Few actors straddle the line between drama, comedy and blockbuster-scaled action quite as skillfully as Brian Cox, who over the course of his lengthy career has successfully segued between projects as varied as Titus Andronicus (on the stage), Manhunter (as the original Hannibal Lecter), Braveheart, Rushmore, Super Troopers, The Bourne Identity, X2: X-Men United, Deadwood, and Zodiac—to name just a few of his many triumphs.
Now one can add to that list Succession, HBO’s new series (premiering June 3) in which he stars as Logan Roy, the founder and CEO of a media empire that has its hands in everything from print and online publishing to theme parks. A ruthless and domineering individual who built his firm from nothing, Roy is a tyrant cast—spiritually, if not literally—in a Rupert Murdoch mold. And in this ten-episode drama from creator Jesse Armstrong and executive producer Adam McKay (The Big Short), he finds himself under attack from throne usurpers close to home: his children.
On the verge of being replaced by his oldest Kendall (Jeremy Strong), whose brash exterior masks a softer heart, Roy opts not to hand over the keys to his kingdom—a decision complicated by a calamity that soon puts his position in jeopardy. What follows is a Shakespearean-style boardroom saga about greed, resentment, jealousy and back-stabbing mercilessness that’s rooted in the conflict between authoritarian fathers and ambitious offspring (including Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook and Alan Ruck as Logan’s other kids). For Cox, it’s yet another larger-than-life turn—equal parts coldly despotic and intriguingly opaque—that confirms his imposing magnetism.
On the eve of Succession’s debut, we spoke with the Scottish-born 71-year-old legend about the changing cinematic and television landscapes, the Bard’s influence on his latest project, and the joy he derives from not being recognized for any single role.
Had you been looking for a longer-form project, or was Succession simply an opportunity you couldn’t pass up?
It sort of did come about, but in my heart or hearts, I’ve been looking for the longer-form for a long time. Films have become increasingly frustrating—especially the films I enjoy. If you look at cinemas today, you’ll get five cinemas that are showing the same film—and it’s usually a Marvel film or a DC film or something like that—and then you’ve got one cinema chasing six or seven movies, and you’re lucky if you get it in there for a week. I find that frustrating, and I also find it frustrating from the audience’s point of view. Television seems to me to be a much more egalitarian art form, in that you can actually get it to people. We now have streaming, Netflix, Amazon and, of course, we have the great HBO as well.
I’ve always loved the long-form, and when I was a much younger actor, we used to do a lot of classical serials on the television in the UK, and I did about three of them, including Thérèse Raquin  and The Master of Ballantrae . So I’ve done those kinds of great classic novels, and that was long-form. Then, working with the great David Milch on Deadwood, the advantage of the long form was even more apparent. It’s also great from a character point of view, because the characters are constantly creating themselves through contradiction, and it’s contradiction that makes characters. This was a wonderful opportunity to take part in something where you had a tremendous stylist with Adam McKay, and a really tremendous script by Jesse Armstrong (and subsequent scripts by Jesse and his team). Jesse has a particular style that seems to be improvisatory, but actually the core is very clearly the script. So in a sense, the show was a no-brainer. I thought, this is something one has to do.
Is this situation the reason so many great actors (such as yourself) are moving to TV?
Pacino’s been doing it on a regular basis with HBO, De Niro did the Madoff thing, and Tony Hopkins is doing Westworld, and I think it’s understandable, because it’s a guaranteed living, which is good [laughs]. And if the series works, you’re guaranteed to do more. That aside, creatively, I think there’s a lot of distance in it, and I think it’s the way our entertainment is going. I still love the darkened room and the communal cinema experience. But it’s harder and harder.
At the moment, I have a film [The Etruscan Smile] that we just got into the Stony Brook Film Festival, and it’s one that I made two years ago—a lovely film that’s sad, but finally uplifting, and is produced by the great Arthur Cohn, who’s won six Oscars for Central Station and others, and he’s in his 90s now. But it’s very hard to get the distribution, because cinemas have become much more of a corporate business. Somebody needs to rediscover a new form of cinema, which is a smaller, more intimate cinema that goes back to what I believe cinema was. That’s why I’m a huge Turner Classic Movies fan, and why I’d love to do an on-air presentation.
You and me both.
It’s just the greatest. It really does the business of looking at an actor’s career. They did a whole season of Robert Montgomery films recently, and nobody knows who Robert Montgomery is! But there they are. They’re bringing these guys from history, and they’re so present and in the day, in the moment. I love it.
You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare throughout your career, and Succession feels like it’s operating in a similar (if modernized) vein. Was that part of what attracted you to the material?
