Sarah Snook returned for Season 2 of the addictive HBO drama “Succession,” where she plays manipulative political fixer Shiv Roy. The actress was nominated at the Critics’ Choice Awards earlier this year for her work in Season 2.
Snook spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria recently about playing all the layers of Shiv, the surprises that come with each new script of “Succession” and what it’s like to be on a hit TV show. Watch the full video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Sarah, Shiv is a complicated character. Underneath the glossy exterior which is polished and ambitious and calculating, there’s glimpses of her vulnerability and her insecurity. I’m always wondering when you’re playing a character like that, how difficult is it to play a character who is essentially also playing a role herself?
Sarah Snook: Oh, I love it. There’s conversations in the last five or so years, and more, about having strong female characters and all that, and I think Shiv definitely falls into that category of a strong female character but the more interesting thing, I think, is having complex female characters. I think she definitely is one. She’s got a lot of monsters, demons that she’s dealing with hiding in the closet and things that she’s not comfortable with of her own self and selfhood but she’s quite good at disguising them. I was talking with Kieran [Culkin] recently in a panel and he said he remembered it in the first season he said something like, “We’re all fucked up but you’re probably the most fucked up. You’re just better at hiding it.” I think that’s probably becoming more and more true for Shiv but I love it. I love playing that. Everyone’s hiding some sort of version of themselves from the public.
GD: Yeah, that’s actually a really good way to put it. But that’s not to say that Shiv doesn’t have a killer instinct that her dad so desperately wants from his kids, which comes up in the finale with Kendall, because the episode just before the finale, “D.C.,” where — I’m sure you’ve talked about this ad nauseam — Shiv goes to the playground and approaches the Waystar witness and has that woman to woman chat and it’s very open and transparent but it’s also so calculating and ruthless and effective. I think that could also be the true Shiv. I’m wondering what it was like to do that scene. That dialogue was so pitch-perfect.
SS: Yeah, also longer as well. There were parts that were trimmed for time which made absolute sense but it was such a gift to be given that and it was basically a six-page monologue with another character in the scene. Sally was brilliant. But it’s a daunting thing to embark on as a character in a TV show. You’re shooting very fast and suddenly you’ve got a six-page monologue to learn. But I loved the skillful manipulation just from Jesse [Armstrong] as the audience as well. Shiv has been positioned in some ways to be the audience’s entrance point to this family. She’s seen as more liberal or more easily palatable I guess, more palatable than the rest of the Roy family, but she’s just as bad as them sometimes. The thing is with that scene, it’s kind of what you would want your friend to say to you if they were protecting you, if they weren’t going to be there the whole time to support you. You would as that woman get absolutely torn apart. It is such a thing to be the spokesperson for something like that and what Shiv does and what she says is right, but it’s the manner in which she does it for the purpose for what she does. That’s what’s wrong, I think, where I think there’s a real moral gray area into Shiv in that moment because her motives are not as rosy as they could’ve been (laughs).
GD: You could maybe subtitle the show “moral gray area” ‘cause a lot of them, their moral compass is slightly off. There’s this thing I try to explain with “Succession” for people who haven’t seen it yet. The people on it are kind of repugnant and unlikable in certain ways. They’re super rich and they’re very powerful and they have all these issues and yet I want to be around them for some reason. I want to hang out with those people. I want to watch them every week. I want them in my living room. Why is that? Why do you think people love watching these people?
SS: Maybe it’s because we recognize ourselves in them a bit, that inevitably they’re fallible just as much as we all are as humans. I think also maybe there is something that the way that we see people who are successful, with marks of success like money, power, status, all those things we traditionally see as successful and when we see the people who hold those in terms of the Roys, we see people who hold those traditional markets of success being such idiots and buffoons and unlikable. There’s something delicious about that, like, “Ha, see, you’re not the perfect person.” There’s that thing of you want to hang out with them. The feeling on-set as well, I really love working with all the cast members. I want to hang out with them and we’re playing despicable characters, in a lot of senses. Not completely despicable, but yeah.
GD: They’re real people. They have different dimensions and that’s the beauty of it. I think part of it is the dialogue between them, the verbal barbs are so deliciously searing in so many scenes. That’s a highlight for me. Is it a highlight for you guys to do that dialogue together?
SS: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s so delicious getting to read those lines in the read-through, before we actually get to the shooting part of it. Just the read-throughs of the episodes beforehand are so fun to do because you get to discover the lines for the first time and there’s such brilliant insults and delicious putdowns and comebacks. Jesse’s writing is just magic. Obviously all the other writers, each episode is written by a different writer and then Jeese’s got final say on it, but it’s somewhat fun.
