Crown And Country
Leave it to a Brit to create a compelling drama about an American mogul who reigns over a vast empire — and a dysfunctional family. Jesse Armstrong, the mind behind HBO’s Succession, confesses to a deep curiosity about dynasties.
It was the evening of November 8, 2016, and celebration was in the air.
The newly minted cast of Succession, HBO's caustically funny dynastic drama, had gathered at a home that writer–director Adam McKay (The Big Short) was renting in Tribeca. McKay was directing the pilot, and that morning the team had held its first table read of Jesse Armstrong's pilot script.
That episode introduces a family of American bluebloods led by patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a ruthless New York City media-and-amusement-parks mogul. His four adult children — daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) and sons Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) — are colorful and conniving, always angling for the old man's love and their piece of the empire.
The November 2016 post-table read celebration was supposed to be a victory party as well. It was Election Day in America. In addition to the cast, partygoers ready to celebrate Hillary Clinton's coronation included Adam Davidson, a consultant on The Big Short who writes for The New Yorker, and former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, an executive producer on Succession.
"We all felt the molecules in the room changing and suddenly having a negative valence," recalls Strong, who studied drama at Yale and read everything he could on Rupert Murdoch and his family in preparation to play Kendall, the sibling most eager to usurp the powerful patriarch. "I remember how stricken McKay was when the results became clear. And that somehow permeated the feeling of the show."
Strong remembers it felt almost like a curse, as if a darkening had occurred. "And that darkening has become so pervasive," he adds. In an age when media moguls like Murdoch control news cycles and swing elections, he says, "The Logan Roys of the world take on a new kind of meaning and a new charge."
Jesse Armstrong might not have seemed likely to create a high-stakes prestige drama about a powerful American family. He was mostly a sitcom guy (Peep Show, The Thick of It), a self-proclaimed "small town, provincial person from the U.K." What did he know about America and billionaire media titans?
Plenty, it turns out. Not only was he an American Studies major at the University of Manchester, he'd written a much-praised but never-produced screenplay called Murdoch. Plus, he had a deep curiosity about dynastic stories of kings and queens and the moments when power passes from one generation to another.
"The writers sometimes used to mock me for getting highfalutin' for encouraging them to read Assyrian sagas and Babylonian stories," Armstrong recalls. "But we were inspired by a bunch of stuff." He reveres Six Feet Under and The Sopranos — shows with strong family themes — and cites everything from Roman emperors to Anglo-Saxon kings to Sumner Redstone as inspirations.
(In addition to holding the series' creator title, Armstrong is an executive producer and the showrunner; also exec-producing are McKay, Rich, Kevin Messick, Will Ferrell, Jane Tranter, Mark Mylod and Tony Roche.)
"I find family dynamics fascinating," says Armstrong, who also wrote an episode of Veep and was Oscar-nominated for cowriting In the Loop.
He says his biggest challenge was trying to keep the tone consistent and "finding the storyline across 10 episodes." They shot mostly in New York, but did one episode in New Mexico and the final two in England. Succession — which returned August 11 for season two — is one of those modern hybrids that defies easy categorization. It's a drama, but it's full of comedic moments that demand dexterity from its actors.
"It needs people who are really attuned to the comedy, but can keep it very real," says Armstrong, who got an up-close view of power and wealth while working for the Labour Party during Tony Blair's tenure. "If you felt like we were making jokes, the thing might fall apart. And that's where the cast are extraordinary, in my view."
The actors are equally impressed with Armstrong and his writing team. "The writers are so frickin' good," Culkin says. "They know my voice, and they really write extremely well to it. And Jesse has the best eye for bullshit I've ever seen. He'll walk in and be like, 'No, we can't do that.' And I'll be, 'Yeah, he's right.'"
"One of their great strengths is dramatic architecture," Strong says of Armstrong and his team of writers. "And sort of slowly building the tectonic plates of the thing so that the pressure mounts and mounts and mounts, until finally there's some reckoning."
