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Emmys 2020: 'Succession' star Brian Cox on morality, swearing and Indira Gandhi

Emmy nominee Brian Cox discusses how the 'Succession' actors improvise, Jesse Armstrong's unique sensibility, and whether Logan Roy has a favourite child

Brian Cox plays Logan Roy in 'Succession'
Brian Cox plays Logan Roy in 'Succession'

Succession is the drama series of the year. Created by Jesse Armstrong, the HBO show—streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar—won four Emmy awards at this year's ceremony, including the highly coveted trophy for Outstanding Drama Series. After declaring it the top new show of 2018 and the finest show of 2019, I spoke with Brian Cox, who plays the show’s intimidating patriarch.

Logan Roy is the fearsome head of a media empire, unwilling to step aside because his four children don’t measure up to his expectations. Few could. Cox, a legendary Scottish performer of stage and screen, has played outsized villains before, but there is something insidious about Logan Roy, a profane man profiteering off misinformation, that rings too believable to our current world.

Over a long telephone call, Cox told me about his take on Logan Roy, the way the Succession actors improvise, his experiences with Indira Gandhi, and—perhaps most tellingly—about his favourite on-screen child. Naturally, he swore.

I remain haunted by the way Logan Roy dismissed deaths on his ships as inconsequential, using the colourful phrase ‘No real person involved.’ It must be a lonely world for a man who thinks everyone is beneath him.

That’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure he thinks like that. I think he thinks the human experiment is rather disappointing. That the greed and avarice of people is something he has all too easily exploited, and he is slightly contemptuous of the fact that he has been able to exploit it to such an extent. So he does feel that human beings have not lived up to their potential. So there’s an element in Logan of a disappointed person. It doesn’t have to come to the fore, it’s part of his mystery, but there is that element.

Given that you’ve played so many monumental negative characters over the years—a gallery of rogues from Hannibal Lecter (in 'Manhunter') all the way to, if I may include him, Robert McKee (in 'Adaptation')—where do you think Logan fits in? How far is he from redemption?

Well, nobody’s ever far from redemption. I think his childhood has affected him both in a good way and a negative way. I think he’s certainly been affected. He’s also a self-made man, so he’s inherited nothing. Everything he has, he has created, unlike Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump. He never started with a leg up, therefore he has an equal contempt for those of his own ilk, as he does for those who he thinks are beneath him. And I don’t honestly think he thinks in those terms of what is beneath him. He just sees how people do not function or do function. And his main concern, which is the concern of this show, is the succession of his business. His business is everything for him.

And he’s also a journalist. That’s his trade, that’s what he started as. So, in a way, he has respect for that job, he’s very empathetic to journalism. He started a journalism school in Dundee in his mother’s name. So there are elements in Logan that we don’t always see which are positive, and I think that he is caught on the horns of a very lonely dilemma, and he’s feeling it quite strongly, that these children that he’s fathered, and that he loves — he does love his children, that’s very important — he sees that they are disappointing. (Laughs) To say the least. They don’t live up to the mark. And he also realises its not altogether their fault, but they ought to do something about it. (Laughs)

They need to step up their game.

They do need to step up their game. And, you know, he talks about the killer mentality. And the killer mentality is only, as he uses it and as has been his experience, kill or be killed. And it’s as much about avoiding to be killed as it is about killing.

As an actor, is there a particular facet of Logan’s character you tap into in order to build this performance? What do you create the humanity around?

Well, I think the element that one digs into is the struggle about being alive, and the struggle that he has — which isn’t to the fore, because clearly there are and have been struggles in his life — the biggest struggle for him is to come to terms with his children’s inadequacies, which he is partly responsible for. But also, there’s a part of him that says ‘Get over it. Stop going on about what you didn’t get. All bets are over after the age of 25. Move on.’

I think that’s also to do with the conditions of our lives now, and you see it both in our leaders, Johnson here and Trump, Putin, they are people who have exploited these worse aspects to their own greed, and I think Logan understands that. He understands where it comes from. He doesn’t particularly respect it, but he understands it. And he realises his children have not got that kill or be killed sensibility. Perhaps Kendall does now, at the end of Season 2.

When has Logan been the most disappointed in (his eldest son) Kendall?

He’s not disappointed. He thinks that maybe Kendall has come of age. Kendall has been such a coward, he’s used drugs and everything to kinda deal with his inadequacies, and he’s riddled with these inadequacies, and the bearhug of the first series is the treachery behind his back. Now, Kendall has stepped to the fore and he’s declared himself. So good on you, at least now we know where we stand.

