Jeremy Strong is trying to say something serious. The actor, 41, who stars as Succession’s hangdog antihero Kendall Roy, is giving a thoughtful answer about the HBO drama’s storytelling. Strong says showrunner Jesse Armstrong — who created the dark and soapy saga about media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his highly ambitious offspring — is “weaving a tapestry” with a “corporate backdrop” but high “emotional stakes.”
As Strong talks, Kieran Culkin, 37, who plays Logan’s youngest son and Roy family jester Roman, sits next to him, eating pistachios. Suddenly Culkin begins vigorously brushing pistachio detritus from his clothes. Sarah Snook, 32, known to fans as cunning commitment-phobe (and Logan’s only daughter) Shiv, watches, repressing a giggle.
Strong pauses. “We’re all our characters,” he notes with a smile.
Not really, but EW’s chat with the stars of Succession — which covered everything from that shocking season 2 finale to the White Boy Rap heard ’round the world — proved to be almost as fun as watching the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back at the first season, was there a moment where you felt like it really started to click?
KIERAN CULKIN: When we were shooting the pilot, I could tell it was good writing — I liked playing my character, but I felt like, “Who the hell’s gonna watch this show?” I kind of kept saying that, and then one day we were shooting episode 5 or 6, somewhere in there, I remember coming home. My wife asked me how was work, and I said, “Good! I think we have something here. I don’t know what it is, but I kind of give a s— about these people now and I don’t know why.” And I felt that way when I was watching it, and it felt pretty validated because that seems to be a lot of people’s opinions.
SARAH SNOOK: It occurs to me just now that after episode 5, I was like, “Sweet, they’ve spent enough money on this now that they can’t fire me.” [Everyone laughs] Total imposter syndrome!
JEREMY STRONG: I know that people felt like it was a slow burn, but I felt from the word go there was this great drama unfolding and that Jesse and the writers were setting the table. They knew exactly what they were doing. And at the same time, for me, it wasn’t until episode 6 that I suddenly felt like the dial turned, the noose tightened, the stakes got turned up. That episode where I broke my foot running up and down the street, stupidly. Yeah, the proxy call. Suddenly the corporate backdrop, the scaffolding that the show is built around fell away, and it became a character drama. And when he [gestures to Kieran] doesn’t look at me when I leave that room, when he doesn’t raise his hand — things have been set up so that the poignancy, the emotional stakes were teed up. Once that fuse was lit for me in episode 6, it never stopped for me again.
The show went from cult hit to Emmy-nominated phenomenon this year. What was the fan reaction like for you this season?
STRONG: I went and had a baby girl and was living in Copenhagen when we finished the first season and the show came out, so I was very peripherally aware of [the reaction]. It felt like the show sort of reached audiences and even sort of caught fire by the end, at least in terms of a response. But the wonderful thing was there was an audience ready to watch the second season that was already in the deep end with the characters. So they were ready to go on the ride.
SNOOK: If people have come to it before other friends of theirs, there’s so much personal ownership there. My favorite is when [fans say], “Nobody watches you, but I’m telling my friends to watch it.” Like, “Ouch? Thanks?”
CULKIN: People just shout at me on the street. They did that a little after season 1, like, “Oh you’re on that show.” Now they know the name of the show and they yell it at me. I also had a guy yell “you’re an asshole” at me while I was walking with my pregnant wife. It’s like, “Thank you. You should know me in real life, I’m an absolute prick. But this woman thinks I’m nice, so let’s keep the façade.”
STRONG: I sort of think it’s important to try and insulate yourself from all of that stuff because it can mess with you…
CULKIN: [interrupting] I think you should just bathe in it. “Mmmmm, me! The show! Everyone loves me!” I think it’s good for you.
STRONG: It’s become ubiquitous in a way where you get on the subway and there’s an advertisement for something that cites the show, or there was a review about a new supermarket in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that cites the show and so you think, “Oh wow, this is really becoming this zeitgeist-y thing.” It makes me so happy for Jesse Armstrong because he deserves all the credit. At the same time, it is this odd thing. There were people dressed as us for Halloween.
SNOOK: Wearing the “LOG” shirt.
STRONG: It’s so funny how that [happened]. I wear that Jersey for Kendall’s rap [in the season 2 episode “Dundee”]. That wasn’t called for [in the script]. We were in Glasgow filming, and I was sitting in our hotel and I sketched [the jersey] on the hotel stationery and texted it to our costume designer [Michelle Matland]. I was like, “Think we can get this made?” And so she had one made, and now people wear it for Halloween! And that’s crazy. It’s gratifying, and at the same time it’s also like, how do we go back to work and feel sort of loose and free and not give a s— about expectations?
