In the seventh episode of the fourth and final season of “Succession,” the tenuously married couple Shiv Roy and Tom Wambsgans exit their crowded election eve party to viciously scream at each other, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” style, on their balcony. Half in shadow, half lit by the glow emanating from their Manhattan triplex, they hurl previously unspoken cruelties at one another, all of which are true. “You’re pathetic!” Shiv tells Tom. “You’re a masochist, and you can’t even take it.” Tom is ready — too ready — with a response. “I think you are incapable of love,” he says. “And I think you are maybe not” — Tom pauses for a millisecond before lowering his voice to finish the thought — “a good person to have children.”
Shiv’s eyes well with tears for the first time during the brutal argument, and for the audience, it’s a gasp-worthy moment. We know Shiv — like Sarah Snook — is pregnant, a secret revealed to us earlier in the season, but it’s information the character hasn’t yet shared within the show. Incredibly, it turns out the scene contained an even greater dramatic irony. Snook says when that balcony scene was filmed, more than halfway through production on the season, “I, as Sarah, was pregnant — but when we shot the scene, Shiv wasn’t.”
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In other words, that was a plot point that hadn’t yet been written into the story. “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong knew, as did others in the company to whom Snook was close, like Matthew Macfadyen. “Matthew knew that I was pregnant, yeah; Tom didn’t,” she says.
It was a night shoot in mid-November, and the first snow of the season was falling. Snook pictured the neighbors hearing Macfadyen bellowing at her as Tom, and wondered whether any “Succession” fans among them would hear him yell “Shiv!” again and again, possibly getting excited: “Is this a spoiler?”
Snook used Tom’s cruel words for her performance. “Inevitably something dulls, and you get used to a scene and you are not finding the sort of same spontaneity or inspiration in it,” she says. “So when I hear that line, ‘Maybe you’re not going to be a good mom’ — maybe that’s me hearing it, just as much as it is Shiv. Because that’s a pretty horrible thing to say to somebody!”
That was the night Snook told the crew that she was pregnant.
“Succession” premiered quietly in June 2018 on HBO, but by Season 2, it was a phenomenon, and would go on to win two Emmys for best drama. It will again be the show to beat whenever the ceremony ends up taking place in this strike-afflicted season. Before “Succession” came to an end with the May 28 finale, fans pored over every line of dialogue and analyzed the characters’ psychologies. They also hunted for clues about who would ultimately “win” the show’s high-stakes game of which character would take over the megacorporation Waystar Royco, founded by Logan Roy (Brian Cox), who died suddenly in the final season’s third episode.
And in Siobhan Roy — the youngest of Logan’s children, aptly nicknamed Shiv, as befits her status as a sharp object — Snook channeled Armstrong’s writing to create a character for the ages, joining the canon of fictional HBO greats alongside Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw.
On the surface, Shiv represented someone Ivanka Trump-like, and as with Ivanka before we saw through her, she seemed like the decent person we wanted to root for — since the Roys were congenitally venal and power-hungry. Shiv should know better, and do better. Inevitably, though, she would self-immolate, selling out the values she purported to have, whether in a revealing Season 2 scene when she convinced a sexual harassment victim of Waystar’s cruise line not to testify before a congressional hearing, or in Season 4, when she formed a secret, sure-to-backfire alliance with tech mogul Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) against her own brothers Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
The “Succession” pilot was shot in December 2016, and as Armstrong worked with Snook over the years, “I got that feeling that anything I could imagine, she could do,” he says. “There was no variety of human experience that I could possibly think of that was true that she couldn’t do.”
As the show’s final season unfolded every Sunday night throughout the spring, it became clear that wherever Shiv landed in the Waystar Royco hierarchy, Snook, 35, had won. For this year’s Emmys, she’s been nominated in the lead actress in a drama category for the first time, after being recognized twice in supporting — and she’s emerging as the clear favorite. And after the launching pad of “Succession,” Snook — who cites Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet as actors whose careers she admires — is well on her way to doing whatever she wants.
