Logan Roy looks up from his desk at his youngest son. “What are you waiting for? A kiss?” Logan says to the 30-something-year-old, his disdain for his offspring ever so evident in his dismissive eyes and furrowed brow. “Fuck off.”
Such are the family values for “Succession,” a show that should make just about anyone feel better about even their worst Thanksgiving dinner. The Roy family wars openly, regularly and enthusiastically with one another. Brothers battle with brothers, the daughter fights with her stepmother, and the father who runs everything takes aim at virtually everyone. This is a remarkably flawed collection of the über rich, relatives who stab one another in the back, front and sides as each tries to become the next commander of the fabulously valuable entertainment business still ruled stubbornly, absolutely and unmercifully by Logan Roy.
Logan is played by Brian Cox, who earned his chops acting alongside such stage titans as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. He’s been acting professionally for 60 years, with a résumé that stretches longer than the Roy family’s list of grievances. Cox has played Sir Winston Churchill, he was Hannibal the Cannibal before Anthony Hopkins, he menaced Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movies and Hugh Jackman in X-Men films, and came to the rescue of the orphaned William Wallace in Braveheart. He has also shown his comedic chops as the beleaguered headmaster in Rushmore and the confused head cop dealing with a group of lovable idiots in Super Troopers. His multi-season run with “Succession,” which returned to HBO on October 17, has earned him a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination.
Thankfully, Cox is no Logan Roy. Sitting in a rented home in Las Vegas, on a break from shooting a film, he doesn’t look much like his character. First, there’s the big pair of black glasses with rounded frames, the casual black T-shirt in place of Roy’s suits and ties, and most of all the complete absence of malice. The 75-year-old shows his familiar facial battle lines from his decades of life, but his brow is unfurrowed, and the edges of his mouth—framed by his distinctive goatee—are curled upwards rather than pointed down. His hair, typically perfectly combed and short for the show, is longer, a bit unkempt, partially hidden beneath a baseball cap. Unlike the curt, grumpy and dismissive Roy, Cox is warm and friendly, a laid-back man with a frequent and infectious laugh. But he’s a bit concerned that playing this lauded character might be rubbing off on him in a bad way.
“I kind of worry about him, because he and I are sort of melding as I get older,” says Cox, his light Scottish accent inflecting his words. “My language has got really bad. I swear more than I swore before, and I’m getting to be less tolerant. That can be age, but my tolerance is very low now. I walk on a set and I kind of plant my flag. And I never used to behave like that,” he says with a laugh, between sips of his Starbucks coffee. “It’s not a good influence.”
The Roys gleefully throw each other under the bus when they smell blood in the water. The show opens with Logan, the family patriarch and boss of Waystar Royco, turning 80 and showing signs of decline. His middle son Kendall (played by Jeremy Strong), is prepared to become the heir apparent as his father is set to retire. But Logan throws quite the curveball at his birthday lunch, naming his third wife as the heir to his fortune. He then tells his youngest son Roman (played by Kieran Culkin) and daughter Siobhan (Sarah Snook) that he wants them more involved in the company. Then he has a stroke. The chess board is flipped and the Roys—always the polar opposites of such close-knit TV families as the Waltons or the Ingalls—are fighting for their pieces of the pie. Allegiances are forged and broken.
The show has been a darling of critics since its 2018 debut, winning Golden Globes, American Film Institute Awards, Directors Guild of America Awards and two Emmies in 2020, including the Emmy for Best Television Drama. When Cox won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in 2020 for his work on the series, he praised the cast and crew in his speech, calling them “the most extraordinary bunch of people ever.”
The praise comes from both sides. “Brian as Logan Roy: he so completely embodies the role it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Logan, isn’t it?” says Mark Mylod, an executive producer of the show and the director of many episodes. “Brian’s vast experience gave him the technique to find the character but it’s his sheer screen presence that takes Logan to another level and anchors ‘Succession.’ ”
The show is a comedic drama, and the viewer tends to smile when the Roys go to battle mode. “Time for a blood sacrifice,” Logan tells his daughter (ironically nicknamed Shiv) in one episode, as members of his family are set to appear in Senate committee hearings. Someone has to pay, but who will it be? “In the writers’ room we always call it a balloon debate,” said show creator Jesse Armstrong. “You’re in a hot air balloon, and it’s sinking. Who do you throw out to let everyone else live?” Logan is ready to hurl bodies from the basket. At one point, being driven in a car, he lists the names of his family and company advisers on loose leaf paper, in two columns, planning out which of them to feed to the wolves. Five names on the left column are starred, and outlined in a box. “What do you think?” he says, showing the list to another adviser, who suggests sweetening the pot with one more name—the man’s direct boss. Logan seems to almost admire the move, one drawn from his own winning playbook. “You’re a nasty bastard aren’t you?” he says.
