'Succession' actor Brian Cox can't defend Logan Roy, but he can relate to him
Cox says ruthless business tycoon Logan Roy is one of the most extraordinary roles he's ever played: "He is a misanthrope [who] is very disappointed with the human experiment." We talk with the Scottish actor about the musicality of his voice, why he doesn't practice method acting, and growing up in poverty.
Other segments from the episode on January 18, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Brian Cox, is one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession," a social political family satire embedded in a drama. Cox plays Logan Roy, the patriarch in a family-owned business empire, Waystar Royco, that becomes publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It includes a conservative cable news network, cruise lines, theme parks and more. His daughter and sons are competing over who will succeed their aging father when he's ready to step down or dies. Logan is all about power plays that will lead to more power and more money, with little regard for ethics, morality or the consequences of his actions on the lives of others. When Logan's son, Kendall, asks Logan if he ever thought that Kendall could take over, here's how Logan responded.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")
BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) You're not a killer. You have to be a killer.
GROSS: That wasn't a fair assessment because Kendall went on to prove he did have killer instincts as he tried to take down his father. Ruthlessness is a trait that Logan succeeded in passing on to his children. Cox won a Golden Globe for his performance in "Succession" and is now nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award. He's written a new memoir called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat." It begins in Dundee, Scotland, where he grew up after nearly dying at birth.
Let's hear another clip from "Succession." In this scene, Waystar Royco is being investigated by the Justice Department, and Logan's daughter Shiv is worried because she knows about the whistleblowers and the intimidation of victims. Shiv is played by Sarah Snook.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")
SARAH SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Can we - I mean, can we talk?
COX: (As Logan Roy) Yes, we can talk.
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) OK, well, we're a big company, but how bad is - what is the worst thing that can be in those papers?
COX: (As Logan Roy) Not all that bad - I mean, you know, health and safety compliance, a few bad apples. What?
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, I know that isn't true. Come on, Dad. Tom worked in cruises. Bill told him everything. And besides, I know that there are black ops, and I know that there was targeted intimidation of victims and whistleblowers. NRPI say...
COX: (As Logan Roy) Maybe there were some salty moves.
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) You can't just change your story.
COX: (As Logan Roy) I want to keep you clean. I put Gerri in, but I can't trust her. She's optics. I need you. Listen; I didn't know about any of this [expletive].
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, you're on emails.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Do you know how many emails I get a day? I don't read my emails. I get the action points.
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) I know.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Shiv, the world is rough. We ran a cruise line out of some tin-pot ports registered in Bongo [expletive] Bongo Hovels (ph)...
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Oh, boy.
COX: (As Logan Roy) ...And we poured millions in. And sure, did we play rough with the odd [expletive] union boss or some moaning-minnie repeat litigant? I don't know. It was a quarter a century ago, a lot of it. So, yes, I fought for you and your brothers, but you will not find a piece of paper that makes you ashamed of me, OK?
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, the government does have an unbelievable amount of leverage at its disposal, Dad - the law.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Yeah, the law. The law is people, and people is politics, and I can handle the people.
GROSS: Brian Cox, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you back on the show. I love "Succession," and I love you in it. So welcome (laughter).
COX: Thank you. It's good to be here and good to be back. Good to be back, Terry.
GROSS: The last line in the scene that we just played is so good - the law is people, and people is politics, and I can handle the people. When you - that's such a memorable line. Like, that's going to be a quoted line. So when you saw that line, did you think, like, wow, this is a good one?
COX: Yeah, I mean - well, there's so many good lines in the show. And, you know, it's very - he's a very - you know, he's an extraordinary character, Logan. I mean, he's probably one of the most extraordinary characters I've ever played because he is not what he appears to be. This is the interesting thing about Logan. I mean, he seems to be, like, this demon. And of course, he is a misanthrope, you know? He is very disappointed with the human experiment. He and I both share that, except he's a pessimist, and I'm an optimist. So that's the big difference between both of us. So at the same time, he's got a history. But he's also - you know, he's not - he just tells it like it is. And he's a truth-teller, and it's not pleasant, and people don't like it. And they always suspect his motives, but his motives are always to do with the business. It's always to do with the firm. It's always to do with what he's created. That's his concern.
