We’re a few episodes into “Succession” season 3 and fans are already predicting another Emmy win for his portrayal of Kendall Roy. The acclaimed HBO drama series has seen Kendall going to war with his business titan father, Logan Roy.
Here, the 43-year-old star talks about the process of playing his complicated character, acting alongside veteran actor Brian Cox, and redeeming his Emmy acceptance speech from last year. Scroll down to read more:
1) Early in season three, another character describes Kendall’s end-of-season-two public attack on Logan and Waystar Royco as “histrionic and meretricious”, and Kendall himself as a “self-regarding popinjay”. What are your views on that?
“I mean, firstly, what wonderful writing. It’s like virtuosic writing. My views on that… Well, I certainly disagree with it. I think that at the end of season two, when my father refers to the boy in England as an NRPI – No Real Person Involved – I see the heart of darkness with painful and final clarity. And his lack of an ethical moral core, and the howling void is revealed to me. And with that comes an almost divine summons, a providential summons to… I’m gonna get Biblical here… spread the light. And be a bringer of the light. I think Kendall has almost an under-the-bo tree moment of enlightenment on the way to the press conference, and realises that what he has to do – and in a sense what his whole life has been leading up to doing – is to sort of go on a crusade. To detoxify and cleanse the corporate culture. And that that is upon him. So I guess if I were to use the descriptive terms, I would call myself in season three a visionary and a leader. There’s a sense of mission. There’s a messianic sense to the character now. Which other people might have all kinds of feelings about. But it’s very clear to Kendall what must be done, in the sense that, in both senses of the term, here comes the sun/son.”
2) You said recently: “I remember things that are instructive. They are like northern lights for me.” What was the most instructive description of Kendall from your earliest conversations with Jesse Armstrong about the character?
“I went to visit the writers’ room in Brixton, in South London, about four or five years ago, when we were starting the first season, and Jesse Armstrong had written on a note card: “Kendall wins but loses.” And that stayed with me, the sort of, in a sense paradox, or the tension of those two things that is ever present in this character. That no matter what, when he’s on the top, he’s on the bottom. There’s a sense of both being on top of the world at this moment, but also in the ninth rung of hell. And there is a way that Jesse is able to contain those two poles within this character. And I think my task as an actor is to try to contain those things and inhabit those poles in myself. But “Kendall wins but loses”, I’m not sure if it was a northern light for me – it was more like an inferno for me. But that stayed for me and was very informative.”
3) Where does Kendall’s “muzzled anguish”, as you’ve described it, come from?
“Well, I think it comes from a lifetime of being stifled, of being thwarted. I think it comes from a lack of nurture and love from his parents. I think this character has a lot of rage. And the show in a way explores legacy, right? But it’s about a legacy of damage, and it’s about a legacy of abuse that is endemic in this family – and understanding that there’s a spill-over into the culture. The toxicity within this family finds its way out into the groundwater, and the groundwater is poisoned. So, where does the anguish come from? I mean, listen, I also think the anguish comes from what happens at the end of season one. Until then, I’m quite… You know, it’s a story of ambition. And the first season is a story of ascendancy and being the incumbent – and then a tragedy happens. Something that really irrevocably changes this character.
And Jesse and I talked a lot about Crime and Punishment. And that phrase, that probably sententious phrase, that I used – but it is what I thought about a lot – is what Dostoevsky described as this ‘monstrous pain’. That monstrous pain of the secret that Raskolnikov has, and the way that secret separates him from the world. And puts an unbridgeable chasm between him and his former self, and whatever was good in him. And so that I think is a terrible anguish that is muzzled because it can’t be shared. And it has to be internalised. So that’s where that comes from.”
4) You had a lot of intense two-hander scenes with Brian Cox in season two – effectively they bracketed the season – and presumably have more of them, at an even more intense pitch, in season three. How are they to film for you?
“How are they to film? Oh, I mean, Brian is pound for pound as great an actor as has ever walked the earth. So it’s immeasurably exciting to be in the ring with him. He is a primal force, like Logan, but as an actor. Brian is a dangerous actor, which I think in a way is the highest compliment you can pay an actor. We have a lot to do together over the course of the canvas that we’ve been working on, and we have a lot to do together in this third season. But it’s always like we meet at the top of the mountain, so the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. And it’s… How can I describe it? We don’t rehearse our scenes, to Brian’s (initial reluctance). But I think he’s come to embrace this way of doing things. And I don’t like to rehearse when you’re making films, or in this case television, but it feels like we’re making a film. So we just meet each other in the ring, and it’s just like he’s a heavyweight, and it makes me summon every ounce of artistry and courage that I can summon.”
5) Aside from the hard yards of learning the script, how did you prepare to film the season two finale twist? Did you, for example, take yourself away from the rest of the cast, to isolate yourself in the way that Kendall was in that moment?
“Well, I mean, the truth is, I kind of take myself away and isolate myself all the time. Not really because Kendall is isolated, although that is a part of it, but just because that’s the way I need to work. I need to stay in a place of negative space and be quiet. I prepared for that scene the way I prepared for any other scene. In a way, part of the discipline of being an actor is, you can’t make any one moment more important than any other moment. If you do that, you put a sort of pressure on the work that often can block something from happening. Your only job as the actor, I think, is to be as unfettered as possible. And as honest in the moment as possible. (But) there’s this sense in the show sometimes of: here’s the big scene. I was aware that was an important scene. So you can’t ever make it your stakes as an actor – it’s just something the character has to do. And because of the clarity that Kendall had about what he had to do in the press conference, it was quite simple. There’s a sense of Hamlet coming back after nearly dying on the ship. And there’s a sense of “let be, the readiness is all”.
“So the preparation in a sense is going through the journey of the whole season that led up to that. But once I made the decision that led up to that, it was very easy. And the scene itself was surprisingly hard to find. I remember thinking that we would just do this in the first take and that would be the one. And it didn’t work out that way, as it often doesn’t. There was something about the microphones weren’t working – they were prop microphones, and I needed them to be real, live microphones because (otherwise) that took me out of the reality of the scene. And then I was kind of up against the ropes. But there was a moment in take 11 or 12 where there was an instinct to put a caesura after the word ‘but’. Well, it just happened actually. And that opened up the whole scene for me. It was like this moment where everything was hanging in the balance. And that’s the take that they used. And that’s the only time that I felt like it really happened.”
6) In your Emmy acceptance speech, you quoted a Stephen Dunn poem: “All I ever wanted was a book so good I’d be finishing it for the rest of my life.” What makes “Succession” that book for you?
“You know, I’m glad you asked this, because it gives me a chance to redeem myself because I left something out from that quote. The actual quote is: “All I ever wanted was a job like a book so good I’d be finishing it for the rest of my life. And so, what makes this that for me? It’s everything. It’s writing at the highest and deepest level, it is Jesse Armstrong, it’s this incredible cast. It’s the sense that the peaks and valleys – because it is, I’ve described this as like climbing Everest, that it’s the mountain I’ve always wanted to climb. But it’s really not a mountain. It’s a mountain range, and with that come these deep crevasses, and also these incredibly high peaks. And so, as an actor, the most you can hope for is to go through such peaks and valleys. And the writing is just inexhaustibly rich – and challenging. And so requires a great deal of risk. And I don’t know where it goes from here. But this third season certainly was the highest mountain peak yet.”
Catch new episodes of “Succession” season 3 on Monday at 9am exclusively on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Ch 411), with a same day encore at 10pm on HBO.
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