‘I’m very pleased we’ve got the same name’: Brian Cox meets Brian Cox

The actor Brian Cox used to be irked by the success of his upstart namesake. Now, for the first time, he and Prof Brian Cox talk science, Succession and what Shakespeare and black holes have in common

When anyone mentions Brian Cox, the first question invariably asked is: which Brian Cox are you talking about? Do you mean Prof Brian Cox, physicist, or actor Brian Cox, from Succession? So imagine how annoying it must be for professor Brian and actor Brian Cox! Which got us thinking: what would happen if we invited both Brians to sit down together for a lengthy chat – something they’ve never done before?

Oldham-born particle physicist Prof Brian Edward Cox found fame presenting the BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System and Forces of Nature. Before that, in the 1980s and early 90s, he played keyboards for D:Ream, topping the UK charts with future New Labour anthem Things Can Only Get Better in 1994. His new worldwide tour, Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey, returns home to a week-long residency at London’s Royal Opera House in August, and then runs nationwide until October.

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Dundee-born actor Brian Denis Cox started working professionally in the 1960s, joining the National Theatre in the 70s and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 80s. His 50-year career in film, TV and theatre has won him Olivier, Bafta and Emmy nominations and awards. He appeared in The Bourne Identity and and was the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter, in the 1986 film Manhunter. He currently stars as media mogul Logan Roy in Succession, for which he won a Golden Globe for best actor in 2020.

The two Brians caught up over Zoom for a wide-ranging chat about the universe, Succession, Shakespeare and everything in between. Prof Brian and actor Brian, over to you ...


Prof Brian Cox One of the themes from my live shows is the possibility that we might currently be the only intelligent civilisation in the Milky Way. The challenge is the possibility that we might destroy ourselves – through inaction or deliberate action – because we don’t have the wisdom to control our own power. And what a tragedy that would be, given that we might be the only island of meaning in an ocean of 400bn suns.

Actor Brian Cox I think that’s incredibly feasible. I was brought up Catholic, but in the last few years have become quite atheist. Religion is confusing because we don’t acknowledge who we are as humans. One of the reasons theatre is so very important to me is: why act? Acting is similar to religion, but religion is humanity. Religion is a cul-de-sac because it provides peace, yet we are still dangerously in jeopardy of destroying ourselves.

Prof Brian Religion is clearly an attempt to explore, explain and understand our place in the universe. So are you saying that acting is the same, but in a more detailed and truthful way?

Actor Brian I think so, Brian. Acting is truthful. Religion is understandable, but we look to God, Muhammad or the pope, but we don’t look to ourselves. Shakespeare says it all: hold the mirror up to nature. He describes it very clearly in Hamlet’s advice to the players. It’s why Shakespeare is such an extraordinary genius. Religion distracts us by saying: if we follow this path, we’ll get salvation. I think it’s a crock, quite frankly, and the older I get, the more of a crock I think it is.

Prof Brian It’s interesting what you say, Brian – the transfer of responsibility to some external source. [American astronomer] Carl Sagan is one of my heroes. His 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot, reacts to the image of Earth taken from beyond Neptune as a single pixel. One line says: “We have to understand that nobody’s coming to save us from ourselves … ”

Actor Brian I couldn’t agree with him more!

Prof Brian The word “meaning” doesn’t sound like a scientific concept. But it’s a property of brains, of consciousness and of living.

Actor Brian That’s right.

Prof Brian And what if there is nowhere else within millions of light years for atoms to come together into these remarkable patterns that can think, feel and write like Shakespeare? The idea that meaning comes from us is very important, because it means we have to take responsibility.

Actor Brian Brian, I couldn’t have said it better. The human experience is the most responsible thing you can acknowledge. And that’s why I act.

Prof Brian You refer to Shakespeare as the great genius. What intrigues me is there’s an exploration from the playwright or the writer, but an additional exploration from the actor. Of all the characters you’ve played, who has been the best vehicle to explore the depths of the human condition?

Actor Brian You have to take on the notion of selfishness, because acting is all about confusion. I had a speech yesterday [filming season four of Succession] as Logan Roy, talking about human beings being economic units. I ask: “What is a person?” but get distracted asking: “Is the cheesecake any good here?” The extraordinary thing about Logan – and why I don’t see Logan the way everybody else sees him – is that he’s a man on a journey of losing it, because he’s aligned himself to something that has failed to give him satisfaction, namely that he cannot deal with his own children. The question I first asked was: “Does Logan Roy love his children?” And [creator] Jesse [Armstrong] said: “Oh yes, he loves them very much.” He constantly gets it wrong, and becomes brutalist. That’s why he’s such a fascinating character; he’s so complex. I had another beautiful moment yesterday – I shouldn’t be giving all this away, but I don’t care – where Logan realises he doesn’t have any other pals and how lonely he is, which I found incredibly moving. Again that’s part of the human condition; that sense of loneliness. That’s why there’s a heroic element to Logan, because he’s in deep struggle with himself. And as you’ve said: the problem is that we are in a constant deep struggle with ourselves.

Prof Brian That complexity in human beings is that we find it difficult to deal with both characters and problems that are multifaceted. If you look to quantum mechanics – the most esoteric bit of all science – you are forced to think about electrons as particles. But they are also extended wavy things that fill the room. Of course, it’s neither; it’s far more complicated. You have to hold those two ideas in your head, even though they seem mutually exclusive.

Cox on the box … actor Brian in Succession. Photograph: Macall Polay/AP

Actor Brian I can’t agree more.

Prof Brian It’s like with Logan. It’s so easy to say: he’s bad.

