Jess Jordan (Juliana Canfield) is omnipresent. Kendall Roy’s assistant since the second episode of Succession, she’s an often invisible force who manages to accomplish her boss’s near-impossible tasks with zero drama. She’s also Succession’s sole long-running Black character and usually the only non-white presence in the room. When Kendall is making news for “white conservatives addicted to the sound of manufactured alarm bells going off every ten minutes,” is it any wonder she feels the need to fade into the background?
But in episode eight of the show’s fourth and final season, Jess suddenly pulls focus. As her boss and his brother call the election for a white-supremacist fascist, she appears in her first major scene without Kendall, gently attempting to guide Greg away from his task at hand: informing the ATN control room that the network will be calling the election for Mencken. The audience is made sharply aware of the person in that building who will be most affected by the machinations of the broken siblings upstairs. After failing to shoot the messenger, Jess stands alone in the hallway, another casualty of this family’s inability to look outside itself. “Until that moment, she’s able to suspend belief about what it is she’s participating in,” Canfield tells Vulture. “Then these new realities come crashing into one another, and the business interests of the person she works for are in line with the political interests of someone evil.”
I want to start with this scene toward the end of the episode when you’re talking to Greg about the election results.
I love that scene. It was a really big day. There was a lot to get done in the episode, and we were all in that big ATN space. Three weeks later, a bunch of us went out to dinner and one of the writers, Lucy Prebble, was like, “We’re cutting together episode eight, and the scene is funny.” I was like, “It’s a funny scene?” It had never occurred to me that it was written to be funny. I saw it as deadly serious, existentially chilling, and reminiscent of the 2016 election.
It was harrowing.
Greg and Jess are of the same generation and in the same tier in the hierarchy of the company. There are so few times in the show where you see millennials who are peers interacting. It’s not a show about millennials — maybe Shiv is a millennial technically, but she’s not operating within the millennial milieu. That scene with Greg, I was instantly transported back to this feeling of, Oh my God, this night, which was supposed to go such a different way, is actually going the nightmare way. On top of that for Jess is the feeling that she has something to do with it.
Of any non-white person in this whole show, Jess has appeared in the most episodes. In this scene, we’re now sitting in the perspective of a person of color who’s often asked to be invisible.
She really must leave her politics at the door, as I think many of the people who work at Waystar do. Then the worlds collide, all the divisions collapse, and she is standing in a right-wing-propaganda newsroom that is fixing an election for a white supremacist.
And Jess is a character who is willing to be invisible. That’s so rare in this universe.
She’s a big watcher. There are some people who really get ahead in life by the force of their personality. That’s not her. She is quite smart and very competent. It’s not being invisible. It’s, I want to be indispensable. I want to be the wiring in the walls. If they want to turn on the lights, they need me to be there to do it.
This scene is one of the first times we see her without Ken.
It feels like she is feistier. I don’t know if that’s because she’s scared or if it’s the lack of Ken.
It’s probably both. Thinking about being in that building all day long, with the amount of coffee we were all drinking to stay awake, that feeling of adrenaline and the nerves of an outcome of that magnitude — that’s all contributing to it. But that scene wouldn’t have happened if I’d run into Kendall. That scene happened because I don’t feel deferential toward Greg in the way I feel deferential toward Kendall. When I see Greg, it’s like, Hey man, can we like, level on this? This is fucking insane.
What does she want Greg to do?
The desired outcome feels a little unclear. She wants to acknowledge with someone else that something really horrible and wrong is happening. She’s grasping at straws. She’s hoping she’ll spook him and he’ll run out of the building and go home.
But he’s Darth Greg now. He’s a shitbag.
He’s major Darth Greg. The show deals with really massive decisions and conflicts that have global repercussions, but in this episode, the way the business interests of the show collide with the political interests of the company levels up all the stakes. When you get to the highest level of any industry, it’s inextricably tied in with politics and backdoor deals. You see it with Shiv, too. She’s watching the wheeling and dealing she’s been doing collide with a scary political reality, and she wishes she could put the brakes on it. Some other characters don’t have that same reaction. Greg’s soul has been slowly eroding over the course of the show, but this feels different.
Do you think Jess’s integrity has been eroded?
I do. When she started, she could say to herself, This is really good experience. But as she becomes more attached to Kendall as a person and to what he can do for her professionally, that results in innumerable little excuses and justifications for the things she’s doing and the work she’s supporting.
It’s not that she was directly responsible for the decision or even in the room when the decision was made. But there were many nights where she said, Well, I don’t really work for ATN. I work for Waystar, and I work for Kendall. Roman’s off the rails politically and in bed with Mencken, but Kendall has this liberal side. And if he gives me a good role, I would be able to implement other sorts of policies. Maybe I could help change the face of the company. All those things are operating inside her to justify the desire she has to get ahead and stay, because proximity to power is intoxicating and she’s under the spell of it.
How does this episode affect Jess’s relationship with Kendall moving forward?