Since her baby girl was born in April, Snook and her husband, actor Dave Lawson, have been nesting at home in Melbourne, Australia, which is where she does two lengthy interviews with Variety, both conducted over Zoom before the SAG-AFTRA strike. Snook has been relaxing and getting used to parenthood — during our second interview, her then-10-week-old gurgles and squawks, and at one point, is nursed by her mom — but on-screen, she’s been busy. In addition to “Succession” ending, she’s had two movies released this summer: the horror film “Run Rabbit Run,” acquired by Netflix out of Sundance, and Apple TV+’s “The Beanie Bubble.”
And in October, Snook will begin rehearsals for her first post-“Succession” project, a West End production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in which she’ll play all 26 roles. As adapted and directed by Kip Williams, the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, “Dorian Gray” will open in late January and, Snook hopes, later move to Broadway. It will use screens and projections in what amounts to an hour-and-50-minute (sort-of) monologue, and Snook says, “It’s such an unusual, eccentric piece of theater, I really wanted to have the opportunity to play in it.”
There’s a dinner party scene, she says, in which she’ll play off six prerecorded characters, all her, with different wigs, postures, voices and costumes. As she describes it, she gets excited: “It’s pretty mental!”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” That’s what Snook thought when she read the script for “Succession’s” series finale on the day of the show’s last table read, and learned that Tom, of all people, would be the titular successor — picked not for excellence, but for his bootlicking abilities.
There was a lot of are-you-fucking-kidding-me that day, because that was also when Snook learned that “Succession” was ending. As they’d filmed the season, Snook knew “it probably could end,” but thought “it could go one way or the other — and also, it’s nice to hope.” As she tore through that last script, though, she just knew. “I arrived and was like, ‘That’s it. It’s done,’” Snook recalls. “And I walked in, and Matthew was like, ‘No, I don’t think so. I think that’s quite hopeful! The last handhold, maybe there’s potential for what’s going to happen with Tom as CEO.’”
But then Armstrong made the official announcement. “It was devastating,” Snook says.
Yet they still had the series finale to shoot, in which Shiv’s capricious decision-making is the key — one last shiv performed by the character. Kendall has gotten Shiv and Roman to make a pact to back him as CEO, and to reject Matsson’s takeover of Waystar Royco. “There’s that sibling relationship — so seductive when they’re all getting along well,” Snook says of the agreement.
Yet at the company’s boardroom showdown, as the members vote, Shiv wavers, and can’t bring herself to go through with it. “It’s just pure instinct,” she says. “I think it’s trigger response.”
According to Snook, Shiv turns on Kendall when she sees him putting his feet up on their late father’s desk in the lead-up to the vote. “There’s something in her that goes, ‘Ahhhhh!’ — sorry to swear, but — ‘Motherfucker!’” she says. “I don’t think she’s decided in that moment when they’re in Dad’s office to say no. But once it gets down to it in the room, she just can’t physically bear to say yes.”
Snook has heard the theory that Shiv makes the decision knowing that Tom will be Matsson’s choice as his American figurehead, and that she’s “thinking 10 steps ahead,” and will worm her way back into the company. But she rejects that idea. “I never really considered that Tom becoming CEO is Shiv, by proxy, winning,” she says. “For Shiv, that is so not a win! That is ‘I’m once again power adjacent. I’m not the winner.’”
And then, of course, there’s Shiv and Tom’s final scene together — in a limo pulling out of Waystar Royco headquarters to head home. Their hand-holding, the saddest ever displayed on-screen, is meant to illustrate, Armstrong says, “something getting locked in, which in a grim way, works for them both.” Snook doesn’t think about Shiv’s future much, but when she does, she sees her going into “quite a deep postpartum depression.” About Shiv’s resigned look in that conclusion, she says, “I think the baby thing is really about to hit in a way that is inescapable.”