But Roman, then, does - he said, well, what are you doing it for? And he says, well, maybe love. And of course, this is like a red rag to a bull because there isn't a lot of love coming from his children, you know? They talk about love, but, you know, he loves them, but where's the reciprocal? I mean, they just see him as a cash cow, you know, so much of the time. And that's the dilemma of the part, you know, is the fact that he's constantly caught on this dilemma of loving his children but finding them constantly wanting as individuals.
GROSS: OK, OK, I have to stop you here and say, I love that you are totally describing this from the point of view of your character, Logan Roy.
COX: Yes, I am.
GROSS: What you are leaving out here is the fact that he has no morals. He has no ethics. And if his children are spoiled and come up short on things, it's 'cause that's how he brought them up. He brought them up - it seems like he brought them up manipulating them, teaching them to fight for power, to fight with each other among - you know, for power. He's totally manipulative of them. He shows them no love (laughter). And so - but you're really seeing it from his point of view.
COX: I don't think he's capable of expressing love in that way. I think that's his problem.
GROSS: That is a problem.
COX: That's his difficulty.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's a big problem.
COX: You know, he's not - he can't do it because just - again, because of his background. You know, the historical inevitability of your own relationship, what you come through, what you - who you become out of what you become and what you are is always the kind of crux of any individual, you know? We're - you know, we are the sum of our history. And Logan is the sum of his history, which is a mysterious history and is a thwarted history. And I mean, I don't defend Logan in any way. But I also - you know, one of the jobs as an actor is we cannot judge our characters, but at the same time, we have to have a kind of eye on where our characters are. We've got to see them for - you know, in terms of the narrative of the show, in terms of what is required at any given moment.
GROSS: You asked the writers, does Logan love his children?
COX: I did.
GROSS: Why did you need to know? Why did you need to ask? And how did the answer affect your performance?
COX: I needed to know because I - you know, because is he vain? Is he just cruel? You know, is he needlessly cruel? And I - 'cause I thought, if he's needlessly cruel, this is going to be a very boring show for me. You know, I'm going to be playing one line throughout. And Jesse said, no, he loves his kids. So that's always the tension in his life, is that he actually loves his children. But constantly - and partly his responsibility because of the way he's brought them up. But, you know, there comes a point - I mean, I remember the great actor Brian Dennehy saying this to me, and I always remember it. He said, you know, after a certain age, all bets are off. You can blame your parents for everything, but finally, there's a point where you've got to say, hang on, you know? You know, I'm 30 now; I can't just keep blaming my mom and dad for my conditioning. You know, there's a point where I have to use my own intelligence and say, hang on, let me get the perspective on this. And, of course, this is what human beings sometimes - a lot of the time - fail to do.
GROSS: Are there other questions that you've asked the writers of "Succession?"
COX: Not many. No, I tend not to. I don't work in that way. I mean, the key question for me was when - does he love his children? Because once you have that, once you establish that, then the conflict is there, you know, however inner the conflict is. And we don't see it. That's the other thing about Logan. We don't see a lot of what's going on in his inner thinking. And he's angry. He's an angry man. He's a very, very angry man. And he's angry because of his own wants and his own frustrations that he can't - you know, he's created this monster, this thing. And at the end of the day, he loves it. It's his creation. But at the end of the day, it's highly questionable morally.
GROSS: So yes, he shows a lot of anger. He's an angry man. How do you play his anger? What do you want to show, and what do you want to kind of withhold when you play his anger?
COX: Well, his anger is about the fact that - his anger is based on the stupidity around him. The other thing about Logan is what people forget. He fires people and rehires them. This is what he's done. He has a team. There's two families in the show. You know, there's the kids, but there's also the people he's worked with for the last 30, 40 years - Gerri, Frank, Karl, you know, his financial manager, financial director. And what really is interesting about that, from my point of view, is they - he has shown to them, even though he's treated them in sometimes really appalling way, he's - ultimately does something that's ultimately loyal about his relationship to his staff, which people don't even notice.
They never notice it because they think, oh, well, he's just - you know, he's capricious in a way. You could say he's - there's an element of caprice, but there's also an element of constantly testing people, constantly testing their loyalty. And it's exhausting, you know, and he has a lot of respect. And he can be curiously offhand, like when he says - I mean, Gerri he has a lot of respect for, but then he - you know, then he says things like, you know, well, she's a million years old. What are you talking about?
