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Harriet Walter Embraced Succession’s Meeting of the WAGs

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Spoilers follow for Succession season four episode eight, “Church and State.”

In the penultimate episode of Succession, the bells toll for Logan Roy, but the Dalmatians howl for Lady Caroline Collingwood. While her husband Peter Munion (perhaps the most unserious of the show’s unserious people) is off simping for senators, Caroline encounters all the things she normally keeps her nose clean of overseas: Her daughter’s pregnancy (months after Caroline told her “some people aren’t made to be mothers”), Roman displaying the sort of naked emotions she’s allergic to, and all the women in Logan’s life who came after her in attendance. But rather than pull what actress Harriet Walter calls a runner, Caroline reaches out to Kerry, Marcia, and Sally-Ann (the Kerry to her Marcia), and the four seat themselves in the front row at the funeral. The women of Succession, unionizing over Logan’s coffin.

You finally filmed an episode on the Roys’ home turf. Normally you make them come to you for all the big events!
It’s a bit romantic for a Brit because I’ve never filmed in New York. I’ve never filmed in America. I’ve done shows on Broadway, but I’ve never been in front of the camera on the streets of New York. That’s got a certain mythology, so that was quite exciting. And this was a huge crowd of people in this amazing church, and blocking the traffic on Fifth Avenue — it’s a big deal. Weddings and funerals, she rocks up.

I want to talk about your scenes with Shiv. Neither of you actually say “pregnant” or “baby.” It’s all exchanges and glances and “Are you okay?” And Shiv shoots the defensiveness right back at her.
They’re very good at sparring in that way, aren’t they? They’re very different, but at the same time, they’ve had to read one another that way all their lives. They’ve built up that code of reading one another and not quite reading one another. Caroline’s quite nervous of Shiv because she attributes quite a lot of female instinct and under-the-skin understanding of what’s going on to her that maybe the boys in a classical way don’t have. There’s a psychological subtlety to the two women — they’re kind of well-matched.

But I also think she’d be very direct and say, “Is it Tom’s?” Or “Have you been having an affair?” She’s capable of that. If it was a different context, if it wasn’t the funeral, if she wasn’t in a church, if it wasn’t that day. She also has an immediate selfish reaction, which is, Why didn’t you tell me? Because you’ve disarmed me with something I didn’t know about and I should be the first person to know. And of course, the reason why not is because I know you don’t trust me.

Like in season two when Kendall visits and wants to confess to the accident, and Caroline’s first reaction is, Are you just here to give me a spiel about how I screwed you up
The audience has this huge advantage over Caroline in that scene. They saw the car go down in the river, they saw Kendall running away, the intensity of that and the effect on Kendall. He comes to Mom and she doesn’t know any of that. She thinks, Oh, there’s going to be something embarrassing, I’m going to have to come up with some wise words and be a good emotional bucket. And I can’t do that. So she does a runner, which is not what you or I would do. But it’s not as cruel as it’s made out to be, because she’s not like, He wants to talk about having murdered someone and I’ve run out on it!

Whenever we see Lady Caroline, it’s like we’re getting a missing half of the puzzle of these characters. How do you communicate that subtext while playing someone so closed off?
In real life, if you were at a dinner with her, you’d have a bit more fun than with some of the other people. But you wouldn’t want to be her daughter. I began to see her whole sort of wittiness and “fun” as a very long-standing defense mechanism that partly comes from boredom, partly because she’s born into English aristocracy. She had to appear to be entertained and toe the line, and it just wasn’t her thing. So she goes to America and meets this guy who dragged himself up from the bootstraps — he’s a self-made man. He’s got the sort of money that can give her a certain kind of lifestyle. This is a bit of an adventure.

And then she’s married to him, she’s got the kids and wealth, but her attention span is fairly short. She hasn’t really got the discipline or the emotional vocabulary to be a mother. I told myself that was because she came from that echelon of British society that does not indulge in self-examination or emotional exchange. You get on with your life. You tough it out. And that’s what she expects of her children.

In this show about American wealth and class, your character has to be a sort of ambassador for this whole other English class system. Lady Caroline brings that wry sense of humor, that anti-sentimentality. 
Yes, it’s very shorthand, isn’t it? And I’m impressed that Americans are picking up on it. We’ve got a very predominantly British writing team. They obviously get that person. But I also think that money speaks to money. Even if it’s old money from aristocracy, it understands a certain kind of mentality, of being on the mountaintop, not really caring about people underneath.

It’s very often the case that British aristocracy have married into American wealth to prop up their old castles. She’s in that tradition, a bit. Of course, Logan isn’t really an American. He’s a Canadian via Scotland, but he is personifying the American wealth system, and it’s quite exciting for a woman like Caroline. It’s an interesting combination because it’s two different kinds of lack of feeling. There’s an emotional manipulation that Logan is master of; the kind of emotional blackmail he uses on his children, singling them out and saying, You’re my favorite today. He’s created this division between them that I don’t think Caroline is responsible for. I don’t think she’s had favorites or any of that. I think she’s just done a runner because it was getting to be too much. Maybe one of them was 13, but for the rest of them, Come on, you’re old enough. That’s her attitude.

Was Caroline gathering all of Logan’s exes to sit together at the funeral an act of tenderness? Or did a part of her reach out to Kerry to get on Marcia’s nerves? 
I think she’s feeling vulnerable and feeling a very big mixture of feelings. This is the father of her children. When someone dies, you go back to the past, usually to fond memories. Usually we think of the best things about someone once they’ve gone. And she looks around this room and she spots Sally-Ann and she spots Kerry. She’s got to face up to Marcia. So she suddenly feels, There’s only four of us in this whole congregation who know what it’s like. Maybe I can reach out to these people. It makes her richer, that she can extend her imagination to those people rather than always taking the bitchy move. I just think it’s more interesting.

The fact that they can come together like that shows what a grip Logan had on everyone. And the tension he sowed in his life. 
There’s a certain sort of female solidarity about it as well. The French have a saying, cherchez la femme, which means in any sort of emotional mess-up, look for the woman, it’ll be her fault. Well, my reaction is cherchez l’homme. Look for the guy. It’s Logan who messed up all these people. He had the power and he used it. Yet we’ve all had our time when we’ve loved him.

There’s a great, silent moment of you reacting to Kendall’s eulogy. How were those scenes filmed? Was that the first time you had heard the eulogies? 
By that time, we all had the script, but the actors opted not to read their speeches in the table read so it would feel more spontaneous. And knowing that you’d have to do it thousands of times, it was good that they did that. What I have to explain is, I’m sitting in an audience watching brilliant acting. And I have to click in: You’re not in an audience watching brilliant acting. You’re Caroline attending the funeral. But I was so impressed by everybody’s acting, James Cromwell, and Kendall, and Alan Ruck, who plays Connor. I think he doesn’t get nearly enough attention. I think he does a beautiful job. I never got bored. I was sitting watching this display of fantastic, master-class acting.

This interview is edited and condensed.

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Harriet Walter Embraced Succession’s Meeting of the WAGs