Brian Cox in Conversation with Jessica Shaw: Putting the Rabbit in the Hat

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Mostly recently in a long career of acting, Brian Cox has inhabited the role of ruthless mogul and patriarch Logan Roy on the television series Succession. His third book after Salem to Moscow: An Actors Odyssey and The Lear Diaries, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat is a memoir. Its title derives from a 1970 production of Christopher Marlow’s Tamburlaine starring Albert Finney. There were issues with the play’s “endless rhetoric.” Finally, an exasperated Finney proclaimed, “It’s so simple, just get the rabbit out of the hat!” whereupon another actor responded, “Yes, but how do we get the rabbit into the hat?”

Brian Denis Cox was born in Dundee, Scotland 1946 to a working class Roman Catholic family. He tells us that childhood until the age of eight (when his father died) was “blissful.” After that, Frank Rich, in the book’s introduction, calls it Dickensian. The Coxes were horribly poor, a circumstance barely seen to by a mother with severe mental problems.

Dundee had 21 movie theaters, all playing double features of American film. These were the boy’s second home. (To this day he cites all time favorites as The Court Jester with Danny Kaye and Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.) Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (starring Albert Finney) was the first time the youngster recognized himself on screen, allowing for the possibility he might be able to have a career as an actor. “It changed me on a cellular level.” Until that time, he assumed one had to be American.

Cox left school at 15 and joined The Dundee Repertory Company. Entering the bustling theater past an actor and stage manager settling an off stage disagreement with “fisticuffs”, the boy passed an actor smoking on the stairs who asked ”Are you all right, darling?” “And I knew I had to be there.” After a few years, he was able to attend The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Having come up through legitimate theater during the rich height of Ralph Richardson, “a wicked sense of humor,” John Gielgud, “an incredible memory,” and Laurence Olivier, “he seemed like a bank manager off stage,” Cox worked with them all.

At 81, Olivier decided to play King Lear in a filmed production. “He was ill, exhausted  and would be gone in two years. The preceding week Michael Horden played the role on television. ‘Did anybody here see King Lear this week,’ Olivier asked. ‘You know we’ve got a wonderful cast, but I don’t know my lines, not a fucking word. I don’t know why I’m here.’ The cast reassured him. Olivier went on, ‘Horden knew his lines, BUT I’M STILL A BETTER ACTOR THAN HE IS ANY DAY!’ The energy that came out of that man! All actors want to be the best. He set a standard.”

Did you have a sense of being immersed in a once-in-a-lifetime experience?” Shaw asks. “Oh, yes and what I hate about now is that there’s no sense of history, no sense of what we came from and where we’re going and I think it’s such a lack. This cancel culture tries to negate history.” The audience applauds. Cox intermittently talks to himself, admonishing ‘Brian’ to be honest or not veer from an answer. He’s an easy laugher, mostly at recollections. Opinions emerge sure but unpretentious.

Cox was summoned to Hollywood by John Shlesinger in 1976 at the age of 30. His high hopes for an American film were dashed when informed by the director that he was mounting Julius Caesar at The National Theatre and wanted the actor to play Brutus. “There was something so fake about Hollywood. I was young, ambitious and vulnerable and I didn’t think I could handle it yet.” He returned home to play the great roles in England.

Fast forward to 1996. Cox was producing a series of television Master Classes when he got a call saying Dustin Hoffman had left a film at the last minute, could he be on set of The Long Kiss Goodnight by Monday. He was. Back to the UK. Next came a call to take over for Tommy Lee Jones who’d walked off a film in Chicago. Shaw points out he benefited from temperamental actors. “I realized I was moving towards character work in films.” He famously turned down Game of Thrones and Pirates of the Caribbean, regretting the latter only for financial reasons.

There was already a lot of buzz about Michael Mann’s film Manhunter when Cox was approached about the 1986 role of Hannibal Lecter. (Silence of the Lambs didn’t appear till 1991.) A casting director came to watch him at The Public Theater. He was then asked to audition. “I don’t want to see you at all,” the actor was told. He read with his back turned. It seems she’d arrived late to his play and seated behind a pillar heard but didn’t see him. She wanted to recreate the impression. He got the part.

Outside Shakespeare, Cox has played, in part, Leon Trotsky, King Henry II, Churchill, Picasso, L.B.J., and J. Edgar Hoover as well as countless non-celebrities. An upcoming project cast him as Bertrand Russell. The American television audience may remember his outstanding turn as Jack Langrishe in the HBO series Deadwood.  Expected questions included: With what director would Cox particularly like to work? Guierllmo del Toro. With what actors? Meryl Streep and Jean Smart. His favorite line from Shakespeare? “All the world’s a stage…”

Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in Succession. (Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

Cox was offered the role of Logan Roy by telephone and having read the script found himself immediately enthusiastic. “You had one question,” the interviewer asks. “Yes, I asked does he love his children and was told absolutely, that’s his Achilles Heel…There are things he does that gets the audience going. In episode seven, he and oldest son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) with whom he’s in conflict, sit down to dinner. I want him to come back into the fold and express it in a not especially loving way. The meal comes and Kendall insists on switching plates. I know he wants me to think mine is poisoned and I know it’s not true because he wouldn’t do that. So I decide to take him on a little journey…” Logan calls in the grandchildren and convinces one to try his pasta. Kendall assumes his father is so ruthless that he’d poison his grandson. “Logan just meant, don’t play fuckin’ games with me, I’m better than you. Sometimes the audience thinks like Kendall.”

The actor says he does nothing in particular to prepare to play Logan Roy. “It’s all imagination.” He tells a story whereupon later in life, actress/teacher Stella Adler asks Stanislavski about ‘emotional memory.’ The master replied “I got rid of that long ago. It gets in the way.” As to Roy’s regular swearing, it’s clear during this interview liberally peppered with colorful language, that this wouldn’t be a stretch. “I’m a Celt. We use the `f’ word better than anybody, just as the Irish use the `c’ word.” As to the character’s signature “Uh-huuhhh,” it just evolved, though Cox says sometimes he utilizes it when the next line escapes him. He looks forward to more of Logan’s verbal sparring.

Next up besides Succession are several film roles and his first directing work for a piece he’s co-developing about a Scottish distillery.

“Do you know how Succession ends and do you want to know?” Shaw asks. Unequivocally “no.”

All unattributed quotes are Brian Cox.

Jessica Shaw can be heard on SiriusXM Stars Pop and Lifestyle Talk.

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Top photo: Brian Cox in HBO’s Succession. Photograph by Macall B. Polay/HBO

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.