You are cordially invited to a Roy-family gathering at a 13-bedroom 17th-century Tuscan villa. The house is the color of cream silk with an imposing entrance that seems to demand a suitable 23andMe result for one to be allowed in. It sits in the middle of a garden lined with shrubs and dotted with Baroque sculptures. Past a 300-meter stretch of cypress trees, a trio of long banquet tables have been set for the event’s 120 guests. Off the main house, there’s a chapel, a limonaia turned games room, a few assorted outbuildings: casitas — is that the word? This detail I’m maybe making up because I’m simply not rich enough to know.
Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, an HBO series about a family of billionaires, seems mildly disgusted with himself for bringing his cast and crew to one of the world’s most beautiful countrysides; he has never wanted to fetishize the Roys’ wealth. Still, they would go somewhere stupid gorgeous for an opulent party, so here we are at the Villa Cetinale in Sovicille, a tiny town an hour south of Florence, as June inches toward July. With a tape recorder and a fistful of used Shiseido blotting papers — and sworn by an HBO blood oath not to reveal any spoilers — I’m trailing them around Tuscany for two weeks as they film the final episodes of the long-delayed third season. We’re in Siena for the first half, driving the 30 minutes from the city to Sovicille. The following week, we’ll travel throughout the Val d’Orcia region, with shoots in Pienza and Cortona. (You quickly realize you’re taking long car rides from one tiny town with great cheese to another.)
Today begins as most do at this location — horrifically Midsommar-ly, in full-sun 95-degree weather. Over the deafening buzz of cicadas, the Italian crew — the same one that just finished work on the It’s-a-me-Mario!–accented House of Gucci — scream “Movimento!” A camera dangles from one of the villa’s third-story windows, panning the crowds of well-dressed attendees like the Eye of Sauron. A hundred extras, all seated and cooking in linen suits and sheath dresses, put on their best placid listening faces. Their attention is directed to Sarah Snook, in character as Shiv Roy. She is delivering some remarks she has been asked to give at the last minute, and she doesn’t seem to be feeling it.
“The first words that sprang to mind are shit, what, no, bitch,” says Snook, launching into Shiv’s rambling speech. “Along with the words totally and unprepared.” Seated next to her are the actors who play her loving siblings: Kieran Culkin (Roman, who has graduated from management training to running point on a new deal) and Jeremy Strong (Kendall, the former No. 1 boy turned whistleblower). They’re peering at their onscreen sister from behind sunglasses; a camera zooms in, capturing their pronounced disinterest in close-up: Roman bored, Kendall oddly distrait. Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy, the grizzly patriarch, isn’t required on set yet (until then, he’s in Florence, sightseeing with his real family). Everyone else is here — Alan Ruck (Connor, the eldest sibling), Justine Lupe (Connor’s younger girlfriend, Willa), Matthew Macfadyen (Shiv’s husband, Tom), J. Smith-Cameron (Logan’s longtime deputy, Gerri), Hiam Abbass (the Roy stepmom, Marcia), and Nicholas Braun (the perpetually dawdling Cousin Greg).
Snook tries delivering her line a few different ways: The staccato “Shit! What! No! Bitch!” becomes “Shit. What? Fuck no, bitch!” She trails off. Maybe the heat is making her forget what to say next. She’s sweating through her taut off-white dress. When the sequence resets, the actors do too. Snook drops into flat shoes and her natural Australian accent; Macfadyen swaps his linen shirt for one that’s not visibly damp. Culkin’s bangs are coiffed and pulled back just so. Smith-Cameron hides from the sun under an umbrella that’s discarded once the camera starts rolling. The flowers that decorate the banquet tables have to be fake because, in all this heat, they’ll wilt like the extras, who scatter to the shade of cypress trees when there’s a break.
“Action!” shouts the first assistant director. A chorus of Moooovimento! echoes his call. Strong hangs his head, heavy with the state of his character’s perma-despair. They’re halfway through the day — only four or five more hours of roasting like rotisserie chickens spinning in this glam paradise. “Yeah, right,” Culkin says, sighing. “Movimento.”
