To speak with legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox is to understand that for all intents and purposes, he needs no writer. And yet its that inherent understanding of craft and art that leaves the loquacious and insightful thespian so appreciative of the brilliant minds working behind the scenes of HBO’s Shakespearean satire “Succession.”
When jumping on a call to speak to IndieWire about the show’s unimpeachable second season, Cox had nothing but praise for all of his collaborators on the series where he portrays Logan Roy, the patriarch of our favorite fucked-up family.
And what a season it was for the character, who found himself pushed to the limit with threats of hostile takeovers, lingering health issues, and his perpetually disappointing brood, all of which served as particularly delicious grist for the mill of the Emmy-winning actor’s titanic performance.
With production on the third season of “Succession” paused before it even began in earnest, we have nothing but time to dissect every facet of Season 2, a hobby that Cox was more than willing to indulge.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
How did you come to this project? What made it something that you wanted to be involved in, way back in the beginning?
Brian Cox: Adam [McKay] was in L.A., Jesse [Armstrong] was in Italy, and we had this long conversation about the piece. Originally it was going to be a one season part, but that completely disappeared in the middle of the conversation. They decided there and then that it was going to be more than one season.
I just knew that it had something very special about it, particularly in this time and dealing with the level of dysfunctionality we are witnessing all around us, particularly in our leadership in this country and certainly our leadership in the United Kingdom. So it’s this great kind of zeitgeist that was happening. And of course, there’s a very strong satirical element to it, but it’s not just that. It’s Shakespearean and it’s ambitious. So in a way, I was very surprised that this show was coming along, and I also knew that it was a potential winner.
Season 2 saw Logan rocked back on his heels after a series of setbacks and the audience is really exposed to his anger. How did that work for you? Did the character feel like he was losing control?
Well, he’s under a lot of stress trying to put the Pierce deal together and he also knows there’s treachery within the firm. I think that that was a test of his endurance. And also, he’s a man who’s just in a process of recovery from a very debilitating stroke.
It was very clear that you had to be very careful with Logan, because when he goes, he really goes. We see that in Boar on the Floor. [The infamous parlor “game” introduced in the third episode of Season 2, “Hunting.”] In Boar on the Floor, we see the kind of demon that drives Logan.
My feeling was, that was great, but we don’t want to see too much of that because it gives a certain game away. The Pierce thing, of course, was out of the blue and went horribly wrong, but then again, he has nothing but contempt for what he calls those American Brahmins, with their sense of entitlement, with that liberality, at the same time. The anger — I did actually say to Jesse: “There’s going to be a law of diminishing returns, and he’s got to control it. He’s got to learn.” Because he’s got himself into trouble in the past with his temper. But of course, it’s good to see it occasionally, as long as we use it judiciously.
I spoke with Jeremy Strong several months ago about Season 2 and he talked about how Jesse and the writers are always open and willing to speak to the actors about where they see the characters going, what choices they think the characters would make that might conflict with what’s on the page. Have you had that same experience? Are they receptive to your feedback?
They are, but I trust them. They’re smart. They’re smart and they can write and they know what they’re doing. It’s a good group. It’s a very good group and it’s got a great bunch of very strong female writers, which keeps us balanced, I think, brilliantly.
I’m one of these people who I don’t try and go, “It would be better if it was this.” I don’t do that. I find that that’s not my job. My job as an actor is to act, is to interpret, is to make these things come alive. So I don’t go into the business of writing, or I’d be a writer.
I’ve had problems with writers before when I say, “Give me an excuse to be…” This was in the theater. “Give me an excuse to be on stage and do it.” But unfortunately, a particular play — no names, no pack-drill — the writer didn’t give me that. So it was very hard to do something, because I didn’t have the reason for being there.
That’s not the case in this scenario, because it’s always so clear where everybody is in the event of the evening. I’ve found that the writing a gift. It’s just an absolute gift. And also, I’ve allowed them to discover my strengths without me having to tell them.
It’s necessary to keep the audience thinking, “What’s happening next? Where is this going?” and also be in the same dark, as it were, that some of the characters are in….Because it’s always revealed. You always come out into the light. We know what’s going to be paid off. And you saw that brilliantly in Season 2, with the scene between me and Jeremy right at the end, with him going and dishing me, the way he does. And of course, I set him off, because I say, “You know, the problem is, you’re not a killer. You’re not a killer. You’re not going to start.” So of course, the first thing he tries to do is kill me, which was quite amusing. It makes him smile.
Graeme Hunter / HBO
Exactly. I love that little smile. That smile tells you everything you need to know.
