Sarah Snook on Succession's final season, the joy of playing a 'b-tch' and marrying her best friend

Snook on Shiv Roy: ‘There are aspects of Shiv that I can say are a little bit like me, but I don’t want to be like her’ - Alexi Lubomirski / @alexilubormirski / @august_image
Snook on Shiv Roy: ‘There are aspects of Shiv that I can say are a little bit like me, but I don’t want to be like her’ - Alexi Lubomirski / @alexilubormirski / @august_image

People love Shiv. ‘You lucky bitch,’ said my friend, when I mentioned I was going to New York to interview Sarah Snook, who plays her in the hit HBO series Succession. What’s so lovable about a character whom even one of her creators has called ‘a flawed, monstrous nightmare’? It’s her pale hair, her razor-sharp retorts, her sidelong looks, her stealth-wealth wardrobe, her strangely expressive face and manipulative ways. She’s ‘Shiv f—king Roy’ and she embodies one of the delightfully unpredictable elements that run through the heart of Succession – the fact that despite being a woman, she doesn’t turn out to have a heart of gold.

‘I actually think Shiv is an incredibly difficult part to play. In the wrong hands she could seem like a stone-cold bitch,’ says co-executive producer Georgia Pritchett, also one of the show’s team of writers. ‘But Sarah’s performance is so layered – she manages to bring such vulnerability to the part, it makes the character and her relationships much richer and more interesting.’

And here is Sarah Snook, on a sunny winter’s day, as herself – sitting in a low-key café eating banana bread, cheery and open, wearing a T-shirt and black trousers, her hair shoved into a baseball cap, her feet in a pair of ancient Blundstones which, she shows me, have a hole in them. They were the boots she wore to her wedding, two years ago, in her garden in Brooklyn. In the snow. She married Dave Lawson, her best friend. (Last week she revealed at the Succession premiere in New York that the couple are expecting their first child; at the time of our interview Snook is still keeping that personal plot twist to herself). More of that later. First we need to discuss that terrible TV series she’s in.

Shiv is the only daughter of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the craggy, brutal, big-cardigan-wearing billionaire owner of US media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco, who’s spent almost 30 episodes of the expletive-laden, Shakespearean drama winding his children up and playing them off against each other. Succession is compelling because it’s so wildly well written, and because the characters are so bad and the actors so good. The first three seasons accrued 48 Emmy nominations and 13 wins, including two nominations for Snook.

Snook as Shiv in Succession with Brian Cox as Logan Roy - Home Box Office
Snook as Shiv in Succession with Brian Cox as Logan Roy - Home Box Office

But season four, which begins on Monday March 27, will be the last. ‘I’ve never thought this could go on for ever,’ its (British) creator Jesse Armstrong said last month. ‘The end has always been kind of present in my mind.’

When I meet Snook, she is about to finish filming that season, after nine months spent mostly in New York but also in ‘an exotic location’. There are, she hints, some tasty surprises to look forward to. ‘We knew from the read-through of the last episode that it would be the final series; however the way the episode ends, a number of the cast felt that it was left somewhat ambiguous,’ is all she’ll say.

Season three ended on a cliffhanger, with Shiv and her siblings showing an unprecedented united front to scupper the deal their father was about to make: to finally sell off Waystar Royco. Their plan was to use their supermajority to stop the sale, and run the company together. When they arrived to confront him, they were thwarted by Logan, who announced that they no longer had the power to do so – their mother had sold them out. Shiv provided the perfect postscript: ‘We just walked in on Mom and Dad f—king us.’

When Shiv then saw her father pat her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) on the shoulder, it became clear that she had been betrayed by the one person she trusted. The last shot was of Shiv looking broken before she gathered herself.

‘Sarah has this wonderful gift of keeping a tight lid on the volcanic emotions underneath,’ says Macfadyen, ‘so to watch her trying to keep that lid on is riveting… I think especially brilliantly when she sees Tom and Logan briefly connect at the end of the last episode. Sarah’s face is a mask of shock, nausea, terrible rage and the effort of controlling it all.’

‘Sarah is highly, highly virtuosic,’ says Succession writer Lucy Prebble (the British co-creator of I Hate Suzie and other great things). ‘She’s the kind of actor who can do anything… You never have to hit the narrative too much because you know she can do it with her face.’

So that’s where we are. And Snook is not going to tell me any spoilers, except that the Roy family dynamic has completely changed.

