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'Fresh Air' marks the final season of 'Succession,' with Cox, Culkin and Macfadyen

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. This Sunday, the Emmy-winning HBO drama series "Succession" returns for its fourth and final season. Today, we revisit interviews with three of the cast members who have made "Succession" such a delight to watch - Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin and Matthew Macfadyen. But first, a brief recap - "Succession" is about aging media baron Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox, and his grown greedy children. Think Rupert Murdoch and family for reference, if you like. I always do. "Succession" creator Jesse Armstrong and his team keep finding new ways for Logan and his offspring to up the ante and the drama. Last season, it was the sudden threatening proposition of a hostile takeover or less hostile merger of Logan's Waystar Royco with a rival company, DoJo (ph), run by Lukas Matsson. Lukas is played by Alexander Skarsgard, and when Logan visited Lukas at his private villa at the end of last season to talk about a possible acquisition, there was no small talk whatsoever as they walked the grounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) Look, I don't want to [expletive] around forever with this. I mean, I've seen how your price is, and I understand that your board is looking at all the options, but if we stay tight, this could work. So shall we dance or what?

ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) Do you want to sit down?

COX: (As Logan Roy) Sure. Yeah.

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) Zuckerberg wants - do you know Mark, by the way?

COX: (As Logan Roy) Uh-huh.

SKARSGARD: (As Lukas Matsson) Well, he once told me that in ancient Rome at one point, they wanted to make all the slaves wear something so they could identify them - it's just up here - like a - what do you call these things? - like a cloak or whatever. But then they decided not to do it. And do you know why? Because they realized if all the slaves dressed the same, they would see how many of them there were, and they'd rise up and kill the masters.

BIANCULLI: "Succession" is an aggressively profane program with plenty of F-bombs, but it's also an extremely funny program and a tense one, and an exceptionally well-written and well-acted one. In previous seasons, the way Logan dealt with his children and their dreams of taking over the reins of his company was to divide and conquer. But for this final year of "Succession," it's just conquer. It's him against each and every one of them, and I wouldn't bet against him. We begin with Terry's interview with Brian Cox. He won a 2020 Golden Globe for his performance as Logan Roy. When Terry spoke with him last year, he had written a memoir about growing up in Dundee, Scotland. It's called "Putting The Rabbit In The Hat." They began with a clip from "Succession." In this scene, Waystar Royco is being investigated by the Justice Department, and Logan's daughter, Shiv, played by Sarah Snook, is worried because she knows about the whistleblowers and the intimidation of victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

SARAH SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Can we - I mean, can we talk?

COX: (As Logan Roy) Yes, we can talk.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) OK. Well, we're a big company, but how bad is - what is the worst thing that could be in those papers?

COX: (As Logan Roy) Not all that bad - I mean, health and safety, compliance, a few bad apples. What?

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, I know that isn't true. Come on, Dad. Tom worked in cruises. Bill told him everything. And besides, I know that there are Black Ops, and I know that there was targeted intimidation of victims and whistleblowers. The NRPI say...

COX: (As Logan Roy) Maybe there were some salty moves.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) You can't just change your story.

COX: (As Logan Roy) I want to keep you clean. I put Gerri in, but I can't trust her. She's optics. I need you. Listen. I didn't know about any of this [expletive].

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, you're on emails.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Do you know how many emails I get a day? I don't read my emails. I get the action points.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) I know.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Shiv, the world is rough. We're on a cruise line out of some tinpot ports registered in Bongo [expletive] Bongo hovels, and we poured millions in, and, sure, did we play rough with the odd [expletive] union boss or some moaning Minnie repeat litigant? I don't know. It was a quarter of a century ago, a lot of it. So, yes, I fought for you and your brothers. But you will not find a piece of paper that makes you ashamed of me. OK?

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, the government does have an unbelievable amount of leverage at its disposal, Dad - the law.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Yeah, the law. The law is people. And people is politics. And I can handle the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Brian Cox, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you back on the show. I love "Succession," and I love you in it, so welcome.

COX: Thank you. It's good to be here. Good to be back. Good to be back, Terry.

GROSS: The last line in the scene that we just played is so good. The law is people, and people is politics, and I can handle the people. When you - that's such a memorable line. Like, that's going to be a quoted line. So when you saw that line, did you think, like, wow, this is a good one?