That was the last the audience would see of Shiv and Tom. But Snook, Culkin and Strong still had more to do, and 10 days later, they went to Barbados to film the segment of the finale that takes place at the home of their mother, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter). There, the siblings hatch the (doomed) plan to keep control of Waystar Royco, and even though Snook very much wanted to go back to Australia — “because the longer we were shooting, the more pregnant I became” — there was a “levity to the scenes” that made them “really nice.”
The final scene ever filmed for “Succession” was the “meal fit for a king” sequence in Caroline’s kitchen, in which Roman and Shiv anoint Kendall as the once and future CEO of Waystar. With principal director Mark Mylod encouraging the actors, they laughed and bonded as they rummaged for food, making Kendall a disgusting shake, which Shiv spat into with each take — “and he drank it every time, because he is Jeremy,” Snook says.
It was “maybe the closest to all three of us in our playful selves as actors — as Kieran, Sarah and Jeremy, not just Shiv, Roman and Kendall,” she says. “And because of it being the last scene of the series, we may have leant into personal sort of actor celebration, and indulgence of what’s going on.”
Armstrong remembers watching the scene as it unfolded, with Culkin licking Caroline’s husband’s forbidden cheese, Snook making the shake and Strong’s Kendall “happy” for once. “It was sort of magical, or slightly hysterical,” he says. “It was wonderful and sad, and I never wanted it to end.”
Snook flew home right after the “Succession” premiere in New York in March, and experienced the final season’s rollout as a fan, alongside everyone else, often having friends over for viewing parties. With the series finale, family was visiting to help with the baby, and she watched with Lawson, her mother and stepfather, and her sister. Snook cried as she watched.
“Because I was sad for Shiv,” Snook says. “She just tried so fucking hard, and ended up where she is — in this kind of gilded cage, next to the thing that she wants. And the journey’s not over for her. It’s not over for any of them, but still, she’s in the orbit of the CEO, and that will be really painful for her.”
She cried for other reasons too — that the “Succession” chapter of her life has ended. “I’ll never have an opportunity to speak those lines, or get given new lines, new jokes, new worlds for Shiv and Roman to exist in together,” Snook says. “Just sadness for never getting a moment to play with these brilliant actors again.” (When I tell her that Culkin had said to me that perhaps Shiv and Roman might make up at some point, Snook brightens. “I feel like Shiv and Roman would reconcile in a way where he would be the shitty but great weird uncle for her kid, and there might be some sort of strange little family unit that gets splintered off.”)
After Snook watched the finale, she posted a heartfelt tribute to “Succession” to her barren Instagram, which contains all of two posts. The photo shows a TV screen displaying an image of Tom on the landing page of the Australian streaming service Binge, and in the foreground we see the side of Snook’s face next to her baby’s head — a de facto birth announcement.
“I just watched the final episode of the final season of something that has changed my life,” Snook wrote. “And now, my life has changed again. Thank you for all the love and support.”
For a show explicitly about control, making “Succession” was a surprisingly freewheeling enterprise, with Armstrong encouraging input from the large acting ensemble. So it seems true to form that the rich narrative vein of Shiv’s pregnancy was itself an improvisation. One conceived, pun intended, after Snook told Armstrong last fall that she was pregnant.
Snook’s pregnancy “wasn’t a planned thing,” she says with a laugh, adding, “I think the fear from women can be that they will be sidelined, or considered less-than” — in other words, how Shiv was treated her whole life within the Roy dynasty. But Armstrong’s attitude, she recalls, was “Bring it — let’s work out how we can make this work for you,” Snook says. “Not ‘You ruined my story! You ruined my imagination games!’”
She can’t remember whether she went to Armstrong in October or November to tell him the news — production on the show had begun during the summer. For Armstrong’s part, “I was just delighted, because they’re lovely people,” he says of Snook and Lawson. As for how it would affect the show, he and the writers actually had considered a Shiv pregnancy when planning Season 4, but had scuttled the idea — in the show’s attempts to illustrate the world of the Roy family in a realistic manner, never would he use a pregnancy belly. “Any extra layer that you have to put in in terms of prosthetics, or pretending, is a layer,” Armstrong says, making the word sound pejorative.
