‘Succession': Sarah Snook on Family Dynamics and Finding Shiv’s Humanity

     June 10, 2018

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Created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the HBO drama series Succession follows the Roy family – made up of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four children (Alan Ruck, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin) – who controls one of the biggest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world. And just when they thought that their aging father would be stepping back from the company, the tough patriarch changes his mind, throwing everything into upheaval and forcing the family to choose sides.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Aussie actress Sarah Snook talked about why she wanted to be a part of Succession, playing the only daughter of the Roy family, how she grew to love her character, the challenges in finding the humanity of this family, Shiv’s place among her siblings, the kind of relationship Shiv would like to have with her father, what a gift it’s been to do the big family scenes, why it feels like there’s still more story to tell, and what she looks for in a project.

Collider:  I’ve seen seven episodes of this show, and while I tremendously enjoyed it, these people just get more and more awful, in a way that makes you want to keep watching to see what happens. When the opportunity to be a part of this came about, how was it presented to you? What was it that ultimately sold you on it?

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Image via HBO

SARAH SNOOK:  I think the thing that ultimately sold me on it was the final audition, in a way. I actually auditioned with Jeremy [Strong], who is playing my older brother now. I had put something down on tape, and then got called in for the screen test. They flew me from Australia to L.A., and between the audition and the screen test, I started to understand what this thing was more. I spoke to (director) Adam [McKay] and (creator) Jesse [Armstrong], who are so heavily interested in comedy, on the phone, and I was like, “These guys have done comedy and they’re brilliant at it, but they’re actually more fascinated, in some ways, by politics and by family and by what those dynamics are, and where money, power and family collide. In the final audition, and doing it with Jeremy, I was finally like, “Oh, I get it! This is a drama. It’s got a comedy edge, but it’s really sharp.”

Aside from the fact that it’s fun to watch these horrible people being horrible, I loved how smart and how adult the writing is.

SNOOK:  Yeah, that’s right. Jesse and Adam described it to be very adult. There was a lot of improvising, in and around what the text was and how it had been written. The usefulness of that is that you really felt like you owned your character and really got to live inside them. It made their choices feel natural.

What was it about this character that you were really most excited about getting to explore, and were there things that you grew to love about her, as you got to know her and understand her a bit more?

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Image via HBO

SNOOK:  Yeah, I certainly grew to love her. At first, I was a bit intimidated by her, and I didn’t know if people would like her or think she was just a bitch. She’s quite prickly, in some ways. She’s smart and she knows what to do, in a lot of situations. Because she’s grown up in a world that has money and power, she feels that she has the right to speak up. What if all women behaved like that? We’d be a lot further along. That was a really fun thing to play. I really grew to love her. By Episode 7, the cracks are appearing more. Her tough exterior and her sharp tongue are to cover that she’s a bit broken inside.

It seems like it would be hard not to be a little bit broken, in a family like this.

SNOOK:  Totally, yeah! They are a bit mean to each other.

Logan Roy is clearly a hard man to love, especially if you’re a part of his family, and it seems like each of his children are a bit challenging to try to get close to or care about. Because of that, what were the biggest challenges that you had, in finding the humanity of this family?

SNOOK:  Making sure that it wasn’t one note. The casting of Matthew [Macfadyen], as Shiv’s partner, helps that. You could very easily go, “Oh, he’s punching above his weight because he’s a bit of a bonehead. And he’s really mean, but she doesn’t see that.” In the beginning, perhaps she did see that. Perhaps she was like, “Yep, that’s it. I get him.” Tom comes from a very nice family and his parents are still together. He can see that Shiv is just pretending to know what she’s doing, and that creates a great union. Finding the human things within them makes them real.

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Image via HBO

Did you ever wonder how nobody in this family had tried to kill their father, by this point?