Over the course of five years we have watched Shiv blossom from her first incarnation as a straggly haired, seemingly reasonable Democrat – who was essentially detached from her father’s empire – into a sibling who is as grasping and treacherous as her brothers. Shiv is short for Siobhan – but also a slang term for a knife, usually a switchblade.

Snook laughs. ‘I think people find something empowering about her being such a bitch – well, she’s not a bitch, but… she is a bitch. They find her seeming lack of empathy and the way she’s pursuing her dreams quite empowering. I like that about Shiv. She’s complex because she’s human, not because she’s a woman.’

Though she is inevitably judged more harshly because of that. ‘You have a toddler with a hard-on for chief operating officer [her brattish brother Roman, played by Kieran Culkin] and I’m going through a management training programme?’ Shiv says to her father in season two, after he suggests she needs years of coaching before taking over.

‘You’re a young woman with no experience,’ he hisses back at her.

‘A woman. That’s a minus.’

‘Well of course it’s a f—king minus,’ he replies. ‘I didn’t make the world.’

With Kieran Culkin (left, as Roman) and Matthew Macfadyen (Tom) - Home Box Office
With Kieran Culkin (left, as Roman) and Matthew Macfadyen (Tom) - Home Box Office

Incredibly, Snook, 35, originally turned down the part of Shiv – she wasn’t even going to read for it. ‘Based on a number of things – I wasn’t entirely enamoured with the character, I didn’t foresee how I could play her, and didn’t love being the only female in a sea of white men in business suits. I wondered what avenue of storytelling there would be for her. I thought, what am I doing, going for this role? It’s not me, I don’t know that world, I don’t like those kinds of characters, how do I play this? I was OK with the idea of it going away.’ But she was very intrigued by the script and wanted to know what would happen.

What changed her mind on the role?

She laughs. ‘They came back and offered more money! I mean I had a career at that point, in Australia; I wasn’t a household name, but I had a career I was proud of and I had done a few things in America as well – I presumed they already had a named actor and were using me as a bargaining chip, but that might be my subconscious talking.’

It wasn’t until halfway through the first season, she says, that she stopped feeling like an imposter. ‘That creeping doubt and feeling like a fraud and not yet at the career level where I was feeling confident. I imagine other people felt like that too. But by episode five I thought, they can’t reshoot now, it would be too expensive.’

Back in 2021 when I interviewed Kieran Culkin, he told me that the Succession cast members least like their characters are Macfadyen and Snook.

‘I agree with that,’ nods Snook. ‘There’s an element of Roman in Kieran – he’s Kieran times 1,000 per cent. Kieran is not Roman but they share an unfiltered quality which he’s allowed to indulge, which works very well for the character.

‘There are aspects of Shiv that I can say are a little bit like me, but I don’t want to be like her. She’s confident in that she’s able to walk into a room [full of men] with an air of “I’m allowed to be here” – I appreciate that quality, and I don’t think it’s an easy thing to acquire.’

Tom Wambsgans – who is as inept and uncouth as his name suggests – seems an unlikely husband for the ambitious Shiv. What did she see in him? ‘She has a vision of what she’d like her life to look like and he fitted into that well, and he’s very malleable and was always going to be subordinate to her. But I think she’s not unaware that he’s an asshole. That was probably what was attractive to her in the first place.’

Meanwhile, Shiv’s carefully crafted image has been dissected by fans as enthusiastically as her marriage. There is an Instagram account dedicated to her wardrobe, which tends towards cream cashmere and gold jewellery. ‘I don’t dress like her at all,’ Snook says. ‘Shiv would have a stylist and someone who buys all her stuff for her each season.’

Nonetheless, Snook has sequestered some bits from Shiv’s wardrobe for herself. ‘A few items – they’re difficult to wear because you can tell that’s a Shiv piece of clothing. Maybe I’ll wear them in a few years’ time.

‘But it’s been nice to have some knowledge – how to shop for something that looks good on you, or how to tailor to make something look better on you. It definitely hasn’t changed my style but it’s changed my attention to it.’

Of course Snook is now stamped indelibly on the viewing public’s mind as Shiv – is she worried about typecasting? ‘Yes and no. That could happen but dwelling on it wouldn’t help. I know that I’m capable of other characters – I see myself more as a character actor than a leading woman, or hopefully, the unicorn of both. I would prefer to be doing something other than Shiv-type roles.’

