“It’s all in the timing” goes the actor’s adage, but releasing a memoir the moment your series hits a cliffhanger takes magic. Brian Cox’s Putting the rabbit in the hat (Grand Central Publishing, Jan. 18) will please fans of HBO’s succession—in which Cox portrays the somber Logan Roy — as it chronicles collaborations with British theater legends and dishes on movie stars from Lauren Bacall to, er, Steven Seagal. He may be the only person who can claim that Laurence Olivier saved his life. (In fact, Cox survived) two high-profile near-death experiences.) And he is inappropriately, in public, caressed by English royalty. (Read the book.)
In his foreword succession executive producer Frank Rich calls the actor’s childhood Dickensian, but Cox’s DNA mix of “Micks and Macs” means the bitingly funny Scotsman never leaks self-pity. Cox’s harsh upbringing – the death of his father, subsequent suicide attempts by his mother – happily spills over into his new home and refuge: Scotland’s Dundee Repertory, where the actor cuts his bones in the vibrant art for the first time.
From there, Cox’s ascent is dizzying because, again, his timing is deft: he comes of age during the Angry Young Man movement, when British tastes gravitated towards “rough-hewn” characters. The actor applies that brash authenticity to roles like Marlon Brando and Winston Churchill, as well as fictional beasts like Hannibal Lecter and, of course, Logan Roy. But Cox himself is anything but beastly, as this interview proves. We spoke on the phone with Cox, who splits his time between the US and the UK; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s explain the title: it refers to a production at the National Theater when director Peter Hall wasn’t doing his job.
and Albert [Finney] told the cast: “Come on guys, we’re like wizards. Let’s pull the rabbit out of the hat.” And the answer was, “You have to get the rabbit in the hat first.”
Why choose that anecdote as the title?
Funny, my favorite title was Lindsay Anderson’s quote from the book, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” But the editors didn’t think potential readers would understand. I like the one I chose: you have to get the rabbit in the hat before you perform. The substance has to be there first, otherwise it’s hollow, it’s just screaming in the dark.
I also read it as an enigma of the actor’s process. On these pages I intend to “put the rabbit” in the hat”: expose the invisible threads of our craft.
Exactly right. I say acting is not a mystery. It makes sense: as soon as you create the links, a role starts. I keep running into American actors who have to make it a religious experience. Like that well-known story about Olivier that Dustin Hoffman tells, while he was in his own skin during… Marathon Man [because his character is tortured and kept awake]: “Dear boy, why not try Act† And that approach will cost you! Daniel Day-Lewis has retired early. An actor I work with now – I won’t name him – who is quite “Method” says “Brian, you’re making two movies and to shoot succession† How?” And I say, “It’s acting!”
Discreet of you not to mention him, for there is no lack of candor in this memoir. Is there a bridge you wish you hadn’t burned?
When you’re 75, you tend to say what you want. In the addendum to the paperback I say something like, “Look, this happened 30 years ago when that person was an asshole. Maybe he isn’t anymore.” Because that’s life – everyone changes. And unless you face the vicissitudes, you do not face the truth. Like acting: You put on a penny to get ahead of an audience.
And yet you are known for your silence. You contrast your approach with that of Sir Ian McKellen.
Yes: actors who are “forefoot” actors. They show up, do their best and that’s perfectly legitimate for the public wanting to get what they paid for. It’s not my taste, trying to deal with the quieter truth about who someone is. Because what an audience should experience is more of a ceremony.
You say it must be atonement.
Yes, and this sacred idea occurred to me as a child in Dundee. Theater has a spiritual reality. We don’t realize what happens when we sit like this in a community in the dark and share an experience. There should be a fine, and we actors bring the congregation together and pay on behalf of the public.
Do you think you had a happy life after completing this memoir?
I certainly never felt like a ‘poor 8 year old boy who lost his father’. Children are more resilient than that. While writing the book, I discovered that my brother probably suffered more when he was 16. He was mistreated by it. He went into the army, ran away, because he couldn’t handle his own grief. I did the audiobook of the memoir, and when I read the part about my brother, I started sobbing in a way I’ve never had before. And I began to understand how blessed I was. I got a present. The rabbit was tucked very tightly in my hat and I let it work for me. [Pause.] Yes, I think I was lucky, as you say. The “Angry Young Man” movement has blessed me.
American readers don’t know much about that movement.
American readers don’t know much. Where ignorance is bliss in this land, it is sometimes folly to be wise. Not having a clue about the rest of the world and history – it’s terrifying right now. What I used to love about this country was that there were ideas in popular culture, even the intellectual extremities of Gore Vidal and William Buckley. Or that great show with Dick Cavett. There was an intelligent conversation that seeped into the consciousness that is now completely contained.
Do you think wakefulness and cancellation culture are symptoms of this ignorance?
Trying to rewrite things to suit current morality – you can’t! Deny history at your own risk! Woke is all cosmetic. Worse, it’s fake outrage. An anecdote: My character on succession says everyone should fuck off. At the Golden Globes, my friend Rosanna Arquette had this #MeToo conversation with Ronan Farrow; it was this great event. Afterward, some women in the audience came up to me and wanted a photo, and they said, “Can you tell me to fuck off?” [Laughs.] I said, “This is a #MeToo gathering! Are you asking a white older male dinosaur to tell you to fuck off?” Something is seriously wrong here.
Steven Drukman is a Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright.