Brian Cox is alone except for two cats he dislikes. One cat he can grudgingly admire for her froideur. The other keeps pissing everywhere. The actor has just found a Succession script soaked: “He pissed on my script and then he did one of those coughs on my script that you think is a shit but it’s a furball.”
“What is that cat doing now?” Cox mutters the question then the answer: “Eating the flowers…” Suddenly he screams across the room – and down the phone – “Don’t eat the flowers and piss!”
That voice. Carrying the backstreets of Dundee and ripened by Shakespearean star turns, it is full of melody and menace.
“Stop it!” he bellows. “Now!”
“Did the cat take any notice of you?” I ask carefully.
“No,” he admits. “Completely ignored me.”
Organising a conversation with the 76-year-old star has, by contrast, commanded the attention of those high up, low down and everywhere else on fame’s greasy pole. He’s doing publicity for his appearances this month at Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival and the Melbourne Writers Festival. Publicists, marketers, their assistants and an HBO executive vice-president have volleyed emails back and forth until finally, a few moments before we’re due to talk, I’m simply given Cox’s phone number. I ring it to find him alone in his Brooklyn living room, his wife and sons away, fighting with an incontinent cat.
Cox has recently published his autobiography, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat. In a calmer tone, he tells me, “Writing the book was cathartic. It was very opening. I was able to open myself up in ways I’m not always able to do in normal everyday life.”
The youngest of five children, Cox was born to a comfortable working-class family. In 1955, however, his father – a generous man who ran a grocery business like a community service – died of pancreatic cancer. Suddenly the eight-year-old Cox and his mother went from being financially stable to “absolutely shit poor”. He recounts coming home from school and finding his mother with her head in the oven. “I’m just cleaning,” she ad-libbed, “and it is a hell of a duty.”
Dundee had 21 different cinemas and Cox began skipping school to do the rounds, watching films “obsessively, religiously”. Eventually a supportive teacher told him about a job vacancy at the Dundee Repertory Theatre. Cox left school at 15 to mop the stage, move the scenery, ferry the takings to the bank, manage the props and work as the prompt, before eventually playing small roles himself.
At 18, he found his way to the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. The city was swinging – within years, Princess Margaret would be in his dressing room, attempting to feel him up – but Cox was after stability. He remained focused on work, which he did solidly for the next four decades, winning acclaim and prize after prize.
As Cox says, “I could have just luxuriated with my wonderful theatrical career.” But he felt he’d come to a crossroads and decided, “I don’t want to be that kind of actor who does this respectable Shakespeare stuff and gets all the plaudits, then he’s struggling in small parts.” Besides, he had started thinking there was no such thing as a small role – only a short role – and that in film, the minor parts can be as memorable and rich as the main ones. He flew to Los Angeles to seek his fortune as a character actor and the rest is... well, it’s in his book.
Come for a postwar history of British theatre, stay for the Hollywood tattle. Putting the Rabbit in the Hat contains the standard fare: “Gwyneth was a delight. Annette Bening was a joy to work with.” But then Cox lets loose. By book’s end, there’s a Shakespearean air to the way his dozens of rivals are left flayed.
On Michael Caine: “… being an institution will always beat having range”. Ian McKellen is “doing a schtick” and Steven Seagal is “as ludicrous in real life as he appears on screen”. “Johnny Hurt knew how to kill a buzz.” While filming Rob Roy, the cast were boozing down the local, alongside a rugby team, when Hurt, “barely raising his head from his drink”, shouted, “You’re all after each other’s bottoms, aren’t you?” Ed Norton: “… a nice lad but a bit of a pain in the arse because he fancied himself as a writer-director”. Johnny Depp is “so overblown, so overrated”. While Kevin Spacey was “a great talent, but a stupid, stupid man … predatory … It was almost as though he felt he had to hit on somebody, and that the evening was a washout if he didn’t.” Arnold Schwarzenegger: “He’s not an actor … He’s a creature.” (Same as The Rock and Vin Diesel.) On the bright side, Morgan Freeman is, thankfully, “the very epitome of Morgan Freeman. The Morgan Freeman you would hope to meet. The Morgan Freeman you encounter in your dreams.”
“I’m very annoyed with American actors,” Cox tells me. “There’s a lot of self-aggrandisement.” He mentions that, earlier in the day, there had been an incident on the Succession set that got his “dander up”. It made him wistful for the collegiality of the Dundee Repertory actors of his youth. In the United States, he finds his colleagues can be more interested in their individual performances, and the extreme lengths they’ll go to in preparation for a role – “putting on weight, having their teeth pulled out” – strikes him as ludicrous.
Cox says that actors should ask themselves, “What’s the point? Why do we act? What does it mean to hold a mirror up to nature?” He believes that acting offers, at its best, “a process of expiation, in which actor and audience go on a journey together, working out the hidden issues. It’s almost spiritual.” He would like the general population to also quiz themselves more rigorously: “Why are we who we are and why do we never learn? Why are we on the point of a third world war with a despot who is so retrograde it isn’t true? And why is that creature allowed to exist in society?” Cox considers himself to be “more or less a confirmed atheist” and finds religion to be “a great falsifier of the human experience”.
“We don’t ask these questions enough, because we’re so busy going, well, it’s God’s will. No! That’s bollocks, it’s all bollocks!”
The first reading of Succession took place on the day Donald Trump was elected. Cox, who instantly found himself connecting to the show’s vicious media titan, Logan Roy, recalls that everyone started heading off to election parties, believing they’d be celebrating Hillary Clinton’s victory. Cox sensed his Democrat peers were not going to have a good night. “The problem in America,” he says, “is they’ve lost contact with the kind of egalitarian reality that they wanted to create.” This state of affairs has gone on to be ruthlessly satirised in the hit television series.
Politically the actor, who describes himself as a socialist, feels despair. “The United Kingdom is a feudal society. We still doff our caps. Otherwise, we wouldn’t elect people like Boris Johnson. To have that liar running the country and at the same time to have this complete narcissist-fantasist [Trump] in this country, who I call the Pink Pinocchio, it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
However: “The thing about acting is you don’t judge the characters. You’re playing Logan Roy. You say, this is a man who has a series of difficulties and he’s obnoxious in the extreme, but there is also something else going on which he may never know about. It may always remain a secret.” Apropos the strange triggers that create human monsters, Cox adds: “Vladimir Putin obviously didn’t like his 18 months as a taxi driver.”
“Do you have a sense of what Logan’s secret is?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, I know what his secret is. I do,” Cox says slowly, tantalisingly. “I’m making a documentary at the moment,” he goes on, changing the subject. “It’s about money: what does money do? Money goes beyond religion. Not one human being doesn’t have a relationship to money. And it’s interesting that people who don’t have money are very confident about telling you they don’t have money because that’s their schtick. And people who do have a lot of money are uncomfortable because they don’t understand it.”
Be this true or not, Succession captures the vertiginous lifestyle of the super-rich, the separation private planes and exclusive locales bestow on those who at least understand the brute force of what their cash can do. For the show’s writers, “there’s always quite a strong polemical agenda going on”, says Cox. “I sometimes think, do you really have to go down that route? Isn’t there a more interesting route, about ‘why’, rather than ‘how’? And of course, the ‘why’ then becomes this big secret. Why is Logan? Well, the Logan on the page and the Logan I do, they’re very linked, but they’re different, because my ‘why’ is very considerable. Why I do what I do as Logan. And that is the secret, really.”
“And I presume you’re not going to share the secret on this phone call?”
A long pause. Perhaps the cat is pissing.
“Well, it’s a secret…” Cox says firmly. “That’s the point.” Another pause before he softens, “And it is even a secret to me, but I know it’s there. I’m like an archaeologist, digging, thinking, ‘What is it? Is it his mom? Is it his situation? Is it a lack of love?’ ”
What is Cox’s own secret? And can it be discovered in a one-hour conversation?
Talking on the phone to someone with an autobiography you’ve scoured can feel a little like shiftwork at 1300-PSYCHOANALYSIS. “The doctor should be opaque to his patients,” advised Freud, and Cox is literally on the couch talking to someone he can’t see, someone whose name he doesn’t even know. I hit him up with a theory.
Cox writes movingly of his father, “filling days that were very long and very hard with acts of kindness and civic duty, lending a hand to the old and infirm, lending money to those who needed it”. He remembers “how people would arrive with a sad face and leave with a smiley one. How to them he was hero and confessor of their day-to-day struggle against the poverty of the Great Depression.”
“In your book,” I venture, “you mention your grocer father ‘wasn’t built for capitalism’. It struck me that the role of Logan Roy is an act of filial loyalty; you’re critiquing the system that played some role in his demise.”
Cox is quiet again. “I think you’ve hit the nail very firmly on the head there,” he says finally. “I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but I think that’s right. My father’s demise has stayed with me for…” he calculates, “getting on for 70 years. Equally what happened to my mother.” Poverty ruined her mental health, leading to years of hospitalisations. In his work, he says, his priority has been to honour them both.
Cox has made capitalism work for him, in more ways than one. “As the great Mullah advised, I’ve tied up my camels. It’s always important to tie up your camels because at night-time they’ll drift off into the desert and you have to tie them up, that’s just ipso facto.” But enriching himself, he claims, has been secondary to making rich work. “The artistic imperative is wonderful in that way, because you’re interested in the creation, in what you can do. The money comes along after.”
With the money has come fame. He admits, giving the slightest chuckle, “there’s a part of it that’s very nice”. The stream of fans approaching him, hoping to record the actor telling them to fuck off, can, however, “get a bit over the top”.
The haughty cat is nudging him and when he reacts, she stalks away.
Cox doesn’t want playing Logan Roy to be the role marking his career. “I still have a lot in me that I want to be doing,” he tells me. “The thing I’ve never wanted to be is defined.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Sigmund and Roy".
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