“There was a certain inevitability to it,” Brian Cox says of Succession’s season-two finale. After the Roy family gathers on a yacht in the Mediterranean to choose their blood sacrifice, Logan Roy picks his son Kendall to take the fall for Waystar Royco’s cruise scandal — unless he actually picks him to commit patricide? It all depends on how you see Logan’s ever-so-slight grin in the episode’s final shot, as he watches Kendall declare his father a cancer to the family’s empire, implicating him in the scandal that threatens to destroy the company he built. “Logan is really setting Kendall up to become the man he has not been,” Cox says. The smile, then, is a moment of pride.
Succession’s second season concluded Sunday night, but the 73-year-old actor has a busy week ahead: In glasses and a South Texas drawl, he’s currently starring as Lyndon B. Johnson in The Great Society on Broadway. The play, Robert Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, doesn’t have a lot of victories: In The Great Society, LBJ is embroiled in the Vietnam War, has shouting matches with Martin Luther King Jr. about integration, and quarrels with Bobby Kennedy over the 1968 election. Over the phone recently, Cox talked about the parallels between the irascible Roy patriarch and the towering good ol’ boy president. “When you listen to these wonderful DVDs called The LBJ Tapes, as I did in my research, they were fascinating about how Johnson operated. I was very much taken by that. [The Great Society] seemed to be a no-brainer, though quite frankly, I could’ve done with a little bit more leeway,” he says with a laugh. “I’m going between Logan Roy and LBJ!” Vulture talked to Cox about his presidential run on Broadway, the shocking twist at the end of Succession’s finale, and why the white male is past his “sell-by date.”
When you found out how Succession would end this season, what was your first thought?
It was inevitable but surprising, in terms of Kendall having been so careful through the whole second season. He’s shied away from his strength, Kendall has. Logan knew in order to sacrifice himself, he would have to do it through his family. He figured that the one chance he had was to make Kendall into the killer. That’s why, at the end, he smiles. He’s achieved what he was after. “My son has come of age. He’s now officially a killer.” [Laughs.]
Tell me more about that smile in the final shot.
It was gratifying to play because once Logan received the death sentence, it was important to him who’d deliver the death. He wanted to keep it within the family, as opposed to it coming from outside of the family. The smile is him saying, “Finally, my son is stepping up to the plate, doing what he needs to do to run a business. Finally, he’s the heir apparent to Waystar Royco.” In a way, it’s a completion. But there’s life in the old dog yet! We’ve got quite a journey now. Logan has to reclaim himself. He needs to even the odds.
But why Kendall? Why do you think Logan trusted Kendall to deliver that death sentence over Shiv or Roman?
Roman’s not such a — excuse the expression — fuck knuckle as people make him out to be. There’s more to Roman than meets the eye. He’s actually compassionate. It’s wonderful to see him defend Gerri in that episode. The way he questions what has just happened to him in Turkey, the way he sees through that [bad deal]. Roman has a particular vision, which Logan acknowledges.
He’s certainly not going to set up Siobhan to do it, because she’s in a fragile state in terms of her own marriage. Logan’s eldest son, Connor, God bless him, is far too much of a flake! [Laughs.] He would’ve taken the hit only for the money. It’s very, very thought through, very carefully done.
Do you see Logan as the malignant presence the shareholders seem to think he is?
Of course I don’t. They’ve had good times, the shareholders have. They’ve done very well off of Logan Roy. His fault was that he turned a blind eye. It was also a fault of the time. These assaults, this whole cruises thing, happened many years before, but he overlooked it. That’s what’s undone him. He himself is actually quite Puritan. He says it’s hard for him to take his own shirt off with his wife! He has not attended to what was vile within his firm, with Mo Lester and all of that. Logan’s a bastard, but he’s not an indecent bastard.
Tell me this: How many times did Matthew Macfadyen have to snatch that chicken from your plate and take a bite from it?
[Laughs] He had to only do it a couple of times. They cut a wonderful bit, which quite rightly was edited out, where Matthew walks away and has a moment of panic. He says, “Is he looking? What’s he doing? What’s the old boy doing?” They cut those lines, but it was quite good.
Do you think Marcia will come back to Logan?
I hope it will happen. He clearly loves Marcia. There’s this idea that he had this affair with Rhea, but I’m not sure that happened. Both Holly [Hunter] and I felt that hadn’t actually happened, that it was more in the minds of the kids. He does ask her to stay the night, but that was because he had plenty of rooms. His sell-by date on that sort of thing is near. The kids thinking they were having an affair was more them projecting.
That’s fascinating. The general consensus seems to be that Rhea and Logan were having an affair.
Of course people think that! That tells you more about those people than what actually happened. [Laughs.] That’s the giveaway. That’s frailty in human nature, I’m afraid.
Logan makes Kendall kick Naomi off the yacht. Was that Pierce-family resentment, or does something about her specifically set him off?
There was a scene where I actually talk to her. I hated the scene, it never made any sense [because] he would never talk to her directly. It was a family affair, and she was intruding. There wasn’t a reason for her to be there. The problem with her and Kendall, to Logan, is that they’re both addicts. He doesn’t necessarily think that will add up to a good relationship. I’m sure he understands that Kendall may love her, but given the fact that Kendall has to go into a new life, Naomi Pierce is not going to help.
Would Logan ever see Willa’s Broadway play, Sands?
Absolutely not. Absolutely not!
I’ll admit Sands was my favorite subplot this season. I want to see it!