COX: Yeah, I mean, well, there's so many good lines in the show, and, you know, it's very - he's a very - you know, he's an extraordinary character, Logan. I mean, he's probably one of the most extraordinary characters I've ever played because he is not what he appears to be. This is the interesting thing about Logan. I mean, he seems to be, like, this demon. And of course, he is a misanthrope, you know? He is very disappointed with the human experiment. He and I both share that, except he's a pessimist and I'm an optimist. So that's the big difference between both of us. He just tells it like it is. And he's a truth-teller. And it's not pleasant, and people don't like it, and they always suspect his motives. But his motives are always to do with the business. It's always to do with the firm. It's always to do with the - what he's created. That's his concern. But Roman then does - he said, what are you doing it for? And he says, well, maybe love. And of course this is like a red rag to a bull because there isn't a lot of love coming from his children. You know, they talk about love, but, you know, he loves them, but where's the reciprocal? I mean, they just see him as a cash cow, you know, so much of the time. And that's the dilemma of the part, you know?

GROSS: OK, OK, I have to stop you here and say I love that you were totally describing this from the point of view of your character, Logan Roy.

COX: Yes.

GROSS: What you are leaving out here is the fact that he has no morals, he has no ethics, and if his children are spoiled and come up short on things, it's 'cause that's how he brought them up. He brought them up - it seems like he brought them up manipulating them, teaching them to fight for power, to fight with each other among - you know, for power. He's totally manipulative of them. He shows them no love (laughter), so - but you're really seeing it from his point of view.

COX: I don't think he's capable of expressing love in that way. I think that's his problem.

GROSS: That is a problem.

COX: That's his difficulty.

GROSS: It's a big problem.

COX: You know, he's not - he can't do it because just - again, because of his background. You know, the historical inevitability of your own relationship, what you come through, what you - who you become out of what you become or what you are is always the kind of crux of any individual, you know, where, you know, we are the sum of our history. And Logan is the sum of his history, which is a mysterious history and is a thwarted history. And, I mean, I don't defend Logan in any way, but I also - you know, one of the jobs as an actor is we cannot judge our characters. But at the same time, we have to have a kind of eye on where our characters are. We've got to see them for - you know, in terms of the narrative of the show, in terms of what is required at any given moment.

GROSS: You asked the writers, does Logan love his children?

COX: I did.

GROSS: Why did you need to know? Why did you need to ask? And how did the answer affect your performance?

COX: I needed to know because I - you know, because - is he just cruel? You know, is he needlessly cruel? And I - 'cause I thought if he's needlessly cruel, this is going to be a very boring show for me. You know, I'm going to be playing one line throughout. And Jesse said, no, he loves his kids. So that's always the tension in his life, is that he actually loves his children, but constantly and partly his responsibility - because of the way he's brought them up.

But, you know, there comes a point - I mean, I remember the great actor Brian Dennehy saying this to me - and I always remember that he said, you know, after a certain age, all bets are off. You can blame your parents for everything. But finally, there's a point where you got to say, hang on, you know, I'm 30 now. I can't just keep blaming my mom and dad for my conditioning. You know, there's a point where I have to use my own intelligence and say, oh, hang on, let me get the perspective on this. And, of course, this is what human beings sometimes, a lot of the time, fail to do.

GROSS: Are there other questions that you've asked the writers of "Succession"?

COX: Not many. No, I tend not to. I don't work in that way. I mean, I - the key question for me was when - does he love his children? Because once you have that, once you establish that, then the conflict is there, you know, however inner the conflict is. And we don't see it. That's the other thing about Logan. We don't see a lot of what's going on in his inner thinking. And he's angry. He's an angry man. He's a very, very angry man. And he's angry because of his own wants and his own frustrations that he can't - you know, he's created this monster, this thing. And at the end of the day, he loves it. It's his creation. But at the end of the day, it's highly questionable, morally.

GROSS: I want to talk with you about the musicality in your line readings. And what I want to do is play the same clip that we heard earlier, an excerpt of that clip. And there's a line I particularly want to ask you about, and it's the line where you say - we were talking about misdeeds from a while ago, and you say, I don't know. It was, like, a quarter a century ago, a lot of it. So let's listen back to that clip, and then, we'll talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

COX: (As Logan Roy) Listen. I didn't know about any of this [expletive].

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Well, you're on emails.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Do you know how many emails I get a day? I don't read my emails. I get the action points.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) I know.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Shiv, the world is rough. We ran a cruise line out of some tin-pot ports registered in bongo [expletive] bongo hovels.

SNOOK: (As Shiv Roy) Oh.

COX: (As Logan Roy) And we poured millions in it. Sure, did we play rough with the odd [expletive] union boss or some moaning Minnie repeat litigant? I don't know. It was a quarter a century ago, a lot of it. So, yes. I fought for you and your brothers. But you will not find a piece of paper that makes you ashamed of me. OK?