SNOOK: What I’m trying to do is engage enough [in the fan reaction] so that you’re not denying yourself the joy. I’m such a fan of the show, because I love what you guys do, and I love what Nick [Braun] and Matthew [Macfadyen] do as Greg and Tom. I’m not getting to see that on set, so watching it on the episodes I get to be a fan as much as anyone else. So, I try to enjoy this moment in tandem with the fans and then by Christmas, cut it off and give yourself time to clear your head.
CULKIN: You don’t want to have how you perceive the show to actually influence the work. But I found that to be kind of easy because once we’re on set, everybody’s like, “Oh we’re back. We’re just doing the work.” I don’t feel like I’m seeing the show once we’re on set.
STRONG: I know for me, going back to the second season was something I dreaded the whole time just because of the circumstances where the character ended the first season. But going into the third season, it’s quite different. I don’t feel like I have to start in the ninth circle of hell.
Have you met any famous fans of the show?
STRONG: This was very exciting, but I know that Steven Spielberg is a big fan of it. I’m working on a thing with him now and he came to set the other day and all he could talk about was…
CULKIN: …was Kieran Culkin.
STRONG: …was the finale.
Each of your characters showed significant growth this season, for good and for ill. Roman, for one, really stepped up in the finale and told Logan that the private equity solution for Waystar was, in his words, “bulls—.”
CULKIN: And he also jerked off in a bathroom.
True, true — but he did seem to start taking the COO role seriously.
CULKIN: The thing he says in the first season, “I’m dumb but I’m smart,” I think that’s true and he means that. But it was getting to a point for me where it was like, why are they still allowing him in the room? Even though he’s COO or co-COO, if he doesn’t have anything to contribute, why do people still listen to him? And I was hoping to see the reason why. And I started to [this season] — little bits here and there. Even going through that, what he considers to be bulls— management training, and putting in that kind of effort and then actually caring.
He wants to be the hero [with the private equity deal], but it’s not a good enough deal to just be the hero. I think it shows a level of maturity and that he actually is kind of understanding, maybe, what the job entails — and that he might one day be capable of doing it.
STRONG: There was a certain courage of your convictions that started to happen. Even when you were talking to dad [Strong pauses, and smiles a little sheepishly]…when Roman is talking to Logan, and you say, “If it’s really important, I can say I’ll do it, like a fireman in a movie.” And having the courage to say that to him, there was an ownership…sort of like, this is actually who I am.
CULKIN: It came from, like, it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m still not going to get picked. Nothing matters anymore. I might as well just be honest.
STRONG: I also think on a fundamental level, the show is about individuation. It’s not about who’s going to become the CEO of Waystar…
CULKIN: [Speaks into phone] Siri, what is “individuation”?
STRONG: …that’s the Trojan horse of it. But it’s the evolution of these people, and we all went through our own process of that.
SNOOK: That’s the exciting potential journey of the show. [To Strong] I think you’re right. It’s not about who’s going to take over. It’s not about who’s right to take over. It’s about how each of these people who grew up in the same pressure cooker, the zygote changed for each of them in a different way. And that they’ve been told their whole lives they are meant to want this.
The finale delivered another huge twist when Kendall threw out the script at the press conference and told the world that Logan knew about the cruise ship scandal. Did it come as a shock to any of you?
STRONG: I was in L.A. last September and had a call with Jesse and he basically started by telling me where the season ends.
SNOOK: So you knew the whole time? Oh, my God!
STRONG: And then you try and bury that and arc it back as far as you possibly can from that, so it’s a sort of coming back from the dead and then arriving at that decision or moment in a way that feels both inevitable to you and also hopefully surprising to the audience.
I remember thinking a lot about that moment in Godfather where he’s in Sicily and falls in love with the girl, and when her car gets blown up, it’s like that’s the moment that he’s ready to go back and be a killer, because whatever final vestiges of his humanity and his capacity for love or tenderness have been destroyed. There’s this sort of darkening and annihilation of his soul that prepares him for something. I don’t even know that Jesse and I agree with the reason for [Kendall’s] decision.
STRONG: I don’t think we do. What I will say is the seizing of the throne that happened at the end of season 2 is to me 180 degrees different from the reason why Kendall wanted it at the end of season 1. At the end of season 1, it was the Holy Grail and it was the sort of the pinnacle of his ambitions and something he had wanted his whole life. I think at the end of season 2, I truly believe that he had lost that ambition…that he’d collapsed inside as a result of the tragedy that happened [at the wedding] and his complicity in that. But I think he saw something in that final episode in his father — Logan said to Kendall in the pilot, you’re not a killer. So that’s not new information. The new information to me is Logan’s complicity in what happened [on the cruise ships].
Like when he says to Kendall, “No real person involved.”
STRONG: Yeah, exactly. And Nick Braun brought this up: There’s this moment in All My Sons, the Arthur Miller play, where the son finds out that his father knew about the faulty airplane parts, and then it becomes about doing the right thing, morally. It doesn’t become about self-interest. It’s about what needs to be done.