She already has a theatre project lined up in London next summer. ‘I can’t say what it is but it’s extremely exciting. I really want to do it. Because I grew up with theatre: none of my family are professional actors, but we all have a dramatic and adventurous streak, we’re all actors of some sort. My mum travelled around Papua New Guinea in the 1970s, an aunt sailed the world and another aunt hitchhiked through Afghanistan.’

Snook herself grew up in the south of Adelaide – a city, she says, that feels like a country town – in the hills, next to a national park. Her parents split up when she was 11 and she moved north with her mother and stepfather when she was 14. Her dad lives in Perth now – he sells swimming pools – and her mum back in Adelaide. She has two sisters who are 10 and six years older.

Snook in 2015 film The Dressmaker - TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo
Snook in 2015 film The Dressmaker - TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

Snook was the ‘drama kid’, always wanting to perform, and she got a scholarship to a high school with a good drama programme. She then went to NIDA, Australia’s most prestigious performing-arts school, in Sydney (Cate Blanchett is also an alumna), and after graduating she mostly did theatre. In 2014 she appeared in Predestination, a sci-fi thriller, with Ethan Hawke, playing male and female versions of the same character (‘I had a ball making that,’ she says, ‘and am very proud of it’); the following year in The Dressmaker with Kate Winslet.

There was also Steve Jobs (2015) and a significant part in Black Mirror. In 2016, she appeared on stage in London in The Master Builder, with Ralph Fiennes. Recently she has made the harrowing film Pieces of a Woman (2020) alongside Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf, and last year the horror Run Rabbit Run. Early in her film career, she lost out on being hired for ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ to Rooney Mara, but says now that she wasn’t ready for it anyway. ‘I have a very ‘such is life’ attitude to things. I roll with the punches.’

In 2020, Snook found herself locked down in Melbourne, playing the ukulele and watching Below Deck and First Dates with actor/comedian Dave Lawson. They had been friends for six years but it wasn’t until the pandemic that anything romantic happened. ‘We got stuck in a house together and we just sort of fell in love’ – she smiles, taking a sip of matcha tea – ‘and amidst all the chaos of the world outside, we realised how much fun we were having despite that.

‘Also I saw some vulnerability in him that I’d never seen – because we’d just not been in those circumstances before, we’d never shared hard times, it’s always been buoyant times – and we found that we actually worked well together with all those difficult conversations about what’s going on in the world, how to navigate? And he’s got a kid, so how do you parent together, and all those kinds of things.’

Since they met, one or both of them had previously always had a partner. ‘And when our relationship started, it was so friendship-based – it was very much taboo for that to cross over… A lot of my friends in high school were men, and throughout my 20s too, and I would never cross that line. If we’re friends, we’re friends.’

Snook with husband Dave Lawson at the Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Awards in 2021 - James Peltekian
Snook with husband Dave Lawson at the Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Awards in 2021 - James Peltekian

Snook proposed on Halloween 2020 (‘Nothing spooky, it just turned out that way’). They got married the following February, with ‘just my housemates and the celebrant and a photographer, and a friend and partner who were our witnesses’. Snook wore her ‘Blunnies – and black pants, a black shirt I got in London from some high-street store and a really lovely vintage Chloé velvet jacket, which ended up looking amazing as it was snowing in the background’.

An incredible thing, to marry your best friend. ‘I know! I know! It’s still such a shock and surprise for us really, and we still get a kick out of it.’

She recently bought a home in Brooklyn, but they mostly live just outside Melbourne, ‘which is lovely. I like the culture and the rough-and-readiness… I’ve got a garden and some land to roam around on – it’s nice to have a little bit of bush land, and we have kangaroos and wombats and koalas – it feels very Australian when I’m there.’ She told Vogue Australia in 2021 that she had been ‘chainsawing and chopping wood to keep in shape’.

‘Sarah’s very grounded and she’s heroic on set,’ says Prebble. ‘The Ginger Rogers cliché applies. Sarah does it all, and she does it backwards in high heels. Sometimes literally. That scene in the dust in Italy at the end of season three took hours and hours to shoot. Sarah could barely see. She had to crouch in a tight dress in high heels in a small dust storm over and over again. She deserves every bit of acclaim and more.’

‘That was such a difficult scene to shoot,’ says Snook, of the moment when Shiv’s brother Kendall breaks down in front of her and Roman under the beating Italian sun. ‘It was hot, windy, dusty, and my eye gave out – it was some sort of allergic reaction to the dust – it was a lot.’

