An Inside Look at ‘Succession’s’ Corporate Melodrama With Adam McKay and Kieran Culkin

September 8, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC

Nothing succeeds like Succession when it comes to depicting a family-run media empire roiling with nepotism, incompetence, and betrayal. The first scene of its first season started in a pitch-black closet and culminated with a confused old man urinating on the carpet. Then it got really dark. Nominated for five Emmy Awards including Best Drama, Succession (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO), artfully blends corporate melodrama with wicked wisecracks and Late Capitalism slapstick.

Succession executive producer Adam McKay, the Oscar-winning writer-director of black-humored Wall Street drama The Big Short and last year’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice, directed the series’ pilot episode. “The show dances between these different styles and tones that somehow fit niftily together,” McKay tells Fortune. “That was the plunge we took when we did the pilot: Let’s do a show where the blacks are this black, the darkness is this dark, yet it can also be this funny and this absurd.”

Created by Jesse Armstrong, Succession centers on domineering patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), founder of the Waystar Royco media conglomerate, and his scheming children. McKay, teaming with Armstrong, producer Kevin J. Messick, and casting director Francine Maisler, championed veteran Scottish actor Cox for the role of the cruel but brilliant tycoon, who suffers a stroke at the end of the series’ first episode.

McKay and Culkin on the Roy Family

“Everyone agreed Brian’s a great actor—I’d kill to see him do King Lear—but there was some discussion about letting Logan Roy die in the second episode,” McKay recalls. “But after the first read-through, we realized there’s no way that can happen, because all the other characters orbit around Brian’s mass and his energy.”

McKay lobbied for Jeremy Strong, whom he’d directed in The Big Short, to portray Kendall Roy, presumptive heir to the corporate throne. “Jeremy doesn’t just do one-note,” McKay says. “Sometimes he plays Kendall like he’s a black hole zombie. Other times he cranks his game up a little bit for his dad, and then some moments he’s playing Kendall drunk or on drugs.” In season one, Kendall failed to engineer the ouster of his father, then caused a catastrophic accident. In season two, McKay notes, “Kendall’s dealing with the darkest guilt a person can carry. He’s absolutely crushed, and Logan loves it.”

Australian actress Sarah Snook plays Logan’s witty, calculating daughter Siobhan “Shiv” Roy. McKay says, “Shiv might be the most ice-cold of them all, and she’s maybe smarter than anyone. On paper, she should be the one who gets control of the company and certainly, it’s headed in that direction but you know: Never trust Logan Roy. We’ll see what happens.”

Alan Ruck takes on tone-deaf presidential candidate Connor Roy with British actor Matthew MacFadyen as Shiv’s insecure husband Tom, promoted in season two to run the Roy family’s cable news operation while bullying his goofy protégé Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun).

Succession: Shiv and Roman
Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy and Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in the second episode of “Succession” season one. Culkin tells Fortune: “In real life, I wouldn’t want to get near Roman, but man, is it fun to pretend.”
Peter Kramer/HBO

But the wildest card in the sibling executive deck has to be bratty little brother Roman, portrayed by Kieran Culkin, who serves as Waystar Royco’s profanity-spewing COO. Culkin was initially asked to read for the Cousin Greg role. “I immediately knew I wasn’t right for Greg,” Culkin says. “I kept reading the script just for fun, and Roman walks into the room saying ‘Hey hey motherfuckers!’ Then Roman fires the guy he hired to ‘sage’ the room for Kendall, telling him to fuck off. He doesn’t care. I thought, ‘This guy looks like fun.'”

Culkin picked three scenes from the Succession pilot script, self-taped an audition, and won the role. Speaking by phone from an undisclosed east coast location midway through production on the show’s second season, Culkin says: “I feel like I’m actually a pretty good dude and consider myself to be quite PC, so it’s been weird to play this sociopath who can do and say whatever he wants and never suffers any consequences. In real life, I wouldn’t want to get near Roman, but man, is it fun to pretend.”

‘Succession’s’ Inspirations and Settings

Creator Armstrong modeled Logan Roy and his fictional clan on an amalgamation of media dynasties including the Murdoch, Redstone, Mercer, Sinclair, and Disney families, as well as newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst, U.K. tabloid mogul Robert Maxwell, and Canadian publisher-felon Conrad Black. McKay found additional inspiration in Citizen Kane, Shakespeare, Neil LaBute films, and the Foxcatcher movie loosely inspired by millionaire murderer John Du Pont.

Around the time he started filming Succession, McKay also witnessed nepotism in action following the 2016 election. “It was kind of eerie to see Trump putting his daughter into a position of power in the White House and basically handing foreign policy over to his son-in-law,” he says. “For our opening scene in Succession, we’re in the dark, and we’re confused, and there’s this fear. I think all of that harmonizes on so many levels with things going on in the world.”

Nearly as compelling as the dysfunctional Logan family is the luxurious backdrop against which the characters’ predatory behavior unfolds. Shiv’s season one wedding was filmed at Eastnor Castle in England. Logan’s summerhouse in the Hamptons was originally built in the 1960s for Henry Ford’s grandson. A family banquet scene inspired by Joseph Stalin was shot on Otto Kahn’s Long Island estate as a stand-in for a Hungarian hunting lodge.

McKay says, “We felt it’s important to show these beautiful properties and beautiful meals, and yet for the people in this family, it’s not even worth commenting on because they’re obsessed with much darker ends. We’re not glorifying obscene wealth. If anything, you go ‘Thank god I’m not in this family or on that vacation because it doesn’t look fun. At all.’”

Succession Season 1, Episode 10
The wedding from the first season finale of “Succession.”
Colin Hutton/HBO

In season two, Logan Roy continues to play his children like chess pieces while plotting the acquisition of a rival family-owned news organization headed by Holly Hunter’s Rhea Jarrell. McKay says, “In the next few episodes you’ll see the contrast between Logan Roy’s empire and the Pierce family’s company, which has probably won some Pulitzer prizes and might own a paper like the Washington Post. The relationships between the children as they jockey for power, and then the Logan family going right into the legitimate heart of journalism and trying to buy it. That’s at the center of where we’re headed.”

Renewed last month for a third season, Succession provides a dramatically heightened case study in “behavioral economics,” as McKay sees it. “Corporate structures try to pretend that they’re not influenced by emotions, but they are,” McKay says. “It goes back to character, psychology, the distorted lenses through which every one of us views the world, versus mathematics, versus profits, versus the legal corporate structure. Pretty much every time, it’s going to be animal desire and the individual’s quest for power that ends up taking over. And the nice thing is, as storytellers, that allows us to get into nooks and crannies of the business world that would ordinarily be difficult to dramatize.”

Read Fortune’s ‘Succession’ Season 2 Recaps

Succession S2E5: Money Wins
Succession S2E4: The Gold Rush
Succession S2E3: Takeover Defense
Succession S2E2: Media Matters
Succession S2E1: Blood in the Water
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