When Scottish stage and screen actor Brian Cox was first approached about playing American president Lyndon Baines Johnson in The Great Society, it was for a dramatic reading. Cox was wrapping the second season of the hit HBO series Succession — in which he plays outsized (fictional) media mogul Logan Roy — and, after reading Society, the follow-up to Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award–winning play, All the Way, he was instantly game.
“I thought it was a remarkable piece of work that deals with American history,” Cox says. “Americans don’t know their history very much, and I think this is a really important play, given the horrible political climate we’re in. Then I was told they wanted to do a full production, and that we had three weeks [to rehearse]. I thought, ‘You’re insane.’”
Cox was also drawn to Society, currently running on Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, as an “old Shakespearean actor.” His credits include iconic roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in other high-profile stagings across the pond. (Society marks his fifth Broadway production.) “That’s how my teeth were cut, and [Society] reminded me of one of Shakespeare’s history plays.”
The actor sees elements of a tragic hero in Johnson. In the period that Society traces, from 1965 to 1968, the president — having juggled an ambitious domestic agenda with the increasingly divisive and expensive war in Vietnam — decided not to seek another term. “His tragedy was a lack of knowledge of the world, something a lot of American presidents have had, because America is so huge and is seen as the center of the world. And after we’d gone through the nightmare of the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee, there was still this fear of Communism.” The play also features other historical characters including Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
For Cox, Johnson’s struggle “is ironic, because he was a socialist in many ways. He had a strong aura of the common man, which I found appealing, being an old socialist myself. He was a great president in many ways, fighting for education and Medicare and civil rights. The Great Society, that was his dream. But Vietnam was the monkey on his shoulder.”
At 73, Cox remembers that era vividly: He was a drama student at the time, and he came into contact with Americans who had been devastated by the war. “Some of them had nervous breakdowns. [Johnson] was vilified at the time; it was an impossible period. That’s why he wouldn’t run again. He knew it was a poisoned chalice.”
Cox’s empathy for Johnson is rooted, in part, in personal recognition. “My father died when I was 8, but he and Johnson looked very similar physically. It was uncanny, except that he wasn’t as tall as Johnson — neither am I, for that matter.” Nailing Johnson’s distinctive Texas accent was another matter; listening to tapes, Cox says, proved “a wonderful way into the character and his thinking.” It also gave the actor a sense of how the “good ol’ boy” could also adapt his vocal rhythms and inflection to accommodate a specific audience.
“He was quite clever in that he would never speak to two people in exactly the same way,” Cox notes. “He spoke slowly to some people, and quickly and fluently to others.” Yet, ironically, given the expert political skills that informed Johnson’s victories — wittily captured in Schenkkan’s play — he was not a master of all media. “He wasn’t very good at television,” a key forum for Johnson’s younger predecessor, John F. Kennedy. “He just didn’t know how to project himself there.”
As a stage performer who has won acclaim on TV, and in films — recent credits include Churchill,Super Troopers, and The Etruscan Smile — Cox also found in Society something of a return to his roots. “I had to call on an old self who was used to this kind of epic drama 30 years ago,” he muses. “I never thought I would be doing this kind of theater at this point. It was kind of scary — no, it was totally scary — getting into it. You have to find that brain muscle memory that you may have forgotten you have.”
The effort has been well worth it. “It’s part of the job, and I love my job,” Cox says. “I love playing these extraordinary characters. It’s a learning process, to get inside Johnson’s skin and understand the difficulties he had, and his drive, and his ruthlessness. You’re always learning.”
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