COX: You know, that stuff. You know, and this just comes out because that's - because of his own element of ignorance, you know, about human relationships.
GROSS: But let's get back to playing his anger.
COX: Well, his anger comes from his childhood. It comes from his lack - you know, and I have personally a lot of anger in myself, partly because of my background, you know...
GROSS: Which we'll get into. Yeah.
COX: ...Which I didn't realize. So the anger is something that I can relate to. I can relate to his anger. And he has this relationship with his sister, Rose, which we never discover. We also have the relationship with Elspeth, his mum. He's named (unintelligible). So there is this sense of family in him, which is quite complicated because at the same time, it's his burden. You know, he wish he could - you know, we all do. We all wish we could get rid of certain stuff, but we can't. That's why it's an interesting role to play because there is a background that we don't even explore. We never see him other than we see him through other people's eyes. And we hear him, I mean, see him, and we go, but we never - there's never a moment where, you know, like - you know, like they did with Tony Soprano, where he sits down and goes and sees a psychiatrist, and he can talk certain ways. We don't do that. We never expose that element of them. But from the acting point of view, you have to store all that stuff up even though you don't play it. And anger is one of the key things.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Cox. He's written a new memoir called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "ALLEGRO IN C MINOR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Cox. He plays Logan Roy, the patriarch, in the HBO series "Succession." He's played so many roles through his career, from Shakespeare to Hannibal Lecter. And now he has a new memoir, which is called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat."
I want to ask you about your birth.
COX: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: You were born after your mother had four or five miscarriages, and you nearly died in childbirth. Can you explain the complications of your birth?
COX: Yeah, it was a horrendous thing for my poor ma. I mean, she was the one that really suffered because she - I mean, when I came into the world, I brought half a womb with me, as well, at the same time. Yeah, I mean, it was a struggle for her, and she was quite ill. She had had several miscarriages before me. And she was in. She was - what? She was 40, I think, when I was born. Yeah, she was 40. Or she was coming up to 40. And she had - it was horrendous. It was a horrendous birth. And, of course, you know, the whole thing about that sort of working class thing is you just put up with it. You know, there was no complaints.
I remember that, you know, my wife, my first wife - you know, she had - we lost children. We lost twins. And my mother came to stay, and my mother had this expression, which is - oh, I've to do it in a Scottish accent because that's - so when I was saying, you know, Caroline, my wife - I said, I'm worried about her, ma. She said, oh - she said - I said, you know, because of the twins and losing the twins. And she said (in Scottish accent), Brian, we've all dropped bairns, which is an extraordinary thing to say, which was we've all dropped babies. So this was, like, a common thing among, you know, women. You know, miscarriage wasn't something that was, you know, unusual. It was you - it was a process that women horrifically went through, you know, I mean, horrifically. And my mom was part of that, you know?
GROSS: So when you were born, among the complications was that the umbilical cord was wrapped around your throat. Your legs were in the wrong position.
COX: Yeah, I came in ass first (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. And as you say, your mother was physically and emotionally scarred by the birth.
GROSS: Did she talk with you about the fact - did you - how old were you when you found out how difficult the birth was and the impact it had, physically and emotionally, on your mother?
COX: I kind of got it when I was really quite young. I mean, I think my mom told me eventually after she was - you know, she had been ill, and she came home briefly. But she was never the same. You know, she was - she had electric shock treatment, so a lot of her memory stuff had gone, short-term memory had gone. Long-term memory was fine. So she did tell me about the birth, you know? And I was kind of, you know - it was a miracle, you know, 'cause I did have the cord wrapped around my neck, and I did come (laughter) - I don't know what I must have thought. I mean, what I felt was - and I went - I was the other way around as well. That's why I came - because, obviously, I was heading towards the birth canal, and I thought, there's no way I can get through here, so (laughter) I have to turn around, you know, and went the other way, you know, which was - weird, weird thing.
GROSS: Your father - when he died, you were 8 years old. No one had told you that he'd been diagnosed three weeks before with pancreatic cancer, so you were shocked. And so you lost a father. You lost his love. You lost his income. You lost the security of having a family that was - I mean, you were poor after he died. So how poor were you?
