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Talking 'Succession' with Jesse Armstrong, Kieran Culkin and Matthew Macfadyen

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. The HBO series "Succession" was one of the big winners at Sunday's Emmy ceremony. It came away with six major awards for outstanding drama series, lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor, writing and directing. We're going to feature our interviews with Kieran Culkin, who won for lead actor, and with Matthew Macfadyen, who won his second Emmy for supporting actor in the series. But first, we hear from creator Jesse Armstrong, who wrote a majority of the episodes, including the Emmy Award-winning series finale.

"Succession" is about three siblings vying to succeed their elderly father as powerful CEO of the family conglomerate. He's a brilliant businessman who has created a media and entertainment empire, including a conservative cable news network. As a father, just about any expression of love towards his children has been transactional. He's been emotionally abusive, made them dependent and weak, and condemns them for being that way.

This interview will have spoilers, so if you're waiting to catch up on the series, I suggest you listen later on our podcast or website. Series creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong previously worked on the HBO satirical comedy series about politics "Veep." He also collaborated on British comedies with the creator of "Veep," Armando Iannucci. Terry Gross spoke with Jesse Armstrong last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: "Succession" is this very-hard-to-describe - at least, I find it hard to describe - mix of satire and drama and tragedy. And I confess, the first time I watched it, the season premiere, I tuned out in the middle. I thought, these are hateful people. And then I heard other people talking about "Succession." I thought like, gee, it sounds really interesting. So I went back and got immediately hooked. But I had no idea that there were comedic elements. Now, maybe that's on me, but I know other people who felt that way, too. And I'm wondering, did you want to kind of sneakily bring in the comedy slowly and not kind of announce itself, you know, right away?

JESSE ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Would I had that much control over my own writing. In a way, the tone of the show is kind of how I write. So I guess one of the things I was curious about was showing the ludicrous, the comic, the incongruous, the gross parts of these gilded lives. And so maybe that's where the impulse to make sure that there was comedy in there came from, 'cause that's a good register to try and approach some of that stuff.

GROSS: Your background was in comedy and satire.

ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah. I'm a comedy writer. I'd still, I guess, maybe really call myself a comedy writer. I'd written, you know, with my long-term writing partner, Sam Bain, nine series of "Peep Show," which is a sitcom in the U.K. I'd barely - I'd done one "Black Mirror" that was also vaguely comic. I think I'd hardly done anything that wasn't comic - wholly comic - before this show.

GROSS: Some of the funniest parts of "Succession" are the insults. I mean, there's webpages with just, like, lists of the best insults from the series. Lots of them have obscenities that we cannot broadcast. But there's one long insult I love that, Jesse, you wrote. It's after Logan dies, when Tom shares his hopes of becoming the CEO with Karl, the chief financial officer of Waystar Royco, and Karl explains why that's never going to happen. So I want to play that clip. It starts with Tom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Were the opportunity to arise, all I would say is that if there's a ring, my hat's in, respectfully.

DAVID RASCHE: (As Karl Muller) Well, I would just say, if we were to recommend you to the board, the question they might ask - can I frame the question for you, but as a friend?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Sure.

RASCHE: (As Karl Muller) Just so you'd...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Sure.

RASCHE: (As Karl Muller) ...Be prepared. The negative case would go, you're a clumsy interloper, and no one trusts you. The only guy pulling for you is dead. And now you're just married to the ex-boss's daughter, and she doesn't even like you. And you are fair and squarely [expletive].

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Jesus, Karl.

GROSS: That's Matthew Macfadyen as Tom. And that was David Rasche as Karl. I just want to say it's so clever. The whole series is based on which of the siblings is going to succeed their father. And in the last episode, it's, like, none of them. So, Jesse, why couldn't any of the siblings take over?

ARMSTRONG: It's a good question. I guess they could do, you know, if you were thinking about this as a business situation rather than a piece of drama. They might have slipped through, one of them, for a little while, for probably an unsatisfactory interregnum as they tanked the share price. It could have happened. They have some qualities - I don't think that they are without abilities, but they lack one thing. It's hard to work as hard as you need to work to run something like this, I think, when you come from that kind of privileged background. I just think it's hard to believe that you need to stay as late, read as much and do as much work as probably necessary.

GROSS: Let's talk about the finale. So after arguing who should succeed their father as CEO and who should they offer the board as you know the king, 'cause Kendall says, there can only be, like, one king here, and it should be me. And he finally convinces his siblings it should be him. So the board is voting, and Shiv holds out. She's, like, the decisive vote she's holding out. The three siblings go into another room, a glass office.