Now he stands as a worthy competitor.

Well, I wouldn’t say he’s a competitor. (Laughs) I won’t go that far.

One of the most curious things I find about the show is the elevation of swearing into such an art form, so well-crafted, so quotable. As a classical Shakespearian actor do you feel even swearwords have a certain metre? Is there a way to deliver curses to make them more emphatic?

The thing is, I’m Scot, and the Celts are great at swearing. We’re the best in the world at swearing. The Irish swear in a way that is very benign, and I won’t go into details of it, but the Scots have a real edge and weariness to their swearing. “Fuck off." They can use swearing in all kinds of capacities, that’s what’s so interesting.

Some of the verbal abuse on the show is so excessively intricate, often even poetic. Is it tricky to deliver them while making them sound off the cuff? You always spit them out as if you live with insults on the tip of your tongue.

Well, I don’t find it difficult, I find it sort of liberating, actually. My daughter just said it’s like going home, swearing, for me. I think she’s witnessed a lot of it over the years. I have been a little free with my swearing vocabulary, so in a way Logan and I are a perfect fit. (Laughs) I think my swearing is much more benign. My roots are Irish, so I kind of swear in a nice way. (Laughs)

Tell me about reading Jesse Armstrong’s scripts. When did the brilliance of the work really impact you?

It wasn’t even reading the script, it was just Jesse’s sensibility. The scripts are very much the end of the process, and we always get the scripts late anyway. It was really a pitch more than a read that was given to me. Jesse and [director] Adam McKay pitched the show and it was the pitch that got me going, and also I knew that Jesse had been part of Armando Iannucci’s team who I have enormous respect and admiration for, and he created The Thick Of It, a wonderful series down here which is (laughs) full of swearing.

Of course. Featuring the most evocative of vulgarians, Malcolm Tucker.

Malcolm Tucker, absolutely! And I realised Jesse is formidable and modest, he’s extraordinarily modest — sometimes too modest — but he’s lovely, he’s a great guy and a great creator and he runs a writing team, a writer’s room with five or six writers, and he harnesses all of them brilliantly.

At first I was a little wary, because I’m an actor who likes to prepare, and of course these scripts would always arrive… they were never too late, but they were always late. At first I was going ‘Oh Christ, I need to know what I’m doing,’ but now I get a frisson out of the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and that makes it much more exciting. So it’s very much in the moment, and that’s what’s so good about Jesse’s writing.

Everyone has great lines. The repartee crackles, and in these elaborate profane exchanges, the interplay feels so alive. Is there any improvisation, or is it scripted to the last f-word?

It really is the script. I describe it like a sandwich. There may be ciabatta bread, there may be sourdough, there may be plain white, and that’s the improvised part, but the meat remains the same, the filling of the sandwich is the same. And that’s how we kind of work the script. We’ll do all kinds of things to get into the script, but the script remains sacrosanct and, of course, it is a great script.

And they’ll do this thing where they give you alternate lines. Like Kieran Culkin, who plays [Logan’s youngest son] Roman, had never improvised in his life before this show. Never. And he turns out to be a bit of a genius at it. He was very nervous about doing it and he didn’t like doing it, but now… Because the writers come from the comedy world, that affects how they write and therefore you get alternative lines. So there’ll be a scene and they’ll say try that, throw that in.

So what I do is I say tell me on the day. I don’t want what Kieran’s got, which is sometimes five pages of alternate lines. And I’ll just say tell me an alternate line and I’ll do it, and I find that’s much more effective. Sometimes some of these most memorable lines I usually get seconds before the take. Throw that line in. Some of the ruder lines which I shouldn’t go into now..

Oh, but you must. I insist.

(Laughs) The chicken scene, you know the chicken scene? When [Logan’s son-in-law] Tom comes and eats my chicken? And I have the line “What’s he going to do next, stick his cock in my potato salad?" Well, that was given to me on the moment. They just gave me that line and I said it. (Laughs) So I didn’t have to live with that line any longer than it took me to say it.

Does Logan have a favourite child? And does that inform your dynamic with the characters as you manipulate them?

Well, of course he’s got one. You know, like all fathers… It’s ironic because I have three sons, I have a son from a different marriage, and I’ve got a daughter, and one always has a stronger bond with your female child. I don’t know why, but you do.

