A version of this story about Brian Cox and “Succession” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Until about four years ago, Brian Cox could walk around in public unnoticed. The Scottish-born actor has been working on the stage and big and small screens for six decades, amassing an impressive body of work that spans acclaimed films from auteurs (“Rushmore,” “25th Hour,” “Adaptation”); massive franchises (two Jason Bourne movies, “X2: X-Men United”); goofy comedies (“Super Troopers” 1 and 2); and of course, “Manhunter,” in which he played the original Hannibal Lecter.
Still, through the years, Cox was able to enjoy a comfortable degree of anonymity. If anyone did recognize him, no one could ever quite figure out where they knew him from. “It was always, ‘Weren’t you the guy…? Were you in the…?’” he said.
Now, not only do lots of people recognize Cox, but they also approach him with a singular request: “Everybody wants me to tell them to f–k off. And so I say, ‘F–k off!’” he said. “Which is one of the great things to say to somebody.”
He is referring, of course, to the trademark rebuke that his character on HBO’s “Succession” barks at anyone who dares irritate him. Cox plays Logan Roy, the irascible, Rupert Murdoch-like patriarch of an uber-rich family who pits his children against each other in his quest to find an heir for the media empire that he built. Since the satirical drama premiered in 2018, it has become a critical and TV Academy darling, picking up 23 Emmy nominations (including Cox’s 2020 lead actor nod) and winning nine.
The show’s lacerating writing and gifted cast (which includes Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin) have helped the show steadily increase its audience, with December’s Season 3 finale hitting a series high of more than 6 million total viewers. They all tuned in to watch Logan outwit his entitled, backstabbing, often loathsome children in the most painful confrontation yet. “It’s the infuriating thing that Logan has to deal with constantly. It’s a hell of a strain. I mean, he’s 80-odd (years old). He’s a lot older than me,” the 76-year-old actor said, adding with a laugh, “I have to act up.”
How did it feel doing Season 3, with the pandemic delays, compared to the first two?
It’s always joyous when we start again because of the camaraderie of the group. Each season’s a capper on the previous episodes, and that’s the great thing about the writing: It just goes on, and the characters become more extraordinary. Of course, you have to follow the line of the story and the story is, finally, the children, in their inefficiency, get together and threaten the old guy. They’re all novices and Logan’s been down the pike with this so many times. The only difference is that it’s to do with his own children. And that’s the heartbreak for him, even though he’ll never, ever show that. You never see how Logan really feels because he keeps his feelings under wraps. He doesn’t give into his feelings too readily.
Except for anger.
Yeah. Rage. There’s a deep rage in him for childhood issues and everything that’s been unresolved in his life. That’s also the motivating force for who he is.
You had great scenes with all of Logan’s children this season. Who is the most fun to be Logan with — to wield power and play mind games?
It’s always great with Jeremy. There’s always the great dramatic stuff, the shifts and dealing with this other tortured human being (that Jeremy plays) who’s so flawed. And Kieran, when we started the series, Kieran would be given four or five alternate lines of dialogue (on set) and he would panic. But he’s become so adept. He can do five pages of alt lines and no bother. He’s a great example of somebody who’s emerged so wonderfully.
You and Jeremy had that intense dinner scene this season, where Kendall is posturing and says, “I’m better than you,” which infuriates Logan, who did after all, save his son from going to prison for killing a waiter. Can you talk about that scene?
Whether it’s true or not, I think that Logan believes that Kendall’s assessment of himself is illusory. It’s not real, it’s not based on anything palpable. It’s based on effect as opposed to deep-down reality. And that’s the thing that’s galling for Logan. He comes for a dinner with his son, he sits down and immediately his son goes, “Oh, that dish isn’t for him. That’s for me.” And you go, Oh, I see. You’re trying to do a number now. You want me to think that I’m being poisoned and it’s such a pointless activity. If you want to play that game, I’ll show you how to play that game. (Laughs) So we’ll call my grandson we’ll get him to taste the food. And of course Kendall overreacts and goes, Oh, wow, this is horrible. You go, No, no, no, no. You set this up. You did it. I’m just just following on your improvisation and taking it to its logical conclusion. I have no intention of poisoning my grandson. That would be anathema to me.
