WITH two Olivier awards, an Emmy and a CBE to his name, Brian Cox is hardly unrecognised. Yet now, aged 73, the Scottish actor has just ascended to a whole new level of stardom thanks to the HBO show Succession. The drama about a super-rich American media family, which began in 2018, has won rave reviews, while in January, Cox won a Best Actor Golden Globe for his performance as tyrannical patriarch Logan Roy.
He’s clearly thrilled by this late-career surge — ‘It’s very heady,’ he says — and he’s also been enjoying doing the awards season rounds. ‘You get to meet your fellow artists in a way you never get to do usually, and it’s a great leveller because you realise everybody in the room also has only a nodding acquaintance with confidence.’
By way of example, he fondly cites Brad Pitt, with whom he worked on the 2004 film Troy. ‘He’s this stunningly beautiful man but also this little lad who has worked his ass off and finally got some recognition.’
As the red carpets roll up, Brian is back on these shores, and making a return to theatre — not acting this time, but directing his actress wife Nicole Ansari in the play Sinners.
The harrowing two-hander by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol explores the relationship between a female professor, who is due to be stoned for adultery, and her younger lover, who is called upon to throw the first stone. However, despite stoning being enshrined in sharia law, Brian says Sinners is not intended as a critique on any particular society, but rather as a more universal statement about the patriarchal persecution of women. ‘The stoning is a metaphor — it’s not just about a physical reality but about the abuse of men in a certain position.’
Brian has directed for the stage periodically but ‘I try not to make a habit of it,’ he laughs, explaining it is ‘exhausting because I’m a stickler for detail.’ Yet, he could not imagine a better collaborator than his wife. ‘She’s such a fine actress and when I suggest something, she immediately translates it into her own mode,’ he explains.
He also has a lot of love for his colleagues on Succession. When Brian was first presented with the idea for the show, he knew it was going to be special. Centring as it does on the corrupt and powerful, he could see it tapping into a zeitgeist. ‘We live in times where our leaders are pretty revolting people, so it very much reflects the amorality of our age.’
As for playing the sometimes-monstrous Logan, he found some compassion for him — in part because, for all the terrible power he wields, he is, unlike the rest of his family, a self-made man. Added to that, ‘I sympathise with the fact he tells people to f*** off,” Brian chuckles. “In real life, I always want to tell people to f*** off but I never have the courage.’
Indeed, like Logan, Brian came from nothing. Growing up in poverty in Dundee, he was left ostensibly as an ‘orphan’ in his pre-teens, after his father died of pancreatic cancer and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Performing was always a great solace for him. He recalls, as a very young child, standing on top of the coal bunker at home and singing songs at family parties. ‘It was the thing that sustained me and gave me enormous gratification.’
Subsequently, he went to drama school in London, with the help of a grant; it’s for this reason he laments the lack of financial support available for young actors today. ‘A boy from my background would find it monstrously difficult to get going nowadays because the system doesn’t allow it.’
Among Brian’s many top-drawer film performances, he played the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter. He says he feels no irritation that Anthony Hopkins got the Oscar glory for his take on the serial killer; his only annoyance was that Anthony’s ‘wages went up’.
But, for all the richness of his career, up until Succession, he was still perceived by many to be underrated. Did it feel that way to him? ‘I have always followed my own beat,’ he says. ‘If I’d been a more careerist actor, I might have done things slightly differently… in my case the shortest distance between two points has never been a straight line.’
In any case, he’s on top of the world and the opportunities are plenty — he’s even been asked to write a memoir. Would he? Possibly, he suggests, if he can find the time. ‘I’d want it to be a view of how you create a life. It’s been a choppy ride, but a great one.’
■ Sinners is at The Playground Theatre from Tuesday until March 14, theplaygroundtheatre.london