Shiv explains why she can't vote for Kendall, and this refers to something that happens in the season finale of the first season, when Kendall, after a party, is driving one of the caterers to score some drugs 'cause the caterer knows - has connections. Kendall's at the wheel. He's not used to a stick shift. He's not used to driving because he has a chauffeur. And he drives off the road into the river, gets himself out of the car, but the caterer drowns, and his father covers it up so no one ever knows. So here's Shiv explaining why she can't vote for Kendall to be CEO.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

SARAH SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) You can't be CEO. You can't because you killed someone.

JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) What are - what - which?

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) What?

KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. What do you mean?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Which...

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Which? What? Like - what - like, you've killed so many people, you forgot which one?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) That's not an issue. That didn't happen.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Uh.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. It didn't - as in what?

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Wha...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It's just a thing I said. It's a thing I said. I made it up.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) You made it up?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) I - it was a difficult time for us. And I think I, you know, whatever - must have something from nothing because I just - I wanted for us all to bond at a difficult moment.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. It was a move?

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) OK.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) No. No, not - there was a kid. There was that kid.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) So there was a kid?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) But, like, I had, like, a toke and a beer and not - I didn't even get in the car. It's not...

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Hold on. What the [expletive].

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) I felt bad, and I false-memoried it. Like, I'm totally clean. I can do this.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. Did it happen, or did it not happen?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It did not happen.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Uh...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It did not happen.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Ah.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) I wasn't even there. It did not happen.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Dude.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Vote for me. Just - vote for me. Shiv, vote for me.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yes.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Shiv, don't do this.

KIERAN CULKIN AND SARAH SNOOK: (As Roman Roy and Shiv Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) You can't do this, Shiv.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) No.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yes.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Absolutely not, man.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) No.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Absolutely not.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Why?

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) No. Why?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) What? Just...

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) I love you. I really - I love you, but I cannot [expletive] stomach you.

GROSS: All right. That was Jeremy Strong as Kendall, Kieran Culkin as Roman and Sarah Snook as Shiv. You have, like, unique writing styles for each of the siblings and for Logan Roy. Can you talk a little bit about coming up with each of their voices?

ARMSTRONG: I guess a couple of overall things are that it struck me that powerful people often don't say so much. And Logan is - says probably many fewer words than his less powerful colleagues and people who surround him. Indeed, it's probably true that the people with the least power speak the most. When you think about Tom before he assumed power and Greg, that they have these great torrents of words because they're trying to fill in the holes and equivocate. It's 'cause they're worried that power is going to take a dim view of them.

I guess Kendall has - we hear him first listening to rap music, and he has a desire to hit a sort of colloquial but buzzword. And so he - I think he has a certain verbal felicity, a certain verbal interest, and sometimes that goes over the edge into being ludicrous. Shiv, her tragedy has been that she has sought to modulate her every performance, in the sense of what she's doing in the world, to keep her options open. And so there's a sense in which she does that verbally, as well. Roman is explosive and the most close to being a truth teller in that kind of jester role where he can say the unsayable and then claim that he didn't say it or didn't mean it. And he - and people - it's a very powerful position once you start to be able to say I didn't mean it after everything - every true thing that you say.

GROSS: And Greg has this, like, cluelessness and formality. When he's on the witness stand during the hearings about the Waystar Cruises - cruise lines sexual harassment scandal, he's questioned by a senator, and he says - Greg's answer is, if it is, so be said, so be it.

ARMSTRONG: If it is to be said, so it is, I think, or something, yeah?

GROSS: Yeah. If it is to be said, so be it. And the senator said what is that? You can speak normal. And Greg says I shall. So you created this kind of, like, really strange formality for him.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I think there's a little bit of the kind of 18th century in there, that sort of courtier vibe in the, yeah, hyperverbosity...

GROSS: Why?

ARMSTRONG: ...But - well, I think there's also a class thing there, which is, you know, the phrase hypercorrection where people who are outside their normal class or social arena sometimes end up being idiotic 'cause they're trying to be too proper. You know, it happens when - in our English class-obsessed society when people try to change their vocal pitch and nature to try and fit in with posher people and you hypercorrect and then you become ludicrous by throwing in those extra words or reversing the order and doing things which you think sound like they might have a formality which is appropriate but ends up being nonsense. So it's a very nice thing in life to be comfortable with how you speak. And there's some - the show talks a little bit about how comfortable Logan is at a certain point in this season.