COX: Oh. Well, yeah, we were really poor. Well, the - I suppose the worst example - it didn't happen all the time - but the example was - would be we'd get to a Thursday night, and my mother got a pension on the Friday, and we wouldn't have any food. So I would go across to the fish and chip shop across the road from us, and I would - he was great. Mario (ph), you know, he - Carino (ph). And he would say - and I would go, and I would say, listen; can I have some batter bits? Now, batter bits are the bits that lie at the back of the pan. And he would give me a bag of batter bits, and that would be our dinner. It didn't happen all the time, but it did happen, at least, I think, three times.
GROSS: You fell in love with movies. What were some of the movies that you fell in love with at an early age?
COX: Well, I was - I mean, really, there's so many movies. I mean - and it's a kind of wide scale, actually. I mean, my stuff was - my mother was a Spencer Tracy - I mean, my mother adored Spencer Tracy. So any Spencer Tracy film I was immediately sent to see (laughter) even though I was still little. But of course, I love Martin and Lewis. That was the other thing - Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, those movies - not Lewis later on, but Dean Martin - Martin and Lewis. Danny Kaye - my favorite film of all time - it's my favorite comedy - is "The Court Jester" with Danny Kaye, which is - I absolutely adore that movie. And I always responded - I couldn't - there was nothing - English films didn't - you know, I'm a Scot. So English films didn't mean anything to me. Whereas American films I identified with immediately because they were all, you know, Cagney and people like that. They were all Irish immigrants (laughter), a lot of them - Tracy, you know. So they all came from the same Celtic stock. So - and somehow, the films resonated.
GROSS: So your period of becoming an actor coincided with this new period of social mobility where working-class actors...
COX: The greatest time.
GROSS: ...Were becoming accepted and working-class stories started being told in movies in England. Did you feel like your accent or your background ever held you back either in your training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art or in your access to roles?
COX: I mean, it did in a way. I mean, it's a feudal society, and it's everybody in their place. And the great thing about the '60s is anything was possible. You were encouraged to be who you were. You were encouraged to be able to talk in your own accent. And all of that started to change. Though ironically, the Scottish thing didn't kick in till later. So actually, I ended up playing - (laughter) when I started out, playing a lot of Liverpool people or Yorkshire. I played quite - I did a David Storey play, so I did - played a lot of Yorkshire people. You know, I played - did a film, and then I did a couple of plays that - in that way. So that was the sense of social mobility.
And the other great influence, of course, at the time was what was happening in music because it was the time of The Beatles. It was the time of The Rolling Stones. It was the time of The Who, The Kinks. So the music thing had burgeoned. And those guys - I mean, when I watched that wonderful documentary with Paul McCartney, you know, that thing from - "Get Back," from those days when they recorded the last album - I mean, it was like I - moved me to tears because that was the energy that was so - and the atmosphere that anything was possible, that we could do it. And it subsequently dissipated horribly because of everybody saying, oh, just remember who you are, you know? And it's still as futile as it ever was. And the people won't even see it because it's kind of hidden. It's into - it's in the fabric of the society.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Cox. He stars in "Succession" as the patriarch, Logan Roy. And now he has a new memoir called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "CONCERTO GROSSO IN C MINOR + END CREDITS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Brian Cox, who stars as Logan Roy, the patriarch of the family in the HBO series "Succession." He's played many roles in his career, from King Lear to Hannibal Lecter. And now he has a new memoir, which is called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat."
Was your character on "Succession" initially supposed to be American?
COX: Well, he's sort of partly American. I had - I always had the idea, you know, that Logan Roy could be Scots. I thought, Logan Roy - it's a Scottish name. So I thought, man, he could be Scots. I suggested it to Jesse. He said, no, no, no. He has to be American. He's got to be American. And I said, OK, fine. So I'm American. So I played it for nine episodes in the first season.
And then on the ninth episode, Peter Friedman, who plays Frank, had done an ADR session. He came to me and said, you know, they've changed your birthplace - because originally, I was born in Quebec, and, you know, I travelled around. But I was originally born in Quebec. That was the idea. And I said, what do you mean they've changed my birthplace? He said, well, yeah, you're no longer - he said, you're no longer born in Quebec. And he'd done a big speech about in the first episode. And I said, so where am I born? He said, oh, I can't remember. And he looked at his device. He said, yeah, here we are - somewhere called Dundee, Scotland.