Kendall is often attacked by his brother Roman, who is as close to a pure id character as one can find, a person who hurls insults and lashes out without any remorse at all. “What I think [dad] meant to say is that he wishes that mom had given birth to a can opener,” he says at one point to Kendall, “because at least then it would be useful.”
Logan’s kids don’t get much in the way of love from the old man. But they don’t make it easy on him either. Connor is his eldest, a wayward dreamer played artfully by Alan Ruck, who burns through immense amounts of cash running for the presidency in a hopeless campaign. At one point, he talks to his father for some money. But in the world of the Roys, no one asks for a few grand. “Look pop, I’m actually hurting here,” he says. “I’m not super liquid. So I’m just wondering if I can hit you for like a little, hundred mil.”
Logan often stands with his mouth agape, as if his body is refusing to believe what he’s hearing from his offspring. He doesn’t blink at the notion of giving away $100 million but he will only do so if his son quits the presidential campaign. When the son complains, Logan screams in his face. “It’s a horseshit pipe dream! Everybody thinks you’re a joke. And you’re fucking embarrassing.” Then he walks away.
At the end of season two, Kendall is served up by his father on a platter to take the blame for a company screwup, and is sent off to make a live press conference. Logan watches on television from his yacht, but Kendall goes off script. “The truth is, that my father is a malignant presence, a bully and a liar, and he was fully, personally aware of these events for many years, and made efforts to lie and cover up,” says Kendall. “This is the day his reign ends.” The show ends on that cliffhanger, the final shot one of Logan Roy watching the television, perhaps the faintest hint of an admiring smile just touching the corners of his mouth.
Cox actually sides with his curmudgeon character at times, a man he describes as a misanthrope. “We have this shared thing of disappointment in the human experience,” he says. “What he’s seeing on such a constant level with these screwed up kids. You know, it’s not altogether his fault. The degree of selfishness—and how the selfishness is amped up—it’s like giving Logan the Chinese water torture on a minute-by-minute basis.”
Cox laughs a bit at the thought of a man who has virtually everything money can buy, save for a soul and some decent children. “I think he is the kind of ballast of the show. He really is. And that’s what’s good,” he says. The Logan character also is prone to leaving the scene of one of his crimes, dropping thunderous decisions that can end careers—and then walking away to let the survivors debate what he’s going to do next. “I like the fact he’s used sparingly,” says Cox.
Logan Roy was actually destined to not be long for this world. “Originally he was supposed to die at the end of the first season,” says Cox. But it’s hard to imagine “Succession” without Cox stirring the pot. The creators quickly changed their minds.
The characters in “Succession” enjoy all the trappings of one percenters, being driven in fleets of black Mercedes and Suburbans, and flown in helicopters and private jets. They entertain on private yachts the size of cruise ships and make deals worth ridiculous sums of money. Cox grew up in quite a different world. “I’m an Irish Scot,” he says, from “an Irish family growing up on the east coast of Scotland in an Irish ghetto.” He was born on June 1, 1946, in Dundee, Scotland, in the days immediately following World War II. Despite the United Kingdom being one of the victorious Allied nations, the country was saddled with immense debt, and life was difficult. “I remember ration books.
We had a ration book for sweets. That came to an end when I was about seven or eight,” he says. He is the youngest of five, with a 17-year-gap between him and his oldest sister. “All the kids before the war, and me who was an afterthought after the war,” he says. He grew up in a two-bedroom apartment; one for his parents, the other for his three sisters. “My brother and I slept in the kitchen alcove,” he says. There was a coal bunker in the window access, which became a stage of sorts for Cox when visitors came.
“I was put on this little bunker and that was my first kind of stage. I sang,” he says. “I remember the sensation of the room, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I like this. This is good.’ And it never left me,” he says. “It’s to do with getting attention. I always wanted to be in the limelight.”
Cox was happy, until the age of eight. That’s when his father, who owned a small grocery shop, died of pancreatic cancer. “He died within three weeks of his diagnosis. He was only 51.” His grieving mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and Cox would spend time with his eldest sister, who was married and living in a small home. “I remember the sort of climate of always being dank, and quite rainy.”
With his father gone, and his mother troubled, Cox spent more time on his own, and he originally thought he was a failure, because he had no acumen for the industrial arts his friends excelled in. “My education was pretty disastrous. I was technically totally inept. All the kids used to make boats in the carpentry class; my boats were sort of half iceberg half boat,” he chuckles. “I knew I was screwed. I thought what the hell am I going to do?”
