Spoilers follow for Succession season four, episode eight, “America Decides.”
If you spent Sunday night in a full-body sweat after Succession reenacted your worst presidential-election memories and fears, you have Justin Kirk to blame. “America Decides” (oh, the bitter irony) is such a successfully ghastly night of television because it shows how the Roys’ interpersonal dramas and power struggles hold real sway over the fate of the world. And in this episode, that fate was ceded to a far-right accelerationist with a racist platform and violent fan base. Kirk played Jeryd Mencken as a sort of charming lizard during his first appearance in season three, getting on Logan’s good side with a Coke and domming Roman with a smirk — all while espousing anti-immigrant, Christian-nationalist-coded beliefs and evoking fascism. Now, he’s causing a pit in our stomachs as the Raisin’s successor, railing against “welfare kings and queens” and promising a populist idea of something “proud and pure” instead of a “marketplace where cunning men haggle.” Kirk talked with us about Mencken’s real-life parallels, finale predictions, and getting in bed with the Roys … or one Roy in particular.
It was so great to finally see you on the show again.
They kept talking about me, so I assumed I would arrive at some point.
Mencken is the bogeyman who haunts the season in that way.
Then in this one, I get a star reveal. When Roman finds me, you see my back, and it’s like, There he is. There’s that evil guy.
It must be fun to play someone so dastardly.
It’s always good to play a villain as an actor. Saying horrible stuff because it’s your job is the best. No one’s going to get mad, because it’s not real life. And of course, doing it with Jesse Armstrong and his room of folks writing the words — that’s high-end.
When we first meet Mencken in season three, he has this very 4Chan, dog-whistle, edgelord-infused way of speaking. Who were you looking to when preparing for the role?
I don’t know that a specific parallel exists. He’s alt-right, but he talks smart. He’s not a Lauren Boebert. He’s super-charismatic, so he’s not Josh Hawley either. Or Ted Cruz. He’s a guy who maybe isn’t out there yet but could be tomorrow and is all the more dangerous for it.
Like when he’s baiting Shiv in season three and is like, “Have you even read Plato?”
I guess he’s trying to play on what he thinks is their playing field.
He reminds me of a Richard Spencer type — a fascist with a “nice” haircut.
I sent a picture of Richard Spencer to hair and makeup for season four. I was like, “Can we do this?” And they were like, “No, you’re running for president. You can’t have, essentially, a faux-hawk.” So there’s an element of that too: Guys who aren’t necessarily in Congress but are talkers.
Mencken definitely talks one way behind closed doors and another way publicly. When he gives his victory speech in this episode, he sounds more Trump-inflected than he did before.
I filmed a few different campaign-speech sorts of things, and it does feel different than my more intimate scenes with Roman. The only general notes I remember getting from the guys that run the thing were “Keep it cheery. You’re saying some terrible things, and that’s the spin you want on it.”
A character at one point says something like, “Not only does he say the bad things — he believes them.”
I think that’s right. In modern politics, we wonder about that — when you hear about supposedly superconservative congresspeople and senators, and someone says, “I talked to them last week, and it’s all bullshit.” The one thing about this guy is that he’s not just playing for votes. He’s playing out what he thinks America should look like.
Where did this guy emerge from?
I imagine he represents a red district in a blue state. Maybe he’s from Michele Bachmann’s district in Minnesota. Or Wisconsin. (I say that because I’m from Minnesota.) But I don’t need to know everyone’s full backstory. That’s a fun thing Succession does: It doesn’t tell you everything you’re not seeing. You, as an audience member, can fill that in for yourself.
This episode seems to be inspired, in part, by Election Night 2016, but you bring up a good point, which is that we’re still in the thick of it. How do you feel about this coming out days after that town hall?
This is more of a nightmare future, I think. And I will remind people that there are still two more episodes of Succession after this, which I know some things about. But some things I honestly don’t know. That’s the fun thing about being a guest on Succession. You only read the stuff you’re involved in. So I can enjoy it on television like the rest of the world.
Did you film more material this season that didn’t make it to air?
I don’t know if I can talk about it. We did do some stuff that was weirdly heavy in the “this season on …” teaser but then not on the show. But I trust these guys to make the story they’re telling.
Are you the first actor to play both a neo-Nazi and a rabbinical student?
Ah, it’s possible! I’ve played several Jews, but this is my second Nazi. I played a Nazi on a show called Manhattan, which was on WGN and starred John Benjamin Hickey, about the Manhattan Project. I’ll take it as some sort of compliment on my very deep range.
On Perry Mason, you play a DA who believes in an illusion of justice more than justice itself. And this episode of Succession is all about your character’s role in this illusion of democracy. Does all of it make you despair?
Jeryd Mencken is probably more of a true believer of the things he says. I don’t know that he would give the “illusion of” speech. I was actually slightly concerned that they were going to be airing at the same time, because I was worried about people watching me, like, This fucking guy. But despair? I will say that watching this current episode the day after the town hall on CNN with the “former guy” was dispiriting.
Mencken’s relationship with Roman is something from last season that fans really responded to. Can you talk about —
Whether we’re fucking?
He does send eggplant emoji to Roman.
It made me laugh when I saw that. Mencken does have a wife and child for what that’s worth … and that’s probably not worth anything. I know that people felt the scene in the bathroom had a charge to it. That scene was the first I filmed as Mencken, and it was the first time I had been around human beings for about a year. It was March or April of ’21. It was my first job, and I had been pretty locked down. Then you fly to New York, and a PA comes and gets you in your hazmat suit, and at that time, the protocols were that you’re in a mask and face shield at all times — including rehearsal. So Kieran Culkin and I are in this bathroom with a crew, and we’re fully masked, blocking the scene and everything. Then the cameras roll, and off they come, and it was like, suddenly, I was breathing other people’s air for the first time in a while. I think that gave us a little jolt.
So you could have been filming anything, and it would have been that steamy?
It had nothing to do with our wild chemistry.
Why do you think Mencken and Roman are so drawn to each other?
They both like being dicks. They both find it funny to have that vibe. And in terms of the story line, Roman’s an up-and-coming figure in the world of media, so that’s good for me. And I might be president, so that’s good for him. And personality-wise, they do meld.
So you don’t think Mencken is going to immediately betray Roman and let the GoJo deal go through?
I know some things, and I don’t know other things. I don’t know what’s actually going to be on television, so I’ll be staying tuned.
From the viewer’s perspective, who do you think is going to come out on top at the end of the show?
Someone just asked me this, and I said Hugo, but it’d be fun if it was a real, wild-card, “Bran from Game of Thrones” situation. How about it’s actually Bran from Game of Thrones? HBO doesn’t do those classic TV crossovers. It should do more of those.
This interview has been edited and condensed.