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Brian Cox: ‘We have a gladiatorial urge…We like to see people beat the shit out of one another’

The Scottish actor plays the patriarch of the billionaire family in the HBO hit ‘Succession.’ ‘Logan Roy has become an icon,’ he says

Brian Cox in London in February.
Natalia Marcos

On Thursday, 76-year-old actor Brian Cox wore jeans, a denim jacket and comfortable beach shoes to greet the journalists who went to interview him at a luxurious hotel in Madrid, Spain. Both in spirit and appearance, he’s very different from his character Logan Roy, the multimillionaire media tycoon and paterfamilias of the ill-fated family in Succession. Another difference between Brian Cox and Logan Roy: Cox drops only two f-bombs in the interview and not a single “fuck off.” The fourth and final season of screenwriter Jesse Armstrong’s brainchild just premiered on HBO; Succession will end its run as the successful heir to all the formidable series that preceded it on the prestigious cable channel.

Question. After such a long career, what has the role of Logan Roy meant to you?

Answer. It has been a great experience, and it’s been a great gift. It’s gone beyond me. Logan has become this icon. There’s an element of that which is a little uncomfortable…I don’t scare people, Logan scares people…and actually, that has a plus side when I think, “keep your fucking distance.” So, I don’t have to do that... And the other thing that I slightly miss is my own anonymity. I was known for something, and people would be like, “oh yeah, you’re the one who was in...” So, I like that, but now that’s gone away, and Logan is such an omnipresent individual. One had no idea that [Succession] was going to be this successful. I mean, I thought it was damn good, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved the show, and it’s a great piece of writing, but I didn’t know that the audience was going to go as crazy as it’s gone. And they really have gone crazy. It’s just, wherever one goes, there’s an extraordinary reaction from people… [For example,] this guy, this older man came into the hotel and said, “You look like that guy, that Logan Roy character.” And I said, “I am Logan.” He said, “my god!” And then he said, “You’re so appealing.” I’ve never been described as appealing.

Q. Why do you think that the series has been so successful? What has drawn us to the characters?

A. I think we’re hooked to see that kind of avarice so naked. Those children, you can’t believe they’re as fucked up as they are… We have a gladiatorial urge in us as an audience. We like to see people beat [the] shit out of one another, you know, whether it’s with swords in the gladiator ring or on TV and families disrupting and exploding in front of our very eyes. We love it. We find it reassuring. It shows where we are in our state of evolution. We’re not evolved at all. We’re rather backward. I’m not knocking it because people watch it… but the reason is because they love to see horrible things.

Q. Do you consider Succession to be a drama or a comedy?

A. I would say it’s much more of a satire. It has comedic elements, but it’s also quite political. And it does look at these people and throws up a series of questions. And that’s the gift of the writers.

Brian Cox and Matthew Macfayden in the first episode of the fourth season of Succession
Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen in the first episode of the fourth season of 'Succession'.

Q. Succession is a reflection on wealth and people’s relationship with power and money. What’s your moral reading of the characters’ behavior?

A. The moral reading is very obvious. It’s that people in that position become so disconnected from any form of down-to-earth reality. Logan is a careerist, he’s only concerned about his business. His business has moved in a certain direction and he’s successful because of that direction, so he goes with it. I like to think that when he was a younger man he had certain ideals and then rapidly, over time, those became eroded. And he created this family. And, of course, he remembers them as children; he loves his kids, but now they’ve become these monsters that he’s partly, but not wholly, responsible for. I think the audience sort of blames him too much… We do this thing of blaming [our] parents for who we are, and I think that there’s a legitimate side to that, but there also comes a point when all bets are off. After the age of 21, you’re responsible for yourself, you can’t keep blaming it on your mom and your dad, you have to own who you are, and I don’t think we do that. I think human beings avoid owning who they are. I mean, what they’ll do is go to any belief system, whether it’s Judaic or Islamic or Catholic, they’ll go to that to tell them who they are and, oh, yes, if I’m a good boy, I’ll go to heaven, and all that, and it’s all bullshit, really, when you think about it.