GROSS: OK. It's so musical the way you do your lines and the way you say things that, like, avoid responsibility. (Laughter) Like, you know, I don't know. It was a quarter century ago, a lot of it. So do you score your lines? Do you put pauses in? Or, like, how do you approach it so it ends up sounding just so ear-catching?

COX: I - you know, I think I'm just gifted, you know? I have a - I mean, I have God-given gift, which is my voice. And I'm also part - I mean, one of the great things for me as an actor was to listen to voices of other actors. I remember years and years ago, John Henderson, who when I first did (ph) - when he - I listened to four different versions of Hamlet's not to-be-or-not-to-be - rogue and peasant slave speech. I listened to Johnston Forbes-Robertson. I listened to Ernest Milton. I listened to John Barrymore, who murdered it ridiculously. The best one was Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who was so quick and so deft with the language.

So language has always been the thing to me and how you use language. And I have an instinct for it. It's just who I am. I mean, I am blessed, but I've also had the training. And then, I've worked with people like John Gielgud, who was an astonishing speaker of the verse and who really understood how to speak. Sometimes he even said to himself, when I was young (imitating John Gielgud), when I was young, it was the voice beautiful. So I kind of did...

A lot of that stuff. And then, Scofield, Paul Scofield, who I think is - for me, is the finest stage actor I've ever seen, bar none.

GROSS: Can I stop you a second? You said that - something about the voice beautiful? What are you referring to?

COX: Well, Gielgud talked about when he was younger, that sometimes he would say - you know, 'cause I worked with him. I did "Julius Caesar" with him. And he said - he did say to me - he said, you know, I - when I was younger, I kind of got in - I started off well. But then, I started to listen to myself a little bit. You know, I could hear that - and he - and you can hear it in his voice, that he did get - he started to trill it a little bit.

The thing about it, Terry, is that you've always got a base in the truth. It's subject, verb and object. You know, that's what you have to base it. And it's simple grammar. And when you understand the principles of grammar, then the cadences of the voice take on those principles. It's as simple as that. But if you don't understand subject, verb and object - and a lot of people don't. A lot of actors don't. A lot of American actors don't - they see it as - they see it emotionally, and they don't see it in terms of clarity, you know? I mean, the emotional thing, of course, has got to be there. But that's a given.

But the thing is clarity. And the thing is actually making the audience listen to you. How do you make an audience listen to you? And you make the audience listen by being clear and by being - by inhabiting the line, by understanding where you are on the line. And this goes right back to Shakespeare and the iambic pentameter - to be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and, by opposing, end them. You know, that's what you have to understand.

BIANCULLI: Brian Cox speaking to Terry Gross in 2022. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "ALLEGRO IN C MINOR")

GROSS: You fell in love with movies. What were some of the movies that you fell in love with at an early age?

COX: Well, I was - I mean, really, there's so many movies. I mean - and it's a kind of wide scale, actually. I mean, my stuff was - my mother was a Spencer Tracy - I mean, my mother adored Spencer Tracy. So any Spencer Tracy film I was immediately sent to see (laughter) even though I was still little. But of course, I love Martin and Lewis. That was the other thing - Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, those movies - not Lewis later on, but Dean Martin - Martin and Lewis. Danny Kaye - my favorite film of all time - it's my favorite comedy - is "The Court Jester" with Danny Kaye, which is - I absolutely adore that movie. And I always responded - I couldn't - there was nothing - English films didn't - you know, I'm a Scot. So English films didn't mean anything to me. Whereas American films I identified with immediately because they were all, you know, Cagney and people like that. They were all Irish immigrants (laughter), a lot of them - Tracy, you know. So they all came from the same Celtic stock. So - and somehow, the films resonated.

GROSS: So your period of becoming an actor coincided with this new period of social mobility where working-class actors...

COX: The greatest time

GROSS: ...Were becoming accepted. And working-class stories started being told in movies in England. Did you feel like your accent or your background ever held you back either in your training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art or in your access to roles?

COX: I mean, it did in a way. I mean, it's a feudal society, and it's everybody in their place. And the great thing about the '60s is anything was possible. You were encouraged to be who you were. You were encouraged to be able to talk in your own accent. And all of that started to change. Though ironically, the Scottish thing didn't kick in till later. So actually, I ended up playing - (laughter) when I started out, playing a lot of Liverpool people or Yorkshire. I played quite - I did a David Storey play, so I did - played a lot of Yorkshire people. You know, I played - did a film, and then I did a couple of plays that - in that way. So that was the sense of social mobility.

