What You Never Knew About Succession

When the third season of "Succession" premiered in London, actor Brian Cox said it was like a "rock concert." "Apparently, people were fainting, some woman fainted," he told Empire. There's no denying that "Succession" has become a huge phenomenon since it began in 2018. The show follows the Roys, a family of multi-billionaires who helm the international media conglomerate Waystar Royco. As Logan Roy, played by Cox, becomes more and more decrepit, his four children, Connor, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv, all vie for the top position in the company.

At first glance, it's hard to see how the show has become so popular. The cast of characters is, without exception, morally irredeemable. These anti-heroes represent the corrupt world of elite capitalism. But even though viewers aren't really given anyone to champion in the show, the writing makes the show work. It's both clever and brutal, mixing shock, humor, and drama — an irresistible combination that has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans. The Ringer even called it the "best show on television."

If you're anything like us, you're already completely obsessed with the addictively savage world of the Roys. Want to learn more about how the team made this one-of-a-kind show? Here is the untold truth of "Succession."

The Succession family is based on a range of real-life people and events

From the moment audiences watched the first episode of "Succession," many noticed some similarities between the family on screen and a certain real-life family. Of course, it's pretty easy to draw comparisons between the Roy family and the real-life Murdoch family, which runs News Corporation.

As the show's creator Jesse Armstrong explained to HBO, he did plenty of research on the Murdochs and other real billionaires to make "Succession" feel even more plausible. "We thought of famous media families like the Hearsts, to modern-day Redstone, John Malone, Robert Fitz of Comcast, Murdoch, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who founded Breitbart. Lots of real-life moguls," Armstrong said.

As Armstrong told The Hollywood Reporter, their "voluminous" research was also combined with the experiences of people in the writers room. "A writer describing their family dinner collides with something from Conrad Black collides with something from 'DisneyWar,' that book about Michael Eisner and the Disney regime with Jeffrey Katzenberg," he said. It seems there's a reason "Succession" feels so real.

Here's how the writers gave Succession its unique style

"Succession" is frequently praised for its writing. The show plays with the idea of genre, seamlessly combining comedy and drama in one scene. Plus, the language is shockingly brutal. It's safe to say that "Succession" feels unlike anything else on TV.

The show owes its unique writing to its incredible team of writers. The initial idea for the show was "something like 'Dallas' meets 'Festen,'" as Jesse Armstrong told The Guardian. Armstrong got a group of British and American writers together to create this unusual mix of comedy and drama. The writers include Lucy Prebble, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, and Jon Brown — you may remember some of them from comedies like "Veep" and "The Thick of It." While the show can often feel pretty dark, there are always moments of comedy to balance it out, and that's largely thanks to the writers that Armstrong chose. As Roche explained, "One of the things that is maybe unusual about the show is that it's got this Britishness in its tone. It's quite irreverent towards its subject, it doesn't respect its betters."

Here's the story of how the actors were cast

Without the right actors, "Succession" probably couldn't have worked. Every single performance in the show is pretty much perfect.

Kieran Culkin, who plays the youngest Roy son, Roman, almost played a different role, as he was initially asked to audition for Greg. But, as he told The Guardian, he immediately knew that Roman was the part for him. "They weren't auditioning for Roman yet but I picked three scenes, put myself on tape and sent it in anyway," he recalled. "[Series creator] Jesse Armstrong saw it and cast me." 

Alan Ruck, who plays Connor, missed his audition, because he'd promised to take care of his daughter. Luckily, Adam McKay invited him to his house later that evening for a last minute audition — "then they cast me, later that day," Ruck told Collider. Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv, was flown in from Australia for her audition. As she told GQ, "I really just was like, "Eh, this is out of my league. I'll just come and do it and get out of here. Free trip to LA.'" After Jeremy Strong read for Kendall, everything fell into place. As Armstrong told GQ, "He just felt completely Kendall from the very first read."

Succession has the perfect theme song

You can't help but love the epic, dramatic "Succession" theme song — it certainly sets the tone of the show!

As composer Nicholas Britell told NME, he was inspired by the Roy family. "I wanted to explore the idea of 'If the Roy family could imagine their own music, what music would that be?'" he said. "I started to theorise that it would be this really dark, classical sound. Britell explained that he explored various eras of classical music in the song. But, he added, he also made sure to give the song a bit of humor. As he put it, he wanted to convey a "mixture of absurdity and seriousness that reflects the duality of the show".