GROSS: Logan basically has a catchphrase which is F off.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. That's succinct. Power is succinct.

GROSS: Yes.

BIANCULLI: Jesse Armstrong, creator of "Succession," speaking with Terry Gross in 2023. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "ROMAN'S BEAT - 'HEARTS'")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation from last year with Jesse Armstrong, the creator of HBO's "Succession." The drama series, which ended last year after four seasons, won six major Emmys last Sunday, with Armstrong among the recipients.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Jesse, when we first see Logan on the first episode of the series, it's his 80th birthday, and he's very weak. The first time we see him, he gets out of bed in the morning. He's breathing heavily. He's walking with difficulty. He goes to the bathroom to pee, and because he's so disoriented, he pees on the bathroom rug. And not long after this, he has, like, a bleed in the brain, a stroke, an embolism, I'm a little unclear exactly what it is, but, you know, he becomes exceptionally weakened. It's - it seems unlikely he'll even pull through but he does. Why did you want to introduce this very powerful, domineering, manipulative man in such a vulnerable state the first time we see him?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I guess that's - well, I think the show, hopefully, is about a bunch of different things, but it's definitely very concerned with mortality. And people will know that Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone have often made the same quip about their succession, saying that they wanted to not die. That would - that was their succession plan. And I - it always struck me that none of us really want do die, do we? And the feeling of having a very full diary, of having another deal ready to go, of having another pressing meeting with your lawyers, is a very powerful way to stop feeling that the reaper is at the door. So mortality was sort of coded in from the very beginning in the way that these endeavors might be a way of keeping oneself from thinking about it.

GROSS: The series begins and ends for Logan Roy in the bathroom. You know, he goes to the bathroom the first time we see him and pees on the rug. He misses the toilet. And then he dies on his jet in the bathroom. So that seems to be a motif - Logan in the bathroom. Why?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, and I know - I now remember that in the end of the first season, he gets the news - he gets a bear hug letter from his son also in a bathroom, and he throws it into the toilet bowl. So, yeah, I guess one thing is that comedy often works better in small spaces. And so if a scene isn't working, it's not - it's sometimes worth trying putting it in a smaller space and seeing what happens when people have to be in each other's physicality. Apart from that, I guess there is something about - you know, maybe it's something childish about seeing kings and queens on the toilet. That's what you're - you know, in the U.K., it was meant to be a hard thing to imagine, the queen - late queen being on the toilet. And there - I guess there's maybe something childlike about seeing great figures doing what all of us must do.

GROSS: So let's listen to the goodbye scene when Logan Roy is on his jet, and he's either dying or dead. People on the jet are trying to revive him, but it doesn't seem to be working. The kids are on a cruise ship, celebrating Connor's wedding. And so they get this call like, your father's dying. Tom's on the phone telling them, and they don't know what's going on. So Tom gives the phone - puts the phone to Logan's ear so that they could say their goodbyes. And they don't know if he's dead or if he's alive. They don't know if he can hear them. So I want to play the goodbyes. And the order we'll hear is first Kieran Culkin as Roman and Jeremy Strong as Kendall and Sarah Snook as Shiv. So let's start with Roman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Hi, Dad. I hope you're OK. You're OK. You're going to be OK because you're a monster, and you're going to win 'cause you just win. And you're a good man. You're a good dad. You're a very good dad. You did a good job. No. I don't - I'm sorry. I don't know how to do that. You can - I can't - your turn.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Am I by his ear?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Yeah. You're by his ear. If he can hear, he can hear you. Go ahead.

ARMSTRONG: (As Kendall Roy) OK. Hang in there. Yeah.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) It'll be OK.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It'll be OK. I know. We love you, Dad. OK? We love you. I love you, Dad. I do. I love you. OK? I can't forgive you. But, yeah, but I - it's OK. And I love you.

GROSS: So that was Kieran Culkin as Roman and Jeremy Strong as Kendall. And here's Sarah Snook saying her goodbye as Shiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy, crying) Dad? Hey, Dad. Daddy, I love you. Don't go, please, not now. No. I love you, you f***. God, I don't - there's no excuses for being - but I - and it's OK. It's OK, Daddy. It's OK. I love you.