And the other great influence, of course, at the time was what was happening in music because it was the time of The Beatles. It was the time of The Rolling Stones. It was the time of The Who, The Kinks. So the music thing had burgeoned. And those guys - I mean, when I watched that wonderful documentary with Paul McCartney, you know, that thing from - "Get Back," from those days when they recorded the last album - I mean, it was like I - moved me to tears because that was the energy that was so in the atmosphere, that anything was possible, that we could do it. And it subsequently dissipated horribly because of everybody saying, oh, just remember who you are, you know? And it's still as futile as it ever was. And the people won't even see it because it's kind of hidden. It's into - it's in the fabric of the society.

GROSS: You've worked with many actors. And you've worked with many actors with different approaches to acting. You don't personally subscribe to, like, the method approach where you dig down into your own emotional memory to play the character or where you stay in character while on set, even when you're not onstage or in front of the camera. But you've worked with actors who do have that approach. And you mentioned Daniel Day-Lewis, who you worked with in the film "The Boxer," and how he would stay in character. What impact does it have on you when you're not staying in character when you're not in front of the camera, but an actor who you're working with is staying in character?

COX: Well, it's (laughter) - I'm afraid it's a question of horses for courses, really. And there's one particular horse from one particular course, and they pursue that course, and that horse pursues that course. My thing about - what I feel is that you've got to be able to walk away. You've got to be able to turn on a dime. You can't get over-attached because once you're over-attached, you lose your sense of perspective. And with anything in drama, you got to have the perspective, what you're doing. You know, you've got to keep perspective going because that's the momentum of the - whatever is happening within the given play or film or TV, the drama.

So I find that, I mean, Dan was fascinating. He was great. And he's a great actor. And also, you know, I'm not going to knock that because I think whatever gets you through the day, fine. The only problem is when it - is the effect it has on the community. Now, when we've got actors, all working in a certain kind of way, and there's a sort of - there are demands that are made that are seemingly selfish or self-serving, it becomes really, really problematic.

GROSS: Brian Cox, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. And thank you for your portrayal of Logan Roy. I love the show.

COX: Thank you, Terry. It's always good to talk to you - challenging but great in a good way.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Actor Brian Cox speaking to Terry Gross in 2022. After a break, conversations with more stars of the HBO series "Succession," which returns for its final season Sunday. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. This Sunday, the HBO series "Succession," about a family-owned media conglomerate, its ruthless aging patriarch and his power-hungry offspring, begins its fourth and final season. Today, we're listening back to our interviews with several stars from it. Kieran Culkin got his start in acting at the age of 7 in the hit film "Home Alone," which starred his brother, Macaulay Culkin. In "Succession," he plays Roman Roy, the youngest and most immature of the family's siblings.

When Terry Gross spoke with Culkin in 2021, they began with a clip from "Succession." The Roy family is at the Future Freedom Summit, where the next Republican presidential nominee will be chosen. The Roys have a lot of influence because they can use their network to back or undermine a candidate. And if their candidate wins, the Roys expect favors in return. In this scene, Roman is talking to a would-be candidate from the far right, one Roman thinks his family should support because this guy can excite voters. He's a white nationalist named Jeryd Mencken. Roman is trying to convince Mencken they can help each other. The clip begins with Mencken explaining to Roman why he's against immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

JUSTIN KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) People trust people who look like them. That's just a scientific fact. They will give more tax dollars to help them. Now, you can integrate new elements, of course, but come on, man - slowly. I mean, [expletive]. I like this country.

KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Let's just take a beat before we fundamentally alter its composition.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah. And in terms of, you know, this - here, there's a thing here, right? And I get it. You're 6G, and we're Betamax. But, you know, you need us, I think. Our news, our viewers, those almost-deads - that's a big slice of pie.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Well, if I'm the nominee, are any of them really going to vote against me?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No. But, you know, it's going to be a [expletive] show going into the convention. I think you could really use our push.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) I think you could use mine.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Maybe.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Where are you in all this?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Me, Roman? You know, I'm creeping on the come-up.

KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Oh, yeah?

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah. I've got some ideas for ATN, you know, sluice out the porridge and add some sriracha - poach some of those TikTok psychos, you know, e-girls with guns and Juul pods. You know, give me some straight-shot Blacks and Latinos. No more of this pillows and bedpans. You know, we're strictly bone broth and [expletive] pills. Deep-state conspiracy hour but with, like, a wink, you know, funny. And the whole show is kind of set up for the star - President Jeryd Mencken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Kieran Culkin, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you. I love the show. I love your performance in it. I love the writing. I love all the actors. Anyways, thank you for being on our show.

CULKIN: Thank you. That's really nice.