Families are always rising and falling in America,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I know because Leonardo DiCaprio quoted it in The Departed. Succession is about the doing and undoing of the Roys, the family that owns the show’s fictional global-media conglomerate, Waystar Royco. It’s a comedic race to the bottom featuring terrible people with terrible ideas about how to save the family’s terrible, lucrative business. The players are all vivid and ambitious, hilariously rendered by a collection of American theater actors, two former child stars, a few Brits, and an Aussie. When Succession premiered on HBO in 2018, some viewers and critics weren’t sure how to feel about a show depicting the hyperwealthy. “Somebody wrote, ‘Succession finally found itself in episode three,’ ” says network chief Casey Bloys. “The idea that a show ‘found itself’ in the third episode is somewhat ridiculous. The tone was there, the talent was there, the acting was there.” Armstrong doesn’t seem as pressed. “I was aware that it’s quite a prickly pear of a show,” he says, laughing.
By season two, Succession’s slime puppies had caught on: Roman Roy fan-cams, soundtracked by the cutely brash rapper Flo Milli, made the rounds on Instagram; Logan Roy became a meme; the comedian Demi Adejuyigbe made a viral song, “Kiss From Daddy,” poking fun at the show’s dinner party of daddy issues. Succession doesn’t do Game of Thrones ratings, but to an audience of Emmy voters, the extremely online, and the extremely with taste, it’s the best show on TV. The Roy family fights, fusses, backstabs, and stumbles over its own emotions. It’s The Apprentice in the key of Andy Cohen, interested in the power plays but built on its lacerating observations of the messy family at its center. The fact that they have money — like a lot of money, too much money, casita money — only adds to the spectacle. This season is rounded out with new players, including Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgaard, both playing billionaire executives, and Sanaa Lathan as a high-profile lawyer; Zoe Winters reprises her role as Logan’s assistant but has more to do this time around.
Season three was scheduled to start shooting in New York weeks after the city went into lockdown in March 2020 and air that fall. (It will now arrive in October.) Armstrong decided early on that the season’s finished scripts wouldn’t be rewritten to incorporate the ongoing pandemic. “These are really wealthy people,” says Snook. “And unfortunately, none of the world’s really wealthy people were going to be affected by the pandemic.” In March 2020, Mark Blum, who played the cruise-division executive Bill Lockhart, died of complications from COVID. Two regulars — Ruck and Cox — also contracted the virus. There was a lot of hurry up and wait; the goalposts for restarting production kept moving. After Zoom table reads and Zoom production meetings, shooting started in New York this past November. Italy, by summer’s end, was always the plan. There were alternatives if traveling there became unfeasible — the U.K., Massachusetts, Northern California — but by May 2021, it seemed safely doable, especially given House of Gucci’s successfully completed European shoot.
The last time we saw the Roy family, Kendall committed patricide via press conference. “The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully, and a liar,” he began, disobeying his father’s direct orders to take the fall for the rampant corruption and sexual violence in the company’s cruises division. “This is the day his reign ends.” Originally, Armstrong says, they had toyed with the idea of Logan dying at the end of the first season. “But then it became kind of obvious that that would be a dumb move, dramatically.” The third season picks up moments after the last. Kendall has just delivered his blow, Logan is still in charge of Waystar Royco, and there’s a shareholder revolt on the horizon. The same essential drama repeats itself, with Kendall, Roman, and Shiv trying to outsmart the others at Dad’s game and take over the company. Dad resents the kids as much as he loves them; he’s not passing on his life’s work to a well-dressed nincompoop.
Nothing about the show’s perspective on money or power has changed, despite the pandemic’s continuing proof of how stratified the world is. When the season resumes, Kendall fancies himself the leading man of some kind of resistance. But Succession’s terms and conditions are that no one really changes. “I’m always a little suspicious about growth,” says Armstrong, who also co-created the cult-favorite British series Peep Show and comes from a background of half-hour comedies. “The idea that we all grew through life, had more perspective and wisdom and therefore maybe took greater care of people around us — I don’t think it is true.” It’s an arc he thinks works better in film: “Something changes and somebody grows and they learn something and that’s the end of the movie. I don’t think that’s impossible, but I’m suspicious of that shape to people’s lives. It’s hard to change in a fundamental way.”
