We spoke with the legend of stage and screen, Brian Cox ahead of the release of his memoir, and the third season of Succession.
Reader's Digest: How did you find the process of writing a memoir? It must be quite a daunting task.
Brian Cox: Yeah, it was—but it was something I had wanted to do for some time, and then it was facilitated by somebody asking me if I’d write a memoir, which kind of helped. But, you know, I’ve lived for quite a few years, so it is daunting from that point of view, and also deciding what you're going to talk about, what matters to you and what doesn’t matter to you. And wondering whether you're being unfair, or whether you're being unkind, who would be left out—all of that [thinking] goes on. But then you just get on with it and do it, and do it to the best of your ability, you know.
RD: The title of your memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, comes from an anecdote you tell in the book about fellow actor Oliver Cotton. Why did it feel like the right title?
BC: Well, there were a lot of [potential] titles for the memoir. Originally, my title was not that—I came to that title. My title originally was Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There. But, titles are hard. They’re the hardest things of all. And then, I remembered the story I tell in the book about Albert Finney saying, “Lads, lads, [acting is] just getting the rabbit out of the hat. You just take the rabbit out of the hat. That’s what you do! It’s so easy.” And, Oliver Cotton very rightly replying, “Yeah, but we’ve got to get the rabbit into the hat. So, how do we put the rabbit in the hat?” It sums up the process of what I do and also what one’s life is about, you know, putting the rabbit in the hat.
Cox with his children
RD: You say at one point that your upbringing is so much a part of you, that it’s written through you like words through a stick of rock, which is so beautifully put. What do you miss the most about Scotland when you're living in New York?
BC: Oh, the beauty of it, the land. My wife, Nicole [Ansari] summed it up beautifully once. It was the first time she was really ever in Scotland and we were driving up to the Highlands. She got out of the car, she threw herself on the ground, and she said, “It speaks! It speaks! The ground speaks!” And, I think that’s true about Scotland.
"It sums up the process of what I do and also what one’s life is about, you know, putting the rabbit in the hat"
I was actually there last week. I went to see my sister because she now lives in a care home there. I was given a free weekend for some work I did for Gleneagles, so I had a very nice weekend in Gleneagles. And, the view! They gave me this tower suite, which had its own deck, with a 360 degree view. I just thought, this is my home, this is where I come from, and it’s absolutely stunning! There’s nowhere like it.
I love Scotland and I’m very pleased that my Irish ancestors moved to Scotland, because the one difference between the Irish and the Scots is that Scots know how to say the word no, whereas the Irish don’t. I’m very Irish because I never say no. That’s my problem.
RD: When you’ve been in a city like New York for so long, a sense of your eye-line being forever hemmed in by buildings starts to creep up on you, doesn’t it?
BC: Yeah. Exactly. I have a place in the country here which is a little like Scotland. It’s not Scotland, but it’s something like it. It’s on the Massachusetts-New York border and I love it out there. It’s all hills, and it’s a beautiful town—we have a lovely little house. A guy wrote a book about it and he described it as a Jungian castle.
RD: There are some very striking moments in the book where you describe a few of your family members as dreaming of the alternative life they'd be living had other opportunities been around. Your mother, for example, who could have lived a different life in Canada. Is there something satisfying for you in being able to, in a sense, try on many different lives as an actor?
BC: I think so. I just recently discovered some writing of my mum’s which had been lost for a long time. It was in a little black bag that she had—I think it was from the 1930s. It looks like a little doctor’s bag. It’s very old. It was rather beautiful. And in it, I found a diary entry from my mum about my father’s passing [Cox was eight when his father died], and it was just written three days after the funeral. It was very moving, just incredible. I found it just before I went to see my eldest sister and when I read it to her, she said, “You know, mum really had a talent as a writer.”
"I’m very Irish because I never say no. That’s my problem"
She says unmistakably [about my father], “We had our little misgivings,” which was I thought a wonderful kind of Victorian way to express something. Misgiving, we don’t hear that expression anymore. She says that it was his generosity that was difficult for her, because she was the one who kept the house together, the home together. He was generous to a fault, you know, in her opinion. But at the same time, she said, “I was blessed to have such a man in my life because he taught me so much, even though it was tough.” He would give people the shirt off his back, that was the sort of extraordinary man my dad was. It’s difficult because when you have a father like that, and for me, because he died when I was young, I’ve never been able to live up to that notion of fatherhood because it’s so mythic. It has such a mythic power.