I’m choosing to take that as a possible spoiler for the next season. And while (Logan’s daughter) Siobhan may be his favourite, he seems the most disappointed in her.

Yeah, he’s ultimately disappointed because she’s too impetuous, and her character is not quite formed enough. He finds her impetuosity — especially her behaviour at the Pierce dinner (season 2, episode 5) — as really unacceptable, and I think it’s a source of great disappointment to him that she hasn’t worked out as a possible successor.

The person who’s coming from outfield, as we saw in the last episode of the second series, is Roman, who is now emerging a little more considerable than he has been hitherto. That’s why it’s a shifting thing. Because fathers and daughters have got a very close bond, and they have that closeness together, but at the same time he’s not totally enamoured of her husband, and of a lot of her choices which he’s found really difficult. And of course clearly she’s damaged in some way. She’s not as mature as we think she is.

At a time when popular culture is so often accused of glamourising the bad white guys, how do you feel 'Succession' has completely avoided this trap? Especially considering how quotable the lines are and how fans have favourite characters, like Logan and Roman. How is the show managing not to glamourise these characters in any way?

It’s very interesting this whole idea of glamourising villains, because I don’t see them as villains. They’re human beings but they’re flawed, and they behave in a villanous manner. They’re just pretty awful human beings getting on with their pretty awful lives (laughs). I don’t see it as glamourising because it’s much more… surgical than that. It’s a look at what is the root of their cancer, and we haven’t got there yet. We’re still in the process of analysis, and doing like a forensic understanding. It’s the autopsy of their lives that we’re seeing.

Is it then fair to consider 'Succession' a morality tale, as a caution against this excess?

Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely! You’ve got it right. That’s what I’ve always felt, that it is a modern, Chaucer-ian morality tale, a morality tale of our times. That is principally what it is.

None of these characters jostling for power seem happy with any power that they manage to get their hands on.

They’re not happy with it because human beings… I think that the human experiment is a little disappointing. All we have to do is look around us. Look at what we have in terms of our leaders. Look at how your country has become so nationalistic in terms of its Hinduism, which it never was. Hinduism was always very embracing.

I was very lucky, when I was a young actor, I spent some time with Indira Gandhi. She was an extraordinary person, who had the most impossible job, with one son who was crazy, and another son who was rather a good fellow but, tragically, was assassinated. And she herself was, of course, assassinated. There was a great secular thing about India at the heart of it. There was respect for religion and faith, but it wasn’t a huge operating force. And we see that now, we see how Putin behaves, we see how Erdogan behaves in Turkey, we see how Trump behaves, we see how Johnson behaves, and there is such a polarisation very much to the right going on in the world, and that is what our show really reflects.

You’ve twice mentioned disappointment with the human experiment. Do you see yourself losing hope with the world as it is now poised, or do you feel this current toxicity is a phase and we’ll fight out of it?

Oh, I think it’s part of our evolution. I think we’re an evolving species, and we’ve got to got through a lot of shit first. I’m really now more or less an atheist, but I do believe in human beings and I do believe they’re trying to aspire to something, but constantly they’re being knocked back. It’s not just attacking a particular group of people, whether they be Jews, Hindus or Muslims, it’s actually about us as human beings, it’s an attack on who we are. And I feel we’re still in the process of sorting that out. And as you rightly say, and one doesn’t want to get to deep into it, but our show is a morality tale. It very much represents the mores of our time.

When playing a character who is often brutal in his dealings with people, does that in any way affect your life off-screen? Do you perhaps find yourself more mindful and affectionate in order to compensate for the character, in order to not be anything like Logan Roy?

Well, my problem is I can’t keep my mouth shut. (Laughs) So I sometimes, in good humour, will say something and it’ll get quoted and come back to me. An example is that I received a CBE (Commander Of The British Empire, a British order of chivalry) many, many years ago. And now there’s a thing going around in the press that I think my CBE was nonsense. Well, I never said that. I was a bit glib about it, but I have respect for it and I honour what it meant at the time.

It also is equally true that I don’t want a knighthood, I will not accept a knighthood because I don’t believe in that anymore, but at the same time, there was a time in my life when it validated, not just for me, but for my family, for my sisters, something which was quite important to them. So in a way I accepted the CBE on behalf of my family. And of course being the mouth I am, I’m always putting my foot in my mouth and that’s one of my problems.

Well, that certainly isn’t a problem for someone interviewing you.

I know, I know, it’s all just copy for you guys. (Laughs)

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