Sarah Snook Finds the Success in Succession

·12 min read
Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran


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There’s a lot going on in the teaser trailer for the new season of Succession. Father-son fisticuffs. An FBI raid. Desk flipping. Threats involving poisonous spiders and the grinding up of human bones. But the most intriguing moment belongs to Siobhan “Shiv” Roy, the prodigal daughter who in season two was pulled back, Michael Corleone–style, into a dysfunctional family business just when she thought she was out. Here is Shiv, standing in an office, holding a book and spitting into it.

“It’s brilliant. When I saw that on the page, I was like, ‘Yes!’ ” says Sarah Snook, the Australian actress who plays Shiv. Specifically, she explains, this scene involves the character wreaking vengeance on her brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong) by spritzing his daily planner in saliva after he’s done something awful—exactly what, she won’t say. But the gesture showcases one of the big themes of Succession, which chronicles the Roy family’s struggle to retain control of their conglomerate, Waystar Royco: Billionaires are as petty as the rest of us. “I love that there are these big decisions [the family] make on the macro level, affecting the global business,” she says. “But when you get down to it, it’s just siblings being siblings and spitting.”

Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran

The last time we saw Shiv, the youngest and shrewdest of the four Roy children, was two years ago. She was on a yacht with the family’s cantankerous patriarch, Logan (Brian Cox), watching Kendall self immolate at a televised press conference. Instead of taking the fall for the scandal engulfing Waystar Royco, Kendall summoned his long-suppressed BDE and threw his father under the bus. It was a jaw-dropping cap to a season that began with Logan offering the top job to Shiv, only to yank it away after she abandoned her political career and progressive ideals.

Although Succession is an ensemble piece with complex storylines, the rise and fall—and subsequent rise—of Shiv has long been a dominant thread. Shiv has become a fan favorite because of her fatal flaw: the tendency to shove her foot in her mouth at the worst possible moment. She called for a “dinosaur cull” at Waystar Roycoin front of a packed audience, including the chief dinosaur, her dad. Shiv is a chip off the old Jurassic block, the child who grew up to be most like Logan, and “that’s their tragedy,” says Cox. She knowingly played “good cop, misogynist cop” with her father, using her gender and liberal bona fides to protect the family empire in a #MeToo world. Viewers were drawn to her mix of toughness and vulnerability, her unapologetic sexual voraciousness, and her beautifully tailored wardrobe, accented with delicate jewelry. “Because of Shiv’s confidence and the way she knows herself from having been brought up in this household, she is the anti-bling girl,” says costume designer Michelle Matland.

Too much sparkle could also run the risk of distracting from Snook’s face, which has an ability to express multiple conflicting emotions at once, helping fans root for Shiv even when she’s behaving abominably. “That is why it’s so enjoyable to watch [Snook] playing the role,” says the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong. “Shiv is somebody who’s got a moral compass operating, but sometimes it’s pointing in a different direction than her actions.”

Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran

It’s a Sunday night in August—Monday morning in Australia, where she’s in lockdown at her new home outside Melbourne— and I’m talking to Snook over Zoom. She’s looking cozy in a chunky gray sweater, which I can’t help noticing is not her character’s trademark turtleneck. “I am terrified to wear a turtleneck now,” she says with a laugh. She turns her computer so I can see her living room, where she’s sprawled on the floor in front of a leather sofa. “My husband has just made a fire, which is really lovely,” she says, pointing the camera toward a wood stove situated in front of a huge window.

Excuse me, I think to myself, but did she just say “husband”? I had done my research before speaking to Snook, and there was nothing to suggest that the 33-year-old actress had one. I blurt: When did you get married? “In February,” she says, tousling her ginger hair. So there you have it: Sarah Snook found love amid a global pandemic. Actor Dave Lawson was one of the friends with whom she was living while waiting to begin shooting Succession’s third season. They fell in love and got married, not in a majestic English castle the way Shiv and her husband, Tom Wambsgans, did, but in a tiny backyard ceremony, just for them. “We’re in that very fortunate and strange position,” Snook says, “to be like, ‘Well, fuck this pandemic,’ but also we wouldn’t have had this relationship if it never happened.”

Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran

There’s something simultaneously warm and wise about Snook. Brian Cox, who refers to his onscreen daughter as “Snooky,” says that the tenderness you see between Logan and Shiv can’t be faked. One of the joys of the show, Cox says, is the way the writers have been able to leverage the actors’ own qualities to enhance the story. For Cox it’s the sense of humor he shares with Logan. For Snook it’s her inability to react in a way that doesn’t feel authentic. “Sarah’s got no bullshit about her,” he says. “She’s not all fucked up by her ‘process.’”

POWER DAUGHTERS

All hail those Logan Roy would be lucky—or afraid—to have in his brood.

The youngest of three girls, Snook was raised in Adelaide, Australia, about as far from the world of the Roys as possible—though, coincidentally, Adelaide is where the family of Rupert Murdoch, one of Succession’s inspirations, built its empire. (“I didn’t feel a mystic chord clanging when I realized she came from there, but it was an amusing detail,” Armstrong says.)

Recognizing at a young age that she loved acting, Snook attended a high school with a strong performing arts program and, upon graduating, was accepted by the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art, in Sydney. After completing her studies, she began working regularly in her native country and winning two AACTA Awards, Australia’s version of the Oscars. Predestination, a 2014 sci-fi film in which she starred opposite Ethan Hawke, marked Snook’s first international production. Although the movie flopped at the box office, Snook’s performance as a transgender time traveler put her on the radar of Hollywood casting directors. The following year Snook appeared in back-to-back films alongside Kate Winslet, first in the Australian period piece The Dressmaker and then in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs biopic as no-nonsense Apple publicist Andrea Cunningham.

Watching Snook in Steve Jobs, exuding competence under pressure, you can sense rumblings of that Shiv energy. “Sarah embodied the warmth, the strength, and the femininity that brought [Cunningham] to life in a unique and surprising way,” says casting director Francine Maisler, who cast Snook in Steve Jobs and shortly thereafter offered her the role in Succession.

At first Snook said no. It was a bold move that, ironically, “felt like my first step toward Shiv,” Snook says, adding that while she loved the script, she wasn’t sure she was the right person to play an American heiress. Plus, her management team felt she deserved more money. The producers came back with a better offer, but even after Snook said yes, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all going to fall apart. “I felt like this Antipodean bargaining chip that they were going to use to get a better person.”

Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran

It wasn’t until she was halfway through shooting Succession’s first season that Snook let go of her fears. What changed? Partly, Snook says, she realized it would be too expensive to reshoot everything with a different actress. But the bigger breakthrough came as Snook began leaning into Shiv’s tendency to play her cards close to the vest. Often on the show, while the Roy men are bloviating, Shiv looks on silently, registering disgust, affection, and amusement, sometimes all at once. “There’s a taciturn nature to Shiv where she will observe and sit back, and part of that was just me going, ‘Well, I don’t have the confidence to improv in an American accent right now, so I’ll just stand and watch and have an opinion, but not say it out loud,’ ” she says. “That fit Shiv.”

As Snook says this, I’m baffled that someone who can portray such a self-assured executive has dealt with these insecurities. It underscores the depth of her talent, her ability to shapeshift when the cameras roll. “Shiv can be quite frightening, but Sarah is not like that,” says Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Shiv’s hapless husband, Tom. Armstrong calls Snook “a dynamo of fun and goodwill and good times,” adding that the only similarity between her and her character is their mental acuity.

The first time Armstrong and Snook spoke about Succession’s season three trajectory was in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic. Armstrong had reached Snook in Papua New Guinea, where she was on a surfing vacation. As concerns about the virus intensified, Snook flew back to Melbourne, arriving as Australia was going into its first lockdown. Succession was poised to begin shooting in New York in April, but four days after Snook got home—and after she had sent most of her belongings to New York—everything was postponed indefinitely.

