Stuff that has everyone all agog with excitement
Brian Cox isn’t an advocate of political correctness. If anything, he is a champion of ‘thinking on your feet’ — you know, the kind of worldview that’s shaped by thought and reasoning rather than wokeness. His candour, remarkably refreshing, comes from the journey he’s had through life. Having lost his father at the age of eight and witnessing a mother who struggled with mental health, Cox, who hails from Dundee, Scotland, had to come into his own faster than a child his age. In his memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, he vividly remembers how on some days his dinner would be batter bits (bits of food that lie at the back of the pan). That was until theatre opened a world of opportunities and Cox found himself becoming a leading man on British stage.
Cox has also received acclaim in Hollywood for playing character roles that left an indelible mark in the mind (think of King Agamemnon in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 movie Troy or Dr Hannibal Lecktor in the 1986 film Manhunter). As Logan Roy in the Emmy Award-winning series Succession, however, Cox is enjoying the ultimate acclaim that he’s long deserved. In an exclusive conversation with wknd. ahead of his appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February, Cox gives us a peek into a life less ordinary.
In your memoir, you state that actors are insecure. Why are they so?
Well, that’s because it is a profession where there are no guarantees. It’s also the healthiest aspect of being an actor. I don’t look upon insecurity as being a negative; in fact, it’s a positive because it inculcates a sense of readiness. In most careers, people have a job for 30 years and then they retire. They know what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. We, on the other hand, inhabit so many lives across so many different periods that we often don’t know where we are going next. I look at everything as a stop in the way. For example, playing Logan Roy has brought me huge personal success, but it’s not the be all and end all of my career. It’s part of my career; it’s part of the insecurity of my career. It’s almost built into our DNA that we are ready to move on at any given point. It isn’t a secure profession, and that’s part of its strength.
Have you ever consciously tried to resist this insecurity?
You get security from people around you, your loved ones, your family. I live with this insecurity. It’s like a neighbour (laughs). It keeps me on my toes. I have lived with it all my life, owing to my childhood where, after my father’s death, my mother had a series of breakdowns and we saw a level of poverty which wasn’t good. So I am used to it.
You write evocatively about when you joined Dundee Repertory Theatre, mopping its floors as a teenage boy, and how it eventually opened a world of possibilities for you. Did it make you feel that you could change your social realities?
I would be nervous about climbing the social ladder. I come from a country where we have this expression “Jock Thomson’s Bairns”, which means we are all the same. My country (Scotland) is very socialist-minded that way. When I joined theatre, it was as though I’d found my family.
Social mobility, for me, happened in the 1960s. It was a period when anything and everything was possible. People do not understand what that period was like. We had lived through a war. We had a terrible Tory government. And then you had this period of cultural change and everybody started looking at America. Britain was class-ridden and feudal in many ways and everyone was kept in their place. For that period of time and with rise of actors like Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Peter O’Toole, there was a great sense of moving on to something quite different. I was this kid from Dundee, who’d worked in theatre. When I went to study acting in London, I was made to feel welcome socially. For an inarticulate kid from Dundee to become a classical actor was such an incredible journey. I was empowered by people around me. That’s what’s great about theatre.
Speaking of Peter O’Toole, there are many passages in the book where you talk about meeting your idols. Did encountering them as co-actors shake the very pedestal you had put them on?
Not at all. A lot of those guys were pretty wild, particularly Peter. He was a hero of mine, but by the time I met him, he was pretty old. But he was still quite naughty (laughs). I always wanted to be an actor, but I never thought I could be a British actor, so I needed to go to America. But then I wasn’t American, I was a Scot. I remember watching Albert on the big screen; he was 10 years older than me, and I thought if he could do it coming from that background, I could too. So that was a great revelation. I had an extraordinary woman called Kristin Linklater in London who was a genius voice teacher. Her classes transformed me. Sadly, six weeks into those classes, she went to America. I have always found people in my profession who have been open and welcoming.
You were the leading man in theatre, but when it came to Hollywood, you found a niche in portraying character roles. Did you find the latter more liberating as an actor?