COX: And I went, that's where I'm from. And he said, oh, that's a coincidence. And I said, I'm not sure if it is a coincidence. And I went to Jesse, and I said, what the hell is going on? Oh, he said, we thought you'd be a little surprised. I said, that's a hell of a surprise. I've been acting this character for nine episodes, thinking he's born in Quebec, Canada, with the kind of, you know, mutt Vermont Canadian accent. Then I said, now I'm a Scot. And he said, yeah, well, we just thought it was more interesting, you know? So it was kind of bizarre. That whole thing was totally bizarre.
GROSS: Did you have to redo anything?
COX: No, no, no, no, didn't have to because he's got - because he's lived in America, you know, and basically, he's been - we slip in and out. So it kind of works that I do it, you know? I mean, when I was a kid, of course, when I was a little boy, I mean, I ended up playing movies. I was always playing - I was always doing American accents - right? - from the age of about 5.
GROSS: What do you hear in American accents?
COX: What do I hear? Ease of sound. I think sometimes it's - I mean, I do worry about Americans not enunciating things. And as I get older, I get a little bit more hard of hearing. But, you know, so everyone (mumbling) kind of goes on like that, you know, a little bit. But also, its ease. It's also - it is the language of an egalitarian society because it's not - you can't - I mean, of course, you've got the regions, and you've got the various influences like the Appalachians. You've still got the Scottish influence, actually, down there.
But it's what has been attractive, and it's also a passionate accent. It's a great - you know, it's a great one for an argument, you know? And so I like it. But as I get older, I go more and more towards English because I go to more and more for clarity. And sometimes Americans isn't always clear, you know?
GROSS: I want to talk with you about the musicality in your line readings. And what I want to do is play the same clip that we heard earlier, an excerpt of that clip. And there's a line I particularly want to ask you about. And it's the line where you say, we're talking about misdeeds from a while ago. And you say, I don't know. It was, like, a quarter a century ago, a lot of it. So let's listen back to that clip, and then we'll talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")
COX: (As Logan Roy) Listen. I didn't know about of this [expletive].
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, you're on emails.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Do you know how many emails I get a day? I don't read my emails. I get the action points.
SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) I know.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Shiv, the world is rough. We ran a cruise line out of some tin pot ports registered in bongo [expletive] bongo hovels, and we poured millions in it. Sure. Did we play rough with the odd [expletive] union boss or some moaning mini repeat litigant? I don't know. It was a quarter a century ago, a lot of it. So, yes, I fought for you and your brothers. But you will not find a piece of paper that makes you ashamed of me. OK?
GROSS: OK. It's so musical the way you do your lines and the way you say things that, like, avoid responsibility. Like, you know? I don't know. It was a quarter century ago, a lot of it. So do you score your lines? Do you put pauses in? Or like, how do you approach it so that ends it up - so it ends up sounding just so ear-catching?
COX: You know, I think I'm just gifted. You know, I have a God-given gift, which is my voice. And I'm also part - I mean, one of the great things for me as an actor was to listen to voices of other actors. I remember years and years ago John Henderson - I remember when I first did - when he - I listened to four different versions of Hamlet's not to be or not to be, rogue and peasant slave speech. I listened to Johnson Forbes-Robertson. I listened to Ernest Milton. I listened to John Barrymore, who murdered it ridiculously. The best one was Johnson's Forbes-Robertson. He was so quick and so deft with the language.
So language has always been the thing to me and how you use language. And I have an instinct for it. It's just who I am. I mean, I am blessed. But I've also had the training. And then I've worked with people like John Gielgud, who is - was an astonishing speaker of the verse and who really understood how to speak. Sometimes he even said it himself. When I was young, it was the voice beautiful. So I kind of did a lot of that stuff. And then Scofield, Paul Scofield, who I think is - for me, is the finest stage actor I've ever seen, bar none.
GROSS: Can I stop you a second? You said that - something about the voice beautiful. What are you referring to?
