Brian Cox: “I’m glad it’s over”

Brian Cox photographed by Paul Wetherell  (Brian Cox for ES Magazine )
Brian Cox photographed by Paul Wetherell (Brian Cox for ES Magazine )

Brian Cox is tucked away in the back of a restaurant in leafy north London, facing the wall, his baseball cap pulled down over his face. Since being cast in 2019 as the cantankerous, battle-weary patriarch Logan Roy in Succession, his profile has soared, the anonymity he had relished during his 60-year acting career now diminished. ‘It’s just the way it is,’ he says, equably. ‘People are always very nice. They can get a bit excited, but on the whole they’re nice.’

At least he doesn’t have a catchphrase that gets bellowed at him everywhere he goes, I joke. ‘Oh, I do have a catchphrase,’ he says, missing the sarcasm. ‘F*** off. Everybody wants me to tell them to f*** off.’ Of course, he regularly deploys it even when not in character. Our interview takes place a few weeks after his ES Magazine cover shoot — where the crew were met with an irascible Cox who had been ‘stuck in a f***ing traffic jam for three f***ing hours’ getting to set. The set being his cosy Primrose Hill flat, where every surface seemed to be covered in moody oil paintings, bronze sculptures, books and unopened post. ‘Are you an art collector?’ the photographer proffers as an ice-breaker. ‘What do you f***ing think?!’ Cox fires back. Meanwhile rails of clothes have been artfully manoeuvred into another room, which elicits a ‘Jesus Christ! What are all these f***ing clothes doing in my bedroom?!’

Everybody’s curious, and I just tell them to mind their own f***ing business

Cox probably wants to tell me to f*** off when I ask him for details on season four, which writer Jesse Armstrong has confirmed will be the show’s last. ‘Can’t,’ he says. ‘Not allowed.’ A word to describe it, then? ‘Expectation.’ He’s a little more forthcoming on where it was filmed: mainly in New York, with a sequence in Norway. As for the fact that there will be no season five, he says: ‘I’m glad it’s over. It was never discussed how many seasons it would run, but I think Jesse felt he’d really exhausted it. If you think about it, the kids are always in the same state. You know, “Will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he.” After three seasons that’s okay, but in a fourth, you’ve got to do something else. Another agenda has to kick itself in, in order to complete the show. And that’s what he’s done.’

It’s a mystery of human nature that people seek out spoilers for their favourite shows — yet they do. ‘Everybody’s curious, and I just tell them to mind their own f***ing business,’ says Cox. ‘People are so stupid. They really are. Human beings: what a terrible experiment. Audiences… you just have to treat them like children. Don’t give them too much.’

Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)
Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)

While we wait for our food to arrive (‘I’ll just have a couple of starters. That’ll do me. I want to keep my weight under control — it’s been a problem all my life’), I give up asking for spoilers and instead grill him about the characters that for four years have kept viewers in thrall. The most evil Roy? ‘I don’t think anybody’s evil. I think most of them are confused, and bad actions come out of their confusion.’ On Roman: ‘He’s got a potty mouth and is stunted, but he’s quite bright and has a vision of things. He’s very complicated and has made a few screw ups, but he’s learnt a lot of lessons.’ On Shiv: ‘Shiv wants to have her cake and eat it — that’s her all-pervading sin. I think she’s incapable of love with anybody. Sarah [Snook, who plays Shiv] might disagree with me, but I feel her actions are very mercenary. She’s a tough girl to deal with and Tom deals with her extraordinarily well.’ On Tom: ‘There’s something very pure and simple about Tom — brilliantly played by Matthew Macfadyen, I have to say. There’s no nonsense with Matthew. He doesn’t say very much: he just does the thing.’ Unlike Jeremy Strong, presumably, who Cox said in a previous interview was brilliant at playing Kendall, ‘but it’s also exhausting for the rest of us from time to time’

Sibling rivalry might be one of Succession’s main themes, but however much the Roy children might think otherwise, Cox believes that Logan loves his children equally. ‘Yes. The truth is, you love your children because they’re your children and you are responsible for them, and helped create them.’ Is he speaking as Logan, or as Brian? ‘I have a different attitude from Logan,’ he clarifies. ‘Mine is, “Let them be.” There are enough obstacles in life without you creating any more for them. The whole Victorian notion of parenting is outmoded and doesn’t work. It’s very important that children are not interfered with too much. I don’t buy into any of that nonsense. I want them to be happy and I want them to be their own people.’

Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)
Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)

He thinks life has made Logan cruel, as well as more intolerant of others’ failings. ‘The problem he has is that his children, who he loves, are so demanding. They’re cursed by their own sense of entitlement. You work your ass off for these kids, give them everything, and they’re still ungrateful. That lack of gratitude exacerbates his own misanthropy. It’s best summed up by what he said at the end of the last season: “Make your own f***ing pile.”’

Like Logan, Cox has four children: two with his second wife, Caroline Burt, and two with the actress Nicole Ansari, whom he married in 2002. He says his youngest children, 18 and 23, are aware of the ‘nepo baby’ debate. ‘Both my sons are very conscious of it and do everything to avoid [accusations of] that in their own lives. For my older children it’s not so bad because they’ve lived through the rough as well as the smooth, whereas my younger kids have lived reasonably well since they were little.’

I don’t think anybody’s evil. I think most of the Roy family are confused

His youngest, Torin, is studying acting. ‘He doesn’t quite know what he wants to do. He’s got a lot of options, but I wouldn’t force him into anything. He’s quite interested in music production; he’s not uninterested in acting but he’s nervous about following in the family tradition. He wants to be his own man and I totally respect that. I would never try and push him in a certain direction. I love my job — it’s a great profession, but it’s tough and you really need to know why you’re doing it. If there’s any wobble, don’t do it. You have to be really secure in yourself.’

