Brian Cox on Succession’s Season 2 Finale, Trump, Murdoch, Scottish Independence, and Playing LBJ
In a candid interview with Tim Teeman, Brian Cox talks about the explosive second season finale, why he won't play Donald Trump, and how he survived a traumatic childhood.
The original plan was for Logan Roy to die at the end of Season One of Succession, Brian Cox told me a few days before the season two finale, over a lunch of onion soup, meze, and a couple of Arnold Palmers in a Persian restaurant near his 51st-floor apartment in Brooklyn.
Cox, dressed smartly in a crisp shirt and sports jacket, laughed as he recalled the key phone call with the show’s executive producer Adam McKay and creator Jesse Armstrong in which he learned wily patriarch Logan’s life would be extended somewhat.
“I said, ‘So, I’m out at the end of the first season? From their phones in Italy and Los Angeles came this chorus of “Oh no, oh no.’”
Our conversation then ranged to Cox’s contempt for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, Brexit, his traumatic childhood, his desire for Scottish independence, and what he would say to Rupert Murdoch—if he ever met the man Logan Roy shares more than a few characteristics with.
On Monday morning, post the dramatic Succession finale that so delighted fans, Cox confessed to feeling a little tired. The 73-year-old Emmy Award-winning actor had performed a five-show-weekend of The Great Society at Lincoln Center Theater, in which he portrays a power-playing President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he had also stayed up to watch a finale widely hailed as an immaculate end to an immaculate season.
While Cox plays a clean-shaven LBJ, Logan Roy’s attractive snow-white goatee has been erased. But be assured Cox will grow it back for Season Three.
Season Two of Succession not only ended with Kendall Roy betraying his father, Logan, played by Cox, in a delicious twist of an ending, but also Logan watching this betrayal on television with the hint of a smile. His son had finally become “the killer” his media-titan father had thought he could never be.
“I thought it was excellent,” Cox told The Daily Beast. “I was completely engrossed by it. It was really very, very good and very gratifying. It was absolutely on the money.”
In the final scenes, Kendall did not take the fall for his father over the abuse scandal on board Waystar Royco’s cruise ships.
Instead, he told the press, “The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully, and a liar. He was fully, personally aware of these events for many years and made efforts to hide and cover up... My father keeps a watchful eye over every inch of his whole empire.” Promising he had documentation that showed his father’s knowledge and culpability, Kendall said, “This is the day his reign ends.”
Of Logan’s smile, Cox said, “We should see it finally as Logan acknowledging that Kendall has finally come of age. He has stepped up to play. He has done what his father didn’t think he was capable of, even though his father is the victim. He is the father killer. That was why he was… happy is not the word, but he recognized that a lot of ground has been cleared by this act. He knows his son has the killer capacity. Now the only problem is, as we will see in Season Three, is has Kendall got the ability to keep it up?
“Logan is not going to go down without a fight. He’s going to fight for his family. It will be interesting to see how his children see what Kendall has done, how Roman and Shiv view it, because he’s protected both Roman and Shiv, and as a result did not throw them to the wolves.”
Cox chuckled his warm, very un-Logan-like chuckle, and said this was his own speculation; Season Three’s machinations were the province of Armstrong and the show’s writers. “I am merely the player. I liked Logan’s journey, though. It was very clear. As soon as the shareholders believed he should be the one to go, he realizes he would rather have it done by his family than the shareholders.”
Some have speculated Logan knew or was inviting Kendall to betray him, which would add another element to the final smile. Is that what Cox and the writers intended?
“It’s a gamble. Kendall might fall to pieces or do the opposite. When the whole thing of ‘killer’ is raised, and Logan parentally says, ‘I’m not sure you have it in you,’ that is a red rag to Kendall’s rather timid bull. And Kendall acts on it.”
The cast was filming “forever” on the opulent yacht. “I tell you one thing, I never want to go on a yacht journey ever again in my life,” said Cox. “It’s very confining. I don’t know where that yacht came from. I’m not interested in where it came from. It’s a sign of wealth and opulence. On TV, it didn’t look so bad, but it was very OTT.” Still, the cast had fun—“we always do, it’s one of the best casts ever, and then there was Tom’s eating of the chicken.” Cox laughed, recalling Shiv’s husband, played by Matthew Macfadyen, defiantly chomping away at something of Logan’s as some kind of mad act of assertion.
Cox noted that in the first season of the show, Logan had said to his children that they did not realize that the business was a game. As much as Logan is volatile, he is also consistent, added Cox.