A week later, Culkin sits under a pergola shaded with wisteria, drinking an Italian soda. He’s wearing a white Hanes T-shirt and shorts he fished out from the bottom of a drawer. “I keep thinking, I’ve gotta get the number of the guy that made [Roman’s] suit so I can go get one,” he says. “Then I don’t because it’s probably expensive and I don’t have a production paying for it.” As Roman, Culkin has a kind of harried, asshole energy; in person, at worst he seems impatient and a little hard on himself. During one lengthy sequence at the Villa Cetinale, when they need to capture four conversations in one take, he mispronounces the Tuscan city Chianciano — key-ahn-CHAH-no. Take after take, the word comes out every way but its actual pronunciation. Because there are so many moving parts, his mutilation of those four syllables requires five actors to start their scenes from the top each time. “Hiam and J. aren’t here because no one told them we’re resetting,” Culkin says in a singsong Miranda Priestly voice, reprimanding himself for holding things up.
Tonight’s shoot is in Cortona, and Culkin’s call time isn’t until 11 p.m. He spent quarantine in a Manhattan one-bedroom that he had moved into when he was 19; during shooting, he and his wife and daughter are staying in Villa Gonzola, a five-bedroom, four-bath house with a pool overlooking a stretch of farmland. (When they return to New York, he says, the family will upgrade to a place he bought: “I’m finally making money for the first time in my 30-something-year career!”) We’re in the backyard; his small family’s row of Stan Smith sneakers sits next to the front door. “When we finished last season, my wife was pregnant,” he says. “Now I have an almost-2-year-old.” His wife, Jazz Charton, who is pregnant again, is sitting inside listening to a podcast while their daughter takes her nap. “She’s due in five-to-six weeks, but the baby is probably coming sooner,” Culkin continues. “I’ve gotta get us home or we’re having an Italian baby!”
For the first week, in Siena, the principals stayed in one hotel; here in Val d’Orcia, no single town can hold the entire cast and crew, so everyone is scattered throughout the countryside — some actors are staying in hotels or, like Culkin, have booked their own villas. Shooting in New York during the winter and spring was tricky. “At the beginning of the season, it was mask, shield,” Culkin says. “We had these pods” — think individual tents for actors to use between takes — “that we didn’t use.” HBO still requires masks on set, both outdoors and indoors, but the risk of working together doesn’t feel as life or death, as uncharted, as it once did. Maybe it helps that it’s summer and there’s a pool and plates of bucatini everywhere.
“It’s always different when we travel because it feels immediately like summer camp,” Culkin says. The actors break off into their cliques during the weekends or plan solo excursions. Smith-Cameron has brought her husband, the writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, along. One afternoon, I see him waiting for her outside a gelateria. Smith-Cameron says she wanted Lonergan to play a minor character this season; it would have been a funny inside joke. “They couldn’t get a work visa,” she says. “And I don’t know how interested they were in that.” Cox hangs around the Adler, a luxury spa resort where a few of the cast and crew are staying and which offers services to detox, retox, or recover from an Italian BBL. “I’ve got nothing to do all day,” he tells me one afternoon. “I’ll go and do my gym.” Where Logan growls and roars, Cox is lightly sarcastic. After I’ve asked all my questions, he jokes that he wants some more. (He has a memoir coming out this fall, and he’s keen to promote it.)
When the cast members shoot in New York, they have a Succession supper club — restaurant dinners with three or four of them, whoever’s around. Abroad, there’s more time for impromptu hangs. In the lobby of their hotel, I run into Snook, Abbass, and Winters returning from a bougie supermarket with snacks for their rooms. Another day, I see Braun and newcomer Dasha Nekrasova, the actress and host of the podcast Red Scare, chilling side by side in Siena’s main plaza. As a result of the pandemic, Nekrasova tells me, “there was an expedited intimacy between the crew and the cast.” Braun, Nekrasova, and Lupe take a side trip to Rome together and unwind in the lazy river at their hotel between shoots. “They kicked us out of it one time because we were laughing and yelling too loud,” Braun says.