As actors, we have to deal with our ego. You can get a little heady and there is a sense of grandiose, if you aren’t very careful. I, basically, managed to avoid that. I just felt that it was necessary to do my job and be good at it. I had a huge classical career, but back then I hadn’t done what I wanted to do, which was movies. So 30 years ago, I decided that I needed to move in a different direction. I remember meeting Nigel Hawthorne on a flight and he said, “I can’t play those parts anymore.” And I kept saying, “Nigel, we are actors. We can do any role, there’s no shame in that.” And, of course, the result has been Logan Roy. I would have never got that part if I hadn’t done the kind of work I did in the movies.
Speaking of Logan Roy, what did it take you to inhabit the character in Succession?
You just do the work. You create a back story, you create the history of the man. Actors do not judge their characters. A character can judge himself, but that’s not the actor’s job. The latter takes material like paints and a palette, and creates something. A great director once said to me, “Characters are about contradiction.” We all have little contradictions which are evident in our day-to-day lives. By making a bridge to something like that, you kind of inhabit the character in a way.
You were offered the role of Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones but declined it thinking that if the character is killed off in the first season, what’s the point. You write eloquently about the need for continuity at this point in your career, but given the monumental success that Game of Thrones became, do you look back in regret?
It was an interesting character, but there were other things that came around. Yes, I would have, as you said, loved to be associated with the show for longer but that’s not simply because of continuity, but because you have to develop a character over a period of time. That’s also the great joy of playing Logan Roy. I wasn’t particularly up to that (taking up the role of Robert Baratheon) and also one has to think about how you’re going to be paid for the part as well.
That’s another aspect of your book: the candour with which you talk about getting paid for a role. You write about the highs of being on a Woody Allen set (Match Point), but in the same breath mention that it doesn’t pay very well. Many actors do not easily admit to these things.
You never go into this profession because of money. Human beings tend to live with certain guarantees, but actors don’t have that. They’re shifting all the time. Occasionally, you want to go and try something new. For example, I have a great affection for Logan Roy because there is a certain mystery about him. And that’s another interesting thing about this job — the mystery of who the character really is.
There is an anecdote in the book where you talk about working with Daniel Day-Lewis in The Boxer (1997). You have expressed your disapproval of method acting. Other veteran actors, like Sir Anthony Hopkins, have also spoken about this. What is it about method acting you disapprove of?
Well, certain actors forget that acting is a group activity; it’s not just about you. It’s about you in relation with other actors. So there has to be a sense of responsibility to the ensemble. If you play your role outside the ensemble, it’s no longer a totality in itself. Sometimes, method acting encourages this selfishness, which can be very counter-productive.
Now Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius actor and he doesn’t go down that road, but some actors get so obsessed with their roles that they miss the woods for the trees. We have a responsibility to the whole of what we do, and that gets sidelined.
There is a famous story about an American group theatre during the ’30s. People like Elia Kazan and Stella Adler were part of this movement. They were influenced by Konstantin Stanislavsky (an important figure in Russian theatre). Now Stanislavsky never called it ‘the method’; he always called it “the system” (as in the system of work). Stanislavsky based his ideas on actors, how they work, how they prepare, how they make a role happen, and he put all of that into his teaching. At the end of the day, he was more interested in that than directing plays.
There is a concept of emotional memory, which is where you call upon a personal memory to engage in a scene. Stella Adler questioned this. She went and tracked down Stanislavsky in Paris in mid-30s and asked him, “What about emotional memory?”, and he said, “Oh no, I got rid of that because it interferes with imagination.” That’s very accurate about method acting; somewhere imagination gets sidelined. Adler went back and met Lee Strasberg and said that Stanislavsky doesn’t believe in emotional memory and that it’s just a tool for him. Strasberg is believed to have said that Stanislavsky was wrong. He took method acting somewhere else. They say he was a great influence on Marlon Brando, but he wasn’t. Stella Adler was Brando’s teacher and he was very much his own man in that way, as is Robert de Niro. You can use elements of method acting but it is not the be all and end all.
You have had a great association with Royal Shakespeare Company. You won the Olivier Award for Titus Andronicus. You’ve been part of Richard III, As You Like It. Why is performing Shakespeare on stage such a rite of passage for an actor?
Shakespeare is the Mozart of theatre. His work is stylish. And if you talk about acting, you have to see the advice he gives on the discipline of the craft, which hasn’t changed in 600 years. He is also poetic. There is a wonderful scene in Hamlet where Hamlet meets Ophelia and she says her line, “My lord, I have remembrances of yours, that I have longed long to redeliver.” She does this in the rhythm of iambic pentameter (a pattern of syllables used in poetry).