GROSS: Those are really amazing performances and incredible writing, too. And, I think, Jesse, you wrote that scene - you really captured the not knowing what to say aspect in a situation like that, you know, not knowing how to say goodbye but especially in a conflicted relationship like the siblings had with their father, where they loved him and they hated him. And sometimes the hate would really overpower the love. And Kendall even says, I can't forgive you - I love you. So can you talk a little bit about writing those goodbyes, like, what you wanted to capture and the language and the stammering that you created?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. And obviously, the whole show is such - multiple collaborations. But I feel especially in those moments, they could be - they could lie on the page inert if it wasn't with those brilliant actors doing them, doing the scene. I'm a rewriter. I rewrite a lot. We rework the scripts a lot through production. And it can be - sometimes be hard for the actors as we change things. But that episode, and especially that long stretch in the middle, I didn't - I wrote it relatively quickly. And then I tried to be very careful about what I revised because - I don't often feel this, but it felt like it had a - it had a coherence in its incoherence that felt appropriate. I wanted to leave it rather raw, you know?

And the simplicity of the language, the mixture of truth and untruth, the, you know, feeling towards the edge of language and what it can express all felt good in the early, early drafts. And I therefore tried not to change it. And I tried not to change the last things that Logan said once I sort of knew that they were the last things that Logan said because I didn't want them to have the form of, you know, a grandiloquent kind of moment of speech, because that didn't seem appropriate. The show isn't constructed in that way. It tries to, you know - in its artificial way, it tries to recreate reality. And it seemed to be appropriate not to retouch those moments because, you know...

GROSS: He didn't know he was going to die.

ARMSTRONG: He didn't know he was going to die, so it felt appropriate for me not - to try to remember to forget that as well.

BIANCULLI: "Succession" creator Jesse Armstrong speaking to Terry Gross in 2023. After a break, we'll hear from two other "Succession" Emmy winners from Sunday night, actors Kieran Culkin and Matthew Macfadyen. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "SUCCESSION (MAIN TITLE THEME)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. The HBO series "Succession" came away with six major awards at Sunday night's Emmy ceremony. Kieran Culkin got the award for Best Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Roman, the youngest and most immature of the power-hungry siblings of the Roy family. The family business is a media conglomerate run by their ruthless, aging father. Culkin got his start in acting at the age of 7 in the hit film "Home Alone," which starred his brother, Macaulay Culkin.

When Terry Gross spoke with Kieran Culkin in 2021, they began with a clip from "Succession." The Roy family is at the Future Freedom Summit, where the next Republican presidential nominee will be chosen. The Roys have a lot of influence because they can use their TV network to back or undermine a candidate. In this scene, Roman is talking to a would-be candidate from the far right, one Roman thinks his family should support because this guy can excite voters. He's a white nationalist named Jeryd Mencken. Roman is trying to convince Mencken they can help each other. The clip begins with Mencken explaining to Roman why he's against immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

JUSTIN KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) People trust people who look like them. That's just a scientific fact. They will give more tax dollars to help them. Now, you can integrate new elements, of course, but come on, man - slowly. I mean, [expletive]. I like this country.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Let's just take a beat before we fundamentally alter its composition.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah. And in terms of, you know, this - here, there's a thing here, right? And I get it. You're 6G, and we're Betamax. But, you know, you need us, I think. Our news, our viewers, those almost-deads - that's a big slice of pie.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Well, if I'm the nominee, are any of them really going to vote against me?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No. But, you know, it's going to be a [expletive] show going into the convention. I think you could really use our push.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) I think you could use mine.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Maybe.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Where are you in all this?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Me, Roman? You know, I'm creeping on the come-up.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Oh, yeah?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah. I've got some ideas for ATN, you know, sluice out the porridge and add some sriracha - poach some of those TikTok psychos, you know, e-girls with guns and Juul pods. You know, give me some straight-shot Blacks and Latinos. No more of this pillows and bedpans. You know, we're strictly bone broth and [expletive] pills. Deep-state conspiracy hour but with, like, a wink, you know, funny. And the whole show is kind of set up for the star - President Jeryd Mencken.

BIANCULLI: Here's an excerpt of Terry's interview with Kieran Culkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Kieran Culkin, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you. I love the show. I love your performance in it. I love the writing. I love all the actors. Anyways, thank you for being on our show.

CULKIN: Thank you. That's really nice.

GROSS: So that said, after all the praise, when the first episode was on, I didn't make it through the episode. I didn't like it. I thought, these characters are monsters. They were, like, the most privileged people in the world. They're monsters. Why would I spend my time watching this story about them? And then I finally figured out, through hearing other people talk about it, that it sounded great, and I should give it another shot. And that's when I realized the show is really funny. I mean, you wouldn't know it just looking at the surface 'cause everybody is so in character and is so serious in the way they play their role, but the writing is just hilarious.

