It was around Golden Globes time when veteran film and theatre actor Brian Cox was taken by his friend, the actress Rosanna Arquette, to a reading by Ronan Farrow.
“I arrived late, and I was standing at the back, just watching,” Cox tells Broadsheet over Zoom. “It was very intense; all these Hollywood women were nodding. He was very good, Ronan. He read some passages from his book, all very interesting stuff. Then it finished and all these women turned around and saw me standing at the back. They immediately came up and said, ‘Would you tell us to fuck off?’ I stood there thinking, ‘This a #MeToo meeting. And you’re asking a white, elderly, male dinosaur to tell you to fuck off?’ Something just doesn’t quite compute here.”
For the uninitiated, Cox plays cantankerous media mogul Logan Roy in the HBO series Succession. As the patriarch of the dysfunctional Roy dynasty, Cox huffs his way from his Fifth Avenue apartment into chauffeured cars and private jets (or “PJs” as the family affectionately calls them), trying to work out which of his odious offspring will become his successor. In one scene, arriving at the family’s Hamptons estate, he spits out such invective as “It smells like the cheesemonger died and left his dick in the Brie”. His catchphrase, though, is a “fuck off” so scathingly and frequently emitted that the actor is regularly stopped on the street by people asking him to tell them to do so. He’s even appeared in public wearing a face mask with the words written across his mouth.
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“Human beings are so stupid,” he says, with a smile. “It really is the height of human idiocy to go up to another person and ask them to tell you to fuck off. And yet they ask me to do it all the time. So I tell them, ‘Fuck off!’ And of course they are delighted.”
Cox is coming to Australia in September to talk about his memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, which was published in 2021 by Hachette. The book is tangential; Cox wrote much of it by dictating, and says he wanted it to feel like he was having a conversation with his readers. It traces his journey from early childhood in working-class Scotland, through his prolific acting career, which began when he joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre at the age of 15, and includes extensive work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and many film and television roles.
As an actor he is well known for his portrayal of power-hungry characters that embody evil and commit acts of cruelty. His performance in the titular role of Titus Andronicus with the Royal Shakespeare Company was so shocking that several people had to be carried out to a waiting ambulance. Before Anthony Hopkins made Hannibal Lecter a household name, Cox played the serial killer in the 1986 thriller Manhunter – a film worth seeing if you can get past the synth-drenched score.
But he says that the motivating factor for writing his memoir was to talk about his background, and to put the story of his childhood into perspective.
“I was a free agent and left to fend for myself from far too young,” he says. He was eight when his father died, and his mother, besieged by mental health issues, was in and out of hospitals by the time he was 10. “I never felt the pain of it – which clearly there must have been. I just felt I had to adjust accordingly in order to survive.”
He describes the process of writing the book as “releasing”. And he certainly doesn’t hold back. In addition to detailing his childhood, he is candid about his unfaithfulness as a husband and his failings as a father. No one is safe: Johnny Depp is “overrated”, Edward Norton a “pain in the arse”. Steven Seagal is a running joke. He describes a post-performance interlude during which Princess Margaret “felt him up”, sliding a royal hand inside his shirt and tracking it towards his left nipple. In an age where most watch their tongues, Cox, like a certain character he plays, doesn’t give a fuck.
Both Cox and his television alter ego were born in Dundee, Scotland. And like Cox, the character of Roy endured childhood poverty and hardship. The actor writes, “It can be almost distressingly easy to put on my Logan Roy skin”. So how much of Cox is present in his character?
“Logan and I are both disappointed in the human experiment,” he says. “That’s where Logan and I join. But I am not as nihilistically disillusioned in the way that Logan is. I’m an optimist and I have a vision of where we are as human beings. Logan is a misanthrope. He’s a pessimist and he’s contemptuous. I’m critical, and I will make remarks, but I’m not contemptuous.”
Regarding the similarities between the Roys and the Murdochs, on whom the characters are loosely based, Cox tells me, “I hear that they watch it and they enjoy it. They say it’s based on the Murdoch family but … They are very different. They [the Roys] are probably worse, actually. Certainly the kids are.”
When I ask if he, as Roy, has a favourite child, he breaks into a smile that carries a hint of the paternal.
“It used to be Siobhan,” he says, referring to the only daughter of the Roy clan, played by Australian theatre actor Sarah Snook. “But then she became an idiot and couldn’t stop talking. I don’t know where her head is at – well and truly up her arse!
“And then I thought it was Roman [the youngest Roy, played by Kieran Culkin]. I see Roman as really very sweet. But he’s so potty-mouthed, he shoots himself in the foot all the time … So I’m not really particularly fond of any of them.”
And which is the most worthy of being his successor?
“I mean, I love them,” he says. “But I don't think any of them are president of Waystar Royco material at the moment. I’m dying for one of them to be. But they’ve all proven to be incredibly disappointing.”
Brian Cox will appear in person at Antidote at Sydney Opera House on Sunday September 11 and at the Melbourne Writers Festival on September 9 & 10.