Actor Brian The rule for the actor is: never judge your character because we don’t judge ourselves. We can be harsh on ourselves but we don’t say: “This is a villain.” If you look at Iago, his reasons may be terribly misguided with terrible consequences but he’s locked in a destructive journey. Dramatic art homes in on the complication and contradictions of human experience, because we live in such contradicting paradoxes.

Prof Brian I often make the case for science education from the youngest possible age. Not because you need to know about how many stars there are in a Milky Way, but because of the intellectual tools; nature is multifaceted and complex. Likewise, experiencing Shakespeare can be beautiful, so you’re making the same argument for a broad education.

Actor Brian Absolutely. That’s clearly why we’ve got the same name, Brian! It’s quite extraordinary and very harmonising to talk to you this way because you realise that regardless of our different pursuits, we’re on a very similar journey.

Prof Brian Science is necessary – but certainly not sufficient – to understand our place in the universe. It’s necessary, for example, to know we are not at the centre of the universe. If you go back to the ancient Greeks – they weren’t idiots, but they thought the Earth was at the centre of the universe because what they observed was that everything falls towards the Earth.

Actor Brian And that’s the terrible thing about ego. Ego makes you think you are the centre of the universe, and that’s the curse of the performer. We have to be careful that we don’t believe in our own mythology.

Prof Brian So what does it mean to live a finite, fragile life in an infinite, eternal universe? You’re not going to find meaning through the eyepiece of the telescope. Music, literature, art, science are different facets of the same attempt to explore what it means to be human.

Actor Brian I think it’s the absolute key question, Brian. “Why are we?” is the question man has struggled with as long as we’ve been alive.

Prof Brian I know you’re quite political because often I get people shouting at me on social media for something you’ve said on Question Time.

Actor Brian Ha ha ha ha!

Prof Brian You must get this a lot – and I get it to some extent – people say: “Stay in your lane. You’re a physicist. Tell me about physics.” Do people say: “You’re an actor. I like you in Succession, but I don’t want to hear your political views.”

Star man … Prof Brian Cox takes his day job to the SSE Arena, Wembley.
Star man … Prof Brian Cox takes his day job to the SSE Arena, Wembley. Photograph: Nicky J Sims/Nicky Sims/Getty Images/McIntyre Ents

Actor Brian All the time. I’m not supposed to have political views but I do, but that’s also to do with my history. I’m filming a documentary at the moment [for Paramount+] on money, because money is the one thing that nobody ever likes to talk about. Like religion, money is the great unifier but it’s also the great divider. The wealthy are always defensive but poor people are never defensive about their poverty. The wealth gap is such a painful experience, it is heartbreaking.

Prof Brian Would you ever consider going into politics? I suppose the great example of an actor going into politics was Ronald Reagan.

Actor Brian Let’s not get into Reaganomics because we could be here all day!

Prof Brian I think the most valuable aspect [of work] is the internal process of trying to understand. I’ve recently been working on black holes that are astonishingly difficult to understand, but it’s been a joyous process.

Actor Brian As a musician, you’ll know why understanding the process is so important.

Prof Brian Talking about music, I only discovered [American jazz pianist] Keith Jarrett quite late in life. His [1995] album La Scala is mainly improvised compositions, but ends with this astonishing version of Over the Rainbow. He’s like a musical archaeologist; he’s dug down so deeply into the music, he’s found something that almost didn’t exist before. It’s the same with Einstein, who has this expression: something deeply hidden. When he was seven or eight years old, Einstein’s dad gave him a compass. He looked at the needle pointing north and thought: “There’s something mysterious, magical and deeply hidden about the structure of nature.” Einstein’s theory describes black holes, but to understand them you need to understand the deeply hidden structure of space and time. So is it the same with Shakespeare: when you perform, you might find something deeply hidden that even he didn’t know?

Actor Brian I think that’s exactly what you do: you go on that journey, to discover the hidden. It’s like you asked: are we destined to destroy each other? And would any other civilisation follow the same logic? To question our responsibility to humanism is constant. The hidden aspects are like little flowers that make you go: “Look! That bloomed!” in the same way that Jarrett discovered Over the Rainbow. And that’s the miracle of being human. Actually, it’s the miracle of our humanity.

Prof Brian Do you remember that time we both nearly turned up to the same restaurant? I think I’d got there first, and I could see the horror on their faces, because they thought they had double-booked. They must have thought: “Two Brian Coxes aren’t going to turn up and say: ‘Hello. Table for Brian Cox please.’”

Actor Brian It annoyed me initially – but has been such a great lesson – to find someone who is extraordinarily successful with the same name as me. It irked me at first, then I thought: it’s not important. I mean, we have the same name, but then something comes into play where you go: “Well, it’s only a name.” So it has been wonderful meeting you, Brian, because it’s proved that name doesn’t matter. I’m very pleased that we’ve got the same name, but ultimately it’s just one of those curiously strange accidents.

Prof Brian We can’t be the only people called Brian Cox? Brian and Cox are pretty common names.

Actor Brian There was a guy who wrote a thing on the Black Papers [a series of articles on British education] called Brian Cox – I think from Manchester originally – who I met years ago, in the late 60s.

Prof Brian And I’m Brian Cox CBE and you’re Brian Cox CBE, so you can’t even differentiate in the honours we’ve received.

Actor Brian We’re both Brian Cox CBE! Anyway, it was great talking to you, Brian. It really was. We must get together again sometime.

Tickets for (Prof) Brian Cox’s Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey are on sale now. See briancoxlive.co.uk. Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, the memoir by (actor) Brian Cox, is available from guardianbookshop.com


Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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