Scottish thespian Brian Cox has been in plays, films and television shows for over five decades. His most popular work in Hollywood includes villainous characters such as Central Intelligence Agency hotshot Ward Abbott in The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004), William Stryker in X-Men 2 (2003) and Agamemnon in the epic Troy (2004). Cox’s acclaimed theatre roles include Titus Andronicus and King Lear.
The 73-year-old actor’s background in and love for Shakespeare comes across strongly in a conversation about playing media mogul Logan Roy in the television series Succession. The HBO series, created by Jesse Armstrong, shares strong parallels with the power struggles in the Rupert Murdoch family.
Succession follows the Roys, who own one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. After Logan Roy has a stroke, his children squabble for the throne. The first season will be out in India on Star World as part of the channel’s programming initiative Stage on June 17.
“Logan is a King Lear-like character,” Cox told Scroll.in. “The story is very Shakespearean that way. It’s a modern-day morality tale about how power corrupts families and dynasties like the Trump family and its many appendages. The show also explores how the world today is held hostage by these big media companies. It’s an observation on our time.”
Logan is mercurial and mysterious, a man who “loves his children but is not always loving to them”. These include the resolute Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the eccentric Roman (Kieran Culkin), the wily Siobhan (Sarah Snook), and the opportunistic Connor (Alan Ruck).
Not much is revealed about Logan’s past, and he appears to be motivated only by his ideas of what suits the company best. Logan often bullies his children and keeps them on their toes as they attempt to grab more power than they can handle. “What I found interesting about Logan is that he simultaneously inspires such mixed feelings in his children,” Cox said. The second season of the show arrives on HBO on August 11.
The grey shading for Logan is a departure from the roles Cox has played in such blockbuster outings as X-Men 2 and Troy. “It’s my fate that everyone thinks I play the bad guy, but I don’t think of myself that way,” Cox observed. “It’s just that these characters are in situations where they behave badly, but I don’t believe people are intrinsically bad.”
For example, while William Stryker in X-Men 2 is rabidly anti-mutant, his experiments give Wolverine his super-metallic skeleton. Even Agamemnon, from Troy, or Ward Abbot from the Bourne films, have their reasons.
“I see these characters as people committed to their belief systems, who see no wrong in furthering national interest or their personal set of beliefs,” Cox explained. “Stryker sees no wrong in doing what he did to Wolverine. Agamemnon wants to capture Troy as a strategic move to expand the Greek empire. When Helen elopes with Paris, that gives him a motive to attack Troy, just like the Iraq war happened for oil, but was justified as a war against terrorism. CIA man Ward Abbott who is behind the creation of Jason Bourne thinks he is right in what he does.”
One of Brian Cox’s most celebrated early roles is as the cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Cox played what he called a “mythological character” in Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981). Anthony Hopkins played Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002), while Mads Mikkelsen portrayed the human flesh-loving aesthete in the television series Hannibal.
Cox invoked his childhood memories of Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel while playing Lecter in Manhunter. “I was obsessed with him,” Cox recalled. “He was this bogeyman for us, but he conducted his own defence. He was so rational and so apparently empathetic, but actually, there was no empathy, and that’s how I saw Lecter. A man with a huge part of personality missing, who just cannot feel empathy for other people.”
But Cox is not ready to call Lecter a “bad guy”, because “he is deeply disturbed and kind of sick, suffering from a mental disorder”. He added, “Shakespeare said the job of an actor is to hold a mirror up to nature. The problem is in my case, the nature is bad.”
Cox’s talent for empathy helps him humanise characters that could be written off as despicable, such as Big John Harrigan in Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E (2007).
Big John is a wealthy and closeted man with a weakness for adolescents. Big John grooms wayward young men, but has a change of heart when he meets the motherless 15-year-old Howard (Paul Dano, in his first lead role).
“You can’t exactly call him a paedophile because he is particularly interested in men between the ages of 16 and 19,” Cox said. “A lot of people advised me to not play a character that could be called unpleasant. What interested me was that the other side of his sexual attraction to young men was his instinct to be a parent. He is torn between being a father to this boy and seducing him. I love the contradiction of it all, going against conventional thought. Here’s a man who you think is bad, but he is actually an honourable man soldiering through life.”
Cox revealed a bizarre coincidence from the sets of L.I.E. “The house my character lived in gave off a weird feeling,” Cox said. “We knew it belonged to a paediatrician, but he was never around. A few days into shooting, we got to know that the paediatrician was in jail because he was a paedophile. The thought gives me the creeps.”
Cox’s ability to tap into the complexities of his characters ensures that they are memorable regardless of their actual screen time. These include the father of Edward Norton’s protagonist in 25th Hour (2002), the screenplay-writing tutor in Adaptation (2002), and the flamboyant lawyer Melvin Belli, who is contacted by a serial killer in Zodiac (2007).
Belli’s illustrious career included representing Jack Ruby, the killer of John F Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, pro bono. Cox shared a fun fact about Melvin Belli: “That he would drink a lot is known, but apparently, Belli would drink a pint of clarified butter early in the morning before stepping out for work, because lining your stomach with that helps in drinking all day.”
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