Cox wants Season Three to examine whether Kendall’s words were knee-jerk or true. In earlier scenes, Logan, Cox said, had signaled how abhorrent he had found the abuse stories. “He has said he is a guy who can’t take his undershirt off in front of his wife. That reveals a lot of who Logan is. He’s a Puritan at heart. Now with Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and MeToo, another set of perspectives have emerged. As Lear says, ‘I have taken too little care of that.’ Logan realizes he wasn’t across all he needed to be across. He knew nothing about the abuse.”
Preceding Kendall’s explosive actions, Logan made Roman Roy COO of the company.
“There are a lot of things to be explored in Season Three,” said Cox. “The succession itself is still to be explored; how to keep Waystar together and stop it from going under; how to stop the proxy battle and company takeover. Roman has suddenly risen, and will emerge quite strongly I think."
The second season has seen Kendall (zombified accidental murderer son) and Shiv (daughter; Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril made one) jockeying for top spot, while Roman (impish ball of malevolent mischief) sneaks up on the inside, almost getting assassinated and coming through triumphantly for his father.
In Season 3, Cox would “like to know more about Logan’s background and certain mysterious aspects of him. I liked it when he was watching birds from a gazebo. I’d like Logan to go bird-watching! I don’t think he’s sadistic. I think he is short-tempered.”
“It’s still up for debate about Logan. They might kill me off. I think that would be a cheat, just to kill Logan off. They should respect Logan’s longevity, but that’s up to them.” Cox laughed. “The one thing about death is that it’s inevitable. In a sense there’s nothing you can do about it.”
One key character was missing from the final episode, and indeed from much of the second season: Logan’s third wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass). “I hope we see more of her in Season Three,” said Cox. “I think Logan’s wife should have a considerable presence next season. There’s always this element of where to place her. She’s placed in the context of absence and longing. Rhea (Holly Hunter) was a red herring of an affair, never a reality, and all in the kids’ imagination.
“When Logan invited Rhea to stay the night, he meant just to sleep, they had enough rooms. The next morning the kids find him in bed alone in his underpants. Holly and I agreed that sex would be the last thing on both their minds. That could happen—but not at that particular point.”
It’s delicious to say Logan’s lines, Cox smiled, and adds there are many “alts,” which the actors say, with the producers choosing later which one to use (Kieran Culkin’s Roman has the most).
“I love the moments when Logan takes the cant of something, and reduces something to its lowest common denominator. That element in him is quite Scottish actually. I don’t like his politics and his celebration of money. But I did love it when he says to the more liberal Pierce family, when he is preparing to acquire their media empire, ‘Would you like to hear my favorite passage from Shakespeare? Take the fucking money.’
“They’re an anathema to him, so pseudo about everything, always trying to have their cake and eat it. They remind me of those British theater directors who work at the National and RSC, who don’t make a fortune like other directors, and resent that.”
Logan does love his children, said Cox. “I asked Jesse one time, because I was very much doubting it. And he said, ‘Very very much, but the problem is, they’re not living up to the mark.’
“He knows their sense of entitlement is of his making and responsibility. The things he feels they should develop they have not developed. Shiv is brilliant, but too erratic and volatile. He really does judge his children. He is testing them all the time. It’s all about testing.”
Cox had just finished filming Succession’s second season finale in Dubrovnik, when he had to start learning the 154-page script of The Great Society. Avuncular and menacing when he needs to be, Cox’s LBJ is trying (and failing) to control events around Vietnam and the growing, explosive battle for black civil rights.
“It’s exhausting every night,” said Cox. “For the pace and drive to do it, I recalled those Shakespeare roles I did 30 years go: Troilus, King Lear, Titus Andronicus. Some younger animal version of myself stepped in and did it.” He hopes he conveys the “spinning plates” aspect of LBJ, as he tries to balance the issues, and heavyweight political personalities, besetting him.
“Sometimes he talks slowly, sometimes fast when he talks to fellow Southerners. He was good in Congress, but not very good at television.”
He said both the Trump administration and the mess over Brexit mean political situations in America and Britain are “crazy and awful. I can’t stand (British Prime Minister) Boris Johnson, I can’t stand (Tory MP and Brexit proponent) Jacob Rees-Mogg, the whole bunch. Rees-Mogg, who I have met, is a nice man, but what Brexit stands for is a feudal vision of England that Johnson represents, and (Michael) Gove is a jumped-up version of that.”
For Britain, he would like a second referendum on Brexit. “Dominic Cummings has been a particularly malevolent force, and has been given far too much credence. That whole bunch. (Nigel) Farage and all that lot. That ‘little Englander’ mentality is so archaic, and so not in touch with the world.”