It puts her in a tricky situation. Kendall is not the warmest, fuzziest boss. He doesn’t express or articulate much care about who she is as a person. He very clearly relies on her, appreciates her, and values certain things about her. But it doesn’t occur to him what this election might mean for Jess personally.
There was a scene that was supposed to be earlier in the season that got cut. Jess was having a birthday party on the weekend, and he called her at one in the morning and she’s sitting with all of her friends in Brooklyn. He’s like, “Jess, get to the office right now.” That was supposed to illustrate his disregard for who she is when she’s not at the office.
There’s a parallel between Jess and Kendall’s daughter, Sophie. He knows she’s experiencing racism because of ATN and Mencken, and he ultimately supports Mencken anyway.
Kendall is one of those guys who was raised in the ’90s school of political correctness. Even as he’s trying to become this hypermodern news warrior, he’s the kind of guy who would say something like “Race isn’t important to me” or “I don’t even think about my daughter not being white” or “I don’t even think about Jess being Black.” Maybe he thinks that makes him a better person. Which is amazing.
Why do you laugh at that?
Jess is in deep with Kendall. She has no illusions about his ability to engage with her personally. She can see his attempts to be enlightened and woke and how they fail. I don’t think his involvement in this is necessarily surprising. It is an escalation of behavior she’s familiar with.
What has Jess’s experience been in ways we haven’t seen, particularly in regard to Kendall’s social-justice-warrior era last season?
She was kind of tickled by it. It helped justify her loyalty to him. I can imagine what it must be like to work for a company or a person like that in New York, having to field constant questions and criticisms and finding some way to defend myself. Jess is a citizen of the 21st century and works for a media company that runs a right-wing-propaganda news program. In the context of the show, Kendall’s monologues about what the future of news could be in his hands seem comical, but there’s also a fervor. It makes Jess think, Maybe he has seen the light and he’s not as ruthlessly ambitious as I thought he was.
So then what’s the disappointment like?
It’s pretty massive. But I actually remember feeling, in that moment in the scene, more disappointment in myself than disappointment with him. It was like, I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t control this man. I understand he has deeply rooted family stuff that is motivating him as much as the business is motivating him. There are a lot of big daddy-size holes to fill in his heart. For me, it was a moment of, He has all of these excuses whether they’re flimsy or not. I don’t have any. Why am I here on this night?
You’ve said Jeremy Strong has given you assignments. How does that inform your take on their relationship?
Jeremy is such a prepared actor. He has read every book; he understands every financial term. The scripts are beautifully written, but he can riff on anything and be very in character. Sometimes, it was like he was letting me know what he might be riffing on in a scene so I would be able to respond. When he goes, “Jess, wait, what are the things again?” I have three really fresh answers I knew to look up right before we started rolling.
One time in the Adirondacks, he wanted to send Naomi a bouquet of flowers and a book of Frank O’Hara’s poetry. We were standing there getting ready to film, and he was talking about flowers. “What kind of flowers should I get for Naomi? I think peonies. Is there a florist where I can get peonies down there? And you know that poem by Frank O’Hara. What collection is that in?” Then we started rolling, and I was looking up Frank O’Hara collections I could send to New York. I was really doing that on my phone! And I like Frank O’Hara, so I was like, “Maybe you should send her this one.” And he was like [does a Jeremy Strong impression], “Oh, good idea. Good idea.” Without him, I would have been daffier or more hapless. Because of that exchange of information we had as the camera started to roll, I felt like a really good assistant.
Did that affect your approach to Jess as the series went on?
I remember talking to Jesse Armstrong at the beginning of the night when we were shooting this episode. He was like, “This is kind of fucked, isn’t it?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “I think you can be a little pissed today. You can let the guard come down a bit. Not fully, but I think you’re not happy to be here. And you can let it show.” As time has gone on, Jess is never explicit about her disapproval or what she thinks about the cast of characters she’s constantly around, but I do think she’s very slowly thawing and getting more liberal with her mask.
What does this feistiness look like going forward?
It’s not in her nature. It’s learned, and maybe she’s starting to pick up on it. I can’t say too much.
What’s amazing about the show is the joyous, careless cruelty of all these characters. Jess doesn’t have that. It actually would have served her if she could dish it back a little bit more. I look at Zoë Winters’s character, Kerry, in some of the episodes. The way she can bling the knife back is so impressive to Jess.
Zoë told us the two of you have talked about a spinoff for the assistants. What does that look like?
First of all, I just love Zoë. She’s one of my best friends. It’s a true disappointment to me that we never had a scene together. It would have been hilarious. When Logan was still alive, I would have loved to have seen what kind of backroom negotiations the two of them were doing. Kerry and Jess are jockeying for power on the lowest rung. Maybe they don’t speak at all in the building and then you see them both get on the subway and go back to their apartment, and it turns out they’re roommates and best friends and it’s really sweet!
Does Jess want to hear about having sex with Logan Roy?
This is where it gets interesting because I think she would get a real kick out of it and also be like, I wonder if any of this information would be good for Kendall.
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