When she was first approached about playing Siobhan “Shiv” Roy, the only daughter of a ruthless but ailing media tycoon in HBO’s “Succession,” Sarah Snook was apprehensive of the project despite its obvious pedigree.
As a performer on the rise, thanks to a string of award-winning film and television roles in Australia and a well-received turn in the 2015 biopic “Steve Jobs,” Snook was wary of being marginalized in a show that, at first glance, seemed to be about “a bunch of white men in business.”
“Do I want to be a prop in this story that doesn’t focus on me at all?” she recalled recently at a cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the apartment where she lives while filming “Succession.” “I read the pilot and went, ‘I want to watch this, but I don’t know if I want to be in it.’”
Snook’s trepidation was understandable, particularly given the gender dynamics of prestige TV circa 2016 when, as she put it, “‘Game of Thrones’ was huge and there was a leaning across the board in TV for more female nudity.” Thankfully, it also turns out to have been misplaced: Shiv has proved to be an essential player in the cynical, male-dominated world of “Succession,” which returns to HBO for its fourth — and, as recently announced, final — season on March 26.
The news that “Succession” would end with Season 4, first reported by the New Yorker last month, caught many fans off guard — and, it seems, some of the cast. Snook said that, despite indications throughout production that the show might be winding down, she was not officially informed until the final table read in January.
“I was very upset,” she said a few weeks after our Brooklyn meet-up, in a follow-up call from Melbourne. “I felt a huge sense of loss, disappointment and sadness. It would have been nice to know at the beginning of the season, but I also understand not being told until the end because there was still a potential that maybe this wasn’t going to be the end.”
“Emotionally, all of us weren’t necessarily ready to be done with the show because we love each other so much,” she added. “But everything has to come to an end, and it’s smart not to let something become a parody of itself.”
Created by British writer Jesse Armstrong, the Emmy-winning saga follows Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a cantankerous self-made billionaire, and the grown children desperate to win his approval and take over Waystar Royco, the family’s vast news and entertainment conglomerate. “Succession” offers viewers a glimpse of life inside a powerful media dynasty — of the Mediterranean superyachts and tricked-out private jets, but also of the corrosive family dysfunction that can accompany extravagant wealth.
The vicious sibling rivalry and thorny parent-child relationships are what makes “Succession” relatable, even to those of us who’ve never set foot in Davos. Like her older brothers Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck), Shiv has profound daddy issues, ones that are magnified by her status as the only woman in the family. (Her mother, played with bone-chilling detachment by Harriet Walter, is a spectral presence in her life.)
As sharp and merciless as her namesake, Shiv rivals her father in terms of sheer cunning. Her Machiavellian exploits include dissuading a former employee from testifying before a Senate committee about the sexual misconduct at Waystar and leaking details about Kendall’s struggles with addiction and mental illness to the press. But Season 4 finds Shiv at a nadir: ousted from the company and estranged from her once devoted husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) following an unthinkable betrayal.
Snook, it bears mentioning, could scarcely be less like Shiv: An unfussy and self-deprecating Australian, she exhibits none of her character’s frosty entitlement in person, showing up at a quiet cafe in a gray hoodie and weathered Blundstone boots. When a scheduling mishap sends me to the wrong borough for our meeting, she texts me the correct address and patiently waits in Brooklyn while I take a cab across the river.
Still, Snook has taken lessons from Shiv, particularly the confidence “that she is allowed to be anywhere. She doesn’t believe in a glass ceiling, because she could buy the building.”
Though you might not know it from her nearly seamless American accent on the show, Snook grew up outside Adelaide — the city where Rupert Murdoch, the loose inspiration for Logan Roy, launched his newspaper empire.
The youngest of three sisters, Snook displayed a performative streak early on, winning a high school drama scholarship and — in what might qualify as her first paid acting gig — working as a children’s party entertainer named Fairy Lavender. (She continued the hustle when she moved to Sydney to attend the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art, but she had to change her name to Fairy Twinkle Toes; Sydney already had a Fairy Lavender.)
The job gave her an early lesson in winning over a skeptical audience. “You’d get a lot of kids going, ‘I don’t know if I believe in you,’” she said. “That’s kind of what Shiv does when she walks into a room and is like, ‘You have to believe that I’m capable of doing this.’”
After finishing her studies at NIDA, Snook had steady work in Australian theater, film and TV.
Hollywood quickly took notice: She was one of the final candidates to play Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (the role ultimately went to Rooney Mara). In 2014, she starred with Ethan Hawke in the heady sci-fi yarn “Predestination,” delivering an audacious performance as an intersex character who lives first as a woman, then a man. Snook’s male persona — who bore an uncanny resemblance to, as she put it, Leonardo DiCaprio’s “less attractive brother” — was so convincing, her own mother didn’t recognize her on set.
“Finding the character was easier for me than being, like, the hot surfer girl,” she said. “To be a man? That’s great.”