Salvation came in the theater, taking him back to those early accolades when he was a boy singing on a coal bunker for his parents and their friends. When he was 15, he got his first paying gig in acting, and he felt immediately at home. “Theater is great, because it’s so inclusive. It’s a great egalitarian space. That’s its power for me. When you meet fellow actors you always start from the same basis point.”
The role of King Lear is one Cox was known for, and as a younger man he even had a role in the play with Laurence Olivier. “He saved my life actually,” says Cox of Olivier, perhaps the world’s most revered actor. Cox, not long out of drama school, was working in his native Scotland, and he had an audition with Olivier scheduled for a Monday in London’s National Theater. “I had my bag packed. I was in Edinburgh. I was going down for the weekend.” But the stage doorman handed Cox a note saying the audition had been cancelled because Sir Laurence couldn’t make the meeting. Cox went to a local pub to debate whether to make the trip to London anyway. “In those days you used to get these flights from Edinburgh, late-night flights, standby, and they only cost one pound 50, it was ridiculous.” He changed his mind and stayed home instead. When he woke, he saw the newspaper, and the breaking news printed in red. The flight he was going to take crashed, killing everyone on board. “I would have been on it,” he says. “I was shaken by it.” That led to an understandable fear of flying for several years, a fear he fought with drink. “Oh I had a real fear of planes. When I first came to America, I first came in ’76. I had to get on a plane then. I sort of got very, very drunk and got on the plane. I had done it once before, I had filmed in Spain and I got absolutely plastered. It was not a consistent thing with me.” He later got over his fear.
His first film was in 1971, playing the revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the historical drama Nicholas and Alexandra, but he has fallen into a comfort zone playing villains, among them the cannibal Hannibal Lecter (in the 1986 movie Manhunter, where the name was spelled Lecktor) and Hermann Göring in the 2000 television miniseries Nuremberg. He won an Emmy for that role, where he’s chilling as the unrepentant Nazi war criminal.
“You have to discover their humanities,” says Cox of playing bad guys. “Everybody starts out as a human being. They become monstrous. They become jokes.”
One of his favorite performances is that of a hero. He played Sir Winston Churchill in the 2017 film Churchill. “He’s an extraordinary character,” says Cox. “The mistakes he made, the tragedy of the mistakes, which we often forget about. Ultimately he was for the Normandy invasion [of D-Day], but there was a great question because he made that great screwup with Gallipoli [in the first World War] and he was desperately afraid of doing it again.” Churchill was a polarizing figure in Cox’s hometown, as he was the Member of Parliament for Dundee from 1908 to 1922 (long before Cox was born), representing the city in the government. “He was very popular,” says Cox, “then the Irish population turned on him.” But Churchill won over even that tough lot with his unquestionable performance in World War II. “He played the war brilliantly. He really did. Even my uncle Jordy, who poured a bucket of water on him at a meeting in Dundee said, ‘Oh my God he was a great war leader.’ They respected him for what he did.”
Playing Churchill meant smoking cigars on screen, but unlike Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Cox puffed on a variety of electronic cigars to play the prime minister. “Basically it’s not encouraged to be smoking on set anyway. They really encourage you to do as much artifice as you can.” Cox somewhat enjoyed the fake stogies. “It’s very funny—it’s a bit like a placebo.”
He took up smoking when he was 50. “I smoked cigars on occasion, which I did enjoy,” he says. He still has a box of Cubans, but he avoids smoking them now to protect his voice.
That voice has been busy: in addition to his work on “Succession,” Cox has two movies in the works. He’s wrapping up Prisoner’s Daughter, the film that brought him to Vegas, as well as a movie he recently wrapped where he plays an Iraqi War veteran suffering PSD. He’s done some directing, but he’d rather be in front of the camera. “It’s very difficult to be a director, ’cause I’m not a big fan of directors. I leave the actors alone and let them get on with it.” And he yearns to do more comedy. “Something that is life enhancing instead of the opposite. That appeals to my optimistic side. The end is nearer than the beginning, so you’re starting to think about things that sustain you.”
The work certainly seems to sustain Cox. “At the end of each season we’ll chat about what’s next and I’ll be waffling on about going hiking,” says director Mylod. “Brian, meanwhile, will have three films, a Broadway play and memoir lined up.” Cox is so busy that he jokes that he has never been in his Brooklyn home, which he bought in 2011. “I’ve never even visited it because I’ve been so bloody busy,” he says. So what is the perfect day in the life of Brian Cox?
“Doing nothing,” he says without hesitation. “Watching a movie, watching a film, eating something, not too much. But just doing nothing. When you do so much it’s just wonderful to do nothing,” he says with a laugh. “I luxuriate in nothingness.”