Maybe the most powerful moment of reckoning in the first season occurs at the end of the last episode. There's a moment when all the tension, angst, resentment and craving for parental love reach a catharsis between father and son.
For Strong, the scene was the culmination of many things — the end of the first season of being the lead in a weighty HBO show, the psychic pain from years of actor struggles and a cascade of relief and gratitude.
"That was a very powerful experience for me," he recalls. "There was a real release that I experienced. Something kind of went slack in Kendall — and in me. I remember feeling very keenly that I got to the end of something. I felt fully expressed."
Strong studied up on tech and media to prepare for the role, and throughout season one, he sustained Kendall's serious-minded, slightly pinched persona.
He's the one Roy kid who wants to be just like dad, but he's probably too sensitive, too uncool, to step into his father's lofty shoes. Between takes, Culkin says he never saw anything but Kendall in his costar. It was Kendall, all the time. But that's just how Strong works. This time around, anyway.
"I feel so close to this character right now, and to his struggle," Strong says. "Because a lot of those things are turmoils in me as well — the control, the ambition. He has an addiction to power. I don't know what I would do or who I would be without acting, which is an obsession, a compulsion, an addiction. And a lot of that is wrapped up in my self-worth and having a sense of value.
"So I understand what it is to need something in order to have a sense of value at all."
"He certainly takes on the emotional weight of the part," Armstrong says of Strong. All the Roy children keenly desire their father's love, but it's Kendall's "desperate hankerings" — expressed in the most visceral way in season one — that give the show a formidable, weighty center for the other elements to orbit around, according to Armstrong. And Strong is in deep, living it to his core.
"This feels like a very positive outlet to channel a lot of that ambition, resentment, envy, fire, drive," he confesses. "And at the same time, a search for goodness and authenticity, which I think Kendall also has. So in a way, I've harnessed this character to me, which is something I haven't done before. That's what makes this different."
I've been waiting for a job like this one for about 30 years. I'm serious."
It's been 33 years since Alan Ruck became a pop culture fixture, thanks to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And while he's worked steadily in recent years, he's now on an acclaimed series in a role that fits.
Unlike Strong, Ruck didn't need to do much research. That's because big brother Connor — who has a different mother than the other sibs — is also the least ambitious of the Roy kids. He's got a place in New Mexico, where he lives with his girlfriend, a call girl–turned–aspiring playwright. He's weak, wounded and filthy rich, a trust-fund baby close to retirement age.
"Connor doesn't worry about anything because he's never had to," Ruck says. "There's always someone to take care of things; there's always money to get whatever he wants. So, as Alan, I don't worry about too much."
Ruck grew up nothing like the Roys. His dad was a blue-collar worker at a pharmaceutical company. His mother, who died before he made Ferris Bueller, taught fifth grade. The family went to free concerts and high school plays in Cleveland. That may explain Ruck's perspective on Connor and his family.
"I think all the people in the show are sociopaths. They're so far removed from everyday life and what life is like for most people. Connor enjoys the money and he's a little vapid. But he's not dumb. He reads a lot of history. But with this guy, truthfully…" Ruck begins to crack up. "I haven't had to reach too far to make him go."
Ruck loves being surprised by all the crazy things the writers have Connor doing. "And I love playing with my playmates," he says. "Especially on those takes where they say, 'Okay, this is a free one, just whatever comes out of your mouth' — it's a gas. Sometimes it's lame and it just lays there. But sometimes it's really terrific."
Culkin says he was terrified the day he found out there'd be some improv after they'd shot the material on the page. "I told them right there," he recalls. "The last thing I did was a play, where I'd get notes from the playwright saying, like, 'You missed the comma. You're supposed to say the words exactly how I wrote them.' That's kind of the world I come from."
Two years and countless epithets later, Culkin has grown into an improv quip machine, enthusiastically competing with the writers "to see who can be more inappropriate." But, he points out, his quips rarely make the cut — and they're in keeping with his character.
