'Succession' cast dishes on key moments and, true to the show, one another

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The Emmy-nominated "Succession" actors, top row from left, Kieran Culkin, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong; bottom row, Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Snook and Nicholas Braun. (Jennifer S. Altman / Béatrice de Géa / Christopher Polk / Jennifer S. Altman / Alex Vaughan / Jay L. Clendenin)

Emmy nominations come with little downside. OK, maybe there's one minor drawback. Nominees must choose one episode from the season to submit to voters, which, for a show like "Succession," can make for some daunting decision-making, not to mention a viewing marathon that often leads to bruising bouts of self-doubt.

"I skimmed through the season and went into a tailspin, thinking, 'Why did I even get nominated?'" says Sarah Snook, one of six "Succession" actors to earn an Emmy nomination for the show's acclaimed second season. Joining her: Brian Cox, Matthew Macfadyen, Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun and Jeremy Strong.

"I just assumed voters watched the whole show," Culkin says. "After I submitted my episode, part of me was like, my wife's going to ask, 'Is that the one where you jerk off in the bathroom?' 'Yes.' 'OK, so you basically said to Emmy voters, "Watch me jerk off."' He laughs. "You know, I didn't even think about that."

"Asking me to choose, I felt a little compromised," Cox says. He mocks the question, adopting an inane tone. "What was your favorite episode?" Cox groans. "Well, I liked them all really."

And who can blame him? There wasn't a bad one in the bunch. We phoned the show's Emmy nominees, asking them to explain their choices, dish on their castmates' selections and maybe throw a little playful shade. (Strong declined to participate.)

Brian Cox stars as family patriarch Logan Roy.
Brian Cox stars as family patriarch Logan Roy. (BŽeatrice de GeŽa/For the Times)

BRIAN COX

Cox recently returned to London from upstate New York, where he had been quarantining. "It's all a bit overwhelming," he says of England. "Overwhelming and underwhelming. I thought America was bad, but no one seems to wear masks here. Human beings. What a disappointing experiment."

His role: Logan Roy, founder and chief executive of media and entertainment empire Waystar Royco, family patriarch and "Boar on the Floor" authority.

His Emmy episode: "Hunting," the season's third episode, in which Logan takes the family on a Hungarian hunting trip and then initiates a panic-inducing game called "Boar on the Floor" to learn how everyone really feels about his idea to take over a rival media company.

His reasoning: "I kind of chickened out," Cox says. "I sent ['Succession' creator] Jesse [Armstrong] an email, and he gave me a choice of three episodes, and I said probably 'Boar on the Floor.' I hate to be vainglorious, but that's the one where Logan gets his rocks off. Now, we don't want to see him get his rocks off too often. He needs to be a much cannier person and not show his lining too much. But this episode ... when I read it, I told the writer, Tony Roche, 'This is something really dangerous, really daring. And if we pull it off, it's great. But it's going to be tough.' We were both nervous about it."

The hunting trip is supposed to be a company morale-booster ("It's a very Presbyterian morale booster," says Cox, laughing), but it goes horribly wrong when Logan, fed up with what he sees as family treachery, begins bullying everyone, demanding honesty and making those who fail his test oink like pigs and grovel for sausages.

Cox believes Logan has played "Boar" a few times. "Tactically, he does it to shake people out of their complacency. Logan loves his children, but it's complicated. I have teenage children, and one is always conflicted in relationship to one's children. You love them, but sometimes you don't like them."

A second opinion: "When we were doing it, it was awful, but I couldn't tell if it was as awful as we were hoping it would be," Culkin says of shooting "Boar on the Floor." "I kept going to the script supervisor, asking, 'What does it look like?' She says, 'It's really awful. Trust me. I hate filming this.' But I left the set that night still unsure if we did it. Then I watched it and thought, 'Yes, that's the right level of awful. I can't be in this room any more. Please cut to the next scene.'"