I think his theatrical interests are at a minimum. He’d wish her well and good luck, but that’s it. I’m really curious about it, though. I want to know how good the play is. It may not be as bad as people have made out. I think there’s something quite considerable about Willa. She can’t be counted out. This is a girl who has tried to be a writer, she was forced to become an escort to [subsidize] her talent. In a way, I’m understanding of that. She might be a talent, but it’s a first-time play. She might be an extraordinary playwright for all we know!
You should never believe critics. They’re the last people you should believe. They’ve always got their own agenda. The problem with critics is that they’re [either] a force for good or they’re frustrated in their own lives. They’re naysayers. I think theatrical criticism has completely evaporated in the last years without Brooks Atkinson, Ken Tynan, [Harold] Hobson. I’m old enough to realize how great theater criticism was.
You have to tell me how luxurious that yacht was in real life.
Oh, ridiculously luxurious. I don’t know where it came from, but it was ridiculously luxurious.
I was talking to your Succession co-star Arian Moayed on opening night of The Great Society, and he said that you told him about the play right before you guys jumped into the Adriatic Sea together. Is that true?
Yeah, right before jumping into the Adriatic Sea, it was mentioned to me that this play was happening. At that time, it was going to be a dramatized reading. And then it ended up as what you saw.
What makes LBJ and this period of time interesting to you?
America has a checkered history, and it doesn’t ever quite own up to it. That’s what I loved about about Deadwood, the use of that lawlessness in terms of the Indian Wars. What I love about [Great Society playwright] Robert Schenkkan is that he really looked at Johnson, he really wanted to evaluate Johnson, to clear the debris that surrounded Johnson. Johnson did something that no other president could do. Great visionaries have a sense of the world at the grassroots, and Johnson certainly had that.
Do you think all powerful men have something in common? You’ve played a lot of them.
It’s a weird thing. As I get older — I’m still surviving, I’m still here — those parts become the key roles. I’ve been lucky enough to play them. I think it’s actually a reflection of my classical background, really, that’s allowed me the entry into those roles. They’re fascinating guys. The other thing now, especially in this age of diversity, they are like the white dinosaurs. There’s something fascinating and curious about that, dramatically.
Logan really bristles at that dinosaur label, and LBJ consciously made an effort to not be seen that way, no?
Exactly. Nobody thinks of themselves as dinosaurs. I’m talking about the objective view, but increasingly, it’s a world where the white male is past his sell-by date.
There’s an element of premonition about [The Great Society]. Robert has really tried to say, “You have to look at this guy.” Joseph Califano, who was domestic adviser to Johnson, came to see the show last night. He was raving about it and said, “My God, you’ve got him, you understand the guy.” He told me this wonderful story — and this is so typical of Johnson! — Califano had this son, Joe III. When Joe III was a little boy, he swallowed a whole bottle of aspirin. It was a panic within the household, and they had to pump it out. Johnson said, [uses Texas accent] “Where you been? I’ve been tryin’ to find you all mornin’!” Califano said, “I’m sorry, Mr. President, my son just swallowed a whole bottle of aspirin.” Johnson said, “He swallowed a whole bottle of — oh, I gotta deal with that now!” [Laughs.] So Johnson drafted up a bill. When you see a safety cap on a medicine bottle, that was Johnson.
I didn’t know that.
There’s certain things that really get me about Johnson. I love the fact that he was a schoolteacher. That’s how he started out. He would’ve been horrified by what’s going on at the border, because that’s where he was! That’s where his schoolkids were, that’s where his school was.
My personal favorite is how he looked. He looked like my dad. My dad wasn’t tall, but they [both] had the dark-brown eyes, dark-brown hair. They could’ve been brothers. I was always predisposed to Johnson because he looked like my dad. [Laughs.]
When you’re about to go onstage, do you see your dad in yourself?
Yeah, I can see the old man. My dad was slightly better looking than I was, but yeah. [Laughs.]
How did you do get the southern accent down?
I got it from the tapes. When you listen to the tapes, he talks to people differently. There’s a wonderful conversation between him and Jackie Kennedy about a month after the assassination. Jackie, she wasn’t a boo-hooer. She was in a state of shock after, as you see clearly in that famous picture of Johnson being sworn in and Jackie still standing there with a blood-stained outfit. A month afterward, he’s talking to Jackie and he’s very warm and she completely melts with him. It’s extraordinary when you hear it. She does this very revealing thing; she says, “I just want to thank you. You’ve written to me more than Jack ever wrote to me!’ That was who Johnson was. And he was a bit of a lady’s man, as history has revealed.
Succession is a show about the superrich. What’s your biggest extravagance?
My biggest extravagance? My biggest extravagance is probably having an ice cream. [Laughs.] I like vanilla. You know what a brown cow is?
No, what’s that?
A brown cow is ice cream and Coca-Cola. I have it with Coke Zero — I can’t take it any other way because I’m diabetic.
The Roys were barely in New York this season. Which location was your favorite?
It was wonderful going back home to my hometown, which was completely unexpected. To have an episode called “Dundee” is pretty amazing. I’m very fond of my hometown. It’s been a tough town, and it was a tough town. Winston Churchill was our MP, and we threw him out! Quite rightly, because he did a lot of strange things. I love going back to Dundee. But I do have to say, swimming in the Adriatic was pretty unbeatable. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Correction: This interview initially referred to Joseph Califano as Joseph Campanello.