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Cherry Jones on Succession and Why Nan Pierce Is a ‘Wannabe Katharine Graham’

Cherry Jones, Brian Cox, and Holly Hunter in Succession.
Cherry Jones. Photo: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images

As Succession’s Roy family has tried to extend their control over the media world this season, they’ve run up against their bizarro-world counterparts in the Pierces, a blue-blooded but just as slimey media dynasty that controls a more prestigious, but less profitable news giant. They’re led by the formidable Cherry Jones, who plays Nan Pierce as a “wannabe Katharine Graham,” often touting the importance of truth and moral character, but still willing to bend to the right amount of money.

In the season’s fifth episode, Brian Cox’s Logan Roy pushed the Pierces into a deal to sell their outfit, but this week, the deal collapses as New York Magazine (woohoo!) digs up dirt on Waystar’s cruise ship division, and Nan realizes that her CEO Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) is also playing her. While Rhea and Nan fall out during the episode, Jones tells Vulture she had an incredible amount of fun catching up with Hunter, an old friend from college, and working alongside the Succession cast, which “feels like a repertory company that have all been working exclusively together for about 10 years.” Jones, counts herself among the biggest Succession fans out there, so much so that she joked over the phone that she was sad to miss watching this week’s episode live because she had to go to the Emmys (as it happens, Jones won a Guest Actress award for The Handmaid’s Tale, so that probably makes up for it). She also caught us up on her college memories of Hunter, the improv behind that big dinner scene, and the texts she gets from J. Smith Cameron.

Tell me about the big confrontation between Nan and Rhea at the end of the episode. I love that you have to shout, “Good riddance to bad rubbish!”
That’s the benefit of having a Brit write the script, you get to say things like that. It’s perfect for Nan, that line. Holly and I went to Carnegie Mellon together and so we met in 1976, and this is the first time we’ve ever gotten to work together. It was delicious getting to have that complicated relationship, with that Iago of hers. It all felt like college, you know? I was a couple of years older than Holly, so I didn’t really even get to work with her in college.

When we shot that final fiery scene between the three of us, we were in Lake Placid and it was snowing like crazy. The wind, it was cold, the snow was blowing. It was perfect. That fight, we had to do it several times because involved a lot of movement, and Brian, with his Shakespearean voice out there crying out in the night all of these obscenities. Literally echoing throughout the Adirondacks. I’m sure they could hear him on the other side of Lake Champlain.

I’ve read that the actors do a lot of improv on set, especially in the big group scenes like the dinner scene in episode 5. What was it like filming that?
That dinner table scene, I’ve never had so much fun shooting any — as a friend of mine used to always call any scene that had more than four people in it — “townspeople scene.” We were all improvising during every take.

Jeremy Strong blew my mind, because he was seated on the other side of Holly and he was buttering me up. He was talking about the art in the house and the different artists who had done the sculptures in the garden. He was showing off all this knowledge. He was making up stuff about the fact that his mother had been on the board at Tate for many years. Jeremy Shamos, [who plays] cousin Mark the amateur astronomer, had everyone in absolute hysterics at his end of the table. When they would finally say, “cut,” no one really wanted to stop.

What were you improvising as Nan?
Well, Holly would occasionally make some wry remark about the beasts across the table from us. There was a good little bit of whispered improvisation there.

The writers have talked about building the vision for the Pierce family off old media families like the Bancrofts, the Sulzbergers, and the Grahams. Did that play into how you thought of Nan?
Because it’s Succession, when I read the script I thought, “There is no one in this episode who is noble.” [Executive producer] Frank Rich championed me for this role, and of course I knew Mr. Rich as the critic of the New York Times when I was starting out in New York, so his name always struck terror in any actors heart. In fact, Holly and J. Smith Cameron, we were talking about the fact that when we would walk past Frank’s chair [on set], we were all so relieved that it no longer means what it used to mean to us when we were girls. But I wrote him and I said, “This being Succession, I know that Nan is not Katharine Graham. She’s a Katharine Graham wannabe.” Frank wrote back and said, “She’s a bus and truck [a.k.a. a low-paying, non-union theater tour] Katharine Graham. But she’s a damn good bus and truck Katharine Graham.”

There’s no mention of her having children or a spouse. When we were shooting it, you got a little bit more of the feeling that Naomi was my surrogate child, and was the daughter of my beloved late sister. I decided that Nan was not married, but that’s always my choice. If it’s left open, I always go with not married because it’s instantly more interesting to me as an actor, if someone has complete autonomy and she’s given her life to the corporation.

There’s a telling moment with Nan when she tries to get the family cook, Rosa, to have a drink, ignoring how much work Rosa is doing.
Isn’t she awful? It’s so awful. That’s more telling than almost anything about that character, that she’s so oblivious to what is required feeding these 18 privileged little pigs at the trough. I winced when I saw that, but I just thought, You do it with just absolute innocence, because that’s what she is. It’s wrong of me to say that that Nan is an innocent — innocent is the wrong word. Oblivious, and for someone as intelligent as Nan, one can say willful obliviousness when it comes to what is required to serve the Pierces.

Noblesse oblige. That seems to be the way these folks move through the world, feeling that they are a gift to the world because of their beneficence. They’re just trust fund babies getting their second doctorate so they can feel worthy.

What was Holly Hunter like in college?
Insanely gifted, of course. I remember exactly where I met Holly. I was in the college bookshop and they had dividers across the room filled with books. One day I heard this [grumbling in imitation of Holly Hunter’s voice] coming from the other side of one of these dividers. It was clearly a fellow southerner, and there weren’t many Southerners up there, so I walked around and there was tiny Holly. She had on this classic leather jacket with the fringe, and she had on one of those leather patchwork quilt Baker Boy oversized caps low over her eyes. The culture there was just so different from anything either of us knew. From that point on, I sort of took her under my wing, though she certainly didn’t need a wing for protection.

It’s so wonderful getting back in touch with Holly, and with J. Smith-Cameron. It really was a solidifying moment for the three of us. J. is in my neighborhood and we’re already making lunch plans for when I get back to New York. Holly and I will be seeing each other once I get back and she gets her boys squared away in school and everything. When you don’t have children, it’s just so marvelous when your friends’ children finally grow up and get out of the house, because you get your friends back. Holly’s not quite there yet, but she’s getting closer.

There are all these interesting relationships between the women of Succession. Nan seems to see a little bit of a daughter figure in Shiv, whom she tries, and fails, to maneuver into control of Waystar.
I think Nan’s grabbing at straws and Shiv is the straw that seems will be the least offensive. You know who else I’m really interested in? Hiam’s role. That is such a fascinating character. We’ve not seen as much of Hiam this season as last season, but I’m so interested to see. There’s some jealousy there with Rhea.

Well, it’s very fun to speculate about the show with a diehard fan.
They’re everywhere! I was working with Michelle Dockery on this Apple show Defending Jacob that I did this spring and summer, and she is such a fan. If she would mention it to someone and they hadn’t seen it, Michelle would all but back them up against a wall and start talking about why they had to start watching it.

For your sake, I hope Nan makes a return appearance in some future episode, though it may not be best for the Pierces to get entangled with the Roys again.
It was the most cruel parting. They practically had to pry me off one of the camera dollies to get me to go home. To J. Smith-Cameron, as they proceeded on their travels for the last episodes of this season, I kept saying, “Send pictures, send pictures.” She would send me text messages with these gorgeous photos of locations where they were shooting. I would always write back and say, “YOU HAVE THE BEST JOB!” Yes, if I could come play again, I would drop whatever I was doing and run.

Succession’s Cherry Jones on Why Nan Pierce Is ‘Awful’