GROSS: So that said, after all the praise, when the first episode was on, I didn't make it through the episode. I didn't like it. I thought, these characters are monsters. They were, like, the most privileged people in the world. They're monsters. Why would I spend my time watching this story about them? And then I finally figured out, through hearing other people talk about it, that it sounded great, and I should give it another shot. And that's when I realized the show is really funny. I mean, you wouldn't know it just looking at the surface 'cause everybody is so in character and is so serious in the way they play their role, but the writing is just hilarious.

Were you all worried about that, that there'd be a lot of people like me who wouldn't realize at first that it was really funny and would just kind of not care about these monsters?

CULKIN: I had the same feeling, even while we were shooting it. I looked at the pilot script, and I said, I know this is quality. As we were shooting it, I felt great about what we were doing. But I felt, who's going to want to watch this? Who is this for? You know, it's hard to just tell people, hey, it's good. Watch it. Like, I just didn't think that it was going to have tremendous appeal.

It's funny because I've been doing interviews since the first season, basically telling people, like, it's not bad at the beginning. There just isn't really anything that hooks you, I think, right away. I feel like somewhere in the middle of the first season - and I still don't know. I still haven't been able to identify what that thing is. But I start - I'm engaged, and I care about these characters. I mean, I don't like them, but I care to see what happens with them.

GROSS: Right, right. So, you know, in the clip that we just played, I'm thinking, has Roman just picked a candidate that would have been leading the insurrection? (Laughter).

CULKIN: (Laughter) Probably.

GROSS: Did you think about that?

CULKIN: I did. But it's funny. He just goes on instinct. I don't think he went into that summit with this guy fully on his radar. Mencken approaches him at a bar. And I thought, oh, this is a guy we can work with. This is a guy that, if I form a relationship with him - I think what properly motivates Roman in this is strictly to be in Dad's good graces, to position himself better. And if he finds the guy, then he's in a better position. And I think this is a guy that he felt he could work with. He - Roman has no care for what happens to the country or anything like that as long as it puts him in good standing with Dad.

GROSS: Yeah. And your character has no beliefs, no real moral center (laughter).

CULKIN: Yeah. Probably not. I don't think he even has any sort of political agenda of any kind. I don't think he really cares.

GROSS: Your character has done some very horrible things during the course of the series. What do you think is one of the most horrible?

CULKIN: The one and only choice I made for the character was this guy grew up never having to suffer consequences, and so he doesn't really know what that means to suffer consequences. So I think - and I've stuck to that - he can say and do whatever he wants because he completely means it, on one hand. On the other hand, he really doesn't mean it. Nothing means anything. So it's hard for me to even say what's horrible. Like, I go back to the pilot sometimes and think about when he tells that kid that he'll give him a million dollars to hit a home run.

GROSS: Oh, that's so horrible. Why don't you explain what he does?

CULKIN: Yeah. He goes up to that kid and tells him if he hits a home run, he will sign a check for a million dollars.

GROSS: This is - let me just set this up. This is a family baseball game. And there's, like, a young kid who's maybe 10 or something standing by with his parents. And you invite him to go up to bat, and you tell him, if you get a home run, I'm going to give you $1 million. You write out the check. And so, like, the kid is, like, so nervous, and his parents are just kind of biting their lips, and you're just, like, toying with him. And, of course, he doesn't make the home run, and you tear up the check. And it's just a horrible thing to do to a kid.

CULKIN: The kid comes close, too. But I think in - to look at it from Roman's perspective, like, that's why - a lot of people have told me that it was horrible. I read it on page and thought it was horrible. But when we did it, it was, like - it took a different perspective, which was he didn't have to offer that kid anything in the first place. This was in the spirit of fun and play. And, you know, it would have been nice if he gave him some sort of consolation prize, but that also wouldn't be fair. The kid didn't win.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CULKIN: So he tore up the check in front of him.

GROSS: Right. Right.

CULKIN: He doesn't get the million dollars. So is it that horrible? He actually provided this kid with a tremendous opportunity and gave the family memories. I'm not saying this is my - Kieran's perspective, but that's how Roman, you know, feels like he's not so horrible.

GROSS: You seem to have had this, like, approach-avoidance attitude toward acting. There's been periods where you've acted and periods where you've decided to drop out. Has the show and its success and your fabulous performance and role in it made you feel any differently about acting?

CULKIN: Yeah, it was, you know - because I've been doing it since I was a kid. And I don't think, you know, when you're 6, 7 years old and you say, hey, Mom, Dad, I want to be an actor, that you're actually really making a decision for your future. It doesn't really - you're just a kid, you know? So I felt like I'd just been doing it since I was a kid and never actually made the choice to do it. And I think around the age 18, 19, 20, I found that suddenly I had a career that I never decided I wanted, and I didn't really like that. So I kind of tried to stay out of the limelight as much as possible while I figure out what I want to do with my life. And in the meantime, I'll just do this acting thing as long as I like it and as long as I find a project that I like. I didn't necessarily pursue the acting career or success or anything like that. I just - I enjoy doing work from time to time. But while working on this show - and now I can't remember if it was Season 1 or 2, but I remember coming home from work one day and telling my wife - I said, you know, it's going really well. And she said, yeah? And I said, yeah, I think I know what I want to do with my life. I think I want to be an actor. And at that point, I'd been doing it for about 30 years.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's - yeah.