Working with Hawke — who once adorned her sister’s bedroom wall on a “White Fang” poster — made Snook think she had perhaps peaked too soon. She hadn’t. In quick succession, she went from “The Dressmaker,” a period piece set in rural Australia, to “Steve Jobs” (Coincidentally, both films starred Kate Winslet.)
Then came “Succession.”
Casting director Francine Maisler, an early champion of Snook’s work, had brought Snook to the attention of Adam McKay, who directed the pilot, and Armstong, who was struck by the blend of intelligence, toughness and humanity she brought to her audition.
“Suddenly, you go from thinking, ‘Oh my God, will there be anyone?’ to ‘Oh my God, I hope she hasn’t gotten any offers,’” Armstrong recalled by phone during a break from editing “Succession.” “She was the only person in the world who could do all these things at once.”
Over the course of the series Shiv has, if not exactly grown, then evolved. In Season 1, she was forging a path outside the family’s conservative media empire as an adviser to a Bernie Sanders-esque senator. Eventually lured back to Waystar, Shiv refashions herself as a callow corporate feminist who helps guide the company through a sexual abuse scandal, only to be passed over for the chief executive job and dismissed by one of her brothers as a “token woman.”
For all of Shiv’s swagger, her journey offers a stark example of the misogyny that even privileged women face. (She’s also had a much-discussed style makeover, cropping her bohemian waves into a sleek, strawberry blond bob and adopting a wardrobe of Hepburn-esque trousers.) Snook believes that Shiv has genuine center-left politics. But, she said, “She understands that sometimes you have to bend your convictions in order to get what you want long term.”
Snook’s abilities as a performer enabled such a dramatic character arc, Armstrong said. “The abiding feeling you have as a writer is the incredible confidence that you can go anywhere, any level of emotional complexity, and not only will Sarah match it, but she will add on three of her own layers as well,” he said.
Shiv’s marriage to the unctuous Tom Wambsgans (Macfadyen), a striving sycophant whom she repeatedly humiliates — including on their wedding night, when she tells him she wants an open marriage — has been a particularly rich vein to mine in a show about power in all its forms.
Her centrality to the narrative was crystallized in Season 3’s parting shot, a stunning closeup of Shiv as she absorbs the horrifying realization that Tom — whose hands rested menacingly on her shoulders — had betrayed her in a showdown with Logan. “He does the one thing she believes he could never do, because he would never have the guts or courage,” Snook said.
In the scene, “you feel an earthquake of a power shift,” Armstrong said. “It’s like someone opened the door to a whole rather horrible set of rooms they didn’t know existed, one where the power balance in her personal relationship is thrown completely askew“ — all of which played on Snook’s face.
The jaw-dropping moment was not scripted in detail: The “Succession” cast is often encouraged to improvise, revise their lines on the fly and let scenes play out beyond what is written on the page, a style that lends to the show’s psychological and emotional realism.
“It’s made me less precious about my performance. I’m more willing to fail and be messy,” said Snook, who, like Macfadyen, faces the added challenge of ad-libbing in her nonnative accent. “Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know how to say that,’ but it works for the character. Rather than competing with the verbal diarrhea of Roman, she’ll stand and watch and that will say enough.”
“She’s got this amazing ability to harness the great sadness and rage that Shiv has. It’s a skill to be able to keep a lid on it,” said Macfadyen. “You glimpse it occasionally as the audience and see the lid being kept firmly on these enormous swirling depths underneath her icy exterior.”
Though its ratings are modest, “Succession” has come to dominate the cultural conversation since its debut in 2018 because of how shrewdly it skewers the billionaire class. But because the pandemic kept the show off the air for two years, Snook said that she has only recently become “aware of the noise” around it. This attention is especially pronounced in certain neighborhoods in New York, like the Upper East Side, where she tends to get recognized more.
“I think wealthy people must watch the show,” she said. “I hope that they watch it with a good sense of irony.”
With “Succcession” now behind her, Snook, 35, is looking ahead, with two intriguing projects slated for release this year: “Run Rabbit Run,” a horror movie for Netflix, and “The Beanie Bubble,” which is inspired by the bizarre story behind the Beanie Baby craze of the ’90s, for Apple TV+. She also directed a short film during the pandemic and is keen to get behind the camera again soon.
She’s also enjoying time with her husband, the comedian Dave Lawson, who waved adoringly at her through the cafe window as we talked. After years of platonic friendship, the couple fell in love during Australia’s strict COVID shutdown and wed in Snook’s backyard in Brooklyn in 2021.”The world-is-ending, apocalypse kind of chaos forces you to be vulnerable,” she said of their surprise romance.
Snook’s domestic happiness is yet another way she differs from her character, but she sees parallels in their experiences. On Instagram, the actor recently came across a clip of Shiv from Season 1 and was struck by “the growth of a woman coming out of her 20s, into her 30s and into adulthood.”
“There was a girlishness to Shiv back then, but she has transformed into a woman,” she said, “and that reflects my own journey as part of the series.”