Britell definitely succeeded! With its ludicrous, over-the-top piano and bursts of dramatic strings, this theme song completely captures the unique vibe of the show. As Britell recalled, Jesse Armstrong's emailed him after hearing the song: "I think the right response to this is: F*** yeah!'"

Adam McKay and Mark Mylod love to give the actors a 'freebie' take

There's a certain rawness to the performances on "Succession." This is largely thanks to the direction of Adam McKay, who loves to give the actors free rein to improvise. "From the very beginning, we would always try and make time for a looser take after filming a scripted version of the scene," Jesse Armstrong told HBO. "Adam encouraged it, and I was really keen for it to happen."

Eventually, this "looser take" came to be known as a "freebie." Director Mark Mylod also became a fan. "[After shooting the scene], they're going to have a few freebies and improvisational takes," he told Awards Focus. "It's very loose and fluid."

Sadly, not all the actors are fans of the freebie. As Brian Cox, who plays Logan, told Vanity Fair, "[Mylod] does this thing called the freebie, which drives me nuts, because I always think it's a freebie, you know?" Whether Cox likes the freebies or not, it's clear they're working!

Roman and Gerri's relationship was born from the actors' chemistry

One of the most unexpected relationships to ever appear on TV developed in the show's second season between Roman, the immature, youngest Roy son, and Gerri, the no-nonsense, meticulously careful General Counsel of Waystar Royco. Their flirty, sexual, strange pairing delighted fans. In spite of the big age gap and the arguably perverse nature of their relationship, their chemistry is undeniable.

It turns out, the writers had never planned on pairing up the two characters. However, they began to notice chemistry during the on-set improvisations. Apparently, the two actors, J. Smith-Cameron and Kieran Culkin, had begun jokingly flirting in character in season one. As Culkin told Variety, the writers noticed a flirtation during a freebie take. "Mark Mylod told me that he saw it in the editing room that we both checked out each other's butts without knowing, and he was like, 'There might be something there,'" Culkin explained. The rest, of course, is history.

Here's how they made that infamous 'boar on the floor' scene

One of the most famous scenes in "Succession" comes in season two during the episode "Hunting." During a large dinner party, Logan begins to suspect disloyalty and plotting within his Waystar Royco ranks. He launches into a brutal game he calls "boar on the floor." The "game" consists of forcing people to crawl around on the floor oinking like pigs and eating sausages. It's weird, horrifying, and kind of amazing.

For the cast, it was an unforgettable day on set. As Cox told Variety, he was initially worried the scene wouldn't work. "Both to Tony [Roche, the writer] and my surprise, it worked, and it became an episode that people kind of went, 'Wow, that was something,'" Cox explained. Actor Jeremy Strong added, "Brian, I thought you were just titanic in that scene. ... it almost felt like we needed a safe word on the set, too." Actors Kieran Culkin and Nicholas Braun agreed that they both felt a little scared of Cox's presence on set that day.

Here's how the cinematographers and editing team make the show feel so real

"Succession" can often leave you feeling kind of exhausted. It's a fast-paced, tense show that throws you into the world of the Roy family. And it can feel incredibly real — almost as though you're watching a documentary.

The show uses handheld cameras to give an unpolished effect (via LA Review of Books). The production team also uses three cameras at once — an unusual technique for television — to capture the ensemble's many reactions and other interesting background moments. As Jesse Armstrong explained to Thrillist, "Having them all around a dinner table, and having a couple cameras running, and saying, 'Do the script but then do some bits around it' — I love that way of shooting." And, as director Mark Mylod told IndieWire, "It isn't just, 'OK, grab that line.' It's as much about finding what's going on underneath the surface. ... we as an audience are let into their unconscious in a way. It's a window into their souls."

The cast of Succession had to make some concessions to film during COVID

The third season of "Succession" was originally slated for 2020, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, production was delayed. When the cast and crew did return to set, a lot of things had to change about how they made the show.

"It did affect us," Brian Cox told The Hollywood Reporter. "We had one scare — one of our actors tested positive." Even though Cox thinks it was a false positive, they had to quarantine for 10 days. The pandemic also meant that the cast had to stay in New York while they were filming. For Matthew Macfadyen, this meant spending over three months away from his family, which he had never done before. "You start to think. What am I doing? I'd be walking around Brooklyn, thinking, where do I live? It was odd and hard," he told the Evening Standard. Plus, COVID restrictions also meant that the show had to film in fewer locations in order to meet health and safety guidelines. As Macfadyen told Empire, "with travel restrictions we were probably a bit more Manhattan-bound than we might have been, but I don't feel like it's affected it in a bad way. It still feels like 'Succession.'"