CULKIN: Yeah, it just took that long, and now I feel comfortable with it now. It's like before, I think I've always had this sort of - I had a relationship with it. It was a love-hate. I loved doing the work. I hated all the stuff that came with it. I always hated, you know - I hated doing press was one thing. I hated the fact that my face could be on a poster. That was always a nightmare to me. And those things are not - like, the poster thing is not great, but I no longer have a negative relationship with it anymore.

GROSS: What did you hate about the idea of your face being on a poster?

CULKIN: Are you kidding? Oh, there's my head on the bus going by, you know? I don't know. There's just something about that that's just really embarrassing.

GROSS: Some people just dream about that happening. That's their ambition, I want to be on a bus.

CULKIN: Those people are nuts, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

CULKIN: To me, that's a nightmare. That's like, you know, you know what I want to hear? I want to hear the sound of my own voice. You know, when you - like, you hear a recording of yourself on, like, a voicemail or something, how that's a nightmare? That, to me, is just like when you put your face on a poster how awful that is. Like, now I have to see my face.

GROSS: How's your memory in terms of memorizing lines?

CULKIN: That is something that I can credit towards my childhood acting because I memorize lines extremely fast. It's almost like a parlor trick that has nothing to do with, like, you know, talent or anything like that. It's just, like, a neat little skill because I've been doing it since I was 6. But I can look at a speech, like, once or twice and I can repeat it back pretty quickly. Yeah. Brian Cox sometimes gets mad at how fast I learn lines. There was one time this past season - I also don't like running lines, which I know a lot of actors like to do. I don't want to run lines with people. I actually don't like saying the words. I don't say them out loud when I'm working on them the night before or the day of. I don't like saying it until I'm in the room saying it. And there was one day, and some people know I don't like running lines. If I see some actors running lines, I usually leave the room because I don't want to be rude, but I just don't like - for my, you know, whatever, process, I don't like doing it. But Brian - it was a big scene with a big group of us, and he started running the lines. He actually just yelled, (imitating Brian Cox) we're running lines.

And then he just started in the scene and everybody's doing it. And it came to my part, and he looked at me, and I kind of didn't want to do it. And I said, well, I haven't actually looked at the scene yet and - properly. We had sort of rehearsed, and they were setting up the shots. So I grabbed the sides and I just sort of read it once, and then we run it again. And I read it a second time, and then we were called to set. And we came in, and we just shot it. And he goes, when did you learn those lines - just now? I'm like, oh, yeah, just now. And he went, (imitating Brian Cox) goddammit.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CULKIN: And he got so mad because he had to, like, work the night before and try to learn these lines. And I looked at it twice and I knew it and he was so mad.

GROSS: Oh, that's hilarious. Well, I love you on the show. I love the show. Thank you so much for being on our show. I really appreciate it.

CULKIN: Thank you. It was such a pleasure being here. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Actor Kieran Culkin speaking to Terry Gross in 2021. After a break, Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Tom, the husband of Logan Roy's daughter, Shiv. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Our final guest today, British actor Matthew Macfadyen, won an Emmy for his work on the hit HBO series "Succession." The show begins its fourth and final season on Sunday. Macfadyen plays Tom Wambsgans, who marries Siobhan Roy, one of several siblings competing for control of their ageing father's media empire when he retires or dies. Tom is a player in the corporate intrigue, but as an in-law, he's never been on an even footing with Shiv, as she's usually called, and her brothers, not until this final season anyway. We're going to listen to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Macfadyen last year. In this scene from the very first episode of "Succession," the family is celebrating the patriarch's birthday with a picnic and softball game. Tom, hoping to ingratiate himself with the old man, approaches and gives him a case bearing an expensive watch. But the gesture doesn't exactly go over well. Brian Cox plays the patriarch, Logan Roy. Matthew Macfadyen, as Tom, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Hey, so I just wanted to give this to you in person, just to say, you know, happy birthday. So...

COX: (As Logan Roy) Oh. Ooh.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) It's just a - it's a Patek Phillipe, so...

COX: (As Logan Roy) It says Patek Phillipe.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Yeah. It's incredibly accurate. Every time you look at it, it tells you exactly how rich you are.

