Brian Cox Talks To Us About ‘The Sandman,’ ‘Succession,’ The Wonder Of Podcasts And Audio Storytelling, And The Obligatory ‘F*ck Off’

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman springs back to life (again and thankfully) as an Audible Original on September 22. Act 2 arrives a full year after Act 1, and it’s still hard to believe that this is happening. After all, dark fantasy fans have wondered if we’d see any sort of The Sandman adaptation since the comic’s 1989 debut. Multiple aborted movie attempts (a big whew to those never happening) and finally, three decades later, it’s receiving a literal reading on Audible (along with a Netflix TV series in production).

That’s more than one could have expected, and the same goes for this audio version’s cast, which weaves through space and time during an era when we couldn’t possibly need dreams more. And yes, that cast. Not only does Kat Dennings portray Death (and she told us how Neil honest-to-god told her to play the character), but the legendary Brian Cox stops by to play Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Obviously, one should not expect a standard retelling of what you’ll find in history books. Instead, there’s a tragic and profound take by the author, and Brian Cox was thrilled to perform as such.

Cox, of course, has been in the business for a solid 40 years, although he’s also the star of a current HBO phenomenon, Succession, which returns in October. This shall be the third round of Logan Roy telling everyone to f*ck off, and as it turns out, people really enjoy asking the same of him on the street. Naturally, I couldn’t resist making that same request as well, and thank god that Cox was (profanely) gracious about the whole thing.

Hi Brian, how are you?

I’m good! I’m in Las Vegas right now.

Uhhhh, how’s that going?

It’s okay, I’m working here, so I don’t really get into the, shall we call them, “events.”

I have to admit being slightly afraid of you going “full f*cking beast” on me after watching the new Succession trailer.

Oh, I promise I won’t go full beast on you.

I believe you, and you’re not new to the Neil Gaiman realm. You played Death in Good Omens, a different Death than The Sandman‘s version. What brought you to play Augustus?

Really, it was the project itself, as well as the role. It’s a great role, but I also love Neil Gaiman’s work. And I also love the notion of the podcast, and how popular, rightfully, it has become. Walking down Sunset Boulevard, there was a huge ad, which I have never, ever seen in my life for a radio or podcast broadcast, for The Sandman. It was huge, like for a Marvel movie, and I just thought, “Wow, what a way we’ve come.” I’ve always been passionate about the radio, ever since I started, way back in the ’60s, I did radio and you know, I did a series on the radio in Scotland for thirteen years — McLevy, the Scottish detective. It’s my favorite medium of all mediums. I love radio more than anything.

I have a theory for you. With podcast interviews these days, they run for an hour or two, and people tend to get really loose on them and unwind, a lot more than we’ll be able to do during these fifteen minutes.

Yes! They’re great, and I’ve done a couple, one from David Tennant and one here in L.A., and I love them. And I also think that people want to listen now. Apparently, there’s been a huge rise in audiobooks during this whole Covid period, and I think it has a lot to do with not being able to see people’s faces. A lot of people really don’t know how to speak behind a mask. I like to give speaking-behind-mask lessons because they really don’t know how to project through a mask, so it’s like…. [mimics the most muffled voice in the universe]

Maybe I should put on a mask right now and grab a lesson.

It’s tricky! I think that’s why people just want to hear. And not just music, they want to hear the spoken word. That’s a huge plus, and I think that’s going to stay in the memory for quite a while when they’ve lost that advantage of actually listening again. To listen, that’s great, and something like The Sandman fills that bill beyond measure.

Also, for decades, people have taken comfort in The Sandman‘s stories that Neil wrote. What do you hope that people take from the Audible version?

Well, it’s satirical, it’s deeply ironic with a lot of classical, kind-of comic irony, and there’s a lot of stuff which is quite serious. So, it’s a potpourri of stuff, and I think that’s what’s great about Neil’s writing because Neil is essentially unpredictable, so you have this element of “where are we going to go next?” He did that in Good Omens, and I think he continues to do it.

