Shiv Roy would so not put up with this. “Did you know that AT&T doesn’t work in Greenpoint? It’s like you literally cross past McCarren Park and then it cuts out,” says Sarah Snook, who plays the skeptical, implacable, yet oddly sympathetic media heiress Shiv Fucking Roy (as the character puts it on her wedding day, while wearing her wedding dress, to her side piece, Nate, who dared challenge her on one of her schemes) on the HBO series Succession. But I’m meeting Snook far from the show’s usual corporate-power-and-family-money locations. On a day when they aren’t filming, the 31-year-old Australian expat wanted to get lunch near her apartment in tweeist Brooklyn. She’s been living there while filming the show’s second season, with two roommates — a married couple, good friends of hers — her ukulele, and, apparently quite happily, no reliable cell signal. “I’ve really committed to the artisanal lifestyle,” she says.
At the end of the first season, the character, who worked outside the family business as a political consultant, operated as more of an acerbic observer, a one-woman Statler and Waldorf to the farcical family scrum. But when the show returns in August, the narrative spotlight will be more on Shiv. “From the first episode” of season two, “people can see that Shiv is going to be more central,” confirms the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong. This time around promises to have Shiv bullying her way past her rivals, including her feckless brothers, Kendall (the needy druggie struggling to be the Man, played by Jeremy Strong) and Roman (the broken ADD jester struggling to shirk all responsibility while maintaining his princeling status, played by Kieran Culkin). Not to mention her mysterious stepmother, Marcia, played by Hiam Abbass, and various outside corporate threats. The question of the show’s title is who will inherit the crown tottering on the head of the right-wing warrior-mogul and patriarch Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox, who is losing his marbles.
But for all the comparisons to Elisabeth Murdoch and Shari Redstone and others that give the character seeming topicality, it’s Snook’s slyly selfish portrayal of her that makes Shiv so compelling. You might have missed Snook in the 2014 Ethan Hawke sci-fi film Predestination, in which she played a time-traveling intersex detective named the Unmarried Mother (the plot’s a bit confusing to summarize, but — spoiler — Snook had to watch Hawke’s movies from the 1990s to understand how to walk as he did as a young man), and it might take a second to recall her as Apple’s relentless PR person in 2015’s Steve Jobs or, the next year, as a storm trooper hunting the genetically inferior in the Black Mirror episode “Men Against Fire,” and, let’s face it, most of us didn’t make it to London in 2016 to see her perform opposite Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder. But her Shiv is impossible to forget.
When we meet in Greenpoint, Snook is dressed in a jean jacket, white-framed mirrored sunglasses, and Docs, without a hint of don’t-you-know-who-I-am (and nobody seemed to). We sit in the backyard of a mutedly fussy café with monkey-and-bird wallpaper, “BOWLS!” on the menu, and a pressed-tin ceiling. She lets me order us a large slice of cake and proceeds to tell me her wry, somewhat giddy life story.
Snook might portray a derisive avatar of the impatient, overcooked ruling class, but she is not of that world. She grew up in Adelaide, which is where, incidentally, the Murdochs got their start owning newspapers. She’s the daughter of a swimming-pool salesman and an elder-care provider, and her first gig in showbiz — if you can call it that — was playing a fairy at children’s birthday parties.
“My maternal grandmother was British,” Snook says, “and she immigrated to New Zealand by accident,” after being stuck in South Africa just as World War II was starting. She had been an actress in London during the 1930s. So acting was in Snook’s blood? “It skipped a generation,” she says, but what didn’t was a sense of adventure. When her grandmother died, she left money for Snook’s mother to go traveling, and she met Snook’s father in Papua New Guinea. The couple “bred these three adventurous women,” Snook and her sisters, who ended up scattered around the globe (one lives in London, the other in Papua New Guinea).
After Snook’s parents divorced, her mother ran a boardinghouse adjacent to the school her sisters went to, which Snook refused to attend because it was girls only. Instead, she got a partial scholarship to a school with a solid performing-arts program. One of her teachers encouraged her to apply to the National Institute for the Dramatic Art, Australia’s version of Juilliard. Her application was a speech of Portia’s from The Merchant of Venice (“The quality of mercy is not strained; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”) as well as something Patti Smith did in Cowboy Mouth. Initially, she didn’t get in; a place for her opened up after someone dropped out. (“I tracked him down and broke his leg,” she says jokingly, though it’s probably what Shiv would hire someone to do.)
There is a certain charmed, woke-backpacker aspect to Snook. Her Instagram has lots about how bad plastic is (“Every piece of plastic ever created still exists on the planet today,” she’s posted — she’s not wrong about that). Just after the 2016 election, she declared, “Forgive me, I’m jet-lagged. This is a nightmare, right? Wake me when the Kardashians are in control of the U.N.” Early this year, on Australia Day, she posted a tart, wan Aboriginal fable about the irony of celebrating colonization. (“So … my house got broken into. And then they stayed. Weird, huh? They let me stay, too, but I’m sort of in the corner of the living room, near the back door?”) You could imagine her supporting a real-life Gil Eavis, the leftist politician Shiv is trying to co-opt/get elected.