GD: Totally. This particular season we got to also have new characters introduced like Nan played by Cherry Jones and Rhea played by Holly Hunter. I was wondering how the dynamic amongst the cast changed when they joined you guys for a little while. You’ve all found your feet and you’ve got a great rhythm together and then you bring on these two larger than life actors who are playing these really awesome characters. How did that change the dynamic at all?
SS: It didn’t really change the dynamic so much as made things make more sense in some ways. The same thing happened with Harriet Walter coming on in the first season. It really let the dust settle a little bit with the family because we suddenly understood why these kids were the way they were when we met Harriet. It’s like, “Of course that’s the mom that these kids have.” And then the same thing happened with Holly. You’re folding into a family that’s already got such a set dynamic and having the ease with which Cherry and Holly folded in with these powerhouse characters was so great to watch, just to reinforce new realities of this world. There’s endless details that get to be drawn in and solidified. I love it. I totally believe that Nan Pierce is right now holding some sort of cocktail party on Long Island. Even though the Roys aren’t there, the stories continue when we’re not there. Those characters keep going.
GD: They do feel quite real and fleshed out to me. That leads me to this, actually. What surprised me about Season 2, maybe not surprised, but the show, the way that it portrays women is interesting. It could have been lazy like some other shows perhaps might be where they’re just passive or they’re the secondhand character. Here you’ve got, instead, the guys could be quite aggressive and volatile and impotent and damaged. The women like Shiv, Gerri, Marcia and even Nan and Rhea are astute and competent and resilient. But they’re also quite damaged as well and quite complicated and that’s really refreshing. What are your thoughts on how women are portrayed on the show?
SS: You’ve nailed it (laughs). They are competent, resilient, interesting. I think it comes back to what I said before about it being complex. They’re fun to play because they’re mercurial and they’ve all got their own motives and objectives and they’re all equal in interest as much as they are equal in terms of power. That’s inevitably interesting. You’ve gotta have diversity of character and we probably do need more diversity of ethnicity as well. This is traditionally very much a white male domain so showing that is valid because of that, but then having more female characters, yes, it’s more interesting and introducing a broader look, I suppose, that reflects more of what the world is rather than just what the straight white male version of business corporate is.
GD: Even though it is as you say, quite accurate as well.
SS: Yeah, and that’s what Jesse and the writing team have sought out to present, the realities of these worlds, but you also then have responsibility to try and change that reality by presenting something differently onscreen.
GD: The other thing that strikes me about the show is the relationships between some of the characters and everybody has their favorites and we could talk forever about Shiv’s relationship with her dad and particularly this season, her relationship with Roman. But I was actually more curious about the relationship between Tom and Shiv because I love what Matthew Macfadyen is doing with that character as well. I sometimes watch them and think, “Why is she with him?”
SS: Yeah, I get that a lot. People wonder why Shiv is with Tom a lot, and I don’t know. It makes sense to me. Somehow telling you why gives it away. That’s what I really like about doing TV. I’ve never done TV in this way where I don’t know what’s going to happen. I still don’t know what’s going to happen in Season 3 but I also haven’t known what’s going to happen in the next couple episodes prior to shooting them or even the next episode prior to shooting it. What I love about that is you really have to invest in and live the present moment and accept things for the facts that they are. Being told that Shiv loves Tom or at least Shiv is in a relationship with Tom, I like going, “Okay, well I accept that as a fact blindly,” and choosing my own reasons of why until that is to change in the future when maybe it’s no longer the case. But Matthew and I have created the backstory individually as well as together for why they are together. If you were to analyze it, there’s some obvious reasons why she is with Tom. She has a terrible relationship with her father, she’s dating an older man, married to, now, an older man who’s more easily controllable I think than any other man she’s been with. There’s a safety with being with Tom that she probably wouldn’t want to admit to many people publicly.
GD: Yeah, that’s very interesting, I like that. It does make a lot of sense and it leads me to this question. Given that, as you say, you’re not completely aware of what’s going to happen episodes in advance, maybe a little but not the whole arc of the season, it makes you feel a bit more authentic to me because it’s you living in that moment. Has anything truly shocked you when you picked up the script ready for the table read, you’re like, “Shit, that’s huge.” Does that happen often?
SS: Oh yeah, last season, Season 2’s finale. I won’t say what happened ‘cause I don’t want to give it away if someone hasn’t watched it. I finished reading that maybe 25 minutes before we did the table read ‘cause we’d only just received it that morning and had my hands over my mouth by myself in my trailer going, “I can’t believe that he’s done that! That’s so left field,” and yet made so much sense when it happened. I was like, “Yes! Of course that’s going to happen.” But what’s gonna happen for Season 3 now? That sets up such a battle.