Roman Roy is the family trickster, the hipster quipster, and Culkin is killing the improv takes. "Now he's better at it than anyone," Ruck says. "He's like this artesian well of epithets, insults and excoriations. One foul thing after another comes flying out of his mouth. He was really hesitant [at first]. But, man, he's grown a giant set of balls since then."
Culkin was originally asked to audition for Greg, the bumbling distant cousin who barges into the Roys' lives. But after reading 10 pages, he knew he was wrong for the role.
Culkin loved the writing so much, though, he continued reading and soon fell hard for Roman. And he's not sure why. "I could tell you a bunch of reasons why I wasn't right for Greg," he says. "But I probably couldn't tell you one reason why I was right for Roman. I read it and I was like, 'Ooh, me likey, me connect. My tummy, brain and heart connect for some reason."
But, Culkin cautions, the role can be a little dangerous, too. "It's like opening up a Pandora's box and finding stuff of mine that's been sealed up for 30 years. Where I've never been allowed to say what I want. Now they go, 'Well, here's this foul-mouthed guy who can say whatever he wants. Go!' And now I spend my day at work delivering dick jokes and being wildly inappropriate — on-script and off-script."
The most improv-challenged cast member might have been Sarah Snook, whose theater training and work in films and on stages had afforded her little improvisational experience. Certainly not improv in an American accent, with talented actors on an HBO series.
Months earlier, Snook had been fairly certain she'd never get the role of Siobhan "Shiv" Roy. Even after submitting her homemade video audition from Australia at the insistence of a friend, Snook had low expectations when she got a callback. But she was more than happy to travel to America to meet the Succession producers.
"I didn't think there was a chance in hell that I would get the role," she recalls. "Which is why I was quite calm and casual. I thought I'd come in, do my thing, see my friends in L.A. for the weekend, go back to Australia — great. I'm not gonna get the role, so it's fine."
Armstrong strongly disagreed. "She was just brilliant," he recalls. "And engaging. I don't even think I knew she was Australian when I was watching her read."
Still, early in the production, Snook became convinced she was going to be fired. She felt the pressure of "Why'd they cast me ? Of all the actresses they could've had to play this American character?" Then there was living in a new country, a new city, a new apartment. Working with a whole different group of colleagues, in a different cultural way of working on set.
Not to mention playing a character who's very American and also wealthy — "Things I am not," Snook points out. "Yeah, there was a huge amount of pressure."
She may have picked up some of Shiv's strength by osmosis. "She's a lot tougher than I am," Snook says. "A lot more direct." By the second or third episode, she was acclimating. "I was like, 'Okay, I understand this world. I'm more comfortable. I'm understanding the process and I really trust and love everyone around me.'"
Succession has slowly built its success. Early on, some critics — and even some cast members — wondered why we should care about these self-absorbed sociopaths. But by mid-season, the show had found its groove.
Familiarity with the characters heightened the comedy and deepened the pathos. "It's funny because they're all miserable," Ruck says. "They have all the money in the world, and none of them are happy. It's fun for normal people to see billionaires suffer."
By season's end, the series was being hailed as one of the best things on TV. And its nuanced beauty could be seen in one simple scene of the final episode. The family is in England for Shiv's wedding, but she's off sharing a joint late at night with brothers Kendall and Roman, with whom she's been sparring all season.
At an empty boathouse, the trio pass around the joint and share some laughs. According to Culkin, it was their favorite scene of the season.
"There was nothing plot-driven about it," he recalls. "But to us, it was really important. To understand that they were kids together. To realize they used to love each other and play together. They grew up together. And now they're grownups, struggling to make some kind of connection with each other — but they don't really know how.
"This was the explanation for why they even bother with each other. To Roman, there really is nothing else. There's nobody he's ever bonded with or connected with in his life. Nobody who understands him, except his siblings," Culkin says. "They're the only ones who get it."
Season one of Succession is available on HBO Now, HBO Go and on demand.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2019
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