Snook seems delighted that things are working out as well as they have so far, and she prefers to process her success by framing it as various things the universe has bestowed on her. Thinking back, she says, “It didn’t really seem accessible or feasible to go into the TV-film stuff. You know, in little old Adelaide … to pretend to be other people for a living.” And yet here she is. Despite having already won two AACTA awards — a kind of Australian equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys — when she was auditioning for Succession, she told GQ that she assumed, “Eh, this is out of my league. I’ll just come and do it and get out of here. Free trip to L.A. for a weekend and see my friends. This’ll be great.”
At another point, she tells me, “I peaked way too soon. Did all the things: I’ve been the lead female and the lead male and female in a real character piece. With, like, an amazing lead actor opposite” — a reference to Predestination. “So I really just … ruined myself now,” she jokes. In any case, “one of my best mates went and saw [Predestination] in the cinema, and two women apparently in front of him, at the end, were like, ‘Oh, that was great. Jodie Foster was amazing as a man.’ Was that a compliment to her or to me? Or an insult?” Snook seems to be having enough fun to get away with a hint of underplayed modesty.
Season one of Succession ends with Shiv’s marriage to Tom, a smitten social climber played with furious beta-maleness by Matthew Macfadyen. Theirs is one of the most interesting dynamics on TV right now, and Snook plays it with a disciplined mix of arrogant disregard and guarded vulnerability. Shiv seems to adore Tom as an inferior, casually toying with him like a cat. What other character would, on her wedding day, admit to her doting new husband — who has just declared, “I know that you’re hard and you’re tough, but I want to be in. I want to be in on you” — that she’s been having an affair? And that it likely won’t be her last? “I’m just not sure I’m a good fit for a monogamous marriage,” Shiv says. Snook’s performance is discomfiting; Shiv is being honest about her brutally contradictory needs. Snook makes you empathize with Shiv, even as her character lacks much empathy for anyone else.
“I get asked this question a lot: Does she love Tom?” Snook says. (She herself is single, having recently gotten out of an eight-year relationship.) “Or, like, why is she with Tom? And I feel like, really down deep, he’s the only one who’ll always be there unconditionally. She could treat him like dirt, and actually she probably has a great wealth of love and respect for him, but it’s far too vulnerable to show that. There’s not a lot of physical affection between Tom and Shiv, which is not something that we’d planned on … It just sort of happened that way, and then it seemed to be the right choice.”
Macfadyen, for his part, loves the abuse. One of his favorite scenes takes place in a car right before their wedding, as Tom floats the idea of his taking her last name. “She gives me this look as if I have three heads,” he tells me, laughing. “It’s delicious.”
Armstrong says he invented Shiv in part because she worked as a political consultant and “I wanted an easy way into the political sphere.” Plus it helped to have someone in the family “not involved in the day-to-day mechanics of the firm,” which gave her some ability to see the nutty proceedings from a slight remove (which perhaps also explains how Shiv’s WTF side-eye became so iconic). He adds, however, that this is “a quite mechanical way of thinking of her,” and explains that “the idea of accumulation and spending of capital: emotional business capital,” runs throughout Succession. And Shiv is the “uncatchable fish,” a master of accruing such power. That aloofness is part of why her father, Logan, respects her despite her not being a boy. “He has his prejudices, but he also has a brutal regard for people who are effective. Effectiveness trumps other prejudices.”
Cox, who plays Logan, tells me that Shiv is his character’s “precious one, the one he adores.” This next season, “Shiv’s viability is constantly tested,” he says. “And she constantly trumps her rivals.”
Snook wants to tell me a story about meeting Patti Smith — “I summoned her like a shaman” — that she seems to think explains a lot about how her life works, and works out. It goes back a few years, when Snook was just out of nida (from which she graduated in 2010 and — remember — for which she auditioned with a Smith monologue). She was 25 or 26 and had filmed The Dressmaker with Kate Winslet before being cast in Steve Jobs (both came out in 2015). She read a biography of Judi Dench over Christmas and was thinking, Fuck, I want to do theater. How do I go about this? “I just said to the universe, ‘I want to do theater,’ ” she says. She’d gone to the U.K. for her sister’s wedding, and her agent called and asked, “Can you go for a read since you’re in London?” The meeting with the casting director was at a hotel near Covent Garden. And though she hadn’t done theater since she was in an Australian-seaside production, she got the part, opposite Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder. Such good luck “shouldn’t be allowed; it’s silly,” she says convincingly.
And here’s where the universe being open to her doing well comes back into the picture: When she was doing the play, her boyfriend gave her Patti Smith’s memoir M Train, and one day as she read the book, she realized that Smith had not only stayed in the same hotel in which Snook was cast but had been, according to the memoir, reading The Master Builder at the time, in the same library room she’d been cast in. Spooky!
But there’s more: Later, in her dressing room, she was relating this story to a friend — when there was a knock at the door. It was Patti Smith. Snook and her friend must have seemed shocked, because Smith looked at them as if they were up to no good. “She goes, ‘You all right?’ ” Snook remembers. “And then she drifts off into the night.”
Production credits: Photographs by Eric Tanner. Styling by Diana Tsui; Makeup by Nancy Sea Siler at Art Department using Chanel Beaué; Hair by Helen Reavey at Management + Artists using Act+Acre. On Snook: Polo Ralph Lauren Cotton Jumpsuit, $498 at RalphLauren.com.
*This article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!