The actors of Succession feel like the show is similar to a play

"Succession" may be created for TV, but for the actors, it can feel more like making a play. Unlike other TV shows, "Succession" contains a lot of long, wordy scenes and locations-specific episodes. As Matthew Macfadyen told Variety, "I've done theater, and it feels like doing a play." Brian Cox agreed. "Each of the scenes are very much written like little playlets," he said. "It's very much like you're doing a theater piece; there's a kind of middle, beginning, and an end to each scene."

In another interview with The New Yorker, J. Smith-Cameron explained how the wordiness of the writing on "Succession" reminded her of working in theater. "I think 'Succession' is a little bit of an anomaly for a TV show, because it's streams of long sentences," she said. "People make this analogy of it being Shakespearean, and I definitely see that."

The actors often have different methods to get into character

The performances on "Succession" are all completely breathtaking. But not all of the actors have the same approach. Jeremy Strong, for instance, is what is commonly known as a "method actor." To get into character as Kendall, Strong tries to actually become his character. "I feel a great responsibility to understand his pain and feel the weight that's on him," he told The Guardian. Jesse Armstrong noted that after one day on set, "​​I didn't recognise him for a beat – he was physically transformed."

Brian Cox, on the other hand, is not a fan of this all-encompassing approach. As he told The New York Times, "I'm older now, and I don't [do method acting]. I don't see the value in it." Kieran Culkin also seems to be able to separate himself from his character. He prefers to take a playful, spontaneous approach. "I learn the lines in the morning really fast, and I don't prepare anything because I'm going to walk in and an actor is going to do something else," he told Entertainment Weekly. "You just walk in a room and we just play.'"

The costumes reveal a lot about the characters' journeys

At first glance, "Succession" doesn't have the most exciting costumes — it's a lot of expensive suits and polo shirts. However, if you look at the costumes in a little more detail, you'll see that they reveal quite a lot about the characters.

"Gerri's wardrobe has gotten more chic over time," J. Smith-Cameron told Vogue. As the show went on, the costume designer realized that Gerri was wealthy enough to have more stylish clothes. "It sort of coincided with Gerri and Roman's budding non-romance," she added. Shiv's costumes have also changed. In the first season, the character is trying to build a career in politics. "Everything she wore during that time wasn't really the essence of who Shiv was behind the scenes," designer Michelle Matland told Town and Country. However, by season two, she's turned her attention to the family company. By season two, the character was wearing "Gabriella Hearst, Hobbs, The Row, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label." Seems like the show's costumes mean a little more than we thought!

They have on-set wealth advisors on Succession

"Succession" is all about the world's wealthiest people. To ensure that the portrayal of extreme wealth is spot on, the production team includes a few wealth advisors, who give the cast and crew tips on how to bring this type of wealth to the screen.

Writer Georgia Pritchett told The Guardian that the wealth advisors helped them avoid some errors in the first season. For instance, she had suggested that Marcia cook a turkey for Thanksgiving. They had told her, "God, she would never even go into the kitchen, she wouldn't even know where it is." The advisors also helped them ensure that the sets and costumes looked right. For example, they noted that really wealthy people don't actually wear coats, since they never have to walk anywhere outside!

As Kieran Culkin told Variety, the wealth advisors are often on set to give them tips on how to act wealthy, too. "We did a take where we all got out of the helicopter, and they told us, 'You would have been doing this your whole lives. You know where the propeller is. You wouldn't be ducking your head,'" he said.

We may be looking at two more seasons of Succession

Fans of "Succession" will be glad to hear that the TV show probably isn't going anywhere any time soon. In fact, as of 2021, there will probably be at least two more seasons to look forward to.

As far as Brian Cox is concerned, two more seasons after season three would be ideal. "I would say possibly two more series and then I think we're done. ... It depends what the writers feel. I know they've got an endgame," he told GQ. So far, we know that we will be getting at least one more season, as season four has already been commissioned. Jesse Armstrong told The Times, "Putting a number on it feels like a weird thing to do. What I've tended to say is, 'I don't think it should go on forever.'" It's hard to say how long "Succession" will go on, but it's clear that we still have a lot to look forward to from the Roys.