So, there’s some Shakespearean edge in The Sandman, and it can be arguably inferred in the issue with your Augustus character. Succession is also very, as you know, Shakespearean. You’ve got extensive theater experience in this realm, too. You can’t stay out of the Shakespeare stuff, can you?

I think it’s there in the air. You can’t really get around him. He’s probably the most quotable author ever in the English language. There is a phrase for practically everything. There’s a phrase that describes responsibility, like in the theater, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines.” You can’t get away from that simplicity of language and the knifed-edge accuracy of language. Naturally, those phrases get passed down through time, and they’re in the consciousness, and of course, you have to acknowledge that there are elements of Lear in Succession because that’s what Lear is all about. He starts out dividing up his kingdom [between his four kids]… It’s wonderful in the best kind of way: infectious.

Now as far as history goes, some people would say creative liberty was taken in the August issue, and where it goes with the fall of the Roman empire.

I think that Neil is perfectly entitled to take as much liberty with history as he wants because he’s an artist.

That he is, no argument there.

He’s creating something else. He’s not a documentarian. He’s not saying, “It was like this.” He’s saying, “Yes, it was like this, but this is how it affects me, and this is how I’m interpreting it, what I believe in terms of my own philosophical basis.” And that’s valid as anything… and I also find that with history, there’s something bogus about it. I mean, I love history, and I think history is important in my profession, to know the genesis of certain actors and how it all came about. That’s nice, but at the same time, history is full of lies. It’s full of people saying, “This was this person,” and offering someone up to venerate, and we don’t get the full character or always get who that person really is. With Neil, as many great authors do, they circumvent that in an absolute proper way, by saying, “Who is this person? What are the circumstances, and what about if we shift or change these circumstances? What happens then?” And that’s the drama, that’s the excitement. It’s Neil’s province, and he should truly inhabit that province.

You know, I really can’t stop drawing parallels to Succession, so forgive me here. With August, there’s also the whole notion of family being the basis of empires.

Yeah, I’m afraid that’s true of so many families. And we’re obsessed with families, from Dallas to Dynasty and all of those kinds of series, long-running series like Coronation Street… it’s a field day, and yeah, it’s right to acknowledge that certain foundations to lie in families. The famous Medicis, that kind of lineage that they had.

I was also struck with the idea of Augustus disguising himself for a day to blend in with people. Do you ever have the desire, as a public figure, to do so?

[Laughs] Oh, I’ve never! But also, it’s a frame of mind. My favorite story is of the actress Jean Arthur, very very popular in the ’30s. She was a star, and she was out with a friend walking in New York, and a friend said, “Jean, no one ever recognizes you, that is so extraordinary. Nobody ever recognizes you.” And she said, “That’s because I don’t want them to.” She said, “What do you mean, you don’t want them to?” She said, “I don’t put that out, I just don’t attract that, so people don’t recognize me.” She said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “I’ll show you want I mean.” So, she took herself into a shop window… and she walked out, and everybody started going, “Oh, it’s Jean Arthur!”

We are running out of time here, but if you could take Augustus as Neil has written him, and also Logan Roy, and put them into different projects, where would you want them to go?

Ohhhh god, that’s a tough question. I think with Augustus, it would be a sort-of time-travel project, where he finds himself in the mid-20th century, or even actually later. It would be interesting to see Augustus land in a post-Covid situation and deal with what’s going on now, given his history and what he has to deal with. The element of what we’ve had to deal with and the opposite. And with Logan, I’d like to see the younger Logan in the newspaper business, as a writer of stuff, and how he forms his opinions and how his disillusionment arises in terms of himself as a young journalist and someone who’s quite ambitious.

Well, I’d like to close with a predictable request. Logan Roy is known for his insults, so if you could possibly, you know insult me?

[Pauses] Well, you’re not the first person who’s asked me to just fuck off, and you won’t be the last person to ask me to just fuck off, so all I can say to you is to just…. fuck off.

And right back at you.

Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman: Act II’ debuts September 22 on Audible.