Were you all worried about that, that there'd be a lot of people like me who wouldn't realize at first that it was really funny and would just kind of not care about these monsters?

CULKIN: I had the same feeling, even while we were shooting it. I looked at the pilot script, and I said, I know this is quality. As we were shooting it, I felt great about what we were doing. But I felt, who's going to want to watch this? Who is this for? You know, it's hard to just tell people, hey, it's good. Watch it. Like, I just didn't think that it was going to have tremendous appeal.

It's funny because I've been doing interviews since the first season, basically telling people, like, it's not bad at the beginning. There just isn't really anything that hooks you, I think, right away. I feel like somewhere in the middle of the first season - and I still don't know. I still haven't been able to identify what that thing is. But I start - I'm engaged, and I care about these characters. I mean, I don't like them, but I care to see what happens with them.

GROSS: Right, right. Your character has done some very horrible things during the course of the series. What do you think is one of the most horrible?

CULKIN: The one and only choice I made for the character was this guy grew up never having to suffer consequences, and so he doesn't really know what that means to suffer consequences. So I think - and I've stuck to that - he can say and do whatever he wants because he completely means it, on one hand. On the other hand, he really doesn't mean it. Nothing means anything. So it's hard for me to even say what's horrible. Like, I go back to the pilot sometimes and think about when he tells that kid that he'll give him a million dollars to hit a home run.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, that's so horrible. Why don't you explain what he does?

CULKIN: Yeah. He goes up to that kid and tells him if he hits a home run, he will sign a check for a million dollars.

GROSS: This is - let me just set this up. This is a family baseball game. And there's, like, a young kid who's maybe 10 or something standing by with his parents. And you invite him to go up to bat, and you tell him, if you get a home run, I'm going to give you $1 million. You write out the check. And so, like, the kid is, like, so nervous, and his parents are just kind of biting their lips, and you're just, like, toying with him. And, of course, he doesn't make the home run, and you tear up the check. And it's just a horrible thing to do to a kid.

CULKIN: The kid comes close, too. But I think in - to look at it from Roman's perspective, like, that's why - a lot of people have told me that it was horrible. I read it on page and thought it was horrible. But when we did it, it was like - it took a different perspective, which was he didn't have to offer that kid anything in the first place. This was in the spirit of fun and play. And, you know, it would have been nice if he gave him some sort of consolation prize, but that also wouldn't be fair. The kid didn't win.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CULKIN: So he tore up the check in front of him.

GROSS: Right, right.

CULKIN: He doesn't get the million dollars. So is it that horrible? He actually provided this kid with a tremendous opportunity and gave the family memories. I'm not saying this is my - Kieran's perspective, but that's how Roman, you know, feels like he's not so horrible.

GROSS: You seem to have had this, like, approach-avoidance attitude toward acting. There's been periods where you've acted and periods where you've decided to drop out. Has the show and its success and your fabulous performance and role in it made you feel any differently about acting?

CULKIN: Yeah. It was a - you know - 'cause I've been doing it since I was a kid. And I don't think, you know, when you're 6, 7 years old, you say, hey, Mom, Dad, I want to be an actor, that you're actually really making a decision for your future. It doesn't really - you're just a kid, you know? So I felt like I'd just been doing it since I was a kid and never actually made the choice to do it. And I think around the age 18, 19, 20, I found that suddenly I had a career that I never decided I wanted and didn't really like that. So I kind of tried to stay out of the limelight as much as possible while I figure out what I want to do with my life. And in the meantime, I'll just do this acting thing as long as I like it and as long as I find a project that I like. I didn't necessarily pursue the acting career or success or anything like that. I just - I enjoy doing work from time to time.

But while working on this show, and I - now I can't remember if it was Season 1 or 2, but I remember coming home from work one day and telling my wife - I said, it's - you know, it's going really well. And she said, yeah? I said, yeah, I think I know what I want to do with my life. I think I want to be an actor. And at that point, I've been doing it for about 30 years.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. That's - yeah.

CULKIN: Yeah. It just took that long. And now I feel comfortable with it. Now it's like - before I think I've always had this sort of - I had a relationship with it. It was it was a love-hate. I love doing the work. I hated all the stuff that came with it. I always hated, you know - I hated doing press was one thing. I hated the fact that my face could be on a poster. That was always a nightmare to me. And those things are not - like, the poster thing is not great, but I no longer have a negative relationship with it anymore.