COX: (As Logan Roy) That's very funny.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans, laughter) Well...

COX: (As Logan Roy) Did you rehearse that?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans, laughter) No. Ah, well, no. Yes, but...

COX: (As Logan Roy) OK. Oh, yeah. OK, let's play ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES: Oh, boy. Painful. Well, Matthew Macfadyen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MACFADYEN: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: That scene is from the beginning of the series, and I'd never heard of a Patek Philippe watch. And I went online, and I discovered that there's one that's a pre-owned one of them available for $120,000. And poor Tom offers this gift - doesn't even get a simple thank-you. Boy, this kind of lets us know it's going to be rough for Tom in this family, doesn't it?

MACFADYEN: I think it does. Yeah. That was my first inkling into what might lie await in store for Tom if the - if, you know, we went - and also when we were shooting the pilot, we didn't know it was going to go on. So I was - I thought, you know, there were these sort of markers about what might happen to him. But that was a really - that was a fun scene to play with Brian.

DAVIES: Well, you know, one of the things that people say about "Succession," especially those who say they don't like it, is that none of the characters are likable. You know, actors like to feel invested in their characters. Do you agree that these people aren't likable?

MACFADYEN: They're not especially likable, but they're not monsters. So they're not - you know, there's always some sort of sympathy there. And I think, you know, they're humans. And so there's always a sliver of something, you know. And I think the interesting thing about all those characters is the - it's those perennial themes of power and love and family.

It's a family dynamic, you know, and it's the sort of absence of love from the father figure, Logan Roy, who's the sort of center of it all, around whom everyone sort of orbits. And so you sort of - I feel a great deal of sympathy for them in a strange way, because they don't - often it seems to me they don't have an awful lot of confidence because they don't feel terribly loved by their father - or their mother, indeed.

DAVIES: I mean, Brian Cox does this so well. There's - one of the little things he does is when someone will approach him and say something important, and he'll listen and just say, mmm-hmm, just this utterly non-committal - I know this is - you think this is important. I have power, and you're not getting an ounce of affirmation from me.

MACFADYEN: That's right.

DAVIES: Puts you really off balance, I think, all the time.

MACFADYEN: That's right. You're always slightly off balance. They never really have any real confidence.

DAVIES: You know, the other big relationship, ongoing relationship you have besides your wife Siobhan is the younger member of the Waystar crew, Cousin Greg, who is a terrific character. He's sort of - and I guess you might say endowed with more ambition than brains. And you as Tom kind of take him under your wing, and you kind of mock him and torture him at times. And it's hard not to see Tom as a guy who is dumped on by others in the family, including his wife, and that he just, you know, sends some of that abuse down to Greg because he can - yeah?

MACFADYEN: Yeah. I think that's - it's certainly a case of kicking the cat with old Gregory.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, I want to play a scene of you and Cousin Greg, and this is in the last episode of the season. And it's after the moment when you, as Tom, have decided to make your move against Siobhan, his wife, and the other - her brothers, the other Roy siblings, and effectively switch sides. And in this scene he comes to Greg and invites him to join him. There's some noise here. This is at an outdoor wedding reception - to just ask Greg if he wants to come along with him in this enterprise.

One note for the dialogue - earlier in the series, when the company was in trouble, Greg had to testify before Congress and kind of made a fool of himself. I mention that because Tom is going to bring this up as he has the conversation with Greg. So this is Cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, and we will hear our guest, Matthew Macfadyen, as Tom, speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Greg, listen.

NICHOLAS BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) What's up?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) So things may be in motion.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) As in - is anyone going to jail?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) No. No. So do you want to come with me, Sporus?

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Can I ask for a little more information?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) No, I don't think so. I might need you as my attack dog...

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Right.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) ...Like a Greg-weiler (ph).

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Tom's attack dog. Nice. I mean, I have Brightstar Buffalo in my hip pocket. I'm kind of a big deal. So...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) You f***ed yourself before Congress, Greg.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) That's your opinion.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans, impersonating Greg Hirsch) Well, I don't recall, Your Honor. I don't recall. You're a joke, man. Who has ever looked after you in this family, huh?

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) All right. Well, in terms of where I could be getting to if I were to come with...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) You could be heading away from the endless middle and towards the bottom of the top.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) The bottom of the top. And could I get my own - my own, like...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Your own Greg.

BRAUN: (As Greg Hirsch) Yeah.

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) You can have 20.

DAVIES: Heavy intrigue in the HBO series "Succession" - that's our guest Matthew Macfadyen and Cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun. It's so funny to hear him. You know, I'm kind of a big deal (laughter).

