Interview: Brian Cox

James Mottram

The legend of stage and screen, Brian Cox, reveals his thoughts on political correctness, the secrets to longevity and one very scandalous moment with Princess Margaret herself 

Brian Cox is back. Literally. The acclaimed actor has just flown over from the States and spent the last two weeks in London, “socially distancing myself”, before taking a trip back to his native Scotland to visit his 90 year-old sister. She lives in a care home just a few minutes from his daughter Margaret’s cottage on the River Tay, near Aberfeldy.

“I was supposed to try and get to see her in April but of course with the lockdown I never did.”

Cox, who turned 74 in June, had COVID himself at the turn of the year, despite sheltering in his home in upstate New York, which he shares with his wife, actress Nicole Ansari.

“I have the antibodies, which was a mystery to me,” he says. “I would’ve said I was almost asymptomatic, but I wasn’t. I had a bad sneezing fit in December. And my doctor said that’s when I had it. It’s clearly been around a lot longer than people have let on.”

Thankfully, Cox has made a full recovery—though it’s not been straightforward. “I’ve been living with two teenage boys in lockdown for the last five months. Not an easy experience!” He and Ansari’s two sons, Orson and Torin, have been struggling like anyone else. “My youngest son. He’s very tall. He’s six foot three, and he’s going through all kinds of hormonal shifts, as teenage boys go through and to do online learning… he misses the human contact.”


Brian Cox after winning a Golden Globe for his performance in Succession 

Ironically, this has all coincided with a hugely fruitful period in Cox’s working life. Next year he celebrates the 60th anniversary of a stage and screen career—he started in Dundee rep when he was 15—that has seen him do everything from King Lear at the RSC to the original Hannibal Lecter (spelled “Lecktor”) in serial killer classic Manhunter. And he’ll do so with one of the best roles of his life, his Golden Globe-winning turn as media mogul Logan Roy in HBO must-see drama Succession.


Manhunter

Like a toxic mix of Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, Cox’s foul-mouthed Roy holds a nightmarish sway over his power-hungry family, each desperate to take control of his ailing media empire. “I love it. It’s a great role,” he beams, “and it’s going on through so many shifts.” Originally intended to be just one season—Roy has a stroke early doors—his continuation helped the show retain its venom. “By the time you get to ‘boar on the floor’, you have a glimpse of the demonic.”

Already cemented in TV history, the “boar in the floor” scene, from the third episode of season two, saw Roy force some of his family members to play a demeaning game—grunting like pigs and squabbling over sausages. So powerful, so humiliating, it probably single-handedly won Cox his Globe (he’d previously been nominated for playing Hermann Goring in TV mini-series, Nuremberg back in 2000, which also snagged him an Emmy).

"The only thing to do with political correctness is to fly in the face of it"

Frustratingly for fans, the third season was put on hold due to lockdown. “We were supposed to start on April 20. We never started. I mean we’re still waiting. We’ll hopefully go at the end of the year or the beginning of the next.” If anyone can sweeten that prolonged wait, Cox can. “I’ll tell you this much,” he says, conspiratorially. “I know what’s happening. I can’t tell you what’s happening. But I’ll tell you that it’s even better than season two.” This is Cox all over—a fabulously gifted raconteur who would, undoubtedly, be glorious company over a malt whisky or two. Nobody tells stories like Cox. Nobody swears like him either (as anyone who saw his glorious cameo as screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Adaptation will know). When I met him years ago, for Hollywood comedy The Ringer, he told me: “Oh, I love flying in the face of political correctness. It’s the only thing you do with political correctness—fly in the face of it.”


The Bay of Silence 

When we start talking about his new film, The Bay of Silence, it becomes clear this aspect of his personality hasn’t changed. A taut and involving psychological thriller, based on the 1986 book by English novelist Lisa St Aubin de Terán, whom he’d spent time with, Cox plays Milton, a well-to-go gallery owner and stepfather to Olga Kurylenko’s pregnant photographer, whose tumble from a balcony at the beginning of the film triggers a psychotic episode.

