HBO’s “Succession” is a family drama with a comedic twist, and an ensemble comedy with a tragic spine. Creator Jesse Armstrong has created an expansive portrayal of how the richest of the 1% live now, as well as an intricate study of the show’s characters. When it comes to the subtly layered relationships of “Succession,” its ear is keen and its mouth is filthy.
“Succession” revolves around the Roy family, and the power dynamics surrounding who will eventually lead the dynastic mega-corporation Waystar Royco, which was founded by patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox). The extended Roy family (as well as legal counsel Gerri, of course) recently convened in the Variety Streaming Room for a virtual roundtable, during which Cox, Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy), Sarah Snook (Shiv Roy), Kieran Culkin (Roman Roy), Alan Ruck (Connor Roy), Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg), Matthew Macfadyen (Tom Wambsgans) and J. Smith-Cameron (Gerri Kellman) discussed the show’s second season.
Despite Logan Roy’s cruelty, Cox talked about finding the humanity within his character. “I think he’s incredibly human,” Cox said. “That was a question I asked Jesse from the word go: ‘Does he love his children?’ He said, ‘Yes, he loves his children!’”
“I mean, he is not a tolerant person, Mr. Roy,” Cox continued. “That’s how he’s able to achieve what he’s been able to achieve — because he doesn’t give everything away.”
The genuine, lived-in feeling of the family dynamics among the “Succession” cast has been notable to critics and fans — and a key to the show’s success. To build the sibling relationships among the Roy children, Strong said, “I know that I’ve trusted these guys from the beginning, and it was just an implicit thing.” Ruck, who plays Kendall’s older brother, agreed: “With the respect and the trust that Jeremy’s talking about, you can go anywhere. You can go anywhere from there.”
During the wide-ranging conversation, the actors talked about the spontaneous way the show is filmed, their characters’ relationships with each other and how only Cox knows what’s going to happen in Season 3 — as you’ll see, everyone tried to get it out of him, but he didn’t budge. They also broke down four key scenes from Season 2.
The third season of “Succession” was supposed to begin filming in April, but because of the coronavirus-imposed production shutdowns since mid-March, the actors have no idea when they will start.
“We have to be safe, we have to be tested, we have to be well before we can even begin to think about it,” Cox said. “It’s very, very hard to say.”
The delay is a letdown for those who are addicted to watching the Roy family tear each other apart — only to come together again, reconfigured and perhaps even more damaged.
As Braun said about the Roys, “It’s exciting to be in this family. Once you get a taste, you want to stay in.”
Amen, Cousin Greg.
SCENE ONE: Roman and Gerri’s special relationship goes to the next level in “Safe Room” (Episode 4)
The rapport between Roman, the youngest Roy son, and Gerri, Waystar Royco’s long-suffering general counsel, has certainly evolved over the two seasons of “Succession.” The impish Roman has a thing for Gerri — he likes sex that is somehow “wrong,” as he puts it. Gerri, who to Roman is half-mommy/half-mentor (and entirely scolding), totally reciprocates — and escalates — the vibe between them. Together, they’ve created one of the most interesting (and hilarious) dynamics on “Succession.”
Kieran Culkin: J, would you like to start?
J. Smith-Cameron: When we were shooting the end of Season 1, sometimes they leave the camera rolling after they run out of dialogue, just to see what the creatures will do. I think that Kendall and Roman were having a conspiratorial chat or something in the corner. Their conversation broke up, and Roman drifted over to the bar where Gerri was spying across the room at them. We had a little repartee that was just made up, some bullshit. It was about martinis, naturally.
Then Roman drifted out of the room. Gerri looked, checked out his ass as he left, and I turned back to my martini. And then a little bit later, there was a laugh off camera. I learned later — right, Kieran? — that you looked back at Gerri.
Culkin: [Director] Mark Mylod told me that he saw it in the editing room that we both checked out each other’s butts without knowing, and he was like, “There might be something there.”
We weren’t just talking about martinis. If you remember, it started off a little bit kind of sexual innuendo in character, and by the last take, I was basically asking if I could have sex with your tortoise. Do you remember that? It was getting kind of gross, but I was doing it the whole season — in character — trying to do something kind of sexy to Gerri. You would just flick it away. I never thought that they would ever try to do anything with that, but it’s cool. They kind of experiment in the show: “Let’s do a little bit, and let’s see if we like it.”
I don’t know, I like it. I’ve had to masturbate like three times on camera on a show that my mom watches, but it’s nice to do that with you, J.
Smith-Cameron: Thank you. That’s an honor, I think.
SCENE TWO: The “Boar on the Floor” scene in “Hunting” (Episode 3)
With Waystar under threat, Logan is determined to make the company too big to take over. He decides to try to buy a white whale from his past — the esteemed media brand, PGM, owned by the WASP-y Pierce family. He’s sworn his top executives to secrecy, which includes a number of his relatives. Yet — as Logan finds out at a corporate retreat in Hungary — there’s been a leak, which sends him into a seething rage. He’s also furious about an unauthorized book being written about him, especially because he’s been told someone close to him has spoken with the writer.