“It was like, ‘Hunker down, find a safe space to wait,’ ” Snook recalls. For the next seven months she lived out of a suitcase, crashing at her friends’ houses. One of those friends was Lawson, who became her husband.

Not only did Snook fall in love, get married, and buy a house while in lockdown, she was nominated for her first Emmy, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama. She attended the 2020 ceremony via Zoom in a sleek black blazer, upswept hair, and full makeup, paired with “I Love New York” pajama shorts and house slippers. On Instagram she posted a photo of herself holding an Emmy statuette that Lawson had sculpted for her out of aluminum foil, so she’d have something to hold in case she won. (Snook tagged Julia Garner, who wound up winning for her role in Ozark, saying that she’d mail the statue to her.)

Season three of Succession, debuting October 17, will pick up where season two left off, with Shiv and Logan reacting to Kendall’s bombshell press conference. The original yacht scene was shot in July 2019, but the season premiere, which supposedly takes place right afterward in Croatia, was filmed two years later in Italy, owing to logistical challenges. Picking up that scene, following such a long gap and in a different country, “was the strangest experience, certainly on the show, and maybe of any work I will ever do,” Snook says.

Photo credit: Graeme Hunter/Warner Media
Photo credit: Graeme Hunter/Warner Media

WHO’S NEXT?

Breaking down the odds for Succession’s hopeful heirs.

As a result of this temporal continuity, we will not see any references to the pandemic in season three. Nor will we see any immediate changes in Shiv’s style, at least not in the way that she transformed for the season two premiere with a power bob and those now iconic turtlenecks. Nobody I spoke to for this story would go into detail about upcoming plot points, but costume designer Matland says we can expect Shiv to wear more dresses and channel 1940s bombshells like Jane Russell this season, because “she wants to be one of the Roy men, but at the same time there’s a sexuality in her character that is so intrinsic to telling her story.”

Succession has been a critical sensation, winning seven Emmys, including Best Drama Series, and when season two premiered on August 11, 2019, 1.3 million viewers tuned in—hardly Game of Thrones territory, but respectable. If there’s any silver lining to come from the delay in the show’s production schedule, it’s that seemingly everyone who wasn’t already a fan has streamed it over the course of the pandemic.

Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran

Viewership reached an all-time high on HBO Max in July—21 months after Succession last aired—following the release of the season three teaser trailer. This may be because we as a society are both attracted to and revolted by wealth porn, drawn to the misery of the Roys as the inequality between the 0.00001 percent and the rest of us has only grown during the pandemic.

For now, Snook is far from all that, enjoying being a newlywed, taking long walks with her husband and meeting the local wildlife; they recently introduced themselves to the “resident wombat” and a family of kangaroos who live on her property. She was supposed to star in a new adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, but it was canceled after Netflix announced a competing production. Snook says this was a blessing: It would have meant shooting in London, and she’s enjoying nesting at home. But with Melbourne currently in its sixth lockdown, it’s impossible to have furniture delivered, let alone get a contractor to enter the house.

Photo credit: Vien Tran
Photo credit: Vien Tran

Once things calm down, she and Lawson will plan a bigger wedding reception for friends and family, and they’ll go on a real honeymoon—one that doesn’t involve two weeks of hotel quarantine. That’s a situation that would have likely destroyed Shiv and Tom’s already struggling marriage, but fortunately, not every family is as defective as the Roys. Shiv may be ready to stab her brother in the back and ascend the heights of Waystar Royco, but Sarah Snook is happy to wait.

Photographs by Vien Tran. Styled by Carlos Mangubat.

Hair by Joey Scandizzo @hart&co.com.au. Makeup by Ashleigh Carpenter @hart&co.com.au. Production by Coco Productions @cocoproductions.com.au

In the photo at the top of this article, Snook wears a Michael Kors collection gown ($8,990); Tiffany & Co. earrings ($7,500); and a Cartier ring ($4,450).

A version of this story appears in the November 2021 issue of Town & Country.
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