For a man who’s played monsters as memorable as Hannibal Lecter and Hermann Göring – to say nothing, of course, of Succession’s tyrannical media tycoon Logan Roy – Brian Cox is a reassuringly genial presence in the flesh. (Yes, I know he’s an actor, and it’s all pretend. But a part of me was still slightly worried that, if things went badly, I’d be forced to take part in Logan’s humiliating post-prandial party game, Boar on the Floor).
What he isn’t, though, is a gushing luvvie – a fact that’s bracingly obvious from reading Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, Brian’s brilliant, refreshingly no-filter new memoir, in which he cheerfully skewers everyone from Johnny Depp (“so overblown, so overrated”) and Daniel Day-Lewis (“exhausting”) to Rob Roy director Michael Caton-Jones (“a complete arsehole”).
Elsewhere, he notes that “everybody in this book is either dead or cancelled”, as he lists his various encounters with the likes of Harvey Weinstein (“made my flesh creep”) and Kevin Spacey (“a stupid, stupid man – somewhat predatory”). Even the people he likes – of which there are many – don’t always escape a frank assessment: like Sir Ian McKellen, who he describes as “a master of front-foot acting” – one who priorities the performer over the character.
“At the end, you do feel a bit like: oh god, have I been unkind? Have I been unfair?” admits the 75-year-old of his forthright approach. “Have I got it wrong? Have I made it all up? You do begin to panic.”
Is he expecting some irate calls from friends and colleagues? “I’m not expecting calls,” he says. “I’m expecting probably to never hear from them again.”
The person whose shortcomings he’s most unforgiving about, though, is Brian Cox. He hasn’t, he confesses, always been the most faithful partner (“no names, no pack drill”) and admits that, at times, he has “been a fairly crappy father” – citing his emotional absence while Alan and Margaret, his children with his first wife Caroline Burt, were growing up. Even now, he worries about having “absolutely nothing in common” with Orson and Torin, his teenage boys with his wife of 19 years, Nicole Ansari.
Part of the problem, he says, is his “inability to be truly present” – something he has had therapy to try to understand. “Ambition has always been a kind of… it’s problematic,” he says. “It drives you, which is good, but at the same time you can forget about other people.
“Also, it’s a lot to do with my youth. The fact that I didn’t know how to be a father because my own father was… mythic. He was a sort of mythic creature.”
Brian (he was supposed to have been called Colin, until a somewhat presumptuous registrar chipped in with what he considered a better alternative) was born in Dundee in 1946, the youngest of five children in a working class Catholic family of Irish-Scottish descent.
Thanks to an older sister’s war widow’s pension, his dad Chic was able to open a grocer’s shop in the city’s Wellgate area, which was successful enough to allow the family finally to escape a long cycle of poverty and the poorhouse.
Chic was a generous sort, who wanted to pay his good fortune on. “He was very charitable, he called everybody brother,” says Brian. “He’d finish in the shop, then go help decorate people’s houses. My mum felt people took advantage of him. She used to say to me, cynically, ‘Remember, charity begins at home, Brian’. But it was very hard for working class women at that time – they were basically there to have children and run families. And there was dad, giving to all and sundry. She used to say, ‘there was always a corner in his heart for people’.”
When he was eight, Brian’s world was suddenly upended when his dad died of pancreatic cancer. Despite the strains in their marriage, the tragedy sent his mother into a long spiral of depression and nervous breakdowns: on one occasion, Brian came home to find her with her head in the oven.
Compounding the emotional trauma, the family was once again penniless, Chic having invested all their money into a failed building project. “All of a sudden, we were dirt poor,” Brian writes in the book. “I’d have to go across the road to the chip shop and beg batter bits off them.”
His mother eventually recovered, but by then Brian was a changed kid: “Self-sufficient and self-reliant, toughened up and nomadic.”
“I was independent from far too early an age,” he tells me in his trademark growl. “Which, again, is very difficult when you come to talking about your relationship to your own children. Because I look at my children and I think, Jesus Christ, you’ve still got a father. I mean, my eldest is 51 – my dad died at the age of 51.”
In the darkest moments of his childhood, this “urchin from the Dundee backstreets” would often find escape in one of the city’s 21 cinemas, where he shared his mother’s love of Spencer Tracy. At 14, he got a job as a dogsbody at the Dundee Repertory Theatre, and instantly knew he’d found his tribe – perhaps even a home (he would often sleep there). “The great thing about acting communities is they are really egalitarian,” says Brian. “When I walked into the Dundee Rep, there was no discussion about class, or where I was from. They just accepted me totally. I was immediately put into the family, and made to feel that this was home. And I’ve felt that way ever since. I love my profession.”
Tragedy struck again when the Rep burned down in 1963, but it was the spur Brian needed to head to London – “without a backward glance, because I had no home life to speak of” – and train as an actor at LAMDA. (A proponent of that authentic approach, he says, as opposed to RADA, where “they were all a bit flashy”.)
It was an incredible time to be learning his trade: as students, they would go along to the National Theatre and watch Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith and Peter O’Toole in dress rehearsals. “Oh, that generation…” he says. “That’s what I feel the present generation [of actors] is missing – the sense of lineage.”
The Sixties was also a golden age for social mobility in the industry, with working class heroes like Albert Finney and Michael Caine elbowing aside the old order. “I had a full college grant, I had expenses paid – and we’d not long come out of a war, so we weren’t exactly a rich country,” says Brian. “And to think, nowadays, what people have to pay for their kids’ education. It’s disgusting. That’s why I love my country, that’s why I love Scotland so much – we still believe in free education.”
A vocal advocate of Scottish independence – albeit one whose homes are in New York and London – Brian shares his father’s socialist ideals, having had a political awakening during the days of Margaret Thatcher (“we are both the children of grocers, but that’s where the similarity ends”).