You’ve spoken about how you needed to know if Logan loved his children. And (showrunner) Jesse Armstrong told you he does. So in the final scene of the Season 3 finale, when Roman, Shiv and Kendall come to take over RoyCo, Logan really blows up when Roman says he comes with love.
Exactly. Of course the whole quality of love has been lacking. Logan’s aware of that more than anybody else. It’s something that’s been lacking in his life and something that’s clearly — even though he would never admit to it — the one thing he possibly hoped for with his children was love. And there haven’t been any examples of that. There’s only been the example of take, take, take. Take without any give. They have not behaved like loving children at all. I mean, it’s a problem having a father like that — it’s not easy for them, but there comes a point when all bets are off and you have to make your own life. And they haven’t done that.
Did you have a favorite scene this season?
I liked the scene with Jeremy (at dinner). That was a very powerful scene and Jeremy did a great job on it. I loved the the dick pic scene (Laughs). (Roman accidentally sends his father a nude photo of himself. Logan is not pleased.) I think (Logan) has much more regard for Roman’s potential, but at the same time, Roman is so potty-mouthed. It’s a drawback. He’s not being mature. And you know, the dick pic was the sort of straw that broke the camel’s back. And at one point, when we sat there (filming), I just said, “Why, why, why, why, why, why, why?” (Laughs) But I was giving too much away, so they cut it.
Logan is very intimidating. Most people all but quake in his presence. Do you intimidate the other actors?
No, because they know me for the idiot that I am! (Laughs) I don’t intimidate anybody. I just want them all to get on with their job and do it. That’s something that a lot of American actors don’t understand. They’re so busy ploughing their furrow — and they do it brilliantly — but there’s another element to it, which is the harmony of the group, the harmony of the people doing the show. And that harmony is as important as your own performance.
That is the esprit-de-corps philosophy of an actor who came up in the theater.
Yeah, yeah. When I started as a young actor, we were very keen on the ensemble. It was the ensemble. You’re so dependent on your company of actors and you have to understand that you’re all part of the same process, even though one is playing (King) Lear and somebody else is playing the steward. I’m okay with the awards. It’s very nice. But the one award I wanted (“Succession”) to get was the ensemble award because I thought that was really who we were. And we got the SAG ensemble award. That made me very happy because that’s the strength of the show.
You’ve done television before, but never over so many seasons. How has that been, playing the same character with an ongoing story?
I love it. I love the long form. This is the great thing about television. It’s the fact that the three-act idea, which is present in movies, in the theater — television has subverted that. There’s a first act and then there’s an endless, endless second act. And the third act actually doesn’t really matter. It just all comes to a close, whatever close that close is. But the process of working across this long second act is very exciting because you discover characters: You see where they hide, you see where they don’t.
How long would you like to play Logan?
I’ll play him for as long as they want me to play him. Actors are like Blanche Dubois, in a way: They depend on the kindness of strangers. And usually the strangers are writers. So that’s the deal. It could go on for three more seasons, it could go on for two. That’s up to the writers, and as a friend used to say to me, “We follow our mercenary calling and draw our wages.”
Do you know what the storylines are for Season 4? Do you have scripts yet?
No. Scripts? Are you joking? (Laughs) They’re the best kept secret in the world. I think if writers had their way, they would actually give us the scripts scene by scene rather than give us the whole story.
You are so prolific, always working on several projects at once, even with Succession. Do you ever envision slowing down?
No. I’ll be dead. My mother used to say in (adopts a pronounced Scottish accent) a very strong, Scottish way, “Oh, you’re a long time dead.” So it’s a kind of policy that I’ll go till I drop. I like work. I’m a workaholic.
Read more from the Comedy & Drama issue here.