This week, Succession continued its illustrious tradition of casting some of New York’s greatest theater actors with the in-person debut of Linda Emond as presidential aide Michelle-Anne Vanderhoven. Previously the voice on the other end of Gerri’s phone call in the season premiere, treating the Roys’ scrambling efforts to an absolutely withering “ha, ha ha,” she appeared this week to face down Logan (Brian Cox) as he tries to reason with/bargain with/threaten her to get the Department of Justice to pull its investigation into Waystar Royco.
These are the rare scenes in which Logan is not the most important person in the room, and Emond plays them in a way that opens up Succession’s world, reminding viewers that there are greater powers and concerns beyond Logan’s fiefdom. We spoke to her about phone-acting in a corset, real-life political allusions, and Brian Cox’s side gig as a pro bono interior designer.
Have you had any feedback from friends about Sunday’s episode?
Tony Kushner said, “They must make you a regular, who do I call?”
Speaking of Tony Kushner, this is a show that loves to cast from the New York theater world. What is it about Succession, and its dialogue, that theater actors in particular lend themselves so well to?
It is true that theater actors often handle a lot more complicated text and classical text, but that’s any good actor, period. Succession’s super-smart, but it requires a real agility of mind and attack. The show in general is an environment that’s shifting constantly, so you need to be on your toes and ready for anything. I don’t even know how the rest of the season will play out because they rewrite things, even on the spot.
You have a scene this week with Brian Cox where your character is doing all this doublespeak in a wide range of tones. Was that shifting as you went, too? Did you play it in different ways?
The doublespeak also shows up in the first episode on the speakerphone call. That was really fun to do, because how do you try to say little, or nothing, and still show some genuine fondness and concern for Logan? I think she feels that, and as a representative of the president, the president feels that. Talking to Jesse Armstrong before I shot it, there was an understanding that Michelle-Anne is familiar with Logan, has known him for a while, has probably spent a good chunk of time with him in social settings. So there’s a comfort level, and that alone lended a lovely color to the scene, because you can have those moments of joking or fun or real concern mixed with the responsibility she has to the president of the United States, and being careful not to promise anything she shouldn’t. And also, because he shows up in the studio, she’s given an opportunity to get info and dig around.
Brian is great. We knew each other a little. I moved into an apartment right before the pandemic hit, and trying to furnish it has been problematic. Brian recommended a cool shop called Humble House in Brooklyn that he went to and recently got a sofa. I went there and he was right.
Do you have any idea of what the government has in store for the Roys this season?
I can’t tell you anything, but I will say this: Obviously, power play’s an enormous part of every episode of Succession, and Logan is almost always the most powerful person in the room — or thinks he is. It’s an interesting dynamic. The fact that in that first episode, they made the call to try to reach the president and only get as far as me is a red flag that his power position is in trouble. Logan showing up in the studio to want to talk to me, that’s a huge red flag. I show a whiff of it when I first see him, but the real response underneath is much larger than that: Okay, what the fuck is this?
It was challenging and fun to do a one-on-one with him and have him not necessarily be the most powerful person in the room. When I talked to Jesse before we started, I wanted to make sure I knew where this was going. He was very generous about it, and one of the things I asked him was, “What’s my responsibility for you so that I can fulfill it in the story?” This scene needs to have all the weight of the president. I love that they’re finding ways to show how off-balance and in a position of danger he is.
You got to play one of the only people who’s of a higher status, power-wise, than Logan.
[mysterious voice] Or am I? It was fun because this is a woman who’s really fucking busy. Doing the interview on ATN took her out of other responsibilities for probably 20 minutes, which is an enormous amount of time. She’s busy with things on a national and global level. It was fun to keep in mind that this is just one part of my day, but for Logan, this is the biggest thing.
You gave him an opportunity to play a different note than usual when your character makes him laugh. It was almost uncanny because it’s so rare to see someone make Logan crack up like that.
Jesse even came in and changed that line right before we did that take. I think it might have been slightly different than “not fucking much.” It allowed us to genuinely laugh. It’s a great touch to have there be a history; they know each other, there’s an affection. That’s not to say Michelle-Anne is foolish — she knows how much power that man does wield — but it’s an interesting thing to have a scene in which there is more of an even playing field of power.
How did you develop the character? She’s working in a conservative administration. She does pundit talking-head interviews for a cable news show. Who did you look to in real-world media for this type of character?
I didn’t get too literal. Both Jesse and Scott Ferguson, one of the producers, were clear about saying, “It’s a bespoke person.” I remember Jesse saying it’s not a specific allusion to someone. But I did read about what some people, especially on the right, were saying about how they see power. As well as looking at some of the people in media who do these kinds of interviews, and the way they focus and pull the discussion. By the way, you didn’t see what I was saying in the background when I was on the news, but it was incredibly well-written. They had these great talking points that were really smart and hidden in the background.
But to get back to your question, one thing I could certainly pull from real events is that although this is a pretend administration, clearly more right-leaning, what we know is that it’s a political situation where enough norms have been crashed. As Jesse said to me, Logan would consider that he could get to the president. This is something that has always been around to some degree, but it is something we have seen a lot of in the past administration.
What were you saying on the ATN show?
The host was trying to throw some doubt into the president’s reelection chances, and Michelle-Anne just confidently, smoothly talks around it. She and the president do need things from Logan. She can’t just pooh-pooh him. Part of what they laid in the background is the information that the president is maybe in trouble with poll numbers.
What was it like filming your phone-conversation scene with J. Smith-Cameron in the season premiere?
A great thing Succession does, which I haven’t known other shows to do as much, is they do those conversations live. Often, you’ll have the script supervisor or one of the ADs reading those lines to the people on-camera. You’d have Gerry and Logan and Shiv in the van, and there would be a script supervisor or an AD reading the lines from the phone. The downside of that is you don’t get the same dynamic, and it makes it not as cohesive if you’re going into a booth to do ADR later or before. I did a scene once in Gemini Man where I had a phone conversation with Will Smith. They had recorded Will, and then they put him in my ear behind the phone. I could hear Will, but it wasn’t live.
But in this case, on the day they were shooting, I was on my phone. They would call me and let me go, and call me, let me go, because they had to do new setups of cameras. It can go over a period of a couple hours. But the twist is that they shot that in another country — I think they were in Italy. And they shot it way late in the season. I was shooting The Gilded Age, and the date they needed to do it was on a Gilded Age shoot date, so I was in Albany, New York, and I had to get up at 3 a.m. because of the time difference in Italy to record it with them. I remember doing one recording in the hotel room; the next one was in the van on the way to the Gilded Age set; the next couple of times I did it in the makeup trailer, and the Gilded Age cast very nicely got quiet for me so that I could record it. And the next time, I was getting dressed and put into a corset. And the final time, I was in a horse-drawn carriage in full costume in 1880 in between takes. I sent pictures to J., and J. sent me pictures from the van of them smiling at me. At some point, finally, I had to say I couldn’t do any more takes because I had to shoot.