SNOOK:  I feel like, in some ways, they horribly understand him and they’re like, “Well, this is just how dad is, and how dad’s in business are.” They’ve been raised by nannies and had wives come through. One of them was one of their mothers, and one of them was another mother that they never got to meet. I think they just got to an age where they could see the outside world or an outside perspective and be like, “All right, that’s what it is.” And then, there’s Connor, who separates himself from it all by living out on a ranch, but you can also see how broken he is and how much he needs approval from Logan. It’s been very fun to work out what that psychology is and how each of them has been raised, in mostly the same way, but how each of them have responded, in different ways.

Each of these four siblings seem to really deal with things very differently, and deal with each other very differently. Who would you say Shiv is actually closest to, in her family?

SNOOK:  That’s a good question. I think each of them, in different ways. Maybe Connor, in some ways. He was probably like a surrogate dad, in some ways. He’s the older brother who’s not part of the unit of three because he was born of a different mother, and he’d be bullied or left out, from Roman and Kendall. I don’t know. They all have different uses for her. She can go to Roman, talk shit and have a good night, and not have to worry about anything. If she knew she was going to hang out with Kendall, they’d be talking business. If it’s Connor, he’ll just talk about his ranch and she can tune out. She has an ease with each of them, in some respects, and also true discomfort, as well. They’re all a bit uncomfortable in their own skins.

Ideally, what kind of relationship do you think Shiv would want from her father?

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Image via HBO

SNOOK:  That’s a tough question because, in some ways, I would say that she would want something that is communicative, and that respected her and honored her a bit more. At the same time, I think that given how she’s been raised, if he ever said that he believed in her, I don’t think she would believe it.

The episode where they’re all in therapy together is such an interesting dynamic. When the therapist asks them, if they believe their father, they’re all like, “Yeah, I don’t,” and he seems surprised by that, which just says so much about this family.

SNOOK:  Yeah, totally! A person who has managed to grow a media empire and be in control of this international news source has to, in some ways, be the kind of person who would deny fallibility and who would also not be able to communicate well and who would say, “It’s your responsibility to find out the truth. It’s not my responsibility to present it.” That seems to be what Logan does, a little bit. He never appears to be, but he probably is, all the time. After awhile, the kids learn that and become very frustrated and damaged by it.

One of the things about a show like this, that’s about a family, is that the dynamic of you guys, as actors, is so important, and you’re all so good in this and so interesting to watch with each other. What’s it been like to work with this cast of actors and play these dynamics, especially in the big family scenes that you have together?

SNOOK:  It was amazing! It was such a gift to be able to act in those big family scenes because we had the chance to hang out together and work out what that group dynamic was. With TV, you get scenes written for two or three people, either because of budget concerns, or the writers are not as comfortable writing for multiple people in a room and working out what a scene would look like with up to eight people. So, I really love how fearless our writers were, in writing scenes that had multiple characters, all coming to heads and crossing over each other and butting up against each other. Shooting the Thanksgiving dinner scene, running the cameras and seeing what happens, and really just sitting in what this family is around each other, was a gift really. Those kinds of scenes really tell us what this family is together.

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Image via HBO

At the end of this season, will feel differently about Shiv, from where things are left with her, or does it feel like there’s a lot more of her story to tell?

SNOOK:  At the end of the season, you’ll feel like there’s more to her and, because of that, there’s more to tell. She has a bit of a reckoning, at the end of the season, that she needs to make a decision about. Everything blows up, and then needs to be put back together again. Her decision to do that is something that allows her to grow, as a character and as a person, and makes it really interesting to me, as far as what they’re going to choose to do next. It ends in a nice place, but you’ll also wonder how sustainable that is. Knowing what we know about these people, how long will they be able to keep that up, truly? They’re addicted to each other. Also, they’ve grown up in such a unique way that no one is going to understand what it’s like on the inside of this family, so they really only have each other against the world, which is sad because they just can’t treat each other nicely.

At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project? Does it always start with the script and the character, or is who you’ll be working with equally as important?

SNOOK:  At any point in my career, the script and the character are the most important things, straight up. As I’ve been going on, you also have to think about things like only being given one episode, but you have to sign up for something that could go six years and you have to sign up for these long contracts. When you’ve only got one script to go off of, you really have to trust the taste of the creators involved.

Succession airs on Sunday nights on HBO.

Television