Brian Cox has lost track of how many roles he’s played in his 50-plus year career. IMDB lists 212 film and TV parts alone, and that doesn’t take into account his King Lear, his Burgundy (to Laurence Olivier’s Lear) and other meaty Shakespeare roles on the London stage. Casting directors are drawn to the darkness in Cox. He has made a speciality of playing history’s worst men, historical and fictional. But for all the fictional supervillains (William Stryker X2) and flamboyantly evil men he’s played—J. Edgar Hoover, he was the original Hannibal Lecter in the 1986 film, Manhunter, and his portrayal of Hitler confidant and Nazi war criminal Hermann Göring, won an Emmy.
His current role as the complex and deeply manipulative media mogul presiding over a toxic right-wing cable network, Logan Roy, in HBO’s Succession, is one of his all-time favorite bad boys. While the scorpion-like media clan seems closely based on the Murdoch family, Cox and the producers demur and say it’s an aggregation of global media barons. (Cox did say he was approached in a London coffee shop by a man who politely told him how much he and his wife were enjoying the show. The man was married to Elisabeth Murdoch.)
Cox, 73-years-old, went from wrapping playing Roy immediately into playing another arm-twisting deal-making, master of the universe, the nation’s 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in The Great Society in New York. Cox, in an interview with TIME discusses who would get the better end of a deal between Logan Roy and LBJ and how Succession is the perfect show for our “dark” times. Season 2 comes to an end this Sunday (there will be a Season 3!) and while Cox won’t divulge details, he promises a real “WOW” cliffhanger. Cox says, “It’s good to the last frame.”
On Succession, your brother accuses your media-mogul character, Logan Roy, of being worse than Hitler for giving airtime to climate deniers. How important do you think the rise of certain media has been in fostering the current political moment?
I think majorly important. Nowadays truth is way at the back of the class. You’re dealing with massive obfuscation on a global scale. It’s a dark time, and this show reflects that time.
This is a question you should never ask a parent, but on Succession, which of his vermin prodigy does Logan Roy feel the most sympathy for?
The thing is, and this is the truth, he loves all of his children. He really does. But he realizes in order for them to succeed, they have to develop a tougher skin. And that’s what he’s doing with his children all the time. He’s endlessly challenging them.
You seem like a lovely man. Yet you’ve played J. Edgar Hoover, Hannibal Lecter and even Hermann Göring. Why do you get cast so often as the personification of evil?
I try to do what the old Bard asks you to do, which is to hold the mirror up to nature. The human condition is essentially quite a tragic condition. And I’m lucky because they always say the devil has the best tunes.
You play the patriarch of a family based on very real people. Have you ever encountered any of the actual individuals in the real world?
I was in a café near my apartment in London, and this guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Oh, we just wanted to say we’re enjoying the show enormously,” and I said, “Oh, thank you.” He said, “It’s a little difficult for my wife at times, but she’s really liking it, liking it a lot.” And I said, “Oh, yes, why is she finding it difficult?” And he said, “Oh, my wife is Elisabeth Murdoch.”
Do you like playing in the superhero movies?
I liked it at the time. It’s so clear to me that there is an audience that’s deprived of a certain kind of life–affirming, humanitarian kind of cinema that you just don’t see anymore because you’ve got these multiplexes that are five screens and four of them are taken up with The Avengers or Spiderman or what have you.
You are now playing LBJ on Broadway in The Great Society. If Logan Roy and LBJ were negotiating, who would get the best of the deal?
They would both go away thinking they’d got the best of the deal. LBJ would think that he suitably bamboozled old Logan. And old Logan will think I managed to get this guy’s number.
You didn’t have much time to prepare for the LBJ part.
It was an amazingly quick turnaround: I literally had just finished that last episode of Succession in Dubrovnik. It was 154 pages of lines to learn and only three weeks to rehearse. But I called upon the younger Brian Cox and said, “Look, you’ve got to help me through this.”
You’ve appeared in over 200 films and TV shows. How would you rank Logan Roy in terms of your favorite characters to play?
I’d put him pretty high up there. He’s such a mystery. That’s the essential thing about Logan. In my time of life, it’s a great role to play.
There is going to be a third season, but there’s still a final episode to come. Any hints on what to expect?
Well, I’m not going to give it away, but I think it’s a doozy. People are going to go, “Oh, wow” … down to the last frame.