A few scenes into the premiere of Succession, a new HBO drama created by British satirist Jesse Armstrong, the coronation of an heir apparent turns into his undoing. The plan was for media czar Logan Roy (Brian Cox) to hand over the keys to the kingdom to his middle son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), but the day suddenly takes a few unexpected turns. The deal to buy a Gawker-like website called Vaulter is stalled. Logan decides his third wife, Marcy (Hiam Abbass) needs more power on the company’s board in the event of his death. The other Roy children — wishy washy Connor (Alan Ruck), cutthroat political operative Shiv (Sarah Snook), and 1Oak resident Roman (Kieran Culkin) — start circling like vultures. Then, at the last minute, Logan announces that he’s not stepping down after all. Kendall spent his whole life preparing for a day that’s just been snatched away from him.
From there, Succession moves between the sensitive and the satirical — a fitting blend for Armstrong and executive producer Adam McKay, who directed the pilot — but it takes its daddy issues very seriously. Logan and Kendall’s love language isn’t just money and power, but back channeling and betrayal. They double cross each other with glee. “A heavy is the head that wears the crown kind of thing,” Strong, who previously worked with McKay on The Big Short, tells Vulture. “I think wearing the crown can be quite damaging.” Ahead of Sunday’s series premiere, Strong talked to Vulture about bringing Kendall’s insecurities to life, what corporations have in common with psychopaths, and why Succession isn’t a show about the Murdochs.
What did you see in Succession when you first read the script?
The “King Lear meets the media industrial complex” thing. Being an actor adjacent to the media industry, I pay attention to that landscape. I’ve always been fascinated by the kind of Shakespearean drama of these power struggles that happen in these families or at the studios.
McKay and Jesse, at the very beginning, were talking about that Danish film, The Celebration, and The Godfather. The Celebration is about family trauma. I think Adam was interested in exploring the idea of trauma in a nuclear family and how that can permeate and become societal or cultural trauma. In the case of a family as powerful as the Roys, if a family poisons itself, then it can infect the culture.
So, what happens when a family poisons itself?
It’s a very dark way of looking at this, but in the way that The Big Short was an indictment of the banking system, Adam was really interested in trying to put his finger on what ails us as a culture. These families of enormous wealth and power. What is it like to be in that family, especially for the children?
I was at an award ceremony with Adam when The Big Short was coming and he had just read Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test. He was really interested in this idea of the corporation as a psychopath. In the documentary The Corporation, which came out 15 years ago, there was a psychiatrist who goes through the DSM-IV and enumerates all of the characteristics of a psychopath, and then applies them to a corporation. I think Adam looks at the way big business is defining our culture, and this family is at the nucleus of that.
Your character, Kendall, is chosen to take over the family’s empire until Logan snatches the crown back. Do you think Kendall actually wants to fill Logan’s shoes, or does he feels like it’s just inevitable? He’s the only Roy child with a leadership role at the company.
That’s the real drama of the show, and the place for me as an actor that’s the most alive. I think that we all have these questions: How do we become ourselves? How do we emerge from under the shadow of our parents, or whatever sort of legacy we might be inheriting?
The language of this family is the language of business. The emotional language, the currency of this family, is not love. It’s a currency of business. Jung said something like, “Where love is absent, power fills the vacuum.” That’s what’s going on in this family.
What does that mean for Kendall?
Kendall has a great wish — a fairly universal wish — to have his father’s love and respect. Kendall wishes to have his father’s approval, and so he’s trying to act the way his father would act. But his father is a somewhat primitive kind of bestial, ruthless, savage businessman cut from a different mold. Kendall is not like his father, but he is trying so hard to gain his father’s respect. By doing so, I think he violates his own nature. He’s not a man of blood like his father, but I think he’s driven to a place where he crosses his own moral boundaries.
It’s funny to see him try to strike that balance. He’s trying to be as effective as his father, but he does it with a bro-y delivery. He calls his executives “dude,” and describes an acquisition as “the shiz.” Was that in the script?
Some of it was in the script, and some of it was me improvising. The writers on the show are really amazing. They also gave us free rein, so I felt quite free to bring a lot of that idiom to it. If you look at some of these young CEOs, there is a bro tech culture in the business world. I see that as part of the whole ethos. Logan has an outmoded, antiquated, analog vision for the company. Kendall wants to steer it into the future and into the digital era, and to be his own man.
Is there anything about the Roy family dynamic that really resonates with you and your family?
I’m very lucky to have a very nurturing, close family. But I thought a lot about the question of legacy, and of heroes that we might have, and the anxiety of influence. In one of the books I read about the Murdoch family — and this is not a show about the Murdochs, I probably can’t say that enough — I read that the only language that Rupert understood was the language of strength. What is it like for a person who speaks a different language, one of sensitivity? To not feel like your father’s son? These two men are inseparably linked, but also devouring each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed.