Brian Cox Knows It’s an Artist’s Job to ‘Hold the Mirror Up to the Oppressor’

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

When Succession won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble last month, Brian Cox used his time onstage to speak about one of the many ripple effects of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, explaining how artists and performers in Russia “are told under pain of high treason that they cannot say a word about Ukraine.” Drawing on his own long history with Russia and its artists, Cox stood in front of his co-stars and invited the audience to join in his full-throated support for those “who don’t like what’s going on” and whose own voices are being silenced during this time of crisis: “We should really join and celebrate them and hope that they can actually make a shift, as I believe they can.”

Cox’s history with Russia stretches back to one of his first screen appearances, as Leon Trotsky in Franklin Schaffner’s 1971 film, Nicholas and Alexandra. In the late 1980s, he was invited by the artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT), the theater in which Chekhov’s plays originally premiered, to teach Shakespeare classes at their theater school. (Full disclosure: I am an alumni of MXAT.) He would go on to direct a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with the Russian acting students and create an exchange program for them to study in the United Kingdom. In 1991, he published a memoir about his time at MXAT called Salem to Moscow: An Actor’s Odyssey, and in 2017 he produced a miniseries called Brian Cox’s Russia, in which he tracked the stories of Scottish migrants to the Soviet Union following the 1917 Revolution.

Following his speech, Cox spoke to Vulture and offered some more details about his love of Russia, his disdain for Putin, and supporting artists in times of crisis.

Why did you decide to bring up Russia and Ukraine in your acceptance speech?
I decided I was going to have to say something because I suspected that nobody would talk about it, that nobody has the vested interest I have in terms of my connection to Russia and my affection for its people. They are not allowed to say anything. What’s happening in Ukraine is totally, totally dreadful, but at the same time, the oppression of artists in Russia is equally dreadful. I’m so distressed for my colleagues, some of whom have protested and had to leave the country. It’s a dictatorship, and it needs to be dealt with.

What was your aim with the speech?
I was trying to tie the ends up of the fact that we, as performers, are the ones who hold a mirror up to nature. As players, we don’t understand how valuable what we do is. I think it’s more important than church. I don’t believe in religion or God, but I do believe in the journey of man and woman and their evolution. I think that President Zelenskyy in Ukraine is showing exceptional courage. He was a performer, and he was the voice of Paddington Bear. He’s also Jewish, so he’s learned the lesson of what happens in wars. It’s brutal, and it should not be allowed to go on.

Did the other members of the Succession ensemble know that you were going to make this speech?
No. I didn’t want to impose it on my cast, but I knew they’d be behind me. As it turned out, more than my cast was behind me, which was a very touching and great thing.

How did you first get involved with the Moscow Art Theatre School?
I was working at the British American Drama Academy, which is a summer school at Oxford for theater training. One summer, a number of Russian theater artists, including the artistic director of MXAT, Oleg Efremov, came to teach classes on Chekhov. I was so impressed and said to Efremov that I’d love to come and observe at MXAT, and he said, “No, no, no. You have to come teach.” I said, “But I don’t know Russian.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. You are a great teacher. We will translate for you.”

Did your Russian improve?
I can’t speak a word of it, but my daughter can speak it fluently. She was with me in the 1980s when she was a little girl, about 9 or 10, and now she’s translating plays into Russian for MXAT.

Your time in Russia coincided with perestroika and the decline of the old Soviet Union. Did artists at that time have the freedom to speak their minds, or was the situation similar to what it is now? 
They were beginning to speak their minds. It was opening up. But the thing about artists, which is a good thing and a bad thing, is that they’ve always had to spend a life circumnavigating and circumventing. When I directed The Crucible with them, the students wanted to cut the final act of the play and end with the scene when John Proctor is on trial and says “God is dead!” I said, “That’s not the point of the play. At the end of the play, the point is that he will not give names.” And they said, “But we’ve all given names. That’s what we grew up with.” And I said, “Living with those betrayals does not make it right.” But that is how Russians have survived: by having the two faces of Janus. And it’s understandable considering what they’ve gone through.

How do you see the themes of The Crucible relating to today? So much of what you’re talking about in terms of the fear of being able to speak out in Russia relates to the culture that play depicts. 
It’s not just Russia. The cancel culture is a form of McCarthyism. Of course, there are people who deservedly need to be canceled, but there are also people where it is questionable. The play asks us to acknowledge our history. When you go to Salem, you see the wonderful monument they’ve got there where they talk about the people who were killed. And you go, Yes, this was wrong, what happened to them. It’s not unlike what’s happening in Russia today and what happened during Stalinism. That’s why you’ve always got to hold the mirror up to the oppressor.

How do you feel about Vladimir Putin?
He’s a monster. He wants to go back to the former Soviet Union, which was repressive. That was the reason it broke up. Everybody’s so afraid of Putin because he’s a bully. Joe Biden was the one who, all those years ago, sat down with him and said, “You have no soul.” Of course, Putin doesn’t want a soul. The last thing he needs is a soul or any kind of doubt. He’s excised doubt from his whole persona, and doubt is always important because it means you’re always asking “Why?” We have to get rid of guys who do that.

Two days ago, the Glasgow Film Festival announced it was withdrawing two Russian films from its lineup because of the situation in Ukraine. Do you have any comment on that?
I don’t agree with it, but unfortunately, I understand why it has to happen, especially in a crisis time like right now. At the same time, there’s another way of saying, “No, we won’t withdraw, but we will say why we’re not withdrawing and we’ll be clear,” rather than the knee-jerk, “Oh, we’re not going to put those on now.” It’s a little clumsy and a little un–thought through, to be honest with you. You’ve got to have the right balancing act. You have to say, “These people are okay. They’re fine. We support the artists. It’s the situation around them — we shouldn’t attack the artists for the situation around them.” England had the same problem during apartheid: It was right for English actors not to perform in South Africa. But the downside of that is that you’re cutting people off from means of communication. You’ve got to be smarter than just withdrawing the films.

The Artist’s Job Is to ‘Hold the Mirror Up to the Oppressor’