'Succession' Star Breaks Down That Season 2 Premiere Bombshell: "The Tables Are Turned"

Sarah Snook describes her surprise at landing a more pivotal role on the HBO show and previews how long Shiv Roy will be able to keep a secret: "She doesn't know how not to be a bull in the china shop sometimes."
Peter Kramer/HBO
Sarah Snook in season two of 'Succession.'

[This story contains major spoilers from the premiere of Succession season 2.]

Leave it to Succession's Logan Roy to publicly dangle the future leadership of his media empire in front of his sons, only to swerve left and secretly make his daughter his heir.

That bait-and-switch formed the dramatic climax of Sunday's season two premiere of the wicked HBO family drama, which kicked off with the return of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) to the family business once he publicly disavows his previous attempt to take over his father's conglomerate, Waystar Royco. Faced with investors losing confidence in the future of his company — Kendall painted his father as an incompetent leader in the first season — Logan (Brian Cox) decides to stage a summit at his "summer palace" to name one of his children his successor and regain control. Each child is commanded to advise Logan on whether to resist or accept an investor takeover; and while both Kendall and Roman (Kieran Culkin) have been sparring for their father's affections in the office since the first season, his final, closed-door consultation with his one child outside of the business, political adviser Shiv (Sarah Snook), proves to be the most successful. She advises her father on resisting a takeover and is secretly crowned his successor (Roy promises to announce the promotion at a later date).

The revelation creates a much more pivotal role for Snook, who demonstrated her family's cutthroat instincts in the first season of Jesse Armstrong's show but ultimately seemed more destined for politics than Murdoch-like leadership. It also sets up deepening tensions with her new husband, Tom (Matthew McFadyen), a sycophantic middle manager at Waystar Royco who has ambitions for a much larger leadership role, and her brothers, with whom Shiv sparred mostly amiably in the first season. "Shiv is often sidelined for the sake of them, and so when the tables are turned, they don't like a taste of their own medicine," Snook says now.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter before the season two premiere, Snook explained the significance of Shiv's entry into the family business, how she prepared for her emotional, climactic premiere scene with Cox and what's in store for her character in the rest of the season.

To start off, tell me a little bit about what your immediate reaction was to reading the script for the season two premiere.

It's always exciting, really, to get re-engaged with the characters and see where Jesse [Armstrong, the showrunner] and the writers are going to take them in this new season. It was pretty exciting to see what direction Shiv is taking in the first episode already and the conflict that that sets up about whether she will remain in politics or become fully invested and put two feet into the family business.

How unexpected for you was the revelation that Shiv would be chosen as the heir to the Roy business? Did you ever suspect that might be the case?

Originally, I [thought that might happen] when I got the role back in 2016, when we were shooting the pilot, but in conversations with Jesse, he quite explicitly said that Shiv doesn't want to be in the business, doesn't want to take over, that's not something she's looking for. I was like, "Oh, that's completely not what I thought, but OK, you're the writer, you know what's up, so I guess I'll not be invested in that idea." And so then when I came back for season two and that idea came crashing down, I was like "Wow. That's pretty cool."

The premiere hinges on a pivotal scene between you and Brian Cox. Tell me a little bit about what it took to get it right.

For me, I was terrified. It was an amazingly well-written scene and it's quite a pivotal moment  for my character and I obviously wanted to do it justice. I wanted to do the scene and [feared] the creatives, like Jesse and Mark [Mylod, the premiere's director], would be like, "You know what, I don't think she's ready for this storyline, maybe we should rewrite" and take the whole thing in a different direction. So I spent a whole lot of time fretting and ended up putting that into learning the lines, and deciding what she wanted in terms of objectives. And then by the time we got to that day, I just forgot it all and just listened to Brian and focused on being in the scene and in that world.

Did you end up doing any improvisation for the scene and if so, what was that?

We certainly did quite a lot of that. Mark works in a way in which we will do a certain amount of takes with this setup with cameras and then once we feel we've got the scene, we'll do a freebie with that setup and then move the cameras around. And to be honest, you've seen more than I have, so I don't know what's made the final cut and how they decided to end the scene, how far they've taken it: there were various iterations of the ending of that scene. Some of them ended more of an eternal, very touching family moment, and others it was a little more transactional, so I don't know what they decided to go for in the final cut of the episode.

Jesse Armstrong has said in interviews that the Succession cast has input on the script. Did you provide any on the season's premiere?

Only insofar as asking where things are going for Shiv in the upcoming season. I think certainly in discussions of what Jesse has planned for Shiv and what we feel is the desired direction, I guess. That's the really great thing about Jesse as a showrunner: He's so open to collaboration and to alternate possibilities, seeing other sides to the person, that you may not have considered. Whether that makes the script or edit is different, but it always feels like a very smooth [process].

Looking ahead, how is Shiv's new knowledge that her father has seemingly picked her to run the business going to change her dynamic with her brothers?

That's a really tricky one for her to have to navigate because she's not allowed to tell anybody and so desperately, of course, wants to. Finally it all really does come out, but it drives a bit of a wedge between them all where the brothers feel that they were sidelined. It's interesting, because for the most part I would say Shiv is often sidelined for the sake of them, and so when the tables are turned, they don't like a taste of their own medicine. It poses difficulties for not just her and her brothers, but her and Tom as well.

Along those lines, in the season-one finale, Shiv told Tom that she had an affair and they still got married. How will the effects of that revelation show up this season?

It's kind of a slow boil, I think, which is smart as well. Jesse's really interested in all the subtleties of human interaction and what those textures are. I think if we were maybe more inclined for a soapy pursuit of story then that would be front-and-center, but Jesse's class and taste in constructing a storyline, we encountered that relatively softly, I guess, but it's always simmering. Eventually by [episode] 10, things blow up a bit.

How has Shiv's more pivotal role in the business this season changed your experience on set? Is it fun to the play the boss-to-be?

Oh, yeah, definitely. I feel like Shiv was always doing that anyway: That's her MO. She doesn't know how not to be a bull in the china shop sometimes. The thing that I've been most interested in exploring are the ways in which Shiv and Logan are similar and how you can't escape being your father's daughter sometimes, and how long that lasts — that's been fun to play with, that dynamic.

What are we going to learn about Shiv this season that we didn't know previously?

I guess it's hinted at previously in episode 10 in season one, but we definitely get more of a sense of there having been a past where Shiv was maybe a little bit less in control of her emotions or feelings. There's been a situation in the past where she's been out of sorts and that both Logan and Tom were aware of. There's a history of something that's happened.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.