GROSS: What did you hate about the idea of your face being on a poster?

CULKIN: Are you kidding'? Oh, there's my head on the bus going by, you know? I don't know. There's just something about that that's just really embarrassing.

GROSS: Some people just dream about that happening. That's their ambition.

CULKIN: Those people are nuts, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How's your memory in terms of memorizing lines?

CULKIN: That is something that I can credit towards my childhood acting 'cause I memorize lines extremely fast. It's almost like a parlor trick. And that has nothing to do with like, you know, talent or anything like that. It's just, like, a neat little skill because I've been doing it since I was 6. But I can look at a speech, like, once or twice, and I can repeat it back pretty quickly.

Yeah. Brian Cox sometimes gets mad at how fast I learn lines. There was one time this past season - I also don't like running lines, which I know a lot of actors like to do. I don't want to run lines with people. I actually don't like saying the words. I don't say them out loud when I'm working on them the night before or the day of. I don't like saying it until I'm in the room saying it.

And there was one day - and some people know I don't like running lines. If I see some actors running lines, I usually leave the room 'cause I don't want to be rude, but I just don't like - for my, you know, whatever process, I don't like doing it. But Brian, it was a big scene with a big group of us, and he started running the lines. He actually just yelled. He goes, we're running lines. And then you just started in the scene. And everybody's doing it. It came to my part, and he looked at me, and I kind of don't want to do it. And I said, well, I haven't actually looked at the scene yet - and - properly.

We had sort of rehearsed, and they were setting up the shots. So I grabbed the sides, and I just sort of read it once, and then we run it again. I read it a second time, and then we were called to set. And we came in, and we just shot it. And he goes, when did you learn those lines? Just now? I went, oh, yeah, just now. And he went, God damn it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CULKIN: And he got so mad because he had to, like, work the night before to try to learn these lines. And I looked at it twice, and I knew it, and he was so mad (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, that's hilarious.

BIANCULLI: Actor Kieran Culkin speaking to Terry Gross in 2021. After a break, one more award-winning member of the "Succession" family. Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Tom, the husband of Rogan Loy's (ph) daughter Shiv. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. British actor Matthew Macfadyen won his second Emmy this week for his work on the hit HBO series "Succession." The show wrapped up after four seasons in June. Macfadyen played Tom Wambsgans, who marries Siobhan Roy, one of several siblings competing for control of their aging father's media empire when he retires or dies. Tom is a player in the corporate intrigue, but as an in-law he's never been on an even footing with Shiv, as she's usually called, and her brothers.

We're going to listen to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Macfadyen in 2022. In this scene from the very first episode of "Succession," the family is celebrating the patriarch's birthday with a picnic and softball game. Tom, hoping to ingratiate himself with the old man, approaches and gives him a case bearing an expensive watch. But the gesture doesn't exactly go over well. Brian Cox plays the patriarch Logan Roy. Matthew Macfadyen, as Tom, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Hey. So I just wanted to give this to you in person just to say, you know, happy birthday. So...

BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) Oh.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) It's just a - it's a Patek Philippe. So...

COX: (As Logan Roy) It says Patek Philippe.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Yeah. It's incredibly accurate. Every time you look at, it tells you exactly how rich you are.

COX: (As Logan Roy) That's very funny.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans, laughter).

COX: (As Logan Roy) Did you rehearse that?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans, laughter) No. Well, no. Yes. But...

COX: (As Logan Roy) OK. Yeah. Yeah.

OK. Let's play ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES: Whew, boy (laughter). Painful. Well, Matthew Macfadyen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MACFADYEN: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: That scene is from the beginning of the series. And I'd never heard of a Patek Philippe watch. And I went online, and I discovered that there's one that's a pre-owned one of them available for $120,000. And poor Tom offers this gift, doesn't even get a simple thank you. Boy, this kind of lets us know it's going to be rough for Tom in this family, doesn't it?

MACFADYEN: I think it does. Yeah. That was my first inkling into what might lie await in store for Tom if the, you know - if we went - and when we were shooting the pilot, we didn't know it was going to go on. So I was - I thought - you know, there were these sort of markers about what might happen to him. But that was a really - that was a fun scene to play with Brian.