Cox “doesn’t like the word ‘nationalism,’ but I believe in Scottish independence.” Last week, he joined other prominent Scottish cultural figures in publishing a 12-point “declaration of independence,” calling for the country to become independent from the rest of the U.K., able to “decide their own destiny.”
“I think the Scottish are the keepers of social democracy,” said Cox. “The Brexit referendum campaign of 2016 was awful. The ‘Remainers’ were as smug as anything, and the Brexiteers were out-and-out liars.”
Europe, for Cox, has “lots of problems,” such as over-expansion. “But at the same time, in the wake of what is happening in the U.S. and Russian idiocy, we do need a united Europe desperately. Churchill wanted that, too. He would be doing backflips in his grave if he knew what was happening now.”
Cox was rector of Dundee University from 2010 to 2016; Cox says he has seen how Brexit threatens the interdisciplinary worlds within academia. If Brexit happens, “then Scotland should get out of the U.K. It’s finished. I think we need to be part of a European alliance and get out of the feudal system.”
Cox was appointed a CBE in 2002, “but I won’t go for anything else. I did that for my family. I would refuse any other honors. I don’t believe in it. The Queen is a fantastic woman doing a great job. Prince Charles is a good guy. But look at what is around them, it’s a defunct system, which at its core is about feudalism, which we have not shaken off.”
Cox has dual, U.S.-U.K. citizenship, and came to America expecting an egalitarian society, “but that hasn’t happened. Trump is a pink Pinocchio. He’s a liar. I think he is deranged, quite frankly, and seriously mentally challenged. And he is as thick as pig shit. He’s an idiot.”
Cox is a “big Elizabeth Warren supporter,” but thinks the upcoming election will be hard. “He was voted in as a reality star. I had a cousin who voted for him. He’s a businessman, but he’s a hopeless liar. He won’t give over his tax returns. I wouldn’t leave him in charge of a stall on the street.”
Brendan Gleeson is set to play Trump on TV, but Cox said he never could. “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t know where to begin. People I play have a point of view and have an extraordinary intellect, even if they are monsters like Hermann Göring,” whom Cox played in the 2000 docudrama Nuremberg, for which he won his Emmy.
“At Nuremberg, Göring told how Nazism had been able to grow; he understood what had produced it. In a way I can understand any of those people but I can’t understand Trump. He’s just repellent. I wouldn’t want to play him. I would find it hard to find any virtue in him whatsoever. The only interesting thing about him is that I think he is an abused child. His brother died of alcoholism. When you look at the family structure, you can see the darkness there, and he operated despite it.”
There is no Trump in Logan Roy, said Cox. “Logan is basically very disappointed with humanity. He doesn’t feel it works, and is up to be abused. And money is what rules him. He’s complicated. We haven’t got to the bottom of him.”
Cox said he didn’t know anything else about Logan that we currently don’t know. At the beginning, he said to McKay and Armstrong that Logan could be Scottish, but found out he was born in Quebec. Then his co-star Peter Friedman called and told him the producers had changed Logan’s birthplace to “somewhere called Dundee. I said, ‘That’s where I’m from. What the fuck’s going on?’”
Cox felt Logan might have trained on the newspapers of the famous D.C. Thomson and Co. media group. “Jesse said, ‘It’s a little surprise.’ I said, ‘You’re telling me it’s a fucking surprise. It’s in Episode 9.’ It has given the role an extra depth and edge for me. Dundee was incredibly deprived when I was growing up. Now it’s this extraordinary place where everyone wants to visit, with a beautiful waterfront and a Victoria and Albert Museum (where Succession filmed a Season Two episode). It also still has a massive heroin problem.” (The city was termed “Europe’s drug-death capital.”)
Logan was born in Dundee, and raised in Canada, like many of his age (six or seven years older than Cox) who emigrated from Scotland when they were children.
Cox was “thrilled” to film in his hometown in Dundee. However, the home we saw where the young man who Kendall killed was actually just outside Glasgow. “I said, ‘The stones are all wrong,’” said Cox, who noted that TV and film producers tend to film on the west of Scotland rather than the east. Danny Huston, who plays Laird, asked if Cox could show the cast where he grew up. “I organized a trip. I took them everywhere. I showed them the tenement where I was born, and told them, ‘It’s a little more rough and ready than you might think.’”
Cox’s birth was “very traumatic” for his mother. “I apparently brought half her womb into the world with me. She nearly died. She was sick for a lot of my early childhood. I was taken care of by my French aunt, my father’s older brother’s wife, until I was 2.”
Cox grew up wanting to be an actor, because of his father. “He was a leader in the community. He had a shop, and gave a lot of credit to customers who were poor. He was too generous.”
The family, as Cox calls them, were “Mick Macs,” Scottish-Irish Catholics, and his father was well-respected in the community. At the new year, the family had parties, “with endless people streaming in and out,” at which everyone would do “a turn.” The young Brian Cox sang on to the family’s coal bunker. His mother would still be making steak pies for visitors at 4 a.m.
“I immediately understood when I was young that entertainers got lots of adulation. I thought, ‘This is an interesting life, being a performer.’ That was really the beginning of my conscious memory.”
Cox’s father died when he was 8. “It’s funny when you lose your dad at that age. He becomes mythic, frozen in time. I have that about my dad. I still have that about my dad. I have photographs in my house of dad. He is one of the reasons I felt very disposed to Johnson. My dad could be his brother, he looks like my dad.”
Cox’s brothers-in-law stepped in to save the shop after his death. “He was a good man, a really sweet man. He had massive debts when he died, and just had 10 pounds in the bank. My mother thought he was too good, too good-natured, and she resented that. She would say to me, ‘Brian, just remember, charity begins at home.”
Up until his father's death, his mother had been fine, “if always a little unhappy. Then she had one big breakdown, which devastated her. My sister Betty looked after me. She is the eldest child, very unsentimental and rather wonderful I think.” His two older sisters were more than 15 years older than him, and were known as princesses. One was called Elizabeth after Bowes-Lyon, then the queen mother—Cox’s mother’s father had served alongside David Bowes-Lyon, the queen mother’s brother.
“To a certain extent,” Cox grew up wanting to escape Dundee. “Wherever your house is, there is the River Tay. I grew up wanting to cross it. What was on the other side? Well, Fife.” Cox laughed. He loved going back to film Succession there; his memories of the city are warm, not vexed. His anger is saved for the “corrupt” city administrations, and their demolition of the oldest parts of the city, including in Wellgate, where his dad’s shop had once stood.
“It was a traumatic childhood,” Cox said of growing up. “But I developed an independent spirit. I learned I was on my own and I would have to deal with it. My mother wasn’t well, bless her.”
He would go on “walkabout” around the city late at night. “My sister was always sending the police to find me. I was in the cinema, the Green’s Playhouse, sleeping till 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Cox’s formal education was “a disaster. I had no parents, and no one to guide me or make decisions on my behalf. I failed my 11-plus. I left school at 15.” He got a job at Dundee Repertory Theatre as an all-round assistant. He had his first voice training a year later, and says he has been “lucky” in his subsequent acting life, which has unfolded over nearly 60 years. He worked early on with directors like Lindsay Anderson and Michael Elliott (father of Marianne Elliott), who told him he should prepare for acting to be “a long game.” He has always played parts older than himself.
“I had success in my first West End appearance when I was 21,” Cox said. “I knew then I still wanted to be acting at this age. That’s what’s astonishing: things have got better. It’s always got better.”
He takes fame “in my stride. I don’t knock it. I go back to the early gratitude of people liking your work. There’s nothing like it. You’re doing it for an audience, and you value your audience. I feel very blessed.”
Cox came to America to make movies after a successful theater career in the U.K. “I came to the point in my theater career where I didn’t want to be one of those actors ending up doing seasons at the National Theatre. That’s not for me, I’m still a worker bee.”
He knew he would go from being a lead actor on stage to a supporting actor in film. “No, that wasn’t odd for me. I remember having a conversation with (British actor) Nigel Hawthorne. I remember him complaining he had just done a film in a supporting role to Sylvester Stallone and how hard it was not to be playing leading roles any more. I reminded him of the time when he was happy to play any part at the Royal Court Theatre (in London), and I also told him I could match his Sylvester Stallone with my supporting role to Steven Seagal.”
Cox originally played Hannibal Lecter in the movie Manhunter (1986, the surname spelled Lecktor), a role which Anthony Hopkins went on to make world-famous. Didn’t that piss him off? “No, the only thing I did miss was the money. When Tony won the Oscar, his paycheck went up.” He chuckled. “I’m a practical Scot at heart. I never resented it. He has an extraordinary theatrical ability, and he is so gifted and is such a renaissance character.”
Cox played a pedophile in L.I.E (2001). “People kept saying, why did I want to play this pederast. I said, ‘Because it’s a great story.’ He was a hugely interesting, conflicted character. It’s the stuff of dramatic art and those kinds of challenges.”