Much of the story is seen through the eyes of her husband Will (Claes Bang), who is left to seek out his wife after she disappears, but Cox brings his usual panache to the role of a man facing a changing world. “It’s not the world that was,” he says. “The aesthetic of the world has changed. He would be a victim of #MeToo, but also of the cancel culture.” He chuckles to himself. “I seem to be playing a lot of white dinosaurs.”

We then return to this idea of political correctness, and the subject of Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, who recently came under fire for tweeting opinions about the transgender community. In particular, she took issue with an article that discussed “people who menstruate”, objecting to the fact the story did not use the word “women”. “I know and love trans people,” she later wrote, “but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.”

"Call something what it is as opposed to something that you think it should be"

Much of this passed Cox by, initially. “I was asking my son because I’d been away when this JK Rowling thing had been going on. I kept saying, ‘So what happened?’ He said, ‘Well, she believes women menstruate.’ That’s what they do, don’t they?” He belly laughs. “He said, ‘Well, people don’t like that.’ And you go, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ Call something what it is, as opposed to something that you think it should be. And it is—it’s the cancel culture. I keep well away from it.”

He’s marvellously indiscreet when he wants to be. He recently revealed Reader's Digest that he’d had an “encounter,” shall we say, with Princess Margaret, when he was performing in a 1969 Royal Court production of In Celebration, alongside Alan Bates and James Bolam. Her Royal Highness came into the dressing room “and started to run her fingers down the inside of my shirt”. Was this true? “Oh yeah...well, in 60 years, things like that happen! And it did happen! She unbuttoned my shirt, on my birthday!”

He was 23 at the time and it was just a few years after he’d graduated from Lamda. I suggest that Netflix’s TV show The Crown should’ve featured this moment. “Yeah, well, they didn’t know about it in The Crown! They didn’t know about it. Unfortunately, a lot of people [who were there] are dead. But James Bolam, who is still alive and thriving—he was there and he was the one that was making [surprised] noises while she was doing it. She couldn’t hear him!”

Being graced by royalty must likely have been shocking for the young Cox—he was 24 at the time. The youngest of five, he came from a working-class Dundee background. His mother Mary worked as a spinner; his father Charles was a police officer and, sadly, passed away from cancer when Cox was eight. His mother later had a nervous breakdown and, from the age of ten, he was largely looked after by his sisters. Cox left school in his mid-teens, and became a stage manager. 

"Time is such a funny thing—it all seems to be very short"

Since then, his longevity in the business is remarkable. “Well, I think part of it is never standing still. I’ve learned to be a moving target. There have been occasions where I’ve been shot up because I stood still! But I bobbed and weaved. I went to the US when I was 50, because I always wanted to do movies, but I’d had a theatre career here. I had a good career when I was young. And then I worked and followed my instincts.”


Zodiac 

When he went to Hollywood, on the back of roles on Rob Roy and Braveheart in the mid-Nineties, he found acclaimed filmmakers queuing up. Among them: Wes Anderson (Rushmore) Spike Jonze (the aforementioned Adaptation), Spike Lee (25th Hour) and David Fincher (Zodiac). There were also key roles in the Jason Bourne franchise and X-Men 2—still the best film in the superhero series. It’s a collection of films anyone would be proud to have on their CV.

“Somebody once actually said to me, ‘It’s the long haul, Brian’ and they were right, and I thought about that,” he muses. “I thought, Yeah, I still want to do this when I’m 70. So I am and I’m still doing it! It’s worked out the way I hoped it would work out. So I actually feel quite grateful for that. But it’s also been quite conscious on my part. Time is such a funny thing—it all seems to be very short. Especially during lockdown. I get up in the morning, and I go to bed just after I’ve got up. What happened?” That’s something we can probably all relate to right now.

 

The Bay of Silence is available on digital and DVD now 

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