No one is ever really safe from being on the outs at Waystar Royco. Anyone can be up or down at any moment, yet CFO Karl Muller is a constant. Over four seasons, he has survived Boar on the Floor, a hostage situation, endless comments from the Roy children about how he should be fired, and his boss’s death mid-transatlantic flight. The man is loyal to the memory of Logan Roy and the reality of his bank account, and David Rasche plays him with a resilient unflappability and deadpan humor that has made him a fan favorite. “I don’t know whether I would throw myself on my sword, but I would throw someone else on my sword if it came to that,” Rasche says of Karl’s enduring allegiance to the late Succession patriarch.
That “someone else” in “Living+” is Kendall, whom Karl views, in Rasche’s unsparing terms, as an “alcoholic junkie fuckup” who will ruin Logan’s final act of business acumen. In a tense scene before Kendall takes the stage to introduce the “cruise ship on land” that he hopes will inflate Waystar stock and price out tech wunderkind Lukas Matsson, Karl stops him with a pointed threat and a condescending “Good luck to you, buddy” that conveys the CFO’s deep disdain for the Roy heirs. It’s the sharpest moment yet for Karl and the kind of scene that inspires Rasche’s one-word “Thanks” emails to series creator Jesse Armstrong.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but a lot of people online, including myself, have said Karl and Frank Vernon are very much like the Muppets’ hecklers, Statler and Waldorf.
This episode should be titled “Statler Gets Mad” because when it comes down to it, I’ll kill anybody in my way. I definitely will. I don’t know whether Frank would; Frank is more avuncular and has that kind of relationship with the kids. I don’t have that relationship with them because I think they’re jerks and I watched Logan ruin them. I saw the whole thing happen since they were born. I saw them grow up. I think they’re self-involved and have an inflated idea of what they can do. Kendall is dangerous to everything I’ve ever worked for — we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars and my reputation.
Karl treats Kendall with deference when trying to get details about the new numbers for the Living+ presentation. He says things like “if you could” and “if that’s okay.” I was wondering if any of that was genuine, but it sounds like no.
I’ll give him half a chance, but I can see early on that he’s an alcoholic junkie fuckup. That’s who he is, and he’s not to be trusted; he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I don’t know what he’s on or off, and I don’t care. I only know one thing, and that is: I’ve got my eye on the prize, and that will not be denied.
So you would say, to go back to the document in Logan’s safe, that it’s not an underline of Kendall’s name; it’s a strikethrough.
You have to talk to Jesse about that. See: the definition of ambiguous. All kudos, all questions, go to Jesse Armstrong. There’s nothing — no music, no line, nothing — that does not get passed through him. He is vigilant in the deepest, darkest corners of this show, and it’s remarkable. Whatever happens, I just keep writing these emails to him that say, “Thanks. Best, David.”
But that’s what makes the note so funny. It’s some event that brings out people’s true character, like is the glass half empty or half full. It depends on who you are and what you want.
Karl has a great moment in this episode when he breaks a bit. You have this expression on your face that’s a little aghast and then you laugh when Kendall suggests firing you. How much freedom did you have to experiment with those expressions?
There’s a kind of language people talk about in terms of drama, and that’s always about the stakes. Are they high? Are they low? I’m really, really, really mad. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more angry than I am at that moment. The stakes for me are as high as they can be. I will kill him — I will do whatever I have to do, and I’m not kidding. He needed to know this wasn’t just a “Hey, you know, if you think about it, do this.” It’s that line: He’s got my dick in his hand, and I’ve got his. Actors always look for how to raise the stakes, and the director, Lorene Scafaria, was wonderful and very encouraging. I just wanted to add, “I also have power over you. You wanna play chicken with me? You’ll lose.”
How much rehearsal goes into a scene like this? Did you and Jeremy Strong try different ways of doing it, or did you find it on set?
It’s all different ways. There’s some situations in which it’s really live, the banter is fast, you say this, I say that. Maybe you run lines together. There are times where there is no rehearsal, purposefully — the first time you do it is the best you ever do it. You shoot the rehearsal, you turn on the camera; otherwise, you’ll lose it. In this particular case, we rehearsed on-camera with each other in real time.
After the presentation goes well for Kendall, we see Karl clapping for him and calling him “special.” Are there any limits to his self-preservation?
No, no, no. I don’t care. That’s what I wanted him to do, and I’m perfectly fine with that: Good for you, that’s what I was talking about! I’m not going to remind you of our conversation, and I’m not going to say, “If you would have done anything else, I would have fucking killed you.” What I said was “You have your life or your death ahead of you. You make the choice.” He chose, and he did fine. We’re on track. I had to give him a spanking, and let’s just move on.
There are references throughout Succession that Karl has worked at Waystar Royco for more than 20 years. Is it useful to imagine what Karl and Logan, or Karl and Frank, or Karl and Gerri could have done together for the company during that time?
A lot of it has to do with who we are. I’ve known Peter Friedman for 50, 40 years. I’ve known J. Smith-Cameron for a long time. I haven’t known Brian Cox; I feel like I have. Hats off to the casting directors. A lot of the relationships are real between the actors. You get a free relationship if the actors know each other and understand each other.
When did you and Peter first meet?
I don’t even remember. I don’t think I ever worked with him, but he’s a fixture in the theater here, and the theater is a small town. There’s not a play he hasn’t been in. And he’s a delightful person: funny and totally willing to be humiliated. We really have struck up a relationship since we’ve been doing this show because we spend so much time together.
We know Gerri is Shiv’s godmother and Frank is Kendall’s godfather. Does Karl have any familial relationships with the Roys?
Karl is a very kindred spirit to Logan. Karl understands him, and he is fiercely loyal to him. Logan has humiliated Karl, but my answer to his humiliation is to take it with defiance. I keep a little shred of myself, no matter what, and he knows that, and I know it. As was discussed in episode six, we’ve been through the wars together. We spend a lot of time together. If I like him — I don’t think that’s an area that comes into play, like or dislike. In order for Karl to be employed by him, Karl has to be the best in the business. I saw him fuck up these kids, and I don’t like it, and I don’t like them. He was a horrible father and a brilliant businessman, and it’s the businessman I deal with. Karl’s got to be able to fight and win a battle. In episodes three, four, and five, I always felt Karl was very affected by Logan’s death. My lines are acerbic out of deep grief and disbelief.
But Jesse has been very careful to keep Logan alone. I may have even suggested, “Perhaps I could be some sort of confessor or something like that.” But I don’t think Jesse wanted that. Jesse wanted Logan Roy, a man alone.
Karl wants to use part of his golden parachute to buy a Greek island with his brother-in-law. What’s he going to do on the Greek island? What’s going on there?
I have to be really careful because I’ll get in trouble. But I would say fancy people, fancy ideas, the tip-top of everybody — he’s really one percent, and his friends are newspaper people and editors and billionaires and heads of state. That’s the life he’ll lead without any responsibilities. Who could ask for more?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.