Cox and his wife Nicole Ansari on their wedding day in 2002
RD: You've said that the then relatively new invention of television provided you with comfort after he passed. Did that experience make you more aware of the power of creating a show such as Succession while the world was in the grip of a pandemic and that sense of grief is so present?
BC: Yeah, and I love watching television. I still get great comfort from that. I only twigged that that was what happened to me later, I didn’t put it together then that that was why I liked television so much. I think you're absolutely right. It really confirmed that that was the way I needed to go in a sense, you know, that I wanted to really give vent to my imagination and do it in a way I knew how, which was by performing, you know.
RD: Have there been any particular shows that have provided you comfort during the pandemic?
BC: Well, I liked The Queen’s Gambit a lot. I thought Anya Taylor-Joy gave an extraordinary performance.
My son has started introducing me to a few interesting Korean films, which I would never have watched, but he was passionate about them, and they were really extraordinary. I've watched the work of Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite.
And I just love old movies. I’m a sucker for seeing them. I watch something called Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel. There was a season on there for Jean Arthur, whom I absolutely adore. She’s an extraordinary actress—she’s quite comedic, but she was like glass, there was a fragility about her, but also a strength. She's a wonderful, wonderful actress, and one that I really admire. The other actress like that is Barbara Stanwyck. Those women I find extraordinary. They’re fragile, but they have this inner strength, which is quite stunning, you know, absolutely stunning.
Brian's sisters Bette and May
RD: In the memoir, you share the way the character of Logan Roy and yourself having a sort of displacement in common. Would you say you also share a rumination on legacy?
BC: Legacy does concern me in a way, but not quite in the way that it concerns Logan. I believe that my children have to be who they are and not who I want them to be. I think that’s the big difference.
Logan wants his children to be a certain thing, but ironically, I think it comes from love, and actually, believe it or not, protection. He wants to protect his children. And, of course, they are overprotected, and they suffer from entitlement, so they’re deeply confused. My kids, I just want them to be who they are. I don’t want to kind of steer them in any way. They’re all inclined towards my job, acting, of course, because both my sets of kids' mothers are actresses too. My daughter is extraordinary, she’s a producer. And, my other kids, you know, they’re still forming. My youngest is 16, and he’s toying with the difference between maybe acting and actually directing and cinematography. He’s quite interested in that. I’m all for them being themselves and being in their own power and finding their own power and forging it.
The other thing about my kids is that they have such a knowledge of food. My youngest has a great knowledge of food, which I find astonishing. We went off the other day and had beef Wellington. I think I’ve had beef Wellington once. Well, he was talking about it in such a way that I just thought, “Wow, he’s got a real grasp of what that is,” you know.
"The other thing about my kids is that they have such a knowledge of food"
RD: It must be surreal to hear your own children speaking about things that are removed from your experience?
BC: Absolutely! And, it’s the miracle of it, too. You know—who would have thought that somehow or other, we’d have created such an extraordinary individual.
RD: Your career has spanned over 60 years now, and I suppose to an extent the memoir seeks to answer this question, but what would you say is the biggest lesson that acting has taught you about living?
BC: I suppose the biggest lesson is that you cannot judge anything by its cover. You cannot judge people by what they appear to be, they’re much more mysterious. And, we don’t get access enough to people’s mystery, you know. I think all human beings have a kind of very strong sense of their own mysteriousness, and sometimes it confuses them, sometimes it causes them a lot of pain. Well, the thing that I’ve learned as an actor, because I’ve played so many people, is that the human experience is vast. It’s so mysterious, and it’s really huge. It’s absolutely huge. We create clichés to simplify things and make things accessible, but the truth is the human experience is far more complex, and that’s why I love what I do because it gives me access to recreate that, and find out about it, and give in to it and create a sensate being as a result. I don’t think there’s any greater job from that point of view.
Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox is out now from Quercus, priced, £20
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About the author: Anna Walker is senior editor of Reader's Digest and tweets at @annalouwalker