Considering how much control Americas wealthiest families have over the countrys media and mainstream entertainment (not to mention politics), there have been noticeably few films or television depictions of the inner workings of these powerful empires. This Sunday though, HBO introduces the masses to the interior lives of the .01 percent with Succession—a satirical drama about a self-made media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) who finds himself at retirement age and surrounded by monstrously entitled, insecurity-addled sons—and a daughter—of his own creation.
For Cox and executive producer Adam McKay, the Jesse Armstrong-created series is a timely morality tale considering the new generation of Americas dynastic empires currently coming into power—most visibly, the offspring President Donald Trump employs at the White House, including daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“The show very much reflects our time—this whole idea of a generation of rich kids who have this sense of entitlement. We see examples of it every day in the press, particularly in relation to our POTUS. . . . A wonderful example is what happened in the Gaza Strip quite recently,” Cox said, referencing Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushners triumphant appearance at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem last month while, 40 miles away, Israeli forces killed 52 Palestinian protesters and wounded at least 2,400 others, in the deadliest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2014. “Theres something pernicious about it that, I think, comes from the privilege of money, and the danger of money. And I think our show really does look at that in kind of sharp focus.”
Cox, a classically trained Scottish actor who calls himself an “old socialist at heart,” is appalled by the growing chasm between the rich and poor, and the way the media fuels it. The opening episode of the series examines the divide in a powerful scene featuring one of Logans children, Roman (Kieran Culkin), brazenly offering a staff members son $1 million if he hits a home run during a family baseball game. Afterwards, an embarrassed Logan attempts to right the egregious wrong—but the difference between the have and have nots, especially after such flamboyant arrogance, is too great to bridge.
“The media almost—not deliberately, but kind of—exploits these differences. We see it with Kim Kardashian going to see the president and pleading [Alice Johnsons] case to be pardoned, which is very, very nice and good,” said Cox. “But you go, well, Whos Kim Kardashian?! In reality, what is she? Shes a reality star. We look at the lack in what people have and . . . its created that want, that need. Theres something lacking, and of course its gotten to: God is dead, long live reality shows.”
Coxs criticism wasnt reserved for American royalty: “I mean, fine, Im very happy for [Prince Harry and Meghan Markle]. They got married and all of that. But the kind of side issue of it is, that I find slightly repellent, is that the [pomp of a royal wedding] projects this notion of the haves and the have nots. Now maybe thats the case of life—that there are haves and have nots. But at the same time in an egalitarian society, like this society, that shouldnt be the case. Everybody should have a fair crack of the whip and nobody should be disenfranchised. Unfortunately I think the whole Trump election, like what happened in Brexit, was that Trump was elected by people who feel disenfranchised. King Lear says it wonderfully well in the play—he says, Ive taken too little care of this.”
Asked whether he has encountered Rupert Murdoch, one of the templates for his character, or any of Murdochs ilk, Cox laughed, “Thank god, no”
“The link for me is that its about kingdoms, fiefdoms, and territories that you own. Shakespeare dealt with those families. If you look at Lear, Julius, Titus Andronicus, and you look at these powerful figures, theres a lot of Lear-like qualities in Logan Roy, who has given away his empire and is taking it all back. . . . Theres something ill at ease about him. Hes a very private man. He doesnt like fuss. The thing he wants is the security of his family, but theyll never be secure in themselves and he cant make that happen. Thats his tragedy, if you like. He cannot do it for his children.”
“I think the title Succession should have a question mark . . . Succession? . . . Who takes over, who runs the show, whos fit? Whos got the qualifications, the dignity? . . . What did we succeed to? What are we getting out of our creation? Are we getting any peace of mind? Are we getting any real security, because these people are massively insecure. They have all the money in the world but they have no real security.”
For McKay, the project was a natural follow-up to 2015s The Big Short, which grappled with wealth and greed and earned him an adapted-screenplay Academy Award. “Were in a kind of second gilded age and income equality is at historic highs,” he said. “This is the story to tell one way or the other.” McKay grew up with a single mother who worked as a waitress outside of Philadelphia. When he got a job in the Saturday Night Live writers room in New York City—alongside Harvard graduates with connections to powerful circles—he suddenly began getting glimpses of how the other half lived.
“Friends of mine, even now, who are maybe a person or two removed [from elite families], have spent time at social gatherings with some of these people. . . . I have heard stories for years, and then you read something like Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and you hear stories about the Koch brothers, and the battles theyve had in their family—or Jared Kushners father being arrested, and the way that family operates—and it is just jaw-dropping.” But these are just glimpses. “If you look at Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Art Pope, any of these billionaire dynastic families that are having an out-sized influence on our government and the way we perceive things and the law, it does amaze me that we dont know more about them considering what an influence they have on our world.”
Succession writer Jesse Armstrong sweeps audiences into the security-protected penthouse of the Roy family. (Though Armstrong wrote a feature screenplay about the mogul titled Murdoch, the project was never made. And in discussions about Succession earlier this year, the cast and crew were quick to draw focus from the Murdochs and said that Logan Roy and his dynastic struggles are inspired by everyone from Sumner Redstone to William Randolph Hearst to British press baron Robert Maxwell to Queen Elizabeth.
“People are going to look at this show like its a hyped-up power battle,” said McKay of the series, which has its characters exorcising their dysfunction by depraved means. “But in some ways the show isnt as crazy as the Kushners, or these more extreme families, like the Kochs. If you did the story of the Koch brothers being raised by a Nazi nanny who then went back to support Adolf Hitler, you would just never believe that in a show. With Kushner, didnt his father hire an escort to sleep with his brother-in-law? And then send the tape to the sister? I mean, if Jesse wrote that, I would be like, Jesse this is crazy. What are you doing? Its so far off the rails I couldnt even comprehend it.”
Succession began pre-production before Trump was elected president, and working on the series after Trump took office “definitely helped with our sanity,” said McKay, “knowing we were doing something that would harmonize with the world.” Now that the series is finished, McKay has heard from a few of his friends with elite connections who have happened upon the trailer or premiere.
“A lot of people who are maybe a person or two removed from these families have said its so unbelievably accurate.” As for what Jared Kushner would take from the series: “Would they watch it and be like, Oh cool, its us. Or would they watch it and be like, Those sons of bitches, how dare they? My guess is they don't watch it. I would love to hear a reaction from one of these families.”
McKay said that, several years ago, while watching Rupert Murdochs son and heir apparent James face repercussions in 2011 for a phone-hacking scandal, he was surprised by his complicated reactions.
“In the moment, watching [James], one of my feelings was, Well, he should go to jail. The second was, Well, screw him. But then the third was, I felt bad for him. I felt like hes a son in this family. In a weird way its like being a Mafia dons son. You really dont have a choice. You kind of have to live this life, and I was surprised that I felt a little bad for him. Thats what surprised me about Jesses work and the writing staff, and the actors on this show: that you occasionally feel bad for these people—that they have to live in this kind of hellish, dark world where everythings a transaction. And everythings about power.”
Cox is hopeful that if Succession gets a second season, the characters might be willing to repent.
“The characters are brilliant and mysterious because theyre all so capable of change,” he said. “If we do get another season, its going to be interesting to see whats going to happen to them in terms of transformation.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fairs website.