They filmed it many different ways; they get a lot of freedom on set. ‘Jesse is such a good leader,’ says Snook. ‘He’s the anti-navigator – he knows what he wants but he’s not bullish, he’s open to hearing everybody’s ideas. What you contribute on set is valued.’

In sci-fi thriller Predestination (2014) - Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
In sci-fi thriller Predestination (2014) - Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

She found this element difficult at first. ‘I wasn’t used to improvisation and I had never done long-running episodic TV but soon found a lot of freedom in it. We use it to feed the reality of the scene – it’s not just, let’s throw s—t at the walls and see what sticks.

‘We’re such a well-oiled machine now, and we trust each other and the creatives in terms of the script and the rhythms of the scenes so that there’s really a fluid basketball game going on. Hopefully it comes across in the performance. It’s taught me so much. I’m a much better actor now than I was before – in terms of confidence and ability.’

Sounds like it would be intimidating for a new cast member to join. ‘I wouldn’t envy that position, because sometimes we don’t rehearse and if you’re doing a scene with Jeremy [Strong, who plays the tortured Kendall] by himself he will specifically ask not to rehearse, so if it goes straight on to film that would be enormously intimidating. But hopefully we’re a very welcoming cast and crew – we don’t have any wankers on set.’

Much has been made of Strong’s very severe, immersive approach to acting, and Brian Cox’s impatience with it (‘Oh, it’s f—king annoying. Don’t get me going on it,’ the Scottish actor recently said). ‘Jeremy has his process,’ is how Pritchett puts it. ‘And I don’t think any of us can question that when he delivers such an incredible performance. Everyone has their own way of working. We all just want the show to be as good as possible.’

Snook singles out Culkin’s skill at improvisation: ‘He wasn’t used to it to start with because of his background in theatre. But once he started he ran away with it. He described it as a dessert that he didn’t know was all-you-can-eat – and once he did, he just kept going. He can dance around and come out with some amazing things, or even be in the background and lob in a line because it makes sense to him. He is so naughty. Matthew breaks the easiest, and Matthew and Nick [Braun, who plays cousin Greg] are terrible together – they make each other laugh so much, it’s joyous to watch.’

Snook already has a theatre project lined up in London next summer - Alexi Lubomirski / @alexilubormirski / @august_image
Snook already has a theatre project lined up in London next summer - Alexi Lubomirski / @alexilubormirski / @august_image

Having spent half a decade together – on and off – the Succession team are close. As Pritchett says, ‘It takes nine months to film a series so the cast have developed very deep friendships.’

They have a Succession supper club in New York, Snook tells me. She will miss them. Which character, I ask, would she most like to be marooned with on a desert island? ‘Hmm. In real life? Definitely Matthew – he’s just so easy to get along with. He’s lovely. But from the series? Greg is tall enough to reach the coconuts. Logan would probably have some amazing sort of satellite phone and be able to get us off. Oh – actually, Colin. Definitely Colin. Logan’s bodyguard.’

They’ve all become a bit obsessed with Colin, says Pritchett, and think he should have his own spin off show. 'But I'm tempted to say Roman,' she says, when I ask her the same question. ‘Because he’d be such fun, but he’d probably skin me and eat me and then have sex with my head. So I think I’ll choose Gerri because she’d work out how to get us off the island and make us an incredible martini while we waited.’

'I’m going to miss our Tom/Shiv world hugely,' says McFadyen. 'Sarah is just the best to jump into a scene with – prepared and playful, full of heart, truth, fire, wit. I trust her completely.'

As soon as shooting finishes, Snook is heading back to Australia, and to her husband. She can't wait to go back, she says, although she loves New York. What has she had to give up, as a result of Succession? ‘Dancing,’ she says. ‘And privacy. Going dancing is something I value a lot but I haven’t been able to do that much – go to a club or a bar, think, oh that’s a great song, and just get up and dance. It’s as much because of Covid as anything else – because if any of us got it, filming would be delayed, so you can’t go out and put yourself at risk.’

It’s also the surreptitious filming people do with their phones. ‘That’s a new thing to navigate. And I guess we implicitly agree to that in society – if we’re on TV, then that changes the rules.’

The banana bread is finished and Snook has to go and meet a man who is coming to fix her boiler. She pulls down her baseball cap and trots off, looking for all the world as if she is part of the 99.9 per cent – or as any of the entitled Roy family might put it, Not a Real Person.

The final season of Succession is available exclusively from Monday March 27 on Sky Atlantic and Now