He feels freer abroad than he does at home. “We’re basically anonymous here,” Braun tells me, fiddling with the gold chain around his wrist. Living and working and being famous in New York — Succession-famous, but also, like, every-woman-I-know-under-40-is-trying-to-kiss-him famous — has made him a little paranoid. He says it doesn’t frustrate him when fans project Greg onto him. “It’s not a bad thing when people yell ‘Greg the Egg’ on the street,” he says. But his tone changes when he talks about it; it seems a little tiring. Aside from Nekrasova and Lupe, Braun spends time with his most frequent scene partners, Greg’s twisted support system. “It’s nice to get dinners with Matthew and Jeremy,” he says. Strong “is like the show’s concierge. If you need a good hotel, a good restaurant in literally any city in the world, he knows where to go. He’s in contact with chefs and hoteliers. Like, it’s crazy.”
Everyone seems to get along. On his 65th birthday, Ruck helped Nekrasova with a self-tape for an audition; meanwhile, Lupe planned a surprise party for him. “It was the most delicious dinner I’ve had yet in Italy,” he says. “Carbonara but it had caramelized red onions in it. Some Pecorino but not too much.” (Ruck is one of the few cast members who get recognized abroad — but for his role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) The shoot in Italy coincides with Euro 2020; in Siena, the show’s British soccer fans make plans to view the night’s game outdoors at the Fortezza Medicea, which overlooks the city. They’re watching the tournament from the country that England will eventually lose to. (Soccer is generally disruptive; two night shoots are interrupted by the Italian crew’s hoots and hollers while watching their home team.)
Armstrong prefers to stay at the periphery of the nights out and downtime hangs with the actors. I ask if his isolation is intentional, considering how reverentially the cast speaks of him as if his scripts were their holy texts. “I genuinely like all the actors. It’s lovely when an evening happens, when it feels natural to hang out for a while,” he says. “But it’s probably not good for us to be in each other’s pockets the whole time.
“Not that you can’t have a professional relationship with friends,” Armstrong continues. “But I ask them to do a lot, emotionally and creatively. There’s an amount of fuel in the relationships that we could potentially have that is better used up in our writing for them.” Armstrong is close to the writers — in between Siena and Pienza, he goes to Rome with executive producers Tony Roche, Lucy Prebble, and the finale’s director, Mark Mylod, to attend the England-Ukraine match. Halfway through a night shoot that will stretch on longer than expected, he decamps to a hotel room with a few of the writers while they wait for a scene to reset. As everyone makes jokes and discusses the latest soccer development, he excuses himself and goes to the bathroom to watch a third cut of the season’s first episode, where, presumably, it’s easier to focus.
The teaser for season three is released while we’re in Cortona. Armstrong describes watching the reaction as a weird hall of mirrors. Fans find characters to root for, but he pushes against that experience of the show. “I don’t feel like it’s sports, where I need someone to get behind,” he said once, bristling at the hosts of a Ringer podcast. The show often undercuts or undermines the audience’s expectations — Shiv is a fan favorite, but her girlbossery turns sinister when she coaxes a sexual-assault survivor into a financial settlement in season two; Kendall presents as the capable, levelheaded son in season one, but the season’s Chappaquiddick-style conclusion reveals how much he needs to be babied by Daddy. Armstrong says he’s not conscious of writing against what viewers expect. “If we started playing a game where it’s like, You thought she was going to be like this, but no — she’s like that! That can be a fun game to do in life, but it’s not this show.”
There’s no “Shiv season” or “Kendall season.” Succession does have rules, or tendencies; it doesn’t do red herrings or cameos. Both undermine the premise of catching the privileged out of their element. So much of the show’s appeal is predicated on feeling as if we’re overhearing things we shouldn’t hear. The red herrings fans predict are too Game of Thrones–y, too complicated. “They often have very Machiavellian theories about how someone’s going to triple-cross someone else,” Roche says. (That’s Billions.) “People often think we are being cleverer than we are.”