Yes. The obvious parallels with King Lear are very strong in Succession, and there’s a Lear-like quality to Logan. But also, what I particularly like about Logan is that he’s slightly mysterious. We only get part of who he is—the ruthless businessman. By doing this as a series, there’s a lot of stuff that’s gradually revealed such as, by the end of the seventh episode, he goes for a swim, and you see these markings on his back. Clearly he was beaten, and this is something that isn’t revealed until later on. We don’t know anything about his childhood, but we do know that this is a man who’s probably self-taught.
When I was first asked to play the role, I suggested that maybe I’ll play him Scottish, since that’s where I’m from. And they said no, they wanted someone who was American. I said okay, I’ve played more Americans than I’ve played anybody else [laughs]. They said he’s probably of Canadian origin, and I said fine, so we did that. Then, while we’re filming, Peter Friedman—who plays Logan’s first number-two that he gets rid of—tells me that, in the first episode at my birthday party, they’ve changed my birthplace. I said, “What? Well, where am I from?” He checks his email, and he comes back and says, “You were born in Dundee, Scotland.” I went, “Oh, they haven’t told me. Really? That’s extraordinary”—because in real life, Dundee, Scotland, is where I come from.
I was about to ask if that was your deliberate way of connecting to the character.
I didn’t build it in. I’ve got my own idea of a backstory, because I’ve built that up—that Logan came to America when he was a child, because there were a lot of refugee kids from the UK and Scotland who went to Canada. So he’d have been about two years old when he went to Canada, and then possibly he went back—probably to work in newspapers, because there’s a big newspaper industry in Dundee, where the DC Thompson company has a huge circulation of papers. He probably served his time there, since I think he’s a working journalist, and then he became the Logan Roy that we now know.
It’s inevitable that the character recalls media titans like Rupert Murdoch. Did you actively avoid, or lean into, such comparisons?
It’s like a mountain. When you deal with a mountain, the base of the mountain is huge, so naturally things are going to overlap. But as you go up the mountain, the territory becomes much smaller—and when you get to the peak, there’s no territory at all. So you realize that certain things—like buying companies, stripping assets, all of that—become par for the course. The differences between Logan and those figures is that Logan is an autodidact, and he’s probably from a far simpler background. Murdoch and Bob Maxwell already had something behind them; they were part of an inheritance. Logan is much more of a first-timer, and the number one in his generation, whereas Murdoch isn’t the number one. His father was established, like Trump.
Did you do any research for the part?
No, I don’t do that. I create the man with his intentions, and what he’s doing. My thing is to create something which is sustainable and much more interesting—and also much more mysterious. Hopefully, Logan is being revealed, and is surprising, because what I love about the writing is that he’s spare—it’s very sparely written. He’s gruff, he’s tough, and he kicks ass like nobody’s business, but there’s also another element which you don’t really know about, like his relationship with his wife [Hiam Abbass], which remains quite private. If we do another series, it’ll move in a direction where more is revealed.
That’s what I love about the character, and about what Jesse does: everything I do in the show is very particular, and is not overblown. Logan comes in at the right moment. On June 3, he’s all over Episode 1, and then in Episode 2, it’s life-or-death, and is he going to make it? What happens is that he metamorphizes into something that isn’t quite shaped, because of his natural impairments, but he overcomes those to be something which is closer to what he really is—but is still not revealed.
Logan is, in a certain sense, a tyrant. Do you feel that’s necessitated by his position?
It goes with the territory, that tyrannical thing, especially if you’re running the show. The problem Logan has is that none of these kids are living up to what he feels they should do, which is why he takes it all back. His son, Kendall, is not quite cutting the mustard, and that’s really the root of it. If Kendall was a little bit more…but Kendall is abused, and he’s a troubled child.
You’ve played such a wide array of characters over the years. Is there any one for which you’re most recognized?
I love the fact that some people don’t recognize me [laughs]. I mean, I’m getting a bit more recognized now, but as I get to be 72—any day now [June 1]—I like the fact that I can do Super Troopers and I can do this. I like the fact that I can run the gamut, and do my job as an actor. I love that aspect of my work—that I’m different people. My favorite medium in the world is radio, because there you don’t have to dress up or learn your lines, you just have to concentrate on creating that world. I did a detective radio series in the UK called McLevy for twelve years, and I did four episodes every eighteen months, and it was about a week’s work, but it was my favorite job. Unfortunately, I couldn’t earn a living doing it, but I loved it, because it’s part of what I do. I love the fact that I shape-shift.