COX: Well, Gielgud talked about when he was younger that sometimes he would say - you know, because I worked with him. I did "Julius Caesar" with him. And he said - he did say to me - he said, you know, when I was younger, I kind of got in - I started off well, but then I started to listen to myself a little bit. You know, I could hear that - and he - and you can hear it in his voice, that he did get - he started to trill it a little bit.
The thing about it, Terry, is you've always got to base in the truth. It's subject, verb and object. You know, that's what you have to base it. And it's simple grammar. And when you understand the principles of grammar, then the cadences of the voice take on those principles. It's as simple as that. But if you don't understand subject, verb and object - and a lot of people don't. A lot of actors don't. A lot of American actors don't see it as - they see it emotionally, and they don't see it in terms of clarity, you know. I mean, the emotion thing, of course, has got to be there, but that's a given. But the thing is clarity. And the thing is actually making the audience listen to you. How do you make an audience listen to you? And you make the audience listen by being clear and by being - by inhabiting the line, by understanding where you are on the line. And this goes right back to Shakespeare and the Iambic pentameter - to be or not to be, that is the question, whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and by opposing, end them. You know, that's what you have to understand.
GROSS: Since you're into looking at a script in terms of subject, object, verb and not just, like what is the emotion here, do you actually, like, grammatically dialogue sentences or do you just think of, like, what is the intent of this...
COX: That's what I do. I mean, I just do it automatically. And, of course, it does feed the emotion. And, of course, the anger, all the stuff that I have, you know, I don't have any problem with any of that stuff. My problem is to be more discreet, to be, you know - and that's the learning process even as I continue in my 70s as an actor is that's what I'm doing. I'm constantly adjusting to find out - to get it more finer what I'm doing.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian Cox. He has a new memoir called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brian Cox. He stars as the patriarch of the family, Logan Roy, in the HBO series "Succession." Now he has a new memoir called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat."
You've worked with many actors. And you've worked with many actors with different approaches to acting. You don't personally subscribe to, like, the method approach where you dig down into your own emotional memory to play the character or where you stay in character while on set, even when you're not on stage or in front of the camera. But you've worked with actors who do have that approach. And you mentioned Daniel Day-Lewis, who you worked with in the film "The Boxer" and how he would stay in character. What impact does it have on you when you're not staying in character, when you're not in front of the camera, but an actor who you're working with is staying in character?
COX: Well, it's (laughter) - I'm afraid it's a question of horses for courses, really. And there's one particular horse from one particular course, and they pursue that course, and that horse pursues that course. My thing about - what I feel is that you've got to be able to walk away. You've got to be able to turn on a dime. You can't get over attached because once you're over attached, you lose your sense of perspective. And with anything in drama, you got to have the perspective, what you're doing. You know, you've got to keep perspective going because that's the momentum of the - whatever is happening within the given play or film or TV, the drama.
So I find that, I mean, Dan was fascinating. He was great. And he's a great actor. And also, you know, I'm not going to knock that because I think whatever gets you through the day, fine. The only problem is when it - is the effect it has on the community. Now, when we've got actors or working in a certain kind of way and there's a sort of - there are - demands are made are seemingly selfish or self-serving, it becomes really, really problematic.
GROSS: There's a now-famous profile in The New Yorker of Jeremy Strong, who plays one of your sons in Succession. He plays Kendall. And apparently, he stays in character and wants to get so deep into the role of that when he was playing Yippie leader Jerry Rubin in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" movie, during a scene with a clash with the police during a protest. He wanted real tear gas to be used, which, of course, Aaron Sorkin decided against when he directed the film. But I think he's great. I think Jeremy Strong is great as Kendall in "Succession." But are there issues for you in terms of your approach being in conflict at all with his approach?
COX: Well, my - I try not to make - you know, I try not to make that happen because I, you know, I will, you know, I will deal with it. And, you know, and I - and if it's working within the scene, that's fine. But I'm not going to attach myself to it because otherwise you become, you know, it distracts you. And I won't be distracted. You know, that's the important thing. I have - I've got to do my job, you know.
GROSS: So, like, when you're not in front of the camera, it's hard for you to engage with somebody who's staying in character. That's going to get in your way. But as long as the work is good, that's fine. As long as...
