Brian Cox

Jason Diamond catches up with the recent Succession star as he prepares for a return to the West End


I spend about 10 minutes in absolute terror of being admonished by Brian Cox because the Zoom link I sent to him isn’t working. I’m fearful, but I’m also a little excited. Over his long career, Cox has played everybody from Leon Trotsky to Winston Churchill and the headmaster of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore Academy, along with several acclaimed turns as some of William Shakespeare’s most famous characters for the National Theatre and RSC. But, since the finale of Succession is still  relatively fresh in my memory when we talk, I’m prepared for a verbal lashing à la Logan Roy. Cox has been through the stops and starts of success and note that come with his profession but becoming the Roy family patriarch in his 70s has turned into his most famous role. Thankfully, for me, Cox is nothing like Logan. He apologises, something the fictional media baron would likely never do for anybody.

Cox is tired when we talk. He’s been rehearsing for his turn as another ailing family figurehead, James Tyrell in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. It’s a character he’s always been fascinated with. He’s done a few O’Neill plays before. It takes a second to recall how many and which ones – Strange Interlude on Broadway in 1985 pops into his head – but the semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, published, performed, and hailed as one of the greatest American works of the theatre after O’Neill passed away in 1953, is a big one for Cox.

“I’ve always wanted to do this play. I have a lot of things in common with the character, particularly the poverty issues, which I understand because of my background and his background, except he was a lot worse off than I was.” When an actor has a list of works stretching over decades and across mediums like Cox does, it’s not always easy to pick up on consistent themes. Acting is a craft and an art, but most of all, it’s a job. Just because an actor wants certain roles, it doesn’t mean they’ll get them. And in Cox’s case, he’s done it all, from the crafty Old West theatre promoter Jack Langrishe on the series Deadwood to a crooked CIA chief who sets the hunt for Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. He has even shown he can work funny in films like the cult classic Super Troopers, has done the Marvel superhero films, and has stood out in supporting roles in more than a few films now considered classics, including Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and David Fincher’s Zodiac. Cox’s résumé on paper could unfurl like a long scroll that lists characters with a myriad of different professions and motivations. You often hear the term “serious actor” used to denote somebody who only takes on the most challenging or iconic roles; Cox has done that plenty, but he’s more of a serious actor in that he puts so much thought into his work that he ends up learning about himself as much as he does the person he’s playing. O’Neill’s Tyrone is a good example of that and a good way to find the theme in Cox’s body of work.

“Everybody says is a miser, but he’s just cautious. I know what that means,” Cox says. Then he mentions his character’s children, the two sons who are “privileged”. Like Cox, Tyrone is an actor, one who comes from “humble beginnings”. O’Neill’s character is wealthy and in his mid-60s, but he’s unhappy with the way his work is viewed and in constant fear of going back to the life of poverty he once knew. Those aren’t the same circumstances as every character Cox has played, but it certainly calls to mind two of his most famous portrayals: his celebrated 1990 run as King Lear at the National Theatre and more recently, Logan Roy. Both men are rulers of their domains who know the time has come to step aside and let their children take over, but they’re also grappling with bratty heirs who likely don’t have what it takes to keep the empire going. Tyrone similarly grapples with the disappointment his life and the lives of everyone in his family have become, and all he’s got to hold onto is the fact that while he’s miserable and will die that way, he’s at least rich. “That’s there in his background,” Cox says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the way it is.”

Cox was born into a working-class Scottish family, but as he points out to me, “I’m 88 per cent Irish, 12 per cent Scottish. Most of my people came from Ireland to go and work in Scotland.” He mentions that to serve as a juxtaposition with O’Neill’s family who “at exactly the same time […] were going to America” from Ireland. Cox’s mother was a spinner at a local mill, his father first a policeman, and eventually a shopkeeper. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was administered shock treatment that Cox has said wiped most of her memory, he died of pancreatic cancer when Cox was eight. There’s a Joycean tint to his childhood, with a Dickensian twist in his teens when the young Cox discovered acting and escaped a life of factory work in his hometown of Dundee. Cox didn’t grow up in a world of privilege, so he can see the motivations for characters like Tyrone and Logan, the stuff that isn’t mentioned in the story or the dialogue. “Logan was very rough and ready and he knew his business, but there was an element about him that was quite private, and therefore there was a magnetic element to him which drew the audience in.”

Cox excels at playing men who supposedly have everything finally coming face to face with their limitations, but he isn’t somebody who would allow himself to be typecast. Sure, his accent is undeniable, and where he comes from geographically does carry over into his parts. He mentions doing Waiting for Godot in 2015 with Bill Paterson as Estragon (Gogo) and Cox playing Vladimir (Didi). “We played it very much in the Scottish vernacular,” he says before pointing out that coming from Scotland’s east coast helped him understand the character a bit better, despite writer Samuel Beckett being from Ireland, and the fact that the biographies of all the characters in Godot are never really hinted at. But Cox saw something familiar in his role. “Didi is so kind of… positive and he’s almost surreal sometimes. That’s very like the east coast of Scotland humour, which is all about light and everything. Whereas the west coast of Scotland is all about ‘poor me’.” So to Cox, playing the other character who waits on the country road for the man named Godot who will never come just didn’t make sense. “Gogo picking his feet and doing all that is very Glasgow…”

You can tell how much consideration goes into any role Cox plays just by bringing one up, even the ones he (hopefully) doesn’t feel a kinship with. I ask if there are roles he’d like to revisit, characters from the past that he’d like to take for another spin to see what he can do now that he maybe didn’t do in the past. I give him a hypothetical, mentioning how Michael Mann has been slowly working toward a prequel to his 1995 crime epic, Heat. Would he consider revising the role of, say, Dr Hannibal Lecter? It was a role he first played in 1986 when Mann used the same source material for Manhunter that Jonathan Demme would adapt to greater acclaim just five years later with Silence of the Lambs. I know it’s a silly question, playing fantasy casting with a role that Anthony Hopkins went on to win an Oscar for, but Cox entertains the thought. “It has flooded across my mind,” he admits. He says he’s admired what other people have done with Lecter, “but they usually try to do a number with it instead of actually understanding what the man is, where he is deep down. He’s very intelligent and very bright, but he’s also very articulate about his state and about who he is.” He mentions the Demme version. “I think it’s fine and plays to Tony’s strengths, and he does it better than anybody in that way, but I don’t think that’s what he’s about. He’s about control and how to get into people’s heads, not standing there and scaring the living daylights out of you.” Cox talks with a certain amount of respect for directors and other actors, but he also won’t shy away from offering his opinion on them, the same way he’s critical of himself. Towards the end of Succession, he made headlines when he commented on his co-star Jeremy Strong’s Method acting, calling it “fucking annoying. Don’t get me started on it”. He praised Strong for his skill, pointing out the actor who played his son on Succession gets “tremendous” results, but was worried about what that sort of commitment does to Strong as a person. When Strong was asked to respond, he had nothing but praise for the older actor, telling GQ Cox had, “earned the right to say whatever the fuck he wants”.

Strong provided a good pull quote, but there is one word in his response that is especially true. Cox has “earned”. He has worked and continues to do so. There have hardly been any stops throughout his career, and as he’s gotten older, he’s started doing some of his best and most acclaimed work. “A lot of it has to do with the age of the role and what the role is representing,” he says before pointing out that playing a younger man may not have the same resonance as playing a man of Cox’s age. He thinks for a second and mentions Daniel Day-Lewis, another actor who is known for immersing himself in his roles maybe a little too deeply. Cox has brought up the Oscar winner before, comparing him to Strong and how Day-Lewis decided to walk away from acting in part because of the mental and physical impact their shared style of acting took on him. But this time, he uses the star of There Will Be Blood and Lincoln to make a point of why Cox believes actors only get better with age. “He resigned at 55 and I said ‘What an idiot’. Why do you want to resign at 55? That’s when the parts start getting better and you really grow into a state of wanting to play those roles that have meaning.”

There’s a simple formula, according to Cox, for not growing stale and continuing to get work that you enjoy as you age: “The clue is not to stay too long at any particular party, move on so that you work in a way that you can go, yes, this will serve me for a few years, but then I have to move on.” Now, he’s come to a point in his career where he understands he has to keep shifting. “I’ve been very blessed that the timing has always been good, but it’s something that I actually did think about from an early age.”

He had a plan for how he needed to work from a young age, but as for the sort of work Cox will do in the years ahead of him, he doesn’t really give it much thought. “It’s completely organic. I think because one has a certain reputation for work that there is a naturally magnetic element to – where I’m attracted to and attracted by certain that are equally attracted to me.”

For Cox, there’s freedom in embracing age. He says it’s simply that he enjoys working, and that he doesn’t do any long-term planning. But most of all, he’s having fun. I bring up how he’s been popping up in fashion publications a lot since Succession went off the air. One day it’s about his horsebit loafers by the Brooklyn brand Blackstock & Weber, the next, he’s modelling for the streetwear brand Kith, or showing up on a red carpet showing all the younger guys how to pull off a suit in some private-label ensemble that every photographer has to snap. “I’ve enjoyed it because nobody has ever regarded me as a dresser,” he says. And that’s when the intimidating version of Cox comes out, the one I was fearful of at the start of the conversation. But his vitriol isn’t about anything I’ve said or done; it’s aimed at his younger self.


“I dyed my hair because I started to go grey in my 20s,” he says with a shake of his head. He thinks about him for a moment, the Brian Cox of 50 years ago. “I’m so angry at myself for doing that. Why the fuck did you dye your hair? God, it’s horrible. Now I’ve got this wonderful white hair and I think finally I’m feeling I can just be who I am rather than try and keep abreast of everything.”


Photography TOM JOHNSON




Production MINI TITLE


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here