Logan’s anger leads to him subjecting his guests at the company dinner in Hungary — it’s a “morale booster!” Logan says more than once about the trip — to a sadistic game. One he calls “boar on the floor.”
Brian Cox: Tony Roach, who wrote it, and I, who had to play it, were both very apprehensive whether it was going to work or not. I was worried because I thought I’m giving away too much of this raging Logan. I thought, “How do I get out of this, how do I recover from this?” Of course, I had to remember my own note — that it’s a game. He does play these elaborate games, and he takes them quite seriously. Also, a level of treachery that’s in the air, you could cut it with a knife. He’s finally said he’s had enough of that, what’s been going on. He’s just had enough. He’s reached a form of breaking point.
Both to Tony and my surprise, it worked, and it became an episode that people kind of went, “Wow, that was something.”
Jeremy Strong: Brian, I thought you were just titanic in that scene. I remember the way you wheeled in the dessert trolley — or whatever was in that tray — with this glee and mania. The show often goes into the absurd. That felt, in a very exciting way, like we were in this place that felt absurd, and it almost felt like we needed a safe word on the set, too.
Cox: It’s funny you should say that, because that entrance was based on something I did 30 years ago in “Titus Andronicus.” Titus has baked the kids in a pie, and he comes on with his chef’s hat. I was wheeling this thing on, it had that kind of ludicrous out of this world dimension. I suddenly thought, this is familiar — I couldn’t remember what it was. This was a familiar thing, but suddenly this memory came back from over 30 years ago, and I thought: I know. This is how I’ll make it work, because of the sheer, as you say, absurdity of the whole thing.
Strong: I was a recessive presence in that. I felt like I was the boar on the floor, and had been for those four episodes. Although I wasn’t crawling around on the floor and being force fed sausages, in a sense I was — and far worse.
Nicholas Braun: He puts his hands on you, right? Which is such a powerful moment in that scene, where you’re like, Oh wow, he just got a cage put over him. Everybody else is a target here, but he just got a shield. At least, that’s how it felt to me watching it.
Culkin: For me, too, because that was the moment where he comes at me. I was scared every time. I was scared that something different was going to happen every time. If Brian just yelled, “Boar on the floor,” I was going to have to walk over to the corner, like, “All right.” It was pretty scary every time.
“Succession” is now famous for scenes that could have 20 or more actors in a single room, some of which might last more than 10 minutes (the “boar on the floor” spectacle, directed by Andrij Parekh, clocks in at 15 minutes). The cast loves shooting them.
Matthew Macfadyen: The longer the better. I’ve done theater, and it feels like doing a play. They’re very energizing, because they’re so long, and usually we do these long takes because we have lots of cameras. Everyone’s concentrating, and it flies by — it’s not a chore. It’s sort of wonderful. As an actor, it makes you stop worrying about what you’re doing and pay attention to the others — which is great.
Cox: You’re absolutely right, Matthew, each of the scenes are very much written like little playlets. It’s very much like you’re doing a theater piece; there’s a kind of middle, beginning, and an end to each scene. They’re brilliantly crafted — that is really down to the writers. We’ve got to really be grateful and thankful to the writers for that, because they always keep people present.
Strong: Also, the process generally gives primacy to us, the actors. Oftentimes on movies and television, you have to shoehorn yourself into the shape of a shot, or feel like you have to execute a certain thing. I don’t ever feel a pressure to execute anything to achieve some kind of result on camera. In a way, the sense of the scrutiny of the camera is completely absent, and what that does — at least for me — is it frees you up from the sense of making something at all. And allows you to really enter into it in a real moment to moment way, and make these discoveries.
SCENE THREE: Shiv flames out as Logan’s successor in front of the Pierces in “Tern Haven” (Episode 5)
In order to negotiate Waystar’s takeover of PGM, which is delicate, the Pierces have invited the Roys (and their executive hanger-ons) to the family estate to get to know one another. Shiv and Logan have been having secret conversations in which Logan has told her (and only her) that she will be his successor — a position Shiv has discovered she very much wants. During an excruciating dinner of awkward chitchat and even more awkward prodding, matriarch Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones) asks Logan whether he’s had “any thought to whom you might hand over the keys?” Logan bristles, and then coyly says, “There is a name,” which only causes Nan to keep pushing.
The tension builds and builds; soon, Shiv self-immolates.
Sarah Snook: I loved it. As Matthew was saying before, those scenes work as little plays. Within the scenes, they’re so great at structuring a journey for all the characters at the table. We had 15 people at that table, and each of them had a reason to be there and a conversation to be having with whomever.
As we were rehearsing, and then as we did it, it wasn’t working, I guess. Jesse ended up going to this situation, going, “Well, what would you want to say? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Let’s just simplify it.” It was a much more wordy thing that he’d written. We just simplified and simplified, and turned it into this very short word vomit.
