Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Succession's Brian Cox on playing Logan Roy: "Hitler was a human being, Mussolini was a human being. Donald Trump, apparently, is a human being."

In a long and varied career, Brian Cox has specialised in flawed, powerful men. He’s been King Lear, Hermann Goring, Hannibal Lecter. He’s currently playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway. As Logan Roy, the patriarch of Jesse Armstrong’s brilliant satire of the uber-rich, Succession, Cox has arrived at the perfect role. Roy is a media mogul, in the vein of Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone (patriarch of CBS and Viacom), planning to gift his empire to his less capable children.
There’s a lot of Lear, a touch of Ibsen. But Succession is also viciously contemporary. It’s a forensic examination of the one per cent of the one per cent; Citizen Kane with private planes. “Kane suffers from the same thing [as Logan],” suggests Cox, “lack of parental guidance. Family is both destructive and constructive. It can be a force for good, it can be a force for the opposite. Lear has the same thing. At the end of his life he wants to be loved, and he thinks if he gives everything away he will get that love. Logan’s more complicated. He can’t and won’t admit that he wants love.”
For Cox, the initial appeal of Succession was the chance to work with Armstrong (whose credits include The Thick of It and Peep Show) and Adam McKay (Anchorman and The Big Short).
“It’s a great role,” Cox says. “It’s classical. It’s a morality tale and it addresses issues of our time, issues of entitlement, kids who are spoilt, who have no sense of the real world.”
Initial reactions to Succession were muted, perhaps because it lacks an obviously sympathetic character. To call it a comedy is misleading, because the humour is as black as it is unforgiving. The Roy offspring are revolting, nakedly ambitious, motivated only by self-interest.
 “The one thing you don’t do in my job is judge,” says Cox. “You’re always looking for the humanity, because they are human beings. They may be horrible. But Hitler was a human being, Mussolini was a human being. Donald Trump, apparently, is a human being.”
 The character of Logan has evolved. When Cox took the role, it was a one-season deal, with Roy dying at the end. Instead, he suffered a stroke in the pilot episode, prompting the venal power struggle among his children which continues as he recovers. Cox was also pleased to discover that Logan is an ex-pat Scot, hailing from his hometown, Dundee, though he played much of the first series believing the character to be Quebecois. Cox rationalised this by suggesting that the young Logan was one of the many orphaned children who were resettled in Canada at the beginning of the war.
“But of course, then we did this episode,” he says, referring to episode 8 of the second season, where the Roy clan travels to Logan’s birthplace for an awkward celebration of his life. “I’m so proud to have an episode called Dundee, except I was annoyed about one thing. We shot my home, so I was suggesting Broughtyferry, which I thought would be interesting. So in a typical Scottish locations mafia way, we filmed that in Glasgow. I said, ‘The stone is wrong! This would never be Dundee in a million years.’ But they didn’t know any better because half of them were American and half of them were English. They had no clue. But the rest of the stuff was in Dundee with the V&A. Of course, that’s a new Dundee, not an old Dundee. And we filmed down at the bandstand at Magdalen Green, all of that.
“Danny Huston said to me: ‘It’s all very well filming Logan’s background, but what about you? Where did you come from?’ So I took him to Brown Constable Street where I was born, I took him to the church where I was baptised, I took him to the school that I first went to. It was my kind of memory lane thing - it was quite bizarre, it was weird.”
 Otherwise, says Cox, the similarities between him and Logan are few. “The one thing he and I have in common is that we are both fatherless. My dad died when I was eight, so I know what it’s like to grow up without parents. Logan’s mother died and his father obviously faded away. Growing up without a parent leaves you so adrift. You have to develop a moral compass. I have strong memories of my father, and he’s still a strong influence on my life, but he’s mythic.
“I’ve always had that problem myself as a father. I have four kids but I sometimes find them very difficult to relate to. I don’t know what it was like to have a father. I have no idea. So I’m empathetic to the central dilemma of Logan’s life. He has no empathy, he just loves his children, and of course he’s given them everything, which has not helped. He’s pulling everything back in order to keep his empire going, and he feels that they’re not ready to do certain things. Like Shiv (Sarah Snook) is far too impetuous and Kendall (Jeremy Strong)’s so chemically affected in his thinking. It’s a very interesting dilemma about parenting. Who do we get our influences from?