Succession’s writers are always searching for the overarching joke in the characters’ stories, the way no one says what they mean or even necessarily knows it. On set, Armstrong comes armed with a few pages of “alts,” alternative joke ideas he solicits from the writers a few days before shooting. He’s not precious. One afternoon, an exchange between two characters is infused with too many jokes, so it’s decided they can lose a few. On another, they rule that Shiv’s lines need to be “de-fucked.” “Something I have learned in my career,” Armstrong says, “is there will always be another idea. The thing you think is so wonderful but you have to cut because it doesn’t fit in anymore — you realize you were trying to make a stupid thing work. Once you go where the emotion wants to go, there’s always another joke.”
Setting the third season’s final two episodes in Tuscany is its own joke. “I don’t know how much of a social signifier it is to Americans — anybody who can go abroad is really rich — but [Tuscany] has this particular flavor for the English upper class,” Armstrong says. “Some call it Chiantishire in a slightly sickening way.” Emily FitzRoy, a ritzy holiday planner who specializes in Italian vacations, was brought in to ensure the Villa Cetinale party was realistically luxurious. She pitches minor adjustments to production based on real-life billionaire events she has staged at the villa and shows me a hidden room above the kitchen where she retires for a midday break. “I’ve got to leave early; I’m doing an anniversary dinner up the road,” she says between setups. “You have to see what my client wore for dinner the other night.” She taps on her phone and confidentially shows me a paparazzi photo of a pop singer and an NFL player. Whether your money is new or old, there are really only half a dozen ways to be superrich and with taste.
We’ve come to Pienza’s La Terrazza Del Chiostro, a restaurant overlooking the rolling Tuscan hills. The food and the vibe are sufficient; it’s the view you come for, off a patio with a perfectly unobstructed vision of the landscape, the kind of perch that makes you want to Under the Tuscan Sun your life (that movie was shot in Cortona, but still).
Today it’s the setting for a Roy-sibling lunch that predictably devolves into an argument. Shiv and Roman shoot each other looks of incredulity; Connor sits back sighing; Kendall stews with his sunglasses on, a metal necklace with dog-tag-like medallions sitting at the center of his chest. They run the scene half a dozen times for everyone’s coverage, but it’s never clear which angle will make the final cut. Succession often films with three cameras; one from a comfortable middle distance, one in close-up, and the third catching the gasps, the raised eyebrows, the exasperated eye-rolls, the moments when they most want to crawl out of their skins.
The actors all have their own methods of getting into character. Culkin doesn’t want to know anything Roman wouldn’t so he can go with his first instinct. The character snaps into focus for him when he gets onto set and sees Snook or starts standing a certain way. Smith-Cameron hires an actor friend, currently out of work because of COVID, to help her rehearse: “I pay him on Venmo, and we run lines on Zoom. He just gets the scenes; he doesn’t know what’s going on. He knows he can’t tell anyone!” (She had him sign an NDA template she found online.) Snook “collected references” for Shiv over the hiatus — including words she thinks her character would, or definitely would not, say — and runs lines with Abbass. “I love Sarah because we started as the two women of the show in the beginning,” says Abbass, noting that Snook has the more demanding schedule. “She has been working much harder than myself.” Hours into the season’s grueling climax, Snook drifts around the set with renewed energy, as if the challenge only makes her go harder, longer.
Snook makes Shiv both steely and playful, but underneath there is always a simmering uncertainty — as though she doesn’t want people to know what she’s feeling or even that she’s feeling. “Because we had such a gap between [seasons] two and three, and also because there was more of a public knowledge of the show, people had put up versions [online] of their own Shiv or parodies,” Snook tells me. When she slipped back into the character’s sheath dresses, there was a moment of adjustment — she had to remember Shiv was hers. “It felt like I’m doing an impersonation of a person who plays Shiv who turns out to be me. I was like, Wait, I’m the person. I know.”
Strong wants to talk through every moment of Kendall’s inner life. One night in the middle of shooting a complicated sequence, he’s the only actor to continuously dart to video village to consult with Armstrong directly: “Is Kendall bereft or surprised here?” (Armstrong suggests he try surprise.) Kendall is often Succession’s emotional center, so maybe the character needs an inordinate amount of care from the actor playing him. During the first week at the villa, he’ll frequently sit by himself in a garden near the pool. We talk in the lounge of his hotel in Pienza the afternoon after the lunch scene wraps. He’s in shorts and a T-shirt from the trendy Williamsburg pizza place Leo. He’s wearing a dog-tag necklace with a thick metal chain that looks similar to the one Kendall wears during the lunch scene. Are they the same? “This is my necklace,” he clarifies. “That was my other necklace. But the necklace is the same, yeah.” (On the show, Kendall’s necklace was a gift, a callback to his hip-hop obsession, designed by the artist Rashid Johnson; Strong’s has his daughters’ names and birthdays etched on it.)