Then, I think the most terrified I’ve ever been on set, in anything, ever, was when you, Brian, started dinging your glass in a take. Shiv stands up and everybody leaves, and the scene as written is over long before that, but what I love the way that we shoot is we’ll play it out until the moment is done. Then in the edit, they’ll cut and they’ll change it and shape it. What is going to happen when Logan and Shiv are faced with each other? You dinging that crystal glass is the death knell. I’ve never been so terrified. I’ve just seen death come with a scythe.
Cox: It was a funny scene, that scene, because it’s so naked. It’s like you take all your clothes off suddenly. I almost found it shocking that you did what you did. I thought, is it in character? Is this what she does, is this who she is? It was such a surprise that suddenly in a forum where we don’t know who the people are, we’re guests, she suddenly blows it so big.
Alan Ruck: The look on your face after she made her announcement, it all showed. You didn’t say a word.
SCENE FOUR: The final scene of Season 2 — Kendall’s explosive press conference, and Logan’s reaction to it — in “This Is Not for Tears” (Episode 10)
Because of what the congressional hearings revealed about the Waystar cruise group — that deaths, rapes and sexual harassment were regularly covered up in the toxic division — the company is further imperiled. Early in the episode, a board member calls Logan to suggest that he should step down if Waystar is to survive at all. Logan gathers the family on a yacht in the Mediterranean to figure out alternatives — a “blood sacrifice,” he says. Logan asks to speak with Kendall alone, and tells him that he needs to be the one to accept responsibility, and that it didn’t go any higher. “Did you ever think I could do it?” a heartbroken Kendall asks Logan, who eventually answers: “You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer.”
Kendall agrees to take the fall, and says he perhaps deserves it as penance for his part in the covered-up death of the young waiter from Tom and Shiv’s wedding in Season 1. But during the press conference, he turns the tables on Logan, and says, “This is the day his reign ends.”
Is Kendall a killer after all? What was that scene like to play?
Strong: Daunting, because not unlike Season 1, the whole architecture of the season hinged on, for me, sort of a single scene or moment happening. It was a bit of a contentious episode for me, in terms of the script, and what is the hammer and the firing pin that is the catalyst for such a complete about face? When Jesse and I arrived at a mutual understanding about what those reasons were, and doing the scene with Brian, it then felt inevitable. The scene itself, I remember the day, actually, I remember Sarah was there, because she was shadowing the director, and that made me very nervous.
Snook: Sorry! You were so great, though. It was such a joy to watch.
Strong: It’s one of those days, honestly, where you feel like you’re supposed to be the quarterback and you keep fumbling the ball. We had a table read, and it felt quite simple — but it was not simple to do, it turned out. We did many, many, many takes of it, and I found myself backsliding a bit. I initially was thrown off by the microphones, which had been set up without real sound. I wasn’t speaking into a microphone that was amplified in the room, and that took a bunch of takes to fix it, to make the environment feel real. It just turned on a consciousness in my mind that I can’t have in my mind. Anyway, after a lot of takes, I think there was one take where I paused after the word “but,” which is in the middle of this speech — and the pivot.
That was the take where it found itself for me. There’s this Wallace Stevens poem where he says, “After the final no, there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” It felt like it needed to be that magnitude of a moment for Kendall. That rest after the “but” — and then the rest of it took care of itself. I tore up a paper in that take, that’s what they ended up using. I struggled with that scene. It just goes to show as an actor you have no idea — it works as a scene but you have no idea, your own feelings are not often a reliable gauge of anything.
Brian, what is Logan thinking when he has that half-smile in the final shot of the season?
Cox: I can’t really tell you that.
You can! You can!
Cox: No, I can’t. It’s a secret.
Culkin: While you’re at it, tell us about Season 3.
Cox: I can’t tell you about that either. The interesting thing is there are several things added to that smile. There’s pride, there’s audacity, there’s surprise, there’s respect, there’s devilishness — there’s so many elements to that. Also in the previous scene, the key thing is when he asks, “Is there any way I can run the business? Can I do it?” Logan says honestly he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if he’s a killer.
Of course, what he proves to be in that scene is a killer. A little bit Robert Ford shooting Jesse James, but a killer, nevertheless. It’s a Mona Lisa Smile, so in a way, it’s open to so many interpretations, as it should be.
Macfadyen: It’s such a beautifully subtle thing you’re doing, you’re allowing everyone to project whatever they want onto you.
Cox: That’s what you’ve got to do. It’s simplistic if you go, “Well, what I’m doing is this and I’m doing that — because I made him do this, and I wanted him to do that.” It isn’t that. That certainly you can put into the mix, but there’s more going on, much more going on. There’s a lot of histories involved. There’s the dramatic history, there’s also the history of us having done two extraordinary seasons of that show and that culminating in that. Having done a similar episode, not quite the same, but when Jeremy accidentally kills the boy — or he doesn’t kill the boy, but the boy is killed in that accident — I take him under my wing, as it were, and become very protective of him. As I am for quite a lot of Season 2.
It’s fascinating, it’s absolutely fascinating. The work is fascinating, the scripts are fascinating, and the sense of ensemble — as Matthew talked about earlier — which is a great group, a truly, truly extraordinary group. It’s such a talented group that you’re in totally safe, yet dangerous hands.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Watch the full conversation here: