SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the third episode of “Succession” Season 3, titled “The Disruption.”
The third episode of Season 3 of “Succession,” titled “The Disruption,” sees Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) prepare to go on a late-night talk show to poke fun at himself and his family drama, only to cancel last-minute as he buckles under the pressure of being in the hot seat — and after his own sister releases a scathing statement about his addiction and mental health. In a perfectly cast guest role, Ziwe, host of her own self-titled talk show on Showtime, plays late-night comedian Sophie Iwobi, who skewers Kendall and his “caucasian rich brain.”
Here, Ziwe talks to Variety about how creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong rewrote the character to better fit her personality, improvising lines and what her future with the Emmy-winning drama looks like.
How did you first hear about the role?
I auditioned for it. I texted my agent, and I was like, “I love ‘Succession.’ It’s one of my favorite shows, and I’d love to audition for the show.” So I sent in a self-tape. It was a late-night host character, but with a different name. I got the part and Jesse called me. He was like, “We want to rewrite the character to be more in line with your vibe,” and I was babbling on the phone. I was so excited. This is one of my favorite satirical writers of all time, one of the best writers in the country. It was truly such an exciting show to get to be a part of. It was like a career pinnacle for me, honestly.
How did they rewrite Sophie to better fit you?
Initially it was more a Sam Bee-type, I think. They adjusted the character to be Sophie Iwobi. That’s a Nigerian name, so it was adjusted for my personality, but I really had nothing to do with the writing. I got the script, I memorized it, showed up the day of. I improvised things, but I haven’t even seen the episode, so I can’t even tell you what made it.
What were some of your favorite lines you improvised?
I read it clean a couple times. [Writer] Will Tracy and Cathy Yan, who directed the episode, encouraged me to perform out to the crew and pretend they’re an actual audience, so that gave me the space to delve into how Kendall Roy is such a tool. “Bene-dickhead Arnold” is so funny. That’s a great joke that the writers of the script wrote. What I think “Succession” does really well and subtly is when they cut to the ATN News. You’ll see the lower-third and it’ll be like, “White supremacist gets trapped in a well.” That’s when you see this intersection of really great drama and comedic writing. They have these super sharp one-liners, and you can tell they’re familiar with the John Olivers, Jon Stewarts, Desus & Meros of the world.
Kendall references “BoJack Horseman” in the show, which means “BoJack” exists in the “Succession” universe. Was it always the plan to create a fictional show and host instead of using your real-life show “Ziwe” on Showtime?
I mean, there are elements of myself, but it’s a slight adjustment because I don’t exist in the “Succession” world. It really felt like I was walking into a new universe. I felt a lot of power; I was much crueler to Kendall Roy than I would be to any of my guests, so that was really exciting. You don’t have the ramifications of a real-life billionaire being upset with you because you made him have an emotional breakdown. With that ire, it really empowered to let him have it and really roast him for his love of Lil Wayne.
If you were one of Kendall’s PR people, would you have advised him to go on Sophie’s show?
Of course, I would say please. I’m actually disappointed I didn’t get to interview Kendall Roy proper. I would’ve loved to see him squirm. I would’ve loved to do my little lean; it would’ve been great television.
What do you do if a guest cancels in real life?
People are a variable you really can’t control, so sometimes guests cancel. As an interviewer, your job is to adjust, and I think Sophie Iwobi does a really good job. Kendall really left her up shit creek without a paddle, and Sophie spends the segment reading his sister’s letter which says he’s having a psychological break. The host always finds a way to pivot. I’ve had guests cancel on me, and the solution to that was to find other people who were interesting to talk to and make an even better episode. With Sophie, you watch her turn what could’ve been an utter shit storm into something absolutely classic.
Are we going to see more of Sophie in Season 4?
I wish! I have no knowledge whatsoever. All I have is the literal script that I worked on, and that’s about it. I remember a year ago before the pandemic, I emailed Will Tracy and was like, “Hey, I’m a huge fan of ‘Succession.’ If you guys ever need writers, let me know. I went to boarding school, I feel like I understand the Kendall Roy types.” I’ve always been angling to work on the show because it’s one of the best shows on television right now.
How big of a “Succession” fan are you?
I love “Succession.” It has some of the best writing on television. It’s a huge influence on me. I’m working on my own show in development with Amazon, and I’m constantly referring to Jesse Armstrong’s work. I met Will Tracy when he was the editor-in-chief of The Onion, and I followed his work at “John Oliver,” so I’ve been a fan of these writers for literal years. I was on the first wave of “Succession” fans before the show really blew up in Season 2, so I was an early adopter. We taped this in January, so I was really excited, like, “OK I know this show is coming back! I have literal confirmation there are going to be more episodes, thank goodness. This is keeping me through the pandemic.”
If you interviewed Kendall Roy on “Ziwe,” what would you try to get him to say?
Definitely admit to the cruises. There was the interesting discussion in the last episode where they’re in the bedroom and Roman and Shiv are like, “We had no idea about the cruises.” And Connor and Kendall are like, “We absolutely knew.” That’s a conversation that you wish they had in public, which is, “Yeah, we knew. Yeah, we benefitted from it, but here we are to take accountability, admit the culpability and try to change.” I think that would be a really compelling conversation for my show. I’ve always wanted to ask Kendall Roy, “How many Black friends do you have?” and one day we’ll get that answer.
“Succession” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.