Cox’s own upbringing was somewhat less secure, as he details poignantly in his 2021 autobiography, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat. The youngest of five children, he was raised in Dundee by his Irish mother, after his Scottish father died suddenly when he was eight. ‘I had no education: I left school at 15, got my first job at Dundee Rep [repertory theatre] and it’s been that way ever since,’ he says, making it all sound easy. ‘I’m very blessed. I look back on what I’ve done and go, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive.” And he has the accolades to prove it: a CBE, four Emmy nominations including a win, a slew of Bafta nominations, a pair of Oliviers for his theatre work and a Golden Globe for his depiction of Logan Roy. ‘I was lucky because I followed my bliss,’ he reflects. ‘I say that to people: follow your bliss. Because you’ve only got one life.’

Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)
Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)

Another of Cox’s great passions is politics. However accurately Succession holds up a mirror up to modern life, the real world still manages to exceed the show’s biggest plot twists. ‘I know,’ he agrees. ‘This government,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘How can these bandits get away with it for so long? They keep electing these idiots. And in America, it’s doubly bad.’ A Labour supporter, he backs Scottish independence. ‘But I don’t want an independent Scotland just for Scotland. I want it for the British Isles. When we get independence, then we come back together as a united federation, so that we can attend to our problems on an equal footing. We’re too much like Blanche DuBois, dependent on the kindness of strangers. It’s absolute bollocks.’

His rage against current political injustices led him to film a documentary, How the Other Half Live, which aired on Channel 5 last year. ‘I’d been living in the Logan Roy bubble and needed a cold shower,’ he says. ‘The rich have no sense of what the world really is, and very little care. The greed imperative has never been stronger. Money has become the new God, but is the cause of so much unhappiness.’

After his father died from pancreatic cancer (‘three weeks after he was diagnosed, he was gone’), the Cox family was left with £10 in the bank, an experience that shaped Cox and almost destroyed his mother, who suffered with her mental health at a time when there was no support. ‘The poverty hangs over me like a Damoclean sword,’ he says. ‘I’m very compassionate about people in that situation. Those scars don’t leave you. You’ll carry them to your death.’

Things have to shift with cancel culture and woke culture. I think it’s horrendous

He believes the depersonalisation that comes from living in poverty is one of its most invidious effects. ‘Once you take something away from somebody, you also take their dignity. Food banks deprive people of their dignity. People don’t understand how important dignity is to a human being.’ Nor do they seem to understand the importance of free speech, says Cox. ‘Things have to shift with cancel culture and woke culture, which I think is horrendous and hypocritical, and almost McCarthyist. People are being cancelled all the time. I know that from trying to cast people. “You can’t have him, he’s cancelled.”’

Wait, what? He’s casting people? ‘I’m about to direct my first movie,’ he smiles. ‘It’s called Glenrothan, it’s set in Scotland and it’s about a family distillery. It’s written by David Ashton, who I worked with on a BBC series called McLevy between 1999 and 2013. It’s nerve-wracking. I’m a wee bit long in the tooth.’ He says the casting is the hardest part. ‘I don’t want to talk about it, but finding the right actor is a minefield,’ he says, detailing pressure from the ‘money men’ to cast a big name who will play well at the box office but might not be right for the role. ‘We’ve got funding in place,’ he adds. ‘I really want it to be a love letter to Scotland.’

He loves Scotland (‘not enough to live there,’ my mother would remark), but loves London, too, splitting his time between homes in New York and Primrose Hill, and dining at local restaurants Lemonia, Greenberry and Sam’s Cafe when he’s in town (‘I’m not a pub person’). He agrees that New York has bounced back more slowly from the pandemic than London. ‘It’s still nervous.’ He also sees differences between the two cities’ theatre scenes. ‘It’s all driven by money, but here we have a stronger root. There are very good theatre companies in America, but it’s hard because there’s no subsidy. Although ours are being hit every day, of course.’

Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)
Brian Cox for ES Magazine, photographed by Paul Wetherell (ES Magazine)

As well as working on a film set in Oregon called Little Wind (‘a kids’ film, but a nice, charming film’), he will soon be treading the boards again in The Score, a play about Bach that will premier in Bath (‘Bach in Bath!’ he chortles), directed by his friend Trevor Nunn. ‘I want to see if I’ve still got those muscles, if I can deliver. The memory… I’m hoping all will be well, but I feel I should do it while I’ve still got my faculties.’

At 76, it’s fair to say his faculties are still firing, given he has more ambitious plans than many actors half his age. ‘[Succession has] one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with — a consistently happy family for six years. We’ve straddled the world, lived in the lap of pretend luxury and it’s been a great ride. But I don’t take it too seriously. I’ve been working for 60 years as an actor, so this is just a stop on the way. I will always be grateful for it, grateful to Jesse for the opportunity, but all good things should come to an end.’

Spoken with a pragmatism that would rival WayStar Royco’s bullish owner. There may be no more Logan Roy, but there is destined to be a lot more Brian Cox in the world, in myriad incarnations. Succession’s loss is theatre’s gain.

‘Succession’ season four is on Sky Atlantic/Now from 27 March.

Grooming by Liz Taw at The Wall Group.

Photography: Paul Wetherell

Stylist: Ben Schofield

Grooming: Liz Taw at The Wall Group

Photographer’s assistants: Chris Miller and Tom Ayerst.

Digi Op: Grzegorz Stefański

Stylist’s assistant: Kit Swann