Of the members of Succession’s Roy family—including Rupert Murdoch-esque media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his three sons, Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Roman (Kieran Culkin)—Australian actress Sarah Snook, as Logan’s only daughter, Siobhan (“Shiv” for short), may be the least know to American audiences. Well, for now: By the time she utters “I’m Shiv Roy” at a key moment in Sunday’s forthcoming season finale, Snook might be the breakout star of HBO’s viciously funny family drama, in part because Shiv—a political strategist in the employ of a left-wing presidential aspirant, and engaged to the exquisitely slimy Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen)—turns out to be quite the smooth operator, much like Succession itself.
Paste caught up with Snook in Sydney, Australia, where she’s fresh off playing Joan of Arc in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, to discuss Succession horse race aspect, starring in a series full of villains, and her favorite insult from Season One.
Paste: Shiv really comes on strong in the home stretch. She has her mercenary moment with [Royco general counsel] Gerri [played by J. Smith-Cameron] in “Pre-Nuptial.” Is that something you were expecting all along? When you saw those scripts, what was your reaction?
Sarah Snook: It surprised me. I really appreciated and loved getting into Shiv and seeing where she went by the end. She’s not a dark horse—certainly not as much as [her stepmother] Marcia [played by Hiam Abbass]—but a little bit of an unknown quantity, in some ways, at the beginning of the season. So seeing her stretch her… talents [laughs] is sort of great—this very individual, very single-minded pursuit of power and success. And just winning. She’s going to secure the win.
Paste: My friends and I have all glommed on to Shiv as a favorite. And it’s funny, phrases like “home stretch,” “dark horse,” “favorite”—the series does seduce you into a horse race mentality about who’s winning and losing.
Snook: For sure. And in a lot of ways, it suggests that you’d be wrong to underestimate any of them. Even Roman [played by Kieran Culkin]. I can’t wait to see what they do for him in the next season, because you could underestimate Roman in a lot of ways, but I reckon he could be just as cruel or just as flippant and then maybe wreak more havoc because of that.
Paste: In terms of Shiv being something of an unknown quantity, one of the things I found most compelling about her relationships with her father [played by Brian Cox] and with Tom is that it can be head to get a bead on what her real feelings about them are, at any given moment. I’m wondering how you would describe her feelings about them.
Snook: She’s not the put-upon wife or anything like that, who hates her husband. I don’t think she would stand for that. Tom’s a strange character. He’s got these two different people within him, in a way, and I think Shiv gets to see both of those—maybe saw a bit more of the bully at the beginning, and was excited by that, sort of got that kind of person. But actually he’s just a big softie at heart. She’s a person who probably keeps a lot of her true feelings at arm’s length—from herself as well, because it’s easier that way. Certainly, with her father, she’s gotten to a point where you just go through the motions. Don’t expect anything from him. You saw that in the therapy episode [“Austerlitz”], where she’s just, “If you’re not gonna play, then I’m not gonna play.” She’s been burnt enough times that someone else has to come to the table before she does. So she keeps it all very much at arm’s length. But civil, polite, knows what the optics need to be to get what she wants.
Paste: It feels to me, as a critic, like it took about half the season for people, myself included, to figure out exactly what the series was trying to do, and once that clicked, it feels like it’s really taken off. Have you noticed that in the response to the show?
Snook: I’m in Australia at the moment, and it’s just starting to air, I think, on Foxtel here. So I’ll be interested to see what other people think, or even just my friends, who know me well, to see what this character is. But I totally get what you mean in terms of it ramping up toward the end. Part of that is, you can’t build a house without a good foundation. Having the set-up of the intricacies of characters in the hospital scenes, and dealing with the prospect of their dad dying, I think that has really helped push where the show goes to at the end, because we know who these characters are in a flash of chaos and crisis. Let’s see how much more we can turn the winch. And now that audiences know them more intimately, that’s the exciting part: You get to see them change or flare up or do something different.
Paste: While I was prepping for this interview, out of curiosity, I read Shaw’s preface to Saint Joan, and he says, “There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting…” What struck me about that is, Succession is a show, to me, in which almost everyone is villain and almost everything is a crime. Do you feel like, as an actor, you’re drawn to extremes, to the poles?