But for dramatic purposes, the development works perfectly: Shiv’s pregnancy further complicates the vexed state of her marriage with Tom, as well as the character’s clearly telegraphed ambivalence about motherhood over the course of “Succession.” A few weeks after Snook told Armstrong she was pregnant, he told her he’d decided to write it into the story. “It felt like it was, narratively, just giving us so much more than it was restricting us,” Armstrong says. “Especially in a show called ‘Succession,’ with these rather feudal, medieval feelings about bloodlines and bastards and fertility and the importance of kinship — it just felt like, ‘I’m really glad this is the way we went.'”
As it unfolds on the show, Shiv keeps her pregnancy secret. She finds out it’s viable during a phone call from her doctor at the beginning of the season’s fourth episode, set the day after Logan died. Lorene Scafaria, who directed that episode, was brought back in early January to film the added scene. Yet even without tweaking anything, Shiv’s pregnancy resonates — as in a shocking scene later in the episode when she falls down the stairs of Logan’s apartment, just hours after speaking with her doctor. “Me as Sarah, I wasn’t pregnant on the day that we shot that,” Snook says.
As an audience member in Melbourne, she says it became a game even to her: “Watching this season for me has been fun, because it’s like, ‘Am I pregnant? Am I not pregnant?’”
While Shiv had the sort of pregnancy that she was able to hide, Snook was dealt a different hand: She was quite ill for the first 22 weeks. In a scene filming in New Jersey at the end of last year, she had to ask the van driver to pull over. “I’m just vomiting violently outside, and thinking, ‘It’s so visibly me,’” Snook says. “It’s Shiv, totally projectile vomiting outside the door, with oncoming traffic.”
When Snook was cast in “Succession” in 2016, she was an Australian actor on the rise, having accumulated a résumé of TV shows, movies and theater after she’d graduated from the storied National Institute of Dramatic Art, which counts Blanchett as an alum. She grew up in Adelaide as an outdoorsy tomboy, the youngest of three sisters. There, she received a scholarship to a high school with “a really good drama program,” and loved performing, but never thought acting could be an actual profession for her: “I don’t think I grew up knowing that you could turn your passion into work.” Before graduating from high school, Snook procrastinated submitting her application to NIDA for so long, “being so teenage,” she says, that her mother had to force her to do it. “Mom managed to convince me to get my ass into gear — because she knew that I wanted to.”
Even after thriving at NIDA, Snook felt unsure of herself as an actor. “I guess the feeling of something that you want so dearly, and it’s so close to your heart — it feels too precious to dream,” she says. But in 2010, shortly after she graduated, Snook was flown to Los Angeles for the first time during David Fincher’s global casting search for the perfect Lisbeth Salander for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” She was working in a café in Sydney, and kept having to trade shifts to make the 14-hour flight to L.A.: once for Fincher and a second time to do a camera test with Daniel Craig.
In recounting this whirlwind, Snook describes herself as the “Antipodean dark horse” among the candidates. “I have no right to be here!” she recalls thinking. “Alison Pill was shooting a film with Woody Allen at the time. And then Léa Seydoux was there as well — she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m doing that too!’ Rooney Mara had just done ‘Social Network’ with David Fincher. Andrea Riseborough, I think, was there?
“I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? I’ve done nothing — I’m working at a café!’” Yet eventually it came down to her and Mara, who’d go on to land the role. Not playing Salander was “only disappointing in the way of I didn’t win — but it wasn’t a disappointment in terms of my life,” Snook says.
A few years later, after Snook had worked steadily in Australia, casting director Francine Maisler cast her in 2015’s “Steve Jobs,” to play Andrea Cunningham, the Apple publicist Jobs orders to turn off the auditorium’s exit signs at the first Mac launch. Maisler also cast “Succession.”
