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On the morning that I speak to the actor Brian Cox, star of Succession, Manhunter and Rat in the Skull, the father of his second and current wife actress Nicole Ansari-Cox, has recently passed away. On a Zoom call from London, where he is to promote the new season of Succession, he describes a scene in the days following his father-in-law's death which is rich with dramatic portent. “There are Iranian mourning traditions going on so her father’s body is still in the house, and a robin flew in and sat on his forehead for 10 minutes and then flew off again. Incredible.” Apparently his wife had asked her father to send a message when he had crossed over, Cox tells me from his hotel room. “My father-in-law is only a month older than me and so mortality plays a great part in the story.”
The story, as he refers to it, is the 75-year-old actor’s new autobiography, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, a tale in which the spectre of death looms large. There is the passing of his beloved father when he was nine years old, the titans of stage and screen he has seen lost to disease or drink, and eventually, the fact of his own mortality. Cox’s memoir details his winding journey from humble beginnings in Dundee to the theatres of London and film sets of Los Angeles, a near-60 year career bouncing between Shakespeare’s heroic leads and the villains of Hollywood blockbusters. Whether playing the zealous Hermann Göring in Nuremberg, world-weary headmaster Dr Nelson in Rushmore, or his chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Cox quietly steals attention when he comes on screen. He is an economical actor, one who takes his time to enjoy the shape of words, revel in the stillness of a character, and, in the case of his most recent role on Succession, never offer a full sentence where a nebulous ‘ahuh’ will suffice.
In the HBO juggernaut he plays the cantankerous Logan Roy, the head of a media dynasty who wages war on all who cross him, including his overindulged children as they vie to be named his successor. It is perhaps the role of his career: one that has thrust him into the spotlight of Twitter adoration and inspired hordes of people to approach him in the hopes he might, as Logan so often does, tell them to fuck off.
Cox’s writing is exuberant and frank, with eye-wateringly candid stories about, for one example, Edward Norton (“nice lad but a bit of a pain in the arse because he fancies himself as a writer-director”). Elsewhere he admits his shortcomings as a “fairly crappy father”, suggests that someone, “had a burning cross held up for me” not to be in “Harry fucking Potter”, and rallies against topics as wide-reaching as Christopher Nolan’s “angsty and dark” Batman films and the end of Game of Thrones. In conversation with Esquire earlier this month, he was equally forthcoming.
A lot of memoirs hold back from being truly honest about their lives. Did you have any fears about being so frank?
Some people do memoirs far, far too young. Why are you doing your memoir now when you’re only 32? There’s no life! Getting to where I’ve got to, you’re looking more at the end than the beginning, and you have to just be as honest as you can be without causing offence. If I was going to be tough with people I had to be equally tough with myself, and not be vainglorious, in order to create a balance.
At one point in the book, you recall your mother saying to you, “We’ve all dropped bairns” in response to the news your wife at the time had miscarried twins. Why do you defend her insensitivity?
Between my brother and me she had five miscarriages and when I came out she was lucky to still be alive. She said, “We’ve all done it,” that’s what happens to all women. She’s only the tip of an iceberg of millions of women who were in the same state: thwarted, not given the opportunity [and who] didn’t have that means of expression. I can’t bear the whole cancel and woke culture because it’s a sort of righteousness which is not based on anything of real value.
What exactly frustrates you about ‘cancel culture’?
You have to accept the past and realise there were modes of behaviour which were disagreeable, but they existed and they contribute to the now. There’s a line of correction that has happened out of something that was horrific. Logan Roy is a man who doesn’t curb his language, so Jesse [Armstrong, the creator of Succession] had written this line where I had to say, “What are you a nancy?” I kept saying, “I’m sorry but Logan wouldn’t do that.” This is a horrible word, but he would say, “a f*ggot”, because he’s part of that generation. Cancel culture [is] not acknowledging history and the awful things that happened, it’s trying to pretend it didn’t happen. You have to acknowledge where you’ve come from, warts and all. In the book, I had to say, “Look I was not a good father, I was unfaithful,” and it’s tough but that was part of what I was. At my age you have to just call a shovel a shovel.
Has becoming a father again, at a later time in your life, given you another chance at it?
I do say to my children that I love them and I learnt that at least, but I’m still as clueless. I’ve seen beautiful fathers who have raised their kids, I just didn’t have the experience to base it on. You only base it on what your mum or dad did, that’s what we all do. It’s an organic process that we’re still being liberated from.
What have you learned about marriage?
I’m all for it, I mean, I’ve done it a couple of times. The great thing about my relationship with my wife now is that we don’t live in each other’s pockets. There have been moments that have been difficult, that always happens in a marriage, but it’s important to have your own space. I didn’t have the luxury of my own bedroom except when I was a student, and that was truly horrific because of my sanitary conditions.
You talk a lot about the importance of the text in drama, did that come from your background in theatre?