COX: It doesn't get - I don't let it get in my way. I never let it get in my way because I just accept that that's what they do. My worry is their responsibility to the community because it's a communal thing. It's a group thing. It's not just about your performance. It is about all of our performances and the harmony we create and the tensions that we create within that harmony, you know. I mean the harmony in terms of we're all in the same, you know, we have the same intention of getting the program out and making it the best we can. So, you know, and that's my only question. That's the only thing that I go, no, you know. And the group dynamic is very important. When you've got a great group dynamic, you always have a great show. And "succession" is about the group dynamic. That's what's so powerful about "Succession." And also you get some great performances, including Jeremy Strong, in the middle of it, you know, and that's also great. But my thing is the group dynamic is very, very important.
GROSS: So one more question because I know you have to go. You know, you write about how your father was a confirmed agnostic. Your mother was a fervent Catholic, although she came to question that when her mental health started to fail. You write that you think when we die, it's like turning off an appliance. It's just - the switch is off, and it's as simple as that. How did you come up with that appliance analogy? And does it give you comfort to think that, to think like you die and that's it?
COX: Well, I think so. You know, we have so many of them. We have the whole God stuff, you know, and our whole - everything in our lives are all predicated on this idea of there's life after death and it's this and it's that, it's the next thing. And I go, no, I mean, I just think it's energy. And when it's switched off, it's switched off. And when you go, you go, you know?
And there's all kinds of things. I mean, there's a very interesting thing that happened to my wife. My father-in-law passed quite recently. And this - I mean, I do think we're part of some kind of process. So I do think there's something going on other than the God thing. There is something going on with the whole business of life, that we are part of a big, huge experiment that's going on. And it was interesting. My wife, who's much more spiritual than I am, she said to her dad, you know, just before he died, she said, you know, send me a sign.
And what happened was that he when he died, they kept his body. And it was very - because normally - because he was Iranian, her father. My wife is half-Iranian. And normally, they bury the bodies very quickly. But no, they kept the body for a couple of days, and people came and saw him, and he was in bed dead. And on the last day, it was getting a bit smelly, so she opened the windows. And this robin flew in. And it flew around the room, and it sat - there was a photograph of her maternal grandparents, who are both past, and the robin sat there for a bit. And then it got up and it flew and it landed right on my late father-in-law's head and sat there for several minutes. And then it took off, circled and then it flew off and flew out. So you go, this is astonishing. And my wife's got the photograph of her father with the bird sitting on his head. And it's - so you go, there's something, but I don't know what it is (laughter).
GROSS: Brian Cox, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much, and thank you for your portrayal of Logan Roy. I love the show.
COX: Thank you, Terry. It's always good to talk to you - challenging but great in a good way.
GROSS: Brian Cox is a star of the HBO series "Succession." His new memoir is called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat." I was surprised to read in his memoir that he starred in a 1995 London revival of "The Music Man." I don't associate him with musicals, so I thought it would be fun to hear him as Harold Hill.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE MUSIC MAN")
COX: (As Harold Hill) Friends, may I have your attention, please? Attention, please. I can deal with this trouble, friends, with the wave of my hand, this very hand. Please observe me, if you will. I'm professor Harold Hill. And I'm here to organize the River City Boys Band. Brrrrr (ph). Oh, think, my friends, how could any pool table ever hope to compete with a gold trombone? Ra-da-ra-da-da-da-da-ra-da (ph). Remember, my friends, what a handful of trumpet players did to the famous fabled walls of Jericho. Oh, billiard parlor walls come tumbling down. Oh, a band will do it, my friends, oh, yes, I mean a boys band. Do you hear me? I say River City's got to have a boys band, and I mean she needs it right today. But professor Harold Hill's on hand and River City's going to have a boys band, as sure as the Lord made little green apples. And that band's going to be in uniform. Johnny, Willie, Teddy, Fred, and you'll see the glitter of crashing cymbals. You'll hear the thunder of roaring drums, the shimmer of trumpets ta-ta-da (ph). And you'll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when Gilmore, Liberati, Pat Conway, the Great Creatore, W.C. Handy and John Philip Sousa all came to town on the very same historic day.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
COX: (As Harold Hill, singing) Seventy-six trombones led the big parade with 110 coronets close at hand. They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos, the cream of every famous band. Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun with 110 coronets right behind. There were more than a thousand reeds springing up like weeds. There were horns of every shape and kind. There were copper-bottom timpanies and horse platoons thundering, thundering all along the way.