That’s the strength of the scripts. The scripts, in a way, the writers have the guts to allow them to write itself. And it does, but they do take into account the actors’ strengths. They really do. They’re very, very cognizant of that, almost in a very imperceptible way, but that’s their strength. That’s the gift. That’s why they’re great writers. There’s not one duffer in that whole group. They’re all exceptional.
Are you ever a little shocked by what they come up with, like when you sat down and read about Boar on the Floor?
We’re always surprised. We’re always taken on that journey and we go, “Oh yes, of course.” We don’t anticipate it, but when it comes off the page you go, “Of course.” It’s a delight. It’s an absolute delight, just revealing how things shape up and how surprising a lot of the twists and turns, but they’re absolutely the right twist and turns. It always makes total sense.
One scene that was so memorable in Season 2 was in Episode 6, “Argestes,” when Logan strikes Roman (Kieran Culkin) while in a rage. Was that development shocking to you at all or was the idea of past physical abuse within the family assumed?
I think the reason it’s made a fuss of is because there hasn’t been too much physical abuse. There might have been a little bit when they were kids, they got spanked. He’s not averse to probably a little bit of corporal punishment. But I think that the smack of Roman — Roman just happens to be there and he happens to get it. Roman just goes that step too far, and of course it ignites something and Logan lashes out. I mean, he doesn’t even realize it’s Roman. He hits someone. And he tries to apologize later on, because in fact it’s a completely impetuous act on Logan’s part. It was malicious as a result, but it wasn’t malicious in intent. That wasn’t the idea. For me, the idea was that suddenly a boiling point came and the hot water spilled out of the pan and he just went whack. Of course, it could have been anybody. It could have been Shiv (Sarah Snook).
Would have been really shocking if it had been Shiv! But that’s what I mean. And it’s interesting how Roman, as a result of that act that was completely spontaneous, how he shifts. He becomes, as he does towards the end of Episode 10 when we’re on the boat and he’s been through the whole thing of the Turkish money, he showed great intelligence, actually, and coming of age during that piece.
Logan always seems a little bit disappointed with his children. Do you think he has any idea how much he has broken them down or do you think he’s oblivious to his sins?
It’s a very interesting thing, this whole thing about fatherhood and the responsibility of fatherhood, the disciplines of fatherhood. Logan clearly comes from dysfunction early on in his family. Something happened. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know where it is, but there’s a kind of polarization. And then as we saw in Episode 8, I think, he has these scars on back, from beatings when he was a kid. So Logan has grown up in the school of very, very hard knocks. And really, I think his young life compared to his kids’ life was so different.
The kids, they’ve been in cotton wool a lot of the time, and the trouble is, none of them are living up to what their potential is. That what the story’s about. Shiv, she’s great. He loves Shiv, she’s his favorite. But she can’t keep her bloody mouth shut. She just talks herself into these situations. She does it. She does it with her own husband, and she blew it with the Pierces. A very delicate situation with making her the heir apparent, and she blew it. I think that that’s what we see. We see the shortcomings of the children. Of course, there is some culpability on Logan’s part, but you can lead the horse to water, but it won’t necessarily drink the bloody thing.
There are scars with these kids, clearly. Clearly scarred. But also, a great friend of mine, he used to say, “After 25, all bets are off.” Unfortunately, that’s a lovely idea, but it’s not true, because I still carry things that happened to me as a child. I still carry it at my great age. We all carry those moments, when things have been neglected on our behalf. Again, it’s not necessarily anybody’s fault, but it’s just the way life is. And I think that the Roy children have suffered from that. They’ve got a strange English mother and a mysterious Scots-Canadian-American father. It’s tricky.
He keeps using these extreme claims to demonstrate. He talks about the killer instinct, and of course, he goads Kendall into that act of betrayal and he says, “Go for it.” And of course, that’s what the smile is about, because he said, “No, you did it.” Now all hell’s going to break loose, but he did it. But how is he going to live with that? How is he going to deal with it? Kendall is so emotionally and mentally unreliable, you just don’t know what’s going to happen with Kendall.
Obviously, the ensemble cast for the show is tremendous, but Logan and Kendall’s relationship is so fascinating and complicated. Can you talk a little bit about working with Jeremy and how you two have developed that relationship?
Jeremy is interesting. He works in a specific kind of way, it’s a method way of working, and I totally respect. It’s completely the antithesis to the way I work. But in a way, I find it quite good, because I think it puts you on your metal, because you’re dealing with someone who really inhabits the fragility almost in a way that is…you worry about him sometimes. He is so committed as an actor. Jeremy’s commitment is undeniable, and his results are equally undeniable. That’s what the key thing is, is the results, his performance, which was pretty magnificent, actually. It’s a pretty magnificent piece of work.