He is also a dedicated republican, who says he’d refuse a knighthood if offered (even if he suspects his wife would secretly enjoy being Lady Cox). “I did accept the CBE,” he says. “And I won’t give it back, because you have to live by your sins. But I do think this not-so United Kingdom has gone down the tubes, politically. And living in America for the last four years has been horrendous. In times of moral malaise, it seems we throw out these creatures – like the clown, the pink Pinocchio [Donald Trump].”
Ambition is… problematic. It drives you, but at the same time you can forget about other people.Brian Cox
Early on in his near-60-year career, Brian’s great friend and mentor, the late Fulton Mackay, told him to “stop worrying about being a star and focus on being a good actor”. And so, for many years, he juggled stage work as a leading man – including playing King Lear for the National Theatre and Titus Andronicus for the RSC – with supporting roles in scores of films and TV series of varying quality. (In 1994, he finished filming Rob Roy on the Saturday and started on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart on the Monday, without even changing hotel rooms.)
On a couple of occasions, he has fallen victim to what Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode, on their Radio Five Live film show, have dubbed “the Curse of Brian Cox”: in 2017, he played Winston Churchill in a titular biopic, only to see Gary Oldman win an Oscar for the same role in the same year’s Darkest Hour – an incident that revived memories of his friend Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar triumph for playing Hannibal Lecter, who Brian had originated on screen in 1987’s Manhunter. (Gallingly, the two even shared the same agent at the time.)
“It’s the story of my life,” he laughs. “You create these roles and then some other fucker walks away with it. You do get quite personal about it. But it’s just the way it is: somebody else comes along and they do something equally wonderful. I mean, Tony Hopkins is awe-inspiring. He’s a genius actor, but he’s also a painter, he plays the piano. I can’t do anything, except this. I’m hopeless.”
With typical candour, Brian admits it was the money he was the most annoyed about: he got 10,000 dollars for Manhunter, whereas “Tony got about a million, because he won the Oscar. That’s where my Scottish roots come into play. You’ve got to make your crust.”
If there ever was a curse of Brian Cox, though, it’s been well and truly broken by the phenomenon that is HBO’s Succession, in which he is firmly front and centre in the most exceptional and acclaimed TV drama of the age: a timely study of media and power, in which Logan Roy – “a pal to prime ministers and a truth teller to presidents” – rules despotically over a global news and entertainment empire, while his grasping offspring manoeuvre to inherit his crown.
“It feels good,” admits Brian of his Golden Globe-winning role – a televisual King Lear, by way of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. “It feels like a reward for all the years of hard work that you put in.”
Initially, the plan was to kill him off at the end of the first episode. “But that was dealt with in the first conversation,” he says. “Logan is the centrifugal force. When Logan dies, that’s the end of the show.”
Brian doesn’t see Logan as a villain. “Logan Roy is a creature of his background,” he says of the man whose Dundee-to-Manhattan journey can read like a dark version of his own rags-to-riches story. “I see him as a man who is very diligent and who has been disillusioned all his life by the world and how it operates. He takes advantage of the world’s ignorance. But it’s also become like a game to him. His kids don’t understand that, that it’s a game. It’s not real, none of it’s real. And the kids all believe it. They have this sense of entitlement because he’s given them so much. And that can lead to tragic circumstances.”
Besides, he adds, it’s his job to find the humanity in evildoers – even Stalin and Hermann Göring, both of whom he’s played. “They are all human, unbelievably,” he says. “I understood that Göring saw himself as a man of integrity. There’s no excuse for what he did, it was horrific, but he was a human being, and it’s just fascinating to get into the skin of a character like that.”
In Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, Brian says he’s often felt like “a perennial outsider”. But he’s not sure about that anymore. “It would be wrong of me to say I feel like an outsider – but I’m not an insider,” he says. “I’m on the fringes, which is a good place for an actor to be. You have to be able to separate yourself off and look at things and go, ‘what is this?’ Also, I don’t take any of it too seriously. You should never believe it.”
What was it his mother used to tell him – ‘It’s just a play, Brian – it’s no real’?
“That’s right, it’s no real. I look at some actors and I can see they’ve started to believe their own mythology,” he says, for once naming no names. “And you really mustn’t. It’s all ephemeral, and all passes in the world. It’s gone.”
Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (Quercus) is out now in hardback and audiobook.
More life of Brian…
The title Putting the Rabbit in the Hat comes from a disastrous National Theatre production of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great Brian appeared in the 1970s, in which Albert Finney assured the company they’d be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat, only for a fellow actor to tell him, ‘You’ve got to get the rabbit in the hat in the first place’.
Brian’s fate has been curiously tied to air travel over the years. In 1965, he was booked to fly from Edinburgh to London for a meeting with Laurence Olivier. At the last minute, Olivier cancelled the meeting, so Brian didn’t catch the flight – which crashed at Heathrow, killing all on board. In 1998, his future wife Nicole was due to catch a flight that was overbooked – so she stayed in New York for an extra four days. “We’ve been together ever since.” And on 9/11, he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Centre through the window of a plane sitting on the tarmac at JFK. A CIA agent later told him that terrorists had also been planning to hijack his plane – but had missed the flight.
As a young actor, Brian was – in his own words – “touched up by Princess Margaret”. “I told her it was my birthday and she said, ‘Oh, happy birthday’,” he recalls of the encounter, in a dressing room at the Royal Court Theatre. “She put her hand on my shirt, and her fingers started drifting down towards my left nipple. I was like a doe caught in the headlights. I couldn’t move. I was mortified. I said, ‘Ma’am, I’ve really got to go – I’ve got an appointment!’”
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend on 4 November, 2021
(c) Waitrose Weekend