Emmy Award-winner Brian Cox is used to playing rumbling, outsize roles, from King Lear to Daphne Moon’s layabout dad on “Frasier.” And his most recent screen and stage efforts don’t disappoint.
In “Succession,” HBO’s genre-stretching (part drama, part comedy, part satire) and wholly addictive series, Cox plays Logan Roy, a Rupert Murdoch-like media titan battling health issues, corporate power plays and duplicitous offspring.
Then there’s his turn as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in “The Great Society,” a new Broadway play that opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre last Tuesday and runs through Nov. 30, Cox is pitch-perfect as LBJ, not doing a direct impersonation but filling out the Texan’s pomp and swagger. This is Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to his Tony-winning “All the Way,” which starred Bryan Cranston, first on Broadway, then on HBO. In this installment, we follow the thirty-sixth President as he struggles to construct his “Great Society,” jousting with and cajoling the likes of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gov. George Wallace, as the death toll in Vietnam mounts.
Cox, 73, a native of Scotland, spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio, by phone, a few hours before “Great Society’s” opening night.
I’ve gotta tell you—I could use a new outlook on politics. Has playing LBJ given you a new outlook?
Well, it has. There’s a moral imperative about being a leader, and Johnson tried to do it, but he came up short because of Vietnam. It was like a cancer in his side. It wouldn’t go away. This is an important play because it’s telling a true story of real guys who tried to do something that was, oh…impossible. But they tried.
Sounds like you have sympathy for politicians.
I think it’s the hardest job ever. The problem is you get a lot of shysters. You get men of incredible morality, but then you have the guys who are…extremely dubious. It’s a huge job, almost undoable, really. But at the same time, it has to be done.
LBJ’s first job after college was as an elementary school teacher. Such a garrulous, rough-around-the-edges guy and these little minority kids from the Texas hill country where he grew up—that image amuses and baffles me.
I think that’s the root of who he is. A teacher. He taught these poor kids. He put himself out there. And therefore he understood poverty at a ground-zero level. That’s ultimately what I admire most about him. There’s a strong, strong compassion in him. It got thwarted, got defeated, got beaten up…in Washington. But that was his essence. When you hear (of his correspondence) with Jackie Kennedy—this is in December, ’63, only a month after her husband’s assassination, and she says, “You’ve written me more letters than John ever wrote me in my whole life.” It’s astonishing. Also I’m predisposed to like him because he looks fairly like my dad.
They could be brothers. They have the same dark Irish, Scottish look about them. My dad died when I was eight. But I remember and I’ve got pictures of him up all over the place. Actually, as I speak to you now, I can see a picture of him across on my bookshelf.
Was he larger than life, like Johnson?
My father was quieter. Not as boisterous. But a charmer.
How do you think LBJ and Logan Roy would get along?
Probably quite well. Logan would be intolerant of Johnson’s ambition, but he would understand the drive of the self-made man. That’s what they have in common. But then Johnson was a power for good. He’d lived a poor life, saw poverty close-hand, and decided to do something about it. Logan lived a poor life and walked away. Logan’s interesting to play. He lives in his own delusion, because nobody says no to him. Everybody said no to Johnson to start with, so he understood what no meant. That’s what motivates you. You’re motivated by your childhood, by those elements that…that create the character you are. And the work you do.
No matter how far we go, we’re never that far from where we started out.
No, we’re not. And it’s a good healthy reminder. When I teach acting to kids, I say, “Always have a photograph of yourself as a small boy. Or a small girl.” It reminds you that, really, you haven’t traveled very far at all. That person is still there.
Now I’m going to have to look for an old photo of myself.
It’s good, just to sit and look at yourself. There you are, a smiling kid, holding a ball, and you think: What the hell was that kid thinking? (He chuckles.) And it’s you. It’s you, you know.