Actor Brian Cox is pondering his own mortality.
The star, who is currently starring as media magnate Logan Roy in the third series of HBO’s Succession, has lost so many of his acting peers over the years, from Gielgud and Olivier to Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole and Alan Rickman, that he’s become acutely aware of how fragile life is.
“I’m 75 and I keep imagining every day how I’m going to die,” he states, rather dramatically. “Am I going to be stabbed by a disaffected person? Am I going to fall off a platform or fall down a flight of stairs? Every day, it’s there. It’s kind of fun, in a way, imagining your own departure.”
“We don’t take death seriously enough, because we’re too frightened of it,” he continues. “We should look at it as part of the movement that goes on.”
It’s a cerebral moment for the man who has played so many alpha males on stage and screen, from Hannibal Lecter and Churchill, to King Lear and Titus Andronicus, and starred in movies including Manhunter, Braveheart, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.
His advancing years played some part in his decision to write his memoir, Putting The Rabbit In The Hat, which is packed with anecdotes of the actors and creative mentors he worked with, from Oscar winners and theatrical icons to royalty – his story about the late Princess Margaret unbuttoning his shirt and sliding her hand on to his chest at a post-theatre gathering is a cracker.
It leapfrogs between amusing and emotional, the struggles of his early life forging a deep-seated insecurity and lifelong fear of poverty.
“It was cathartic, trying to figure stuff out which was unfigurable for me before, and the arbitrary nature of life,” he says of writing the book. “When I was young, everybody said, ‘Long haul for you, Cox’ [meaning it would take him a long time to enjoy acting success]. Well, I didn’t do too badly.”
Of course, the hit satirical series Succession, for which he won a Golden Globe, has garnered a whole new generation of fans who love to hate Logan Roy, the foul-mouthed, intimidating media mogul who tests and twists the knife on his toxic children, each champing at the bit to take control of his empire.
“I’m no longer anonymous,” Cox states frankly. “I have this evil twin [Logan Roy] that I have to face up to on a regular basis. People come up to me and say, ‘Can you tell me to f*** off?’ [in Logan’s voice] and I happily do so.”
There are elements of Logan Roy which Cox can relate to, he continues.
“In Logan, there is some kind of deprivation element, but he’s much more pessimistic and misanthropic than I am. I’m an optimist.
“I have empathy with him in many ways. How does he take care of his children? Who is going to take over his business? Whatever you think of him, he’s worked hard all his life. All he’s asking is, which child is worthy of taking over his business?
“They all disappoint. That’s the truth. They are not likeable but they are human and they all have human failings. I think there’s an enormous humanity in our show.”
Introducing PUTTING THE RABBIT IN THE HAT, the long-awaited memoir by movie & theatre legend, Brian Cox.
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— Quercus Books (@QuercusBooks) June 22, 2021
His regular contemplations on death haven’t only affected him in his professional life. They have been with him since he was a wee Dundee lad of eight-years-old, the youngest of five children, when his beloved father Chic (short for Charles) died from pancreatic cancer, leaving a lot of debt, which became the catalyst for poverty.
His widow, Molly, who was already mentally and physically frail from having five children and numerous miscarriages, entered ‘black depths of despair’, he writes. She ended up being hospitalised, while the young Brian went to live with an older sister and her family.
“There was a ricochet effect, more than anything else, on my mother,” he says now. “I was still at the age when I depended on my parents. My mother went to pieces. Everything was too much for her.”
His father, a grocer, had ended up in debt after a business investment failed and because he was just too kind to customers, Cox explains.
“When he died, he had something like £10 in the bank, and it was a huge shock to my mum. She’d been on his case about his generosity. She used to say, ‘Charity begins at home’.
“He was ridiculously loved by everybody. When he died, about 400 people came to his funeral [although Brian was sent to his cousin’s and put in front of the TV],” he recalls. “My problem when I became a father was that my dad was mythic. I could never live up to him.”
His father’s death and the financial struggles which followed left a legacy of insecurity and fear of poverty, he agrees.
“I became a really independent boy far too young, but it also served me in the long run. I don’t depend on anybody, because I know people are getting on with their lives.”
“I still have that Damoclean feeling of poverty, which hangs over my head today,” he continues.
Surely, though, as a hugely successful actor, he doesn’t need to feel like that? He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Nicole, and two teenage sons (he has two older children from his first marriage), and still has a house in Primrose Hill, London.
“My wife accuses me of being stingy sometimes,” he chuckles, noting that when his father-in-law died recently, he suggested using his air miles to finance his boys’ flights home from the US to attend the funeral.
He also admits that he’s a workaholic, a throwback to those early years of financial hardship.
It was a time when the young Brian would escape to the local cinema into a world of fantasy, and at 14 joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre, before gaining a place at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), later working extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.
He enjoyed theatre and film successes across the pond too, starring as the original Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter in 1986 and in Rob Roy in 1995, but moved to the US permanently in 2008 to pursue movies, settling in Manhattan.
As a supporter of Scottish independence, he says he would consider moving back to Scotland at some point.
“I love the country, but I’ve been so peripatetic over the years, I’ve moved and shifted. People accuse me of being this Hollywood guy, but I pay my taxes. I have dual citizenship and I spend as much time here as I can – I have an apartment in London, my man cave, my getaway place – but I do go to Scotland on a regular basis. I have two 90-year-old sisters there.”
Cox doesn’t seem to be taking his foot off the gas workwise. Does he still have those old actors’ fears of rejection?
“The opposite is happening – I’m not being rejected, I’m being embraced. I only read the good reviews,” he says wryly. “But I don’t like watching myself on screen. I prefer doing. I’m a doer. I’ve worked with actors who rush around the monitor to see what they’ve just done. That’s anathema to me.”
He’s leaving his options open, saying if the right play comes along, he’d be happy with another stint in the theatre, and more movies.
“And I’m very happy doing Succession,” he adds. “It’ll end when it ends and I won’t be saying, ‘Oh no, it’s over! What am I going to do?’”
Putting The Rabbit In The Hat by Brian Cox is published by Quercus, priced €23. Available now