I just did a film [Prisoner’s Daughter] with this extraordinary director called Catherine Hardwicke, who was a trained architect so has a great visual sense, [but] kept saying “I think we should have more writers”, and that’s an American thing. What’s wrong with a single voice? This young man who had written the script was in agony because his script was being traduced. I come from a tradition I’m very proud of, a thing that happened in the Sixties at the Royal Court when the text became so important. Acknowledge and respect the script, [because] if everyone is contributing it gets distorted.
Is that reverence for the words true in all the work you do?
I do the McDonald’s commercials in the States and everybody says, “Why would you want to do that?” I say, “Because these guys are trying to earn a living writing this witty stuff.” You’ve got to go there even if you’re only selling a crispy chicken McNugget.
In the book, there’s a story about working with Daniel Day-Lewis on Jim Sheridan’s film The Boxer, and how his determination to remain in character hindered the experience for co-star Emily Watson. Have your thoughts on method acting seen you butt heads with other actors?
In many ways its whatever gets you through the day, fine. The problem with method acting is the actor is over-involved [and] he’s never disciplined in terms of being able to turn on a sixpence. The skilled actors can do that, and Jeremy Strong [who plays Cox’s son Kendall on Succession] can certainly do that because he’s very gifted, but the battering he gives himself. I mean he can be a nervous wreck. We do telephone calls and it’s not always the other actor on the other side because they may not be available, but Jeremy always wants the other actor because he’s not allowing his imagination to go forward. I just think,"Give yourself a break lad because you don’t have to go through all this." It just doesn’t have to be a religious experience, it’s the audience that gets the experience.
You talk about TV being ‘all second act’: what does the medium allow you do to that films and theatre cannot?
We’re still so locked into the three-act structure, but what TV has done is illuminate things in a different way. The ten-episode [format] is all about the middle, and it reflects human nature even more. When I worked with David Milch on [HBO series] Deadwood, he would go into all different areas and then finally wrap it up. David Benioff and Dan Weiss gave up the ghost a little bit on Game of Thrones, because they should have been a little bit more judicious in the wrapping-up. I thought that was just tragic because everybody was geared up to seeing the brilliant denouement, and it was so deeply disappointing for the audience and the actors.
Do you have faith in where Succession is headed?
I completely trust Jesse, the man and his team have such integrity that they will bring it to completion. They’ve already got an end in sight. It may be five series, I don’t think it’s going to be any more than that, but it will come to an end. Logan will probably die, or not, or he’ll go off somewhere and disappear.
Do you want him to die?
I don’t particularly want him to. Of course, we all die, but I think it would be good to just turn the volume down. There may be a more extraordinary way to finish the show [in] that he just has enough.
How do you feel about Logan?
He’s a very misunderstood guy! I mean he’s rude, he’s brutish, but he just wants a successor. He’s looking for someone who can, for all its awfulness, take the enterprise on in a different way. He says it early on: it’s a game, and like all games, you have to be serious. Games have rules. He would love somebody to be able to step up to the plate, but they are proving wanting, those kids.
Do you see them as bad people?
It’s not their fault, it’s their conditioning; [that’s] the humanity of the piece: they are horrible people but they are not judged. Logan’s problem is he doesn’t let go, he wants to let go but he won’t. That’s the one thing that you learn about being an actor is you have to let go all the time.
What is it like having fans come up and request you tell them to fuck off?
It’s the easiest thing to say.
Is it a strange experience?
I went to a #MeToo event, a launch of Ronan Farrow’s book that my friend Rosanna Arquette arranged. It finishes and people turn around and see me in the room and suddenly I’m surrounded by women saying, “Can you tell us to fuck off?”, and I’m thinking, ‘This is a #MeToo thing, and you’re telling me to offer you abuse?’ The disconnect! This is the thing, we’ve never been more disconnected than we are at the moment. This is why we’re in such a fucking awful state, we really are.
That’s why we elected that stupid fucking pink Pinocchio, he is the product of a true disconnect. Also the Eton clown here, it’s so obvious they are liars. They lied about Brexit and all jumped onto this horrible bandwagon. Of course, Europe had its problems, but we have to come together, even though I believe now in independence for my country [so] it can be viable. My country voted to stay in Europe, so I’m well pissed off about that.
There are two brushes with death in the book involving airplanes: a flight which you missed from Edinburgh to London in 1965, which crashed and killed everyone on board, and a plane you boarded on September 11, which turned out to be a failed target of the terrorist attacks. Did those incidents make you reassess your life at all?
It made me very nervous for a long time about planes. Human beings are immensely fragile, and nobody gets out of here alive. They did haunt me for quite some time and I don’t feel the same now. When we do [Succession] I will never go on a helicopter because there’s something unnatural about them.
You talk about coming to marijuana in later life as a way to unwind, what else relaxes you?
I watch movies, all movies. There’s a channel in America called Turner Classic Movies, it’s a brilliant channel and it’s a responsible channel too. I also like occasionally to go to the gym and put my ageing body through it, that and lying diagonally in my bed and doing nothing.
‘Putting the Rabbit in the Hat’ is out now
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