British Oxbridge-schooled directors, he said, liked to keep actors pigeonholed in certain roles, whereas “the old boys, Larry (Laurence Olivier), Ralph (Richardson), and John Gielgud were wonderful people who didn’t want any part of that. They were part of the genesis of theater. They were making it happen and just doing the work and being brilliant. They never fell into any of that bullshit.”
Cox played gay in the BBC adaptation of David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of the Cranes, back in a time when there was nervousness about playing gay on screen. “Do you know whose favorite film that was? One day, I was in a restaurant with (Nightmare on Elm Street director) Wes Craven, a wonderful man who—it might surprise some people—is quite an intellectual. This guy comes over, and says ‘You’re in one of my favorite films, Lost Language of the Cranes.’ And that was Ed Koch.”
Koch, former mayor of New York, was pilloried for not doing enough for men who have sex with men during the height of the AIDS crisis, and was rumored to be closeted himself.
Did Koch say anything else during the exchange, I asked Cox.
“No, but he gave it all away in what he said,” Cox replied, and laughed that Sean Mathias wrote the script for the movie. Mathias was Ian McKellen’s then-partner. At the time, Cox and McKellen were doing a national tour of King Lear and Richard III. One day, on the tour bus, McKellen threw the script of Lost Language of the Cranes at Cox. Cox, who does an excellent McKellen impersonation, said McKellen said, “Sean wants me to give you this. Apparently he’s really interested in you doing it. I don’t know why, but he thinks you’d be absolutely marvelous.”
Cox paused. “The problem is being a straight man, today I would probably not be allowed to play anybody gay any more. What happened to acting, playing something? What happens when you bring something to a role? I find the present climate very constraining in that sense; that you have to be that person. There is no measure of ability in all of that. It’s kind of weird.”
Cox has married twice, and has two children each from both marriages. “It’s the point of life, children,” said Cox. “Like Logan’s children, they can be intensely annoying, but at the end of the day I love and adore them. It’s very important that they are their own personalities. I love my kids and love my wife (actor Nicole Ansari). The most important thing, in any relationship, is that the individuals have the freedom to pursue what they need to pursue. My wife is a truly fantastic actress, and it’s important that she is finally receiving the value and recognition she deserves as an actress.”
He paused. “I’m a hopeless parent to be honest with you. I had no template to be a parent. My father died when I was 8, and so he is mythic forever. I’ve had to learn to be a parent the hard way. I don’t think I am a bad person, but I’m not one of those hands-on parents. I learned my own life as it came. When my children turned 15, 16, I got out of their way, because apart from keeping them safe, which is what I need to do, they have to learn to be their own people.”
Of his older set of children, his daughter went to university, his son to drama school; and the two younger ones want to be actors too. Cox laughed. “Good luck to them, but they also have to realize it ain’t no fucking picnic.”
Aging and mortality is central to Logan and Succession; what is Cox’s awareness of both? “I keep as healthy as I can. I’m 73. I don’t know if most 73-year-olds could finish an epic TV series and then put on a theater show in 3 weeks. Olivier played to his age at 80. I don’t see it like that. I want to play any age. When I played King Lear, I played him in a wheelchair, which, later in the play, I picked up and threw.” Cox roared with laughter. “I adhere to what people think of age, and then pooh-pooh it.”
Cox has heard that Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch watch Succession. Elisabeth Murdoch’s husband Keith Tyson approached Cox in a London café, asking him to “go easy” on the Roys. Elisabeth, Tyson told Cox, found the show “hard to watch.” (Tyson obviously thought Shiv, Logan's daughter, was based on Elisabeth—or that their lives echoed one another.)
“It’s about that strata of society, but there are so many differences. The Roys are an entity in their own right. They’re not the Murdochs. They’re not the Redstones. They’re fictitious, and strong in their own right.”
Cox doesn’t think in terms of Succession delivering a message to Murdoch and his ilk. “I’m not posturing, or a propagandist. I just hope they enjoy it, and have a good time watching it. I know Rupert Murdoch is a very private man. I don’t think we will ever meet, or even if we did, get to the point of discussing Succession. But if it does happen, I will just say, ‘Hello Mr. Murdoch. How are you? It’s very nice to meet you.’” Cox laughed heartily.
Does Cox think Succession has an end-point? “I think Jesse has a plan. Maybe four seasons, maybe five. I don’t think it will go on like Game of Thrones ad infinitum. I think it will come to a natural end.” Cox paused, and let out another laugh. “But then again, it’s very popular!”