CULKIN: There are some funny fan theories [about the finale]. I’ve been taking general [business] meetings and finding out halfway through, “Oh, the only reason why you wanted to take this meeting is so you can geek out about the show and give me your fan theory.” I had this one meeting where the guy had friends who had a fan theory that he thought was bulls—. When he told me [their theory], I said, “Yeah, that’s bulls—.” He goes, “Do you mind if I take a video of you saying it’s bulls—?” So I took a video of me saying it’s bulls—, and when I left I was like, “Oh, I feel like such a whore.” His theory was that all the kids were in on Kendall’s decision.
I want to talk about that really tender moment between Kendall and Shiv in “Safe Room.” Shiv finds Kendall in Logan’s office at night, and the scene ends with a tearful Kendall asking Shiv for a hug. What was that like to play?
SNOOK: I’ve been in scenes in film or TV before and thought, “I know how this will play,” and then I watch it and I’m like, “Yeah, that played the way that I expected it to.” Something about this show and particularly that scene, I’m like, “These poor people, these poor children!” They’re just desperate for some kind of affection.
STRONG: And personally, I’d had a really hard time the first couple of months [of shooting season 2] just because of what I was trying to put myself through, to be where I felt like Kendall needed to be. And that was the first human contact that I’d been given in the writing in the season, just saying, “Hey, I need help, I’m in trouble.” I was in trouble. It was hard for me and I didn’t want to feel that way anymore, so it was really easy to look at Sarah and basically say, “I don’t want to feel this way anymore.” I was holding a pill bottle and then for some reason I was trying to hug into my chest like I see my daughter do with her binky. I wish we had more scenes that were connective in that way, but [the writers] deny us that because [the characters] don’t have that in their lives.
Right. Even poor Roman, after he escaped the hostage situation, asks Kendall and Shiv if they could “talk to each other about stuff, normally” and they just mock him mercilessly.
STRONG: Well, where would we have learned to talk about things? You’ve seen both of our parents — they clearly didn’t give us that language or that capacity.
CULKIN: And here I am in my mid-to-late 30s, like, “I know I don’t have the equipment, none of us do, but can we try?” And then “No? Okay.”
We get little tastes here and there of the siblings’ backstory, like in season 1 when Roman and Kendall have that whole debate about the game “dog pound.” Beyond what’s in the script, do you guys get any additional backstory from the writers?
STRONG: We know some things, there are some clues dropped in. There’s a lot of stuff alluding to my addiction, and being Shanghaied, so those kinds of structural beams exist. Then you sort of fill in quadrants with reading about these dynastic families trying to glean some stuff from their stories. It was very, very interesting to me, in one of the Michael Wolff books, to read about what it was like for the Murdoch kids to go to the breakfast table, and the sense of the pressure in a way of even just opening your mouth and trying to make a cogent argument. There would be the broadsheets of all the newspapers on the table every day. It’s a very different way of growing up.
CULKIN: Sometimes you just make a choice.
SNOOK: The amazing thing about that is that if the writers see you’ve made a decision about something, and if you acted it well enough, they’ll just write it accordingly. At the end of season 1, Shiv says something like, “When I met you, Tom, I was such a mess.” And so I’ll just make a decision about what that was [about].
Kieran, have you made up any backstory for Roman?
CULKIN: It’s a lot of, “I feel like it’s this, so I’m just gonna do it.” Maybe the best example of this is Alan Ruck as Connor. You look at the pilot, what’s on the page for Connor, it’s sort of like, here’s this dude comes by and gives sourdough starter and that’s kinda it. I feel like he just created that entire character. When we got the scripts for episode 2 and 3, I was like, “Oh they’re writing Alan’s voice.”
I remember [when we were shooting the pilot], director Adam McKay saying, “Okay, everybody improvise. Alan, talk about your home.” And so he just started talking about this ranch that Connor has in New Mexico.
STRONG: And the aquifers.
SNOOK: And the water rights that he’s gonna have, and when the world’s overheated he’s going to have all the water, so you want to stick with me, honey. To this 7-year-old kid!
CULKIN: I was terrified of improv. I remember seeing Alan do that and [thinking], “I need to leave. I need to find the back door.”
STRONG: Alan is just brilliant. Also, Alan kind of is that way a bit, and he’ll start telling you about, you know, this supplement or whatever.
CULKIN: He can join any conversation and have a really amazing story that goes with it.
STRONG: It’s interesting about the backstory stuff. One of the really rare things about working on this show is what a symbiotic relationship we all have with the writers and how much ownership they allow us to have of our characters. And even, in a sense, authorship — not that we were writing them, but Jesse’s incredibly agile and we spend enough time inside these characters’ skins to have a real informed opinion about the direction of things, and he is very open to that.