Q. Are extremely wealthy people very different from the rest of us?

A. They are, because they live in a bubble, a bubble of their own creation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t damn them all. When people use wealth for good intentions, then that’s fine. Philanthropy is great, and we all depend on philanthropy. Good god, my profession depends on that, it depends on the kindness of strangers to help us along. So, it’s not all that way. But there’s this element where it distances you from a kind of reality. You know, I am a glutton for punishment; I have to be reminded of exactly who I am. I can’t throw that off… I never thought of myself as working class. When I was a kid and my dad had a shop, we did quite well. We lived in a very small environment, we were very tight, and we were sort of low-middle class, rather than working class. And then we became poverty class because we lost everything. And you adjust accordingly.

Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy in Succession, in a promo picture, February, 2023
Actor Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy in Succession, in a February 2023 photograph.Colin Hutton

Q. Since you come from that background and you consider yourself a socialist, is it hard not to judge people who are so far removed from your experience?

A. No, I mean, I think that actors don’t judge the characters. They present their characters, warts and all, and it’s up to the audience to judge. And sometimes the audience judges right; a lot of the time the audience gets it wrong. And there’s a lot of projection going on; audiences project things… It’s a thing that we do…and it also has to do with the state of our evolution. We’re not quite evolved…

Q. Yesterday you visited the Prado Museum, and you said that people associate your character with Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son.

A. Yeah, that was an unfortunate thing to say, because I kind of reinforced that myth. And it is a myth. He doesn’t eat his children. But people have actually [mentioned] Saturn Eating His Children and there I [was]…

Q. Do you draw on other references to play Logan Roy?

A. No. Well, I mean, it’s around you daily. I mean, you see people who are in that state, you hear stories about them... But it’s also your own take, it’s what you create, and you don’t always need referents for that creation. When you’re young, there’s a lot of research, but I go back to children… Children have that [instinctual] thing. We have an instinct, and we forget about it. We tend to think we have to crowd it with books, and we have to know.... Children don’t do that, they’re there, they’re present..

Q. You have questioned some of your co-stars’ acting methods in the series [specifically Jeremy Strong, who stays in character even when he is not shooting]. What is your opinion of the other actors in Succession?

A. We have a fantastic cast, really fantastic. Every single one of them is a great actor and they’ve got better over time. Sarah Snook is phenomenal. I never watch the show... My wife watches it and she’ll tell me about it. But I did actually see the scene the other night with Matthew [Macfadyen] and Sarah [Snook] in the bedroom, and I thought Sarah played it beautifully. And Matthew. I just love the actors; I love what they do. They’re so great and they’ve been great from the word go.

Q. Why did Jesse Armstrong decide to end the series after four seasons?

A. Because too many shows go past their sell-by date. He doesn’t believe in infinite television; he believes in finite television. And there’s a finite element. And if you think about it, it’s four [seasons], three children, three [seasons], the father, the fourth [season]. It’s the perfect unit. I think it was hard for him, I think it was in many ways painful, but he did it. And also he lives in England, but he’s had to spend a lot of time in America, and that’s tiring. I live in Brooklyn, I went there for many reasons, because I wanted to make movies. I lived in Hollywood for a while; I don’t anymore. But I can see that after a while, it’s wearing for your family, and also work; he’s been working on this show since, I think 2014, so it’s nine years, and he wants to go into something else, and I think that’s very important.

Q. Without giving anything away, what did you think about how the series ended?

A. I think it’s good, yeah, I think it’s the right thing. It’s very peaceful. Logan comes to a point of peace, which is quite good.

Q. What about you? Have you thought about retiring?

A. Me? Retire?!? Bollocks! No, no, I will never retire. I mean, I’ve overcrowded myself this year, but no, I don’t want to retire. I mean, I’ll be forced to retire when I can’t remember, when Alzheimer’s kicks in and I don’t know where the hell I am. Then I’ll probably have to retire, but it’s not my intention to retire.

Matthew Macfayden and Sarah Snook in the first episode of the fourth season of Succession
Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in the first episode of the fourth season of 'Succesion'.

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