They’re his, they’re Kendall’s, they’re his and Kendall’s. You can see the overlap between the actor and the character; they share a similar intensity. But whereas Strong is hyperspecific and cerebral and speaks in long, uninterrupted monologues, Kendall has a well-written hyperinarticulateness. Strong reads voraciously before the show resumes each season to get more into character. “Jesse and I talked a lot about The Crack-Up, the F. Scott Fitzgerald book, before we started,” he says. The essay collection, published in 1945, is about the author’s fame, addictions, and breakdowns. “There’s this passage about how he feels himself standing on an empty range with the targets down with smoke coming out of the barrel, shots fired, and nothing but the sound of his own breathing,” Strong says. “That sense of having done the thing, the emotional event that, in a lot of ways, my life has been building up to.” Kendall has defied his father and fashioned himself as a victor. But now he’s left feeling like a loose live wire. “There’s this almost sense of Now what?” Strong says.
Kendall brings to mind what Gwyneth Paltrow once said about Ben Affleck: He’s got a lot of complication, and he makes life tough for himself. Strong considers the comparison. “I don’t know that that’s untrue of myself in some ways, too,” he says. “I don’t think he’s a masochist, but he seeks out a kind of difficulty. I often find myself, when I’m doing this, in a pretty anguished place.” Take being in Tuscany. “It’s interesting because, of course, it’s a dream to be working here, but you’re trying to walk in the shoes of these guys [who have] a desensitization to things that you or I might feel,” Strong says. “I don’t want to presume that you think it’s beautiful, but you know what we might be wowed by.” He seems to hope that I clocked the way he didn’t take any pictures of the view from the Pienza restaurant. “Instead, I’m trying to see it like the Marcy stop on the J/M/Z,” he continues. “We’ve been here a million times. We’ve been everywhere.” He asks if I’ve read a Rolling Stone article published last summer about “terminal decadence.” I haven’t. “I feel like there’s an internal component of that, which is everything kind of turning to ash in your hands, all this opulence.”
I mention that Braun called Strong Succession’s “concierge,” the one always excited by finding new places to wine and dine. How does he square that with keeping his distance? He shifts in his seat. “No, listen, I mean … Thanks, Nick.” He blushes. He insists, ultimately, that it’s different. During production, he prefers keeping himself — and by extension, Kendall — in the straitjacket of detachment. He thinks it helps.
Part of what keeps the show humming is that the writers are intrigued by the actors; the strange sexual entanglement between Roman and Gerri, for instance, was inspired by an offhand moment between longtime friends Culkin and Smith-Cameron, who were playfully flirting onscreen. Armstrong likes playing to the actors’ natural strengths; the actors feel the glow of his observation. Others seem keyed into parallels too. “Kieran can be a bit of a snarky bitch sometimes,” Jon Schwartz, the show’s boisterous assistant costume designer, says with a good-natured laugh. “Sometimes Greg is kooky; Nick Braun is kooky.” Braun is perhaps trying to push past that read of his character. During one scene at Cetinale, Greg is positioned between two women he’s trying to please in opposing ways. To one, he is his sweet, adorable self; to the other, he sarcastically remarks that one of the guests, who has been married three times, is a “slut.” It’s a moment of ad-lib finished off with an awkward chuckle, but it feels wrong coming out of both Braun’s and Greg’s mouth. The actor audibly groans, as if he’s embarrassed that he tried the joke. I ask him about it a few days later. “Sometimes, when they leave the camera rolling, I just let stuff come out,” he says. “Part of my brain is trying to calibrate how Greg evolves — if he becomes not so good, if some of Roman rubs off on him.” He played with the idea throughout the day. Greg, the fan-favorite outsider, has been embedded with the Roys for three years now. What effect have they had on him? “Sometimes you’ve got to go too far to know.”