SNOOK: It’s sort of like, Tom Wolfe wrote a book about Ken Kesey, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In it, he talks about how the Merry Pranksters used to call Ken the anti-navigator. He was obviously the leader, obviously the top of the chain, but he sees that everyone else feels actively valuable and collaborative. And I think Jesse is like that, because he is the leader and it does stop at him, but you feel completely valued in your contribution.
There are really funny moments in season 2. What were some scenes where you guys had trouble getting through?
SNOOK: I have trouble watching just the read-throughs, anything that Tom and Greg have to do together. Like the “we hear for you” scene [in “Argestes”]. And then the chicken power-play scene. When Matthew picks the chicken off of Logan’s plate and eats it, that was really difficult for me to shoot.
CULKIN: I watched that scene 12 times, maybe 13? I missed the next 10 minutes of the show because I think I ended up on the floor in tears. “Thank you for the chicken.” I remember hearing him in the table read and I lost my s—.
SNOOK: There is a scene in episode 10 where I’m well in the background and I know that Matthew’s laughing and I can see that I’m laughing at Matthew. Brian [Cox] went to drink something out of a straw… [Entire group breaks into laughter]
CULKIN: He missed the straw!
SNOOK: He went [mimes searching empty air with open mouth] to get the straw and then kept speaking as if he’d never stopped. Matthew and I just completely lost it.
Is Brian Cox as scary in real life as he is on screen?
CULKIN: Brian is a big cuddly teddy bear. But when the scene starts and he’s Logan, it becomes easy because he can be terrifying in that moment.
STRONG: He’s a heavyweight champion. He possesses something when you’re in a scene with him that is sort of primal and actually dangerous. Most of the great actors have that. He’s the best scene partner you could ask for.
Jeremy, I read that Brian was once so mean to you in a scene that it made you cry?
STRONG: No, someone misquoted that.
CULKIN: “It was Kieran that made me cry!”
STRONG: I was doing off-camera [lines]. There’s a scene where I’m meant to be running from the tunnel to the vote in the boardroom in the first season. We’d spread it out over a lot of shooting days, and I was trying to stay in a place where I was really winded and out of breath. So I would get to set at whatever time and just start running up and down the West Side Highway. They wanted me to stay next to the boardroom to do the off-camera [lines], but suddenly I felt like it was just bulls—, and I started running outside again. I had fractured my foot from running in dress shoes [while shooting the scene], like an idiot. So I was in terrible pain, and I was trying to run up and down to 14th [Street] and back and doing the off-camera phone call while I was running.
And there was a point during the scene where Logan yelled something at me, I don’t even think it was a scripted line, but he lost it, and yeah that had a real effect on me. It was a real gift because it gave me something in terms of the relationship, and the character, and the suffering that [Kendall] was experiencing in that moment. And [Logan’s] cruelty in that moment, I really felt it.
We need to discuss the rap. What was your first reaction when you saw it on the page?
STRONG: They didn’t see it on the page, and they didn’t see it until we did it on camera.
SNOOK: It was written in the script, but not the whole thing. It was just like “Kendall does a rap,” with one verse. And you didn’t want to do it at first!
STRONG: No, I immediately went to Jesse. Because the line in the script, it was basically just a white guy at a bar mitzvah doing a stupid rap. But Jesse had sent me a video that was on Instagram of this guy — he’s an oil heir, and he’s a billionaire. At his 40th birthday, he got on stage and rapped with Nelly, and he was pretty fucking good. Jesse was like, something like that.
And then he said [Succession composer] Nick Britell is going to work on it. Then Nick texted me saying, “I want to do the rap for you over the phone.” I still have the recording on my phone of him doing the rap for me for the first time. He played this beat. And you know, Nick is obviously a brilliant composer and a real hip-hop aficionado. When I heard him do it, I was like, “Oh, this is amazing.” I only had four days until we shot it. And we were working for two of those days. So that’s part of the enormous pressure that this show puts on you because you don’t have time to prepare.
SNOOK: People ask if we rehearse a lot.
CULKIN: We don’t rehearse at all.
STRONG: So I worked on it incessantly, and then asked our director, Kevin Bray, “Can we shoot them seeing it for the first time as well as me doing it for the first time?” So their responses, which are the best part of it, are genuine.
CULKIN: Like Caitlin [Fitzgerald, who plays Roman’s girlfriend Tabitha] just like, “I can’t look away.” That was really how we were talking about it.
SNOOK: Shiv’s scripted response was completely different to what my actual response was. She was meant to [have her] arms crossed, sort of like, “Someone tell this guy to stop,” but I could not stop laughing. I was actually filming on my phone as well.
STRONG: We had to do it a lot of times.
CULKIN: But it never ceased to make me be like, “Oh my God, stop!”
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