GD: I’m actually getting slightly overwhelmed by it ‘cause when you’re really a fan of this show and you’re following it episode to episode, you get so invested obviously in what these characters are doing and that reveal at the end when Kendall did that at the press conference was so mind-blowing and then to have Logan sneering at the TV and smiling and it cuts to credits, I was like, “Please give me more!” I know you’ve been asked this over and over again and I know you’ve said that Shiv didn’t see it coming or probably didn’t know about but what do you think Shiv was thinking when she saw that?
SS: It’s a tricky question to answer because Jesse and the writing team may come back in the third season, two minutes after we’ve seen that, so I won’t know what she’s thinking. I know what she’s thinking now but I can’t share what she was thinking until I know what she does next. I think personally I was surprised. I think probably Shiv was just as surprised. I think Logan maybe was surprised, who knows? From the pilot for Season 1, Episode 2, we didn’t know where we were gonna come back and they came back 30 seconds after we finished Episode 1. That was shot between December 2016 and September 2017. So they could’ve come back a week later. We’re at the mercy of the writers and I love that.
GD: That’s how it should be, I suppose. Do you think that Shiv knows about what Kendall did in the finale of Season 1 when you guys were in the U.K. at her wedding? Is she aware of that backstory do you think or is that another thing that you just think, “Leave it up the writers, who knows?”
SS: I leave it up to the writers. I don’t see how she could’ve been. He has been very clandestine about it. It has been the thing that has driven him through Season 2 in his turmoil, in his sorrow and all of that. That is the thing at the heart of that feeling for him. We have that moment in Episode 5 or 4 when he asks for the hug. I think she knows that something’s happened but doesn’t know what it is, but also perhaps this is Kendall behavior. He used to be a drug addict, coke addict. There have been ups and downs with Kendall in his past that it would be hard to know which is the worst thing. This is the worst thing that has ever happened in his life, I think. It would be hard to know what that is unless he’s going to share it.
GD: It’s hard to say. I guess it’s freeing to be like, “We’ll go wherever it goes.” Did you anticipate how much this show has really hit a nerve with people? It’s really fawned over. When people talk about “Succession” now its like their favorite show, it’s the best show on TV, it’s gonna win a bunch of awards, it’s starting to pick up recognition from awards groups and you guys were all at the Emmys a couple months ago, I saw you on the red carpet. Did you anticipate this? It’s pretty crazy.
SS: No, not at all (laughs). Emmys weekend I was very overwhelmed and really truly was like, “Yeah, of course I’ll go to the Emmys because it’ll be great, we’ll sneak in,” first season was able to be nominated, second season wasn’t because it didn’t make the deadline, but yeah, “Fold into the background and get to observe the whole thing and then know what to do next year and hopefully next year we might be nominated.” It’s really not what happened at all and it was very overwhelming and lovely and a shock. I guess I’m still dealing with that a bit as well ‘cause people are like, ”You’re on a hit show,” I’m like, “Are we? What does that even mean? That’s nice!” It’s nice that people like it. I enjoy doing it. I’m as much of a fan of the show as other people seem to be because I love everybody’s work and it’s great but it’s a real surprise.
GD: It’s a good one. What’s the jump been like working in Australia to working in the U.S. apart from the scale of the industries. Have you found that jump to be particularly challenging or you’re on a hit show on HBO now so it’s all over, you’ve hit the heights?
SS: (Laughs.) I don’t know. The scale is very different. That does contribute to largely the main difference, really. There’s a whole industry. Not that Australia isn’t a whole industry. Of course it is, but there’s so many more people on-set. There’s so much going on. It could be very easily overwhelming and also the difference between shooting in New York. You can’t stop pedestrians in New York so we’re on the street in those location shots on the street, with real people coming in and out and they can cross past camera and they can yell at you if they want and they can take photos of you if they want and you have to deal with it. For this show, I love that. I would not like to be doing “The Knick” or “Hunters” or something that is set back in the period time because it’s harder to block out those things and anachronistic for the time period, but for this, it’s brilliant because our way of shooting is you just deal with the present moment, those influences of daily life that are facing you right there. You have to do that, you have to just improvise with it and that gives it a life and an excitement, I think.
GD: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’ve never thought of that. But anyway, good luck at all the awards coming up for “Succession.” We have a feeling that we’ll probably be seeing you on a few more red carpets and thanks for your time today.
SS: Not at all, thank you.