Snook: Absolutely. Villains are the most fascinating characters to me, in the end, because obviously they don’t think that they’re villains, they think that they’re right. And you can’t begrudge someone their complexities and their reasons for doing something by just saying they’re evil or villainous. Those are the more interesting ones, sometimes, because you’ve got to work out what sort of deeply buried neuroses or sick thing happened in their childhood or to them as an adult or whatever it is to make them behave so despicably. With Joan, at least, Shaw believed that there were no villains, but looking at history, I would say that there are definitely villains. [Laughs] They burnt a young woman at the stake for not complying—for wearing men’s clothing, is one of the reasons. Which is just sort of crazy to me. But they felt very righteous and very justified doing that. I guess in some way it applies to this family and this business, in this century. I think there’s a certain righteousness, an indignation, a self-belief necessary to go, “It’s my right to do this. I’m allowed to do this because I have the money to.”
Paste: And what’s great about the series is, in an entertaining and not sermonizing way, it’s hugely critical of the affluent and particularly of the semi-corrupt affluent that the Roys represent. There’s something very satisfying—and also kind of complicit—in enjoying the horse race aspect, but getting pleasure out of watching things go badly for them.
Snook: You look at something like The Sopranos, it’s similar in that it’s a family drama about a family who has a lot of power. And you do get a sort of pleasure out of watching the machinations of that family, and yet—I mean, they’re killing people! We as audience members, I think, we want to be able to enjoy something vicariously that is off limits to us as a society. We all can’t go around murdering people or committing crimes, and we can’t all be the sort of people who fly in from the U.S. to a wedding in the U.K. via helicopter at a moment’s notice. But there’s some thing that’s delicious about that, when you see people who you can judge, and hold at arms length, and say, “If I had wealth I would behave differently.” It feels good. But I wonder how differently we all would be if we’d grown up in that situation—in that sort of Petri dish of wealth and affluence. Whether you would turn out to be just a little bit of an asshole. You know, they’re involved in the horse race as much as the audience is looking at the horse race.
Paste: Speaking of assholes, I absolutely loved Harriet Walter as Shiv’s mother.
Snook: Isn’t she brilliant?
Paste: It’s so perfect to me that Tom says, “I think you mom just stabbed me, because you can tell that’s where Shiv gets her nickname. It’s very much a family tradition to be able to sharpen the knife.
Snook: She’s just so perfectly cast. It’s a strange thing to play a character whose history you don’t know, and whose future you don’t know. You very much have to live in the present moment, and try to do what you can as you get the new scripts. So discovering that that was our mother was this moment of the sun coming out from behind the clouds. It’s like, “Of course, that is the only mother that these children could have had.” And also the only person who could’ve stood up to—you can see how she and Logan would have been this amazing, fiery couple, and then just absolutely not be able to last. [Laughs]
Paste: Where do you hope Shiv’s story goes moving forward?
Snook: I’ve sort of had thoughts that it’d be nice to have Shiv step inside the business in some way, to put her hand up to compete in that world. But I’m not sure that that’s necessarily right for her, or whether the tension and the dynamic of her being on the outside works better. Personally, I think that Shiv’s the better choice to run the company, and I would love to see her do that—but be failing at it. I think that she’s someone who likes to be in control, and I’d like to see what Shiv is like out of control.
Paste: It is interesting that, by being on the outside of the company, in a slightly antagonistic role, she’s really the only kid who doesn’t end up being a total fuck-up by the end of the season.
Snook: She’s the only one who can have any power over [Logan] as well. She maintains her power by not playing the game. Well, she’s playing a game, obviously, but she’s not giving her power to him by being beholden to him. Somehow, by sitting on the bench beside the court, she can’t be blamed. She just can’t fail from the outside, which gives her some power. And think that’s the only thing she can use against her dad. That’s the only language he understands.
Paste: Last but definitely not least, the show’s Twitter presence is dominated by people raving about how glorious the vulgarities are. So I’m wondering if you have a favorite insult or trash talk line from the first season.
Snook: They were so much fun, and [series creator] Jesse [Armstrong] can just come up with them on a dime, these terrible ways to insult each other. The one that sticks out to me, it’s by no means the greatest, but the delivery I just love—because Peter Friedman [who plays Royco COO Frank Vernon] is just such an exceptional human being and actor—is the “calamari cock ring.” [Laughs] He just seems so gently bemused by it, and also earnest. He seems to have no opinion on it at all. That was great.
The season finale of Succession airs Sunday, August 5 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.