"Succession" actor Kieran Culkin
Kieran Culkin stars as youngest son Roman Roy on "Succession." (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

KIERAN CULKIN

Culkin has spent the quarantine with his wife and their 11-month-old daughter in their 600-square-foot, one-bedroom New York apartment. "I'm climbing the walls a little bit," Culkin says. "I'm getting fat and wrinkly, and my skin is sallow and gray because it hasn't seen sunlight, and I eat frozen sausages all day. But when my baby girl smiles at me, when she spits her cucumber all over my shirt, I'm like, 'You are the most amazing thing in the world.' It's great."

His role: Roman Roy, the family's youngest son, "widely known as a horrible person" but also kind of endearing and self-aware.

His Emmy episode: "Tern Haven," where the Roys spend the weekend with the Pierces, a family with its own share of eccentrics, and try to play nice so they'll agree to merge their media companies. Sister Shiv blindsides Roman at dinner, announcing she's Logan's heir apparent. Roman tries to recover by finally having sex with his girlfriend (Caitlin FitzGerald), which goes horribly wrong, leading him to Gerri (J Smith-Cameron) and a charged sexual (?) encounter.

His reasoning: "It's all the same day and a lot happens with Roman from beginning to end," Culkin says. "And I thought it would be good to submit an episode that Nick Braun wasn't in, just for competitive reasons."

Seriously, though, Shiv's announcement feels like a betrayal to Roman, and the awkward sex scene that follows showed Roman at least trying to make a human connection ... in his own way. "It's him reaching out and trying to be human, and I know it's [messed]-up because he's basically saying, 'Pretend to be a corpse or there's no connection,' but that's his way of reaching. He needs to find a way to make it a little less intimate. I don't know. I still haven't figured out his sexuality."

Which brings us to Roman and veteran company executive Gerri, a relationship that Culkin had hoped to develop this season, if only because he has been friends with Smith-Cameron and her husband, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, for years. "I told my wife it'd be really cool to see you and Kenny sitting on the couch and suddenly there's a sex scene between me and Gerri that we didn't tell you about," Culkin says, laughing. "I said that as a joke and then the relationship between the characters grew ... and I'm allergic to this word ... 'organically.'"

A second opinion: "Kieran is so good in that episode," Snook says, "particularly in that scene at the dinner table where Shiv kind of botches the announcement and the room is so filled with tension. The way he crumbles is almost heartbreaking. Almost."

"Succession" actress Sarah Snook.
"Succession" actress Sarah Snook. (Alex Vaughan)

SARAH SNOOK

Snook is on lockdown, again, at home in Melbourne, Australia, meaning she's allowed to leave the house for just an hour a day. "There are fines too for not wearing a mask," she says. "Several hundred dollars, written up on the spot. It's quite wonderful to see them take this seriously."

Her role: The calculating, implacable Siobhan ("Shiv") Roy, who begins "Succession" as a family outsider but spends the second season trying to become its next-generation leader.

Her Emmy episode: "The Summer Palace," the Season 2 premiere that ends with Logan offering Shiv the chief executive job. "This is real," he tells her. "Remember this, this slant of light."

Her reasoning: "Part of it is being in the actual scene where he says, 'Remember this light,' and thinking, 'I will — as Sarah and Shiv,'" Snook says. "That was the first scene I shot once I went back to work on the second season. I'd read the script maybe a week before and thought, 'Wow. Maybe I'm going to be given a lot more to do this season and quite a great, challenging trajectory. How exciting!' But because of that, I felt the pressure to make that thing worthy of its potential fall squarely on my shoulders. I was nervous to do that scene first because I felt like if I blew it, they would reconsider."

That conversation between her and Logan might be the first and only time we see Shiv actually beaming. It's not just that Logan has chosen her. It's that her father is showing her the kind of support and confidence that she has always longed to feel.

"It's 'Little Child Shiv,' that's what I see in that moment," Snook says. "You see how you want them to be as a father and daughter."

A second opinion: "The lovely Sarah, I adore acting with her," Cox says. "I love that scene because you see the tragedy of the whole thing. Her moving into that job would solve the problem. She's his favorite. He's not playing games. She's reckless, though, like her father, and that's not something he's taken into account because he hasn't witnessed it. But he sees it at that dinner with the Pierces. Her timing is atrocious."

