US mini-series The Comey Rule]. But I never could.” Why not? “He’s irredeemable. But there’s a secret somewhere in Logan, which I’m still toying with. He’s so alone and lonely that there’s something tragic there. There’s nothing tragic about Trump.”

What about the man the 45th American president described as “Britain Trump”, Boris Johnson? “Don’t get me started. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Trump and Johnson arrived at the same time because there was this public mood for leaders who sounded positive and promised to sort it all out. But ‘we are the hollow men’, as TS Eliot wrote. And the hollow men have arrived with a vengeance. There’s a whole bunch of them: Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and that bogus upper-class prat, Jacob Rees-Mogg. That’s what I hate about this country. The feudal hierarchy. We’re not rid of it and we’re not going to be rid of it.”

Cox has a base in London (where we talk) and is en route to his New York home from a summer holiday in Scotland, where he visited old friends and observed the new politics. He is drawn more and more to his homeland. As a young man, he was uninterested in the nationalist rhetoric espoused by Sean Connery and other actors – “I was too ambitious and wanted to get out.” And now? “It’s like an elastic band that pulls me back. It’s a beautiful country and the possibilities are huge.”

Unionists and cynics will point out that, like Connery, Cox champions Scotland while not living there. Though unlike the former James Bond, Cox was never a tax exile: “I only ever went to America because I wanted to do movies; this island becomes very small after a while. I was 50 and really wanted to give cinema a go. I was too old to be a leading man and didn’t really want that responsibility. I saw careers destroyed because an ‘opening weekend’ went badly. So I decided I’d be a supporting actor.”

Politically, though, Cox’s and Connery’s views have aligned: “I now think Scottish independence will happen, and will happen in my lifetime, which I never would have credited. Back in the 90s, I never believed in the President Sir Sean Connery stuff. But now I think something similar could happen.” President Sir Brian Cox? “No, no, no. I’m a Commander of the British Empire [CBE] but that’s it.”

Cox’s Scottishness initially came as a shock to me. I first became aware of his acting power in 1984 when I saw him at the Royal Court in London as a brutal Northern Irish police officer in Ron Hutchinson’s Rat in the Skull, and assumed him to be an Ulsterman. To many US viewers, he’s American, like most of his characters from Logan Roy (although he, like Cox, was born in Dundee) to his most recent Broadway appearance, mastering the difficult sound of President Lyndon Johnson, a heavy smoker from Texas, in The Great Society. He seems to have an easy ear for dialects.

“Well, my family are Irish-Scots. They came to Dundee from the North at the time of the famine. So that gives me access to both those accents. With Americans, I do the prep. I work with a speech coach. As a child, I was more interested in  American cinema than English cinema. My first heroes were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Marlon Brando, James Dean [Cox played Brando for Sky’s Urban Myths]. So, actually, I did American accents as a kid because we played cowboys. It’s paid off. I’ve played more Americans than anything else. The hardest one to remember is to say ‘bin there’ rather than ‘been there’.”

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This month, coinciding with the return of Succession, Cox publishes a memoir: Putting the Rabbit in the Hat. He offers me a generous preview of choice anecdotes, such as he how he got the part of Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986): “The part was offered to Brian Dennehy, who said he wasn’t physically right for it. But Brian had come to see me in Rat in the Skull in New York because he was going to do the play in Chicago. And he said to Michael: ‘You want Cox for Hannibal.’ ”

He says the only one of his 230-plus screen roles he has ever regretted was in 2003’s The Reckoning: “It was a very good script but my daughter wasn’t well at the time, and I didn’t get on with the director [Paul McGuigan, who went on to direct BBC One’s Sherlock and Dracula]. Some make-up went into my eyes and I couldn’t see for two days, and they had to get a doctor in to sort me out. But otherwise I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever done; I’ve been very lucky.”

His best on-set story captures the absurd logistics and economics of a blockbuster. In the early 2000s, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, in which Cox played a CIA handler of Matt Damon’s amnesiac rogue agent, were his first experiences of a big Hollywood movie. “They would keep bringing in a new screenwriter to work on one scene or even a line. We never had the final scene with me and Matt. Several versions of it had been written; even Matt and I wrote a version of it.

“I went off to Edinburgh to do a Chekhov play. The Bourne people called, saying, ‘We’ve looked at your schedule and seen that you don’t play Monday nights so we will have a private plane waiting for you on Saturday night after the show to take you to Germany. We’ll film with you Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning and then get you back to the theatre.’ I had to shave off the beard I’d grown for the play and wear a wig because my hair was different. But we finally shot the scene. That’s cinema for you.”

At 75, he feels reassured that, as long as body and mind remain responsive, there’s no retirement age for actors. His friend Anthony Hopkins (who succeeded him as Hannibal) just won an Oscar at 83, for The Father. “Yes. Acting gets more interesting. As you reach the end of your life, everything comes into a horrible focus. You bring more to a role because the parts are about extinction and why you did what you did in your life.”

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However, having played characters from many nationalities and backgrounds, he’s concerned by the drive for “authentic casting”, which suggests that, for example, blind or gay characters should only go to performers with that experience.

Hopkins’s The Father, a portrait of senile dementia, is one strong counter-argument: only an actor who didn’t have Alzheimer’s would be able to learn and deliver the dialogue of a character who has. The trend, though, is for matching actor and part. While filming Succession, Cox often spent his time off watching films, including Russell Crowe as a mathematician with mental illness in A Beautiful Mind and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

“Both brilliant performances,” says Cox. “My wife said, ‘Well, of course, they wouldn’t be allowed to do that now.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, they’re not disabled or mentally ill.’ But that’s wrong, because it’s acting, it’s a piece of craft.” Actually casting a severely disabled or mentally ill person to play such a part, he feels, “might be exploitative”.

Despite not actually being a megalomaniac media baron, Cox is happy to go on pretending to be one in Succession. “We’re definitely doing a fourth series. It depends how long Jesse feels it can go on. I’ve got a feeling there’s a lot more life in it. This season opens up storylines that I feel will take two series to resolve.”

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Succession season three starts on Sky Atlantic on 17th October at 9pm. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.

This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.