“That’s the mystery. That’s the tragedy of Succession. They’re lost, these people, but they can do a lot of damage in the meantime to the rest of the world. You can see that in Donald Trump. Clearly an abused child, by that father of his. One of his brothers ended up an alcoholic and died a pretty horrible death. And Donald Trump is constantly affirming himself because nobody else will affirm him. The other clown is Johnson, the prime minister of the so-called United Kingdom… the divided Kingdom.”
Trump, of course, is proud of his Scottish roots. “Oh please, that’s such a blight on the horizon. He’s more fake German than anything else. I love my country - a country that greets Donald Trump with a sign that says ‘Go home, cunt’ and a mariachi band.” The question about Trump, Boris Johnson, or Logan Roy, says Cox, is about truthfulness. “They’re liars. It’s about the whole morality of lying. I’m doing this LBJ play, the Great Society, and that’s one of the elements. The little lies that turned into bigger lies, the obfuscation of Vietnam and how it undid all Johnson’s wonderful social programmes.
“I discovered something brilliant the other day. I had a guy come in, he was Lyndon Johnson’s domestic advisor, an Italian-American called Joe Califano, and he was telling me that when he was working for the administration, his kid swallowed a whole bottle of aspirin, and he was out for the whole day, Johnson couldn’t find him and was furious, and when he told him what happened, Johnson said, ‘Right, I’ll fix that.’ And Johnson actually brought in caps for medicine bottle that you couldn’t turn off. “It’s this kind of thing that’s quite fascinating. But Logan is incapable.”
As an actor, Cox has always sought interesting roles, working on low budget films with up-and-coming directors, as well as starring in big-budget bankers like the Bourne series. But, increasingly, long-running TV drama is where the best work can be found.
“I worked with [NYPD Blue/Deadwood creator] David Milch, who, like Jesse Armstrong, is a bit of a genius, an incredible man. Deadwood was such a good show, and Milch has a great brain, the Yale professor who slowly came into drama. The long form is the best form, because it follows the shape of life. TV has rewritten the book. In a play or a film you’ve got a beginning a middle and an end. It’s a three-act piece,. Whereas this is all the middle. There’s a first act, then an endless second act that goes through all kinds of ramifications.
“Martin Scorsese’s been going on about the problem with movies. He’s taken against the big blockbusters, understandably. Not enough stories are getting through - multiplexes have five screens and one screen is devoted to any film, the rest are for The Avengers. Cinema as an art-form becomes more marginalised. Audiences can’t see good films. The thing about long-form television, and the great thing about the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime, is that suddenly there’s a plethora of stuff.
“It’s a perfect form, and the writers have jumped to it. They can also play with contradiction. A great director once said to me, contradiction is character. That’s what’s great about Succession, there are elements, little sinews of contradiction.”
There is also the matter of language, because as you’d expect from a Jesse Armstrong show which has the Thick Of It’s Tony “Omnishambles” Roche on its roster, the language is exquisitely rendered. “When I meet people,” says Cox, “the first thing they want me to say is to tell them to fuck off, and then to say: ‘Take the fucking money’.
“From the artistic point of view it’s fantastic stuff. But it remains mysterious. The audience has to fill it in, and that’s one of the reasons people become addicted to Succession. It’s enticing. Why would I want to spend any time with these people? Because they’re human beings. We all have that capability to be on the side of the gods or on the side of the demons. Certainly Logan’s the hostage of his demons.”
With the second season of Succession now completed after a finale which blended shoes-off yacht porn with a grim inversion of the Last Supper, as Logan auditioned for a “blood sacrifice” to save his company, many questions remain open. Those final scenes - did Logan orchestrate them as an act of self-harm, or did his lies finally catch up with him? That questions remain. But Logan’s endless second act has certainly taken a dark turn.
“Most authority figures have a flaw,” says Cox, “because what right have they to become authority figures? You get spiritual leaders who really are extraordinary like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, but dramatically the interest is in the flawed leader. Like Churchill - in my home town they got rid of him because they didn’t like him. He laid curses on Dundee which actually stood for quite a while. But he was an astonishing visionary. Unfortunately, the yin and yang is missing now, it’s all yin-y or yangy. Hence the lack of real visionaries.
“The virtue in Logan,” Cox concludes, “if there’s any virtue - is that he is a self-made man. He’s taken a route. He’s so disappointed in human beings he doesn’t give a toss about them at all. But he’s driven by something else, and he’s mysterious, so you don’t quite know who he is; The big question is, does he love his children? I asked Jesse this, because I sincerely doubted it at one point, and Jesse said: ‘You have to understand, he really loves his children, but the problem is, his children are so disappointing on every level.’”