Actor Nicholas Braun
Nicholas Braun stars as Cousin Greg on "Succession." (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

NICHOLAS BRAUN

It's a hot and humid summer day in New York, but Braun just got a nice haircut, and he's feeling fresh. ("I had to sign a waiver though," he says. "That was a first.") Despite the thick temperatures, Braun's enjoying his summer. But he's also ready to return to work. "We're raring to go for Season 3," he says. "Give me that deep nasal swab every morning! I'm ready!"

His role: Cousin Greg, the gangly, unassuming, awkward, scheming genius (?) of the family.

His Emmy episode: "This Is Not for Tears," the season finale in which the family debates who will be the public scapegoat (the "blood sacrifice") for the sins of the company's cruise line division.

His reasoning: Greg begins the episode fumbling through his testimony at a congressional hearing ("He did better than Tom," Braun says, "because Tom gave up actual info") before joining the Roys on their yacht. When Greg steps on board, taking a drink from an attendant, Braun says it's easy to see why he stayed with the family. "He started the show smoking weed in his mom's Volvo and getting fired from his first day at work," Braun says. "Now he's in this small circle, and it's exciting and affirming, and he can ask for an iced coffee or a smoothie, and he just gets it, and he's on a boat ... that's livin' the life right there."

After Roman suggests that Greg be paired with Tom on the chopping block ("Tom with some Greg sprinkles"), Greg objects. "I'm more than a sprinkle." Braun says that in one take, he and Culkin kept needling each other, leading to Culkin jumping on his back and an epic wrestling match. "I couldn't get him off me," Braun says. "We should pick it up where we left off at the Emmys."

A second opinion: "Greg is suitably sneaky, and he has his eye on the main chance," Cox says. "He's a main chancer. But he also can't express himself because he's a mummy's boy, and he's far too tall, bless him. He suffers from the most obscene version of the tall poppy syndrome."

"No, he's absolutely a sprinkle," Culkin says.

"Succession" actor Matthew Macfadyen
Matthew Macfadyen stars as Logan Roy's son-in-law on "Succession." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

MATTHEW MACFADYEN

Macfadyen calls from Sicily, Italy, where he's taking a break with wife Keeley Hawes and their kids. It's hot, but he's not complaining because ... he's relaxing on a Mediterranean island. ("He goes on a trip to Italy, and I'm happy that I get a haircut," Braun says. "That's kind of perfect.")

His role: Tom Wambsgans, husband to Shiv, always insecure as a Roy-by-marriage, runs (for now) Waystar Royco's news division.

His Emmy episode: "This Is Not for Tears," the season finale

His reasoning: The episode boasts two indisputably great Tom moments that showcase Macfadyen's comic and dramatic chops. Tom, reeling from his wife agreeing that he might be a decent scapegoat for the company's cruise ship scandal, tells Shiv, "I wonder if the sad I'd be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you." Afterward, they return to the family yacht, where Tom brazenly grabs a piece of chicken from Logan's plate, bites into it and says, "Thank you for the chicken."

"'Shiv called it the 'chicken power play' in a line that was cut," Macfadyen says, laughing. "It didn't make any sense for him to do that, which made it thrilling. Of course, the first time I did it, I took a great big bite from Brian's plate and nearly choked. And Brian lost it. And when Brian goes, it's particularly delicious because that never happens. So I lost it too. And then I made sure to take a smaller bite on the next take."

Of Tom's confronting Shiv, Macfadyen says: "Tom's really repellent at times, but oddly sweet and sympathetic at others. People are like that. And Shiv has let him down, quite brutally all season. He thought they were a team, and now he's hurt, and he's questioning that. It'll be interesting to see what happens with those two."

A second opinion: "Shiv's always known about Tom's ... let's say, 'shortcomings,'" Snook says. "And she'd probably prefer him to be a bit more of a killer. So when he finally does confront her, it makes her think, and I think it also turns her on. The relationship is about to change. And Matthew is absolutely brilliant in that scene."

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