“Francine was like, ‘This person is amazing. You’re gonna love her,’” Armstrong remembers. “What Sarah managed to do was be what she always is, which is 100%, solid-gold, cast-iron real — while also letting the audience infer that this person was not to be taken at her own estimation. So there’s that delicious gap for the audience to fill in between what the character thinks they are and what you suspect they might be.” What’s that gap when it comes to Shiv? Armstrong laughs, and says, “The blunt way of putting it is that she’s not as smart as she thinks she is.”
According to Snook, at the time, she’d grown disheartened by the self-taping audition process. She put herself on tape for “Succession” only because she’d gone through the whole rigmarole — “You have to put a bunch of makeup on, you have to make sure your hair is all washed, you have to put on the outfit” — for an audition for Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”
“I truly thought for a long time that they were just using me as a bargaining chip to get someone who was more talented, or more expensive,” she says of the “Succession” producers expressing interest in her. And since one reference for the Shiv character was Ivanka Trump, “I was like, ‘Well, that’s not me.’” Mostly, though, she was nervous about making the multiple-season commitment HBO sought — but eventually said yes, gambling that “Succession” might be “an amazing juggernaut of a show that is extraordinary — which is what it turned out to be.”
Armstrong doesn’t remember the details of Snook’s reluctance, but especially as a British writer, he understands that fear of long contracts. “It would be natural to hesitate and, in an appropriate way, to value your own talents and think, ‘What am I closing off if I say yes to this?’” he says. “I hope we’ve done good by her — I’ve certainly loved writing for her, and she’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life.”
Though he’s a screenwriter, Armstrong confesses he sometimes thinks “novels are still the best form” — he’s mentioning this as he answers what scenes of Snook’s especially moved him. He cites a post-coital interlude between Shiv and Tom in Episode 6 of the final season, when the two finally discuss things they’d swept under the rug. Tom, who grew up middle class, tells Shiv just how much he loves his career and money, and all the things she takes for granted having grown up the daughter of a billionaire. He invites her to come live with him in a trailer park — “Well, are you coming?” he says, teasingly. She sits next to him on the bed, and says, “Well, I’d follow you anywhere for love, Tom Wambsgans.” As they consider each other, they burst out laughing.
For Armstrong, “that moment when you’re watching Sarah’s face, to me, is the reason to be able to write a screenplay for amazing actors.”
“She’s lying; she’s telling the truth,” Armstrong continues. “She’s lying and he knows! It’s just round and round and round. And I can’t write that. I can offer it to her, and then she does it. It’s this magic that people can watch, and interpret.”
Snook didn’t put pressure on herself when picking her first project after “Succession” — but with the actors strike, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was certainly a good choice. By now, she knows she has a long career ahead, which will also include directing, she hopes. She’s not in a big rush though. “I’ve worked pretty hard for the last 10 years to afford myself some space to think and to be with family, and to have a life,” she says. “My work isn’t everything.”
But what did she picture years ago, when she’d let herself dream of her career? “I mean, it looked a lot like what I’m doing right now, to be honest — doing a play on the West End, and a successful TV show,” Snook says.
“I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to where I want to go, but if this is it, then I’m grateful,” she continues. Then she smiles and says, “But I still want more.”
Since “Dorian Gray” revolves around her, she and her family won’t move to London until the new year; she can rehearse and film what’s needed in Melbourne. “Because it is a one-woman show, so” — she stops, and says with a smile breaking across her face — “I’ve started rehearsing now, just in my kitchen!”
Styling: Naomi Smith; Makeup: Max Serrano/DLMAU; Hair: Ashleigh Carpenter/ Hart & Co/Kevin Murphy; Manicure: Chelsea Bagan/Trophy Wife; Look 1 (White Collar Jacket): Jacket: Iordanes Spyridon Gogos in collaboration with Akira Isogawa; Earrings: Cartier; Look 2 (Blue Swirl Pattern Jacket): Coat: Versace; Look 3 (Peach Dress): Dress: Zimmerman; Earrings: Cartier
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