Culkin is the only actor to add substantial improvs — his perfectly pitched “Really?” or “Fuck off” that can be the highlight of a tightly scripted scene. When a day of shooting is done, Culkin says he walks out the door still armed with Roman’s zingers. “Except it’s me,” he says. “So it’s not that funny. I just can’t shut up.” The Romanness is hard to turn off. “If it’s been a big day, I’m kind of antsy. I’m talking really fast. If I’m out with people, it’s still okay. It’s a nice segue,” Culkin continues. “But sometimes, when I come home, my wife is tired. She’s trying to be polite, and she wants to hear about my day but I won’t shut the hell up. She’s like, ‘I’m trying to watch Bob’s Burgers and go to sleep.’ ”
Succession sees family as a pressure cooker; a big set piece is where some of those pressures explode. Shiv’s season-one wedding ended with a waiter in a body bag. The gathering at Cetinale only looks like an immaculately groomed détente. “You kids, you cook up nothing into something,” Marcia coolly reassures Shiv later in the afternoon. “Relax.” Armstrong likes that line. It gets at the permanent state of discomfort the characters are in, the way family and love tangle with money and power. Is Shiv right to worry? Is Marcia assuaging her or putting her off the scent of a scheme? “She’s saying, ‘Oh, you kids don’t need to worry,’ ” says Armstrong. “ ‘You’re cooking something up which doesn’t need to be cooked up.’ ” But this is Succession — everyone should worry.
It’s nearing nightfall on the last day of the Cetinale shoot, and it’s finally cooling down. The party band is playing “Mack the Knife,” and the Italian extras masquerading as posh, drunk guests thrash around on the dance floor. The camera is on Macfadyen, standing at the edge of the commotion and taking a phone call. His face cycles through shock, confusion, dismay, and then … greed? Macfadyen can modulate his performance by degrees. “Let’s do 10 percent more surprised,” Mylod asks, and the actor delivers. Where other actors wax poetic about the show, for Macfadyen, the job is as simple as hitting his marks. “When you’ve got good writing, it is [that easy]. If you overcomplicate things, you get scared and stuck. You think, What’s the answer? Nobody knows the answer.”
Macfadyen and Braun have an intimate conversation together next. The setup is the last of the night, and it’s Braun’s final day on set. They run the sequence a few times, growing increasingly loose and silly as the night goes on. Tom is married to Shiv, but Greg is his real partner on the show. (When I asked costume designer Michelle Matland about pulling everyone’s looks, she said Tom’s suit was selected to complement Greg’s clothing, not Shiv’s.) A pair of charming Italian 20-somethings playing waiters are in the background, playfully whipping each other with cloth napkins. “This scene is becoming just about those waiters,” Armstrong muses. Roche laughs in agreement, thinking back to what happened at the end of season one: “They should be careful.” When they finish the scene, Braun finds his way to the center of the dance floor with the extras. He does a little Tuscan dougie. Mylod announces the day is wrapped, and Macfadyen charges into the center of the crowd to embrace Braun.
Next week, the setups will be more intimate, with lengthy, dense scenes between pairs. It will all happen indoors — no heat to escape from and no views to enjoy, or resist enjoying, either. Dad’s on the call sheet, and he’s scheming, as usual. “It’s a game for him,” Cox tells me. “And in a way, the kids never understand it is a game. They’ve always taken it too seriously.” It’s maybe a game for the actor, too. Cox doesn’t live in character the way Strong does or need a few hours to slip out of it like Culkin. He is beginning to feel the strain of filming. He tried to turn the time in Italy into a vacation, but he was hot and fussy. “I like to make the effort,” he says of sightseeing with his family, “but I end up getting bad-tempered because I’ve got this Sword of Damocles hanging over my head: the show.” Tomorrow night, he has a nine-page scene to shoot. “I’m a little bit tired of it all,” he says, waving his hand at the Tuscan countryside. He chuckles. “I’ve loved it, but it’s just gone on a bit too long. I’m dying for a change of view. Just to see something other than these … cypress trees all over the place.”