GROSS: After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "A Hero." It's Iran's entry in the Oscar race for best international feature. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER SONG, "I'LL WALK AWAY")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Iran's entry in the Oscar race for best international feature is the drama "A Hero," which is now playing in theaters and will start streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video. It's the latest movie written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, who previously won Oscars for his films "A Separation" and "The Salesman." Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review of "A Hero."
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece "The Rules Of The Game," a character famously observes, the awful thing about life is this - everyone has their reasons. Few contemporary filmmakers have taken Renoir's words more to heart than Asghar Farhadi, who tells rigorous but compassionate stories in which people's motives are always more complicated than they appear. That's very much the case in Farhadi's new movie, "A Hero," a gripping moral drama about what happens when a seemingly good deed goes unexpectedly awry.
It takes place in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where an unlucky man named Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi, is serving three years in debtor's prison. At the start of the movie, Rahim is released on two days' leave and returns home to spend time with his family, including his young son from a past marriage. Rahim also has a girlfriend who recently found a handbag in the street containing 17 gold coins, which they try to sell in hopes of paying off Rahim's creditor, the one who's keeping him behind bars. But when they find that the coins aren't valuable enough to cover his debts, the wily Rahim comes up with a scheme to rehabilitate his image.
He puts up flyers around town, trying to track down the bag's owner. And sure enough, a woman soon comes forward and claims the coins as her own. Through some deft calculations on his part, Rahim ensures that his good Samaritan act becomes widely known. And his story makes headlines on the news and on social media. A charity begins raising money on his behalf. Even the prison, where he returns once his leave has ended, is grateful for the positive attention. Farhadi surveys this media circus with a skeptical eye. And you know that it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops.
Not everyone buys Rahim's story, certainly not his creditor and former brother-in-law, Bahram, who lost a lot of money on one of Rahim's failed business ventures and doesn't trust him at all. A simpler movie might have villainized Bahram for not being more forgiving. But Farhadi treats him fairly and sympathetically. It's Bahram who asks the story's most pointed question. Why do we applaud people for doing the right thing rather than simply expecting them to do it? Before long, other people start questioning exaggerations and inconsistencies in Rahim's story. The woman who claimed the bag suddenly vanishes. And people wonder if she really existed.
Even when facing adversity, Rahim tends to fall back on a charming, eager-to-please smile. But Amir Jadidi's superb performance, the anchor of an all-around terrific ensemble cast, subtly reveals the character's mounting desperation as his plan falls spectacularly apart. "A Hero" is Farhadi's strongest movie since "A Separation." And like that 2011 triumph, it begins by delivering the narrative pleasures of a great detective story and winds up feeling like an X-ray of Iranian society. Farhadi isn't as confrontational a filmmaker as some of his peers, like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, who have been persecuted by the Iranian government for their work. But the social critique is there.
Farhadi reveals the injustices of the country's prison system. And he's attentive as always to gender inequality. More than once in this movie, men make rash decisions and women end up paying the price. Farhadi also lays bare the workings of a moralistic society where virtue - or the perception of virtue - is the true coin of the realm. And he shows us how institutions, even well-meaning ones - like the charity that helps Rahim - exploit people's inspirational stories.
There's nothing inspirational about "A Hero," whose title begs to be read ironically. But if Farhadi is a pessimist about human nature, he isn't a cynic. And he doesn't discount the possibility of real, hard-won heroism. Some of the film's most moving scenes show Rahim trying to reconnect with his son and shield him from the consequences of shame and scandal, and doing it far away from the media spotlight. The truest acts of decency, Farhadi reminds us, are rarely performed in front of a camera - except, perhaps, a movie camera as perceptive as his.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed the new film "A Hero." It's now in theaters and starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the new film "The Power Of The Dog." He was voted Best Actor for his performance by the National Society of Film Critics. He's also in the new film "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as Doctor Strange. Many Americans were introduced to Cumberbatch as the star of the BBC series "Sherlock." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID ARNOLD AND MICHAEL PRICE'S "THE GAME IS ON")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID ARNOLD AND MICHAEL PRICE'S "THE GAME IS ON")
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