People love Shiv. “You lucky bitch,” said my friend when I mentioned I was going to New York to interview Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv in the hit TV series Succession. What’s so lovable about a character described (by one of her creators) as “a flawed, monstrous nightmare”?
It’s her strawberry-blonde hair, her razor-sharp retorts, her sidelong looks, her stealth-wealth wardrobe, her strangely expressive face and manipulative ways. She’s “Shiv fucking 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 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, sitting in a low-key cafe 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 to comedian and fellow Australian Dave Lawson two years ago in her garden in Brooklyn, New York. Now the couple are expecting their first child together. More on that later. First, we need to discuss that notorious TV series she’s in.
Shiv is the only daughter of Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox), the brutal, big-cardigan-wearing billionaire owner of US media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco. For the first three seasons, Logan spent almost 30 episodes of the expletive-laden, Shakespearean drama winding up his three children 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.
While Snook isn’t giving away any spoilers for the series finale, which airs in late May, she hints at some surprises. “We knew it would be the final series [while filming], however, the way the series ends, a number of the cast felt it was left somewhat ambiguous,” she reveals, while agreeing 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. Shiv is complex because she’s human, not because she’s a woman. I like that about her.”
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 program?” 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 fucking minus,” he replies. “I didn’t make the world.”
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,” she explains.
“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.” Regardless, she was intrigued by the script and wanted to know what would happen.
So 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 too. I presumed they already had a named actor and were using me as a bargaining chip but that might be my subconscious talking.”
She says it wasn’t until halfway through the first season 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.’
Pick up a copy of the June issue of marie claire Australia on sale Thursday 18th May to read the full story!