DAVIES: You know, the big relationship - ongoing relationship you have besides your wife, Siobhan, is the younger member of the Waystar crew, cousin Greg, who is a terrific character. We sort of - I guess you might say, endowed with more ambition than brains. And you, as Tom, kind of take him under your wing and you kind of mock him and torture him at times. And it's hard not to see Tom as a guy who is dumped on by others in the family, including his wife, and that he just, you know, sends some of that abuse down to Greg because he can. Yeah?

MACFADYEN: Yeah. I think that's - it's certainly a case of kicking the cat...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MACFADYEN: ...With old Gregory. But also, there's a - again, it's a - there's just so much there or so much that we, Nick and I, have sort of brought to it and then the writers. There is a circularity with the acting and the writing, and I think that long-form TV like this is wonderful in that it sort of becomes - if it's working well, it becomes symbiotic with the actors and the writers 'cause they see something that we do, you know, we'll do something which is given to us from this magic writing and then they'll see something else and then that will feed back into the script and on it goes.

DAVIES: Well, I want to play a scene of you and cousin Greg, and this is in the last episode of the season, and it's after the moment when you, as Tom, have decided to make your move against Siobhan, his wife, and the other her brothers, the other Roy siblings, and effectively switch sides. And in this scene, he comes to Greg and invites him to join him - there's some noise here, this is at an outdoor wedding reception - to just ask Greg if he wants to come along and - with him in this enterprise. One note for the dialogue. Earlier in the series, when the company was in trouble, Greg had to testify before Congress and kind of made a fool of himself. I mention that because Tom is going to bring this up as he has the conversation with Greg. So this is cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, and we will hear our guest, Matthew Macfadyen, as Tom, speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Greg, listen.

NICHOLAS BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) What's up?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) So, things may be in motion.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) As in, is anyone going to jail?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) No. No. So, do you want to come with me, Sporus?

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Can I ask for a little more information?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) No. I don't think so. I might need you as my attack dog.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Right.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Like a Greg Wyler.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Tom's attack dog. Nice. I mean, I have Brightstar Buffalo in my hip pocket. I'm kind of a big deal, so...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) You [expletive] yourself before Congress, Greg.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) That's your opinion.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) I don't recall, Your Honor, I don't recall. You're a joke, man. Who has ever looked after you in this family?

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) All right. Well, in terms of where I could be getting to if I were to come with?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) You could be heading away from the endless middle and towards the bottom of the top.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) The bottom of the top? Could I get my own, like...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Your own Greg?

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Yeah.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) You can have 20.

DAVIES: Heavy intrigue in the HBO series "Succession." That's our guest, Matthew Macfadyen and cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun. It's so funny to hear him, you know, I'm kind of a big deal (laughter).

MACFADYEN: I love it. I love it. He's so pleased with himself, and he's so delighted at the prospect of moving away from the endless middle and towards the bottom of the top.

DAVIES: Bottom of the top.

MACFADYEN: It's just beautiful writing. It's so great. It's so - I mean, not only is it wonderful acting with Nick and everybody and, you know, they're all sensational actors, but when you've got writing like that, it's just a - it's not easy-peasy, but it's just a joy 'cause you just sort of trust it to do the work. And, you know, it's just great.

DAVIES: I completely agree. I mean, the writing is so much fun. And in fact, that's what I was going to note is how much fun it must be to say things like, you know, you screwed up in front of Congress, blah, blah, blah. You're a joke.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: I mean...

MACFADYEN: The difficulty is not breaking up. You know, Nick and I have real, you know, I've said this a lot. It's not a secret that we struggle with corpseing (ph) as we say in the U.K., which is just, you know, breaking up irretrievably and everyone getting annoyed with us and them having to reset and, you know, but it's hard when the dialogue is so funny.

BIANCULLI: Actor Matthew Macfadyen speaking to Dave Davies in 2022. The actor won one of six major Emmys awarded to "Succession" Sunday night. Coming up, I'll look back at another award-winning HBO series, "The Sopranos." During its run, it won 21 Emmys, and earlier this month, it turned 25 years old. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL CHAMBERS' "EASE IT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

ALABAMA 3: (Singing) You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.

BIANCULLI: On January 10, HBO's "The Sopranos" celebrated its 25th anniversary. The TV drama about a New Jersey mob boss was created by David Chase and made a star of James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano. It premiered in 1999, and earlier this month, HBO celebrated by replaying one season a day in many marathons. I couldn't help myself from watching it a lot and was impressed, though not surprised, by how well it held up. "The Sopranos" wasn't the first HBO series to break new ground and have a lasting impact.

Before Tony Soprano, there was the prison population of Tom Fontana's "Oz" and the behind-the-scenes comic deconstruction of a talk show in Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show." But "The Sopranos" was a very special TV series, just like 1999 was a very special year for television. Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" premiered on NBC later that year, and so did "Freaks And Geeks." Yet "The Sopranos" introduced so much to the TV drama and led to even more. Tony Soprano was far from the typical protagonist of a TV drama. He wasn't just flawed. At times, he was utterly amoral and wasn't above murdering people.

Audiences stayed with him, though, which led quickly to the introduction of other TV dramas focusing on complicated, sometimes despicable lead characters. What a list, and all with "The Sopranos" to thank. Vic Mackey in FX's "The Shield," Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad," and almost all the characters in HBO's "Deadwood," FX's "Justified" and Netflix's "House Of Cards." "The Sopranos" also gets credit for taking full advantage of the freedom offered by premium cable. We all enjoyed more top-quality TV as a result, and "The Sopranos" was the big bang of that particular explosion.

But why? In hindsight, the answer seems clear. The murderous mob part of Tony Soprano wasn't relatable to most of us - at least I hope it wasn't - but the rest certainly was. Tony had a mob family at work, but it was still a family, with dynamics and character types recognizable at many, many workplaces. At home, Tony was seldom in control, whether dealing with his wife Carmela, his teenage kids or his aging mother. And Tony was questioning his place in both families. The first time we met him, in that 1999 premiere episode, he was attending a doctor-ordered therapy session. The therapist, Dr. Melfi, was played by Lorraine Bracco.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) Dr. Cusamano, your family physician, is that you collapsed, possibly a panic attack. You were unable to breathe.

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) They said it was a panic attack because all the blood work and the neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) You don't agree that you had a panic attack? How are you feeling now?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Good. Fine. Back at work.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) What line of work are you in?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Waste management consultant. Look, it's impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) Any thoughts at all on why you blacked out?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) I don't know. Stress maybe.

BRACCO: (As Dr. Jennifer Melfi) About what?

BIANCULLI: James Gandolfini was so good in that scene. But he's good in every scene, and let's face it, so are his co-stars on both the mob and home sides of Tony's life. My very favorite character from "The Sopranos" was Livia, Tony's mom. David Chase centered his series on the often hostile dynamic between mother and son, and had to pivot and go in a new direction when the actress playing Tony's mom, Nancy Marchand, died.

Chase adapted superbly and ended up creating one of the best TV series ever made. But I still wonder sometimes what "The Sopranos" might have been had Nancy Marchand been around for the entire run. Here's an early scene from the first season after Livia has gotten in a minor car accident. She's talking about giving away her valuables before she dies, and Tony's trying to persuade her to move out of her old house.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You listen to me now. Before you do any more serious damage to yourself or your grandchildren's inheritance, you're going to stop living alone right now.

NANCY MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) I'm not going to that nursing home.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Green Grove is a retirement community, and it's more like a hotel at Captain Teeb's.

MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Who's he?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) A captain who owns luxury hotels or something. I don't know. That's not the point. The point is, I talked to Mrs. DiCaprio over there, and she says she's got a corner suite available with a woods view. It's available now, but it's going to go fast.

MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Of course it's available, somebody died.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh, Ma, you gotta stop. You gotta stop with this black poison cloud all the time because I can't take it anymore.

MARCHAND: (As Livia Soprano) Oh, poor you.

BIANCULLI: And finally, there's that finale. You'd think 25 years would be enough time to not have to worry about spoiler alerts, but I'll play nice this time because "The Sopranos" continues to be discovered by new viewers. It had better be, because most of the college students I teach about TV weren't born when "The Sopranos" premiered. But that finale, those final moments, they're as perfect an ending as a TV show can provide, right up there with the endings of "Newhart," "Six Feet Under," "Breaking Bad" and, yes, "St. Elsewhere." From the first scene to the last - and I mean that literally - from the ducks to the sudden ending, "The Sopranos" was a TV masterpiece.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

ALABAMA 3: (Singing) Woke up this morning and got yourself a gun, got yourself a gun, got yourself a gun.

BIANCULLI: On Mondays show, we talk with physician Uche Blackstock about her new book titled "Legacy." In it, she explores the intersection between racism and health care, tracing its origins back to the beginnings of Western medicine and her own experiences as a medical student and doctor.

For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "IT'S NOW OR NEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.