MACFADYEN: I love it. I love it. He's so pleased with himself. And he's so delighted at the prospect of moving away from the endless middle and towards the bottom of the top.

DAVIES: Bottom of the top...

MACFADYEN: It's just beautiful writing. It's so great. It's so - I mean, not only is it wonderful acting with Nick and everybody and, you know, they're all sensational actors, but when you've got writing like that, it's just - it's not easy peasy, but it's just a joy because you just sort of trust it to do the work. And, you know, it's just great.

DAVIES: I completely agree. I mean, the writing is so much fun. And in fact, that's what I was going to note, is how much fun it must be to say things like, you know, you screwed up in front of Congress, blah, blah, blah. You're a joke. I mean...

MACFADYEN: The difficulty is not breaking up. You know, Nick and I have real - you know, I've said this a lot. It's not a secret that we struggle with corpsing, as we say in the U.K., which is just, you know, breaking up irretrievably and everyone getting annoyed with us and them having to reset and, you know, but it's hard when the dialogue is so funny.

BIANCULLI: Matthew Macfadyen speaking to Dave Davies in 2022. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL, ET. AL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Matthew Macfadyen's 2022 interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: I got to bring this up. You know, I think - is your film, your appearance in "Pride & Prejudice," you know, I'm sure Siobhan in "Succession" would not take you so for granted if she'd seen you as the dreamboat Mr. Darcy in the Joe Wright production.

MACFADYEN: There's a lot. Yeah, there's a - Tom Wambsgans is a long way from Mr. Darcy.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You have this kind of - you know, you're tall in this high-collared gentlemen's, you know, dress with the shaggy haircut. He's sort of an aloof, distant character, but there's really a lot more to him. Was it at all intimidating to play this kind of literary figure, which had been done a lot before, you know, by Colin Firth and a few others before you?

MACFADYEN: Yeah, it had. It was quite intimidating. It was, really. I tried not to, you know - but I think inevitably you worry about getting it right, and I didn't feel I was dishy enough and sort of brooding enough. And, you know, in your mind's eye as an actor, you always want to be a little more this or a little more that. And my confidence wasn't great. But, again, it was a brilliant adaptation. And, you know, Joe was great. And Keira was great and the actors were - you know, it was a lovely thing to be a part of.

DAVIES: Yeah, Joe Wright, the director, and Keira Knightley, who was Elizabeth Bennet. So well - so how did you find dishy?

MACFADYEN: Well, I don't know. I just hoped for the best. I don't know. I just - I sort of decided that he was a sort of - he was a bit sort of like a tortured adolescent, Mr. Darcy, which in a way he was. You know, he's grieving his parents. He's inherited this vast estate and responsibility. And, yeah, he's sort of all conflicted and torn up. And so I thought, I'll - you know, that's - that'll be my way into him.

DAVIES: Well, you know, there's an internet meme that developed out of a small, quiet moment in that film early on - I mean, I'm sure you know this - I mean, where you're helping...

MACFADYEN: The hand.

DAVIES: ...Elizabeth Bennet, played by Keira Knightley, out of a carriage. You don't really know each other well, and she didn't particularly like you. But you take her hand to help her into the carriage. And as you're walking away, the camera catches you flexing the hand, you know, having had this incidental contact. She's looking back at you. There's a lot of internet stuff on this. I saw one - I learned this from our digital producer, Molly Seavy-Nesper, who says this has gotten a lot of attention. There was one TikTok of a woman who got a tattoo of your hand...

MACFADYEN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Over Keira Knightley's...

MACFADYEN: You're kidding.

DAVIES: ...On her shoulder. Yeah.

MACFADYEN: He's so buttoned up. He can't show a thing.

DAVIES: Was this scripted? Was this planned all along, that shot?

MACFADYEN: No, it's credit to Joe 'cause he's - I think he just - he doesn't miss a trick, and he's so alive to things. And he saw me do it in a take - in a rehearsal or a take. And he - I remember him just going, get that. So they just did an extra shot on the hand. You know, they were already on a sort of tracking shot. So yeah.

DAVIES: Well, Matthew Macfadyen, it's been fun. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MACFADYEN: Oh, you're most welcome. Real pleasure. Thanks, Dave.

BIANCULLI: Actor Matthew Macfadyen speaking to Dave Davies last year. HBO's "Succession" returns Sunday with its fourth and final season. On Monday's show, we meet Emmy Award-winning actor Brett Goldstein of the Apple TV+ series "Ted Lasso," which just began its third and final season. He plays Roy Kent, the gruff, foulmouthed-yet-lovable footballer turned assistant coach. He's also a writer for the show. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNDAY BEST")

SURFACES: (Singing) Hey, feeling good, like I should.

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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