Now Hamlet, because he feels something unnatural about her speech, wonders what’s going on. So he goes into prose and begins to pull her out from the verse, and she tries to pull him back to the verse. Once you understand that, you know how to play the scene. It’s so simple but the speech reflects that she is so stuck in her society. That’s the genius of Shakespeare — in a simple scene, he explains status.
You are also a fan of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Yes. Ibsen was among the first playwrights who wrote about social issues evocatively. He was also an amazing writer on women’s issues. A Doll’s House (1879), for instance, was so ahead of its time.
In the post-pandemic world, we are observing that audiences are returning to the cinema theatres for spectacle-driven films like Avatar: The Way of Water or Top Gun Maverick. Is there a danger of stories and storytelling being sacrificed at the altar of spectacle?
That’s very well-put. It’s also that we are fashion’s fools. There is a fashion for these films. I have done my share of these films. I did X-Men, but what I liked about it was that it was allegorical and revolved around people who are excluded from society. So if you understand the allegorical nature of a story, you understand the purpose. When it stops relating to who we are as human beings, I find it a little problematic.
Great writers write in a way where there is a top and then there are many layers underneath that propel an idea. Sometimes that’s sacrificed in blockbusters. I like stories about human beings, not superheroes. I am interested in people who are struggling on a daily basis. I have played one of the richest men in the world, which got me thinking what could be the corollary to that. So I thought of doing a documentary on the wealth gap, on how the other half lives. Poorer people are getting sacrificed because of greed. It’s a tough subject to deal with.
I had to go back to my hometown, which is still in a state of poverty. When I was a child, we had a backyard which we shared with three other tenements which were enclosed, there were beautiful gardens and tall poles where people would hang washed clothes. Recently, when I went back, the poles were there but no washing, and people did not have their names on the doors. We are in danger of de-personalising poverty. Society is being separated out, and that is my concern.
You have a candour about you that is at odds with the culture of political correctness that has emerged as a result of cancel culture. How easy or difficult is it for you to speak your truth?
I hate political correctness and woke culture. I am not a Christian, but I think it’s said very well in the Bible that, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Cancel culture is leading us to a modern form of McCarthyism. And it’s the young people who are doing that a lot. I stood up for J.K. Rowling the other day saying that a woman is entitled to say what she feels about her body. You can disagree with her, but you cannot turn against her. What is worrying about cancel culture is that it is so unthinking and deeply stupid. It confines people in their stupidity.
You were the first actor to play Hannibal Lecktor on screen. What’s your take on Anthony Hopkins’ version?
Oh, he is very good. I mean Tony Hopkins is a great actor. Hannibal Lecter is like Hamlet, everybody’s going to have their own spin to it. He took it in a way I would never have taken it. It’s funny, imaginative. I envy Tony Hopkins because he can do so many things — he can write music, he can paint, he can act bloody well.
What is it that Hollywood can learn from British actors?
Understatement. We have had some great writing, thanks to Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. There is an understated element to their writings. Sometimes there is a demand for everything to be on a plate. I am finding it now because I am trying to cast for something at the moment. I think when you are pitching to someone, you need three set of scripts — one the actor can read and understand, the other that producers can absorb and the third being one on the basis of which you will make the movie (laughs).
From being a child who would collect batter bits for dinner, you have come a long, long way. What kind of relationship do you have with fame?
It’s funny but people have always asked me, “Oh, were you in that film?” That’s gone now because of Logan Roy. I have lost my anonymity, and I used to thrive on it. I guess I have to just let it go.
You’re coming to Dubai for the first time to attend Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. What are you looking forward to?
Well, I am just looking forward to seeing how you can build something like that in the middle of a desert. I am truly fascinated by that. The more I think about it, I’m like, “Wow, how could they do that?”
Movie and theatre legend Brian Cox will be in session with Fiona Lindsay at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on February 2 from 8-9pm at Al Riwaq II, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City
The 2023 MG RX-5 is taking practical luxury to the mass market
Tracey Panek on the making of the legendary Levi's 501 jeans — the quintessential American classic
Why the woman-centric horror comedy is having its moment in the sun
...and what to watch out for when buying your first vehicle
Professionals like dog behaviourists offer these sessions to tackle issues like pet abandonment
They were at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah