In the seventh episode of the fourth and final season of “Succession,” the uncertainly tethered couple Shiv Roy and Tom Wambsgans step out from their bustling election eve party to engage in a heated exchange on their balcony, reminiscent of the intense confrontations in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Partially cloaked in shadows and partly illuminated by the glow from their Manhattan triplex, they hurl previously unspoken, yet painfully accurate, criticisms at each other.
With a cutting remark, Shiv asserts, “You’re pathetic! A masochist who can’t handle it.” Tom, ever ready with a response, counters, “I think you’re incapable of love. And maybe, you might not be the right person to raise children,” he concludes, pausing briefly before lowering his voice to complete the thought.
During the intense argument, Shiv’s eyes brim with tears for the first time, creating a moment that elicits gasps from the audience. We are aware, thanks to prior revelations in the season, that Shiv, much like the actress portraying her, Sarah Snook, is pregnant. However, this crucial information has not been disclosed within the show’s narrative. Surprisingly, the scene carries an even more significant dramatic irony. When the balcony confrontation was filmed, well into the season’s production, Snook, as Sarah, was pregnant, but Shiv, the character, wasn’t.
In essence, this was a plot development that hadn’t yet been written into the storyline. Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” was privy to this fact, as were others close to Snook within the company, such as Matthew Macfadyen. “Matthew knew that I was pregnant, yeah; Tom didn’t,” she reveals.
It was a night shoot in mid-November, with the first snow of the season gently falling. Sarah Snook, immersed in the scene, envisioned neighbors overhearing Matthew Macfadyen’s emphatic portrayal of Tom and pondered whether any “Succession” enthusiasts among them might catch the repeated cries of “Shiv!” and speculate, “Is this a spoiler?”
Drawing from Tom’s harsh lines, Snook infused her performance with the emotional weight of his cruel words. She reflects, “Inevitably, something dulls, and you get used to a scene, and you are not finding the same spontaneity or inspiration in it. 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!”
On that night, Snook chose to reveal to the crew that she was pregnant.
“Succession” premiered quietly in June 2018 on HBO, but by Season 2, it had become a phenomenon, eventually earning two Emmys for best drama. As it concluded with the May 28 finale, fans meticulously analyzed every line of dialogue and delved into the characters’ psychologies. They avidly searched for clues about who would emerge victorious in the show’s high-stakes game, determining which character would take control of the megacorporation Waystar Royco, founded by the recently deceased Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in the third episode of the final season.
In Siobhan Roy, the youngest of Logan’s children and aptly nicknamed Shiv for her sharpness, Sarah Snook skillfully brought Jesse Armstrong’s writing to life, creating a character that joins the ranks of fictional HBO greats like Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw.
Initially, Shiv seemed reminiscent of someone Ivanka Trump-like on the surface. Similar to our perception of Ivanka before we saw through her, Shiv appeared as the seemingly decent person we wanted to root for in a family inherently venal and power-hungry like the Roys. We hoped Shiv would know better and do better. However, inevitably, she would self-destruct, betraying the values she purported to hold. This was evident in Season 2 when she persuaded a sexual harassment victim from Waystar’s cruise line not to testify before a congressional hearing, and in Season 4, where she formed a secret alliance with tech mogul Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) against her own brothers, Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
The “Succession” pilot was filmed in December 2016, and over the years, Armstrong found that he could imagine anything, and Snook could bring it to life. “There was no variety of human experience that I could possibly think of that was true that she couldn’t do,” he acknowledges.
As the final season unfolded each Sunday throughout the spring, it became evident that regardless of Shiv’s position in the Waystar Royco hierarchy, Snook, at 35, had emerged victorious. Nominated for the first time in the lead actress in a drama category at this year’s Emmys after being recognized twice in supporting roles, she is emerging as the clear favorite. Post-“Succession,” Snook, who admires actors like Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet, is well on her way to charting her course in the industry.
Since welcoming her baby girl in April, Sarah Snook and her husband, actor Dave Lawson, have been nesting at their home in Melbourne, Australia. Both of our lengthy interviews with Variety were conducted over Zoom before the SAG-AFTRA strike. While Snook has been enjoying relaxation and adjusting to parenthood – during our second interview, her then-10-week-old baby gurgled and squawked, and at one point, she nursed her – her on-screen endeavors have kept her busy. Alongside the conclusion of “Succession,” she has seen the release of two summer movies: the horror film “Run Rabbit Run,” picked up by Netflix from Sundance, and Apple TV+’s “The Beanie Bubble.”
In October, Snook is set to commence rehearsals for her first post-“Succession” project – a West End production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” where she will portray all 26 roles. Adapted and directed by Kip Williams, the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, “Dorian Gray” is scheduled to open in late January, with hopes of a later move to Broadway. The production will utilize screens and projections, presenting an approximately hour-and-50-minute (sort-of) monologue. Snook expresses her excitement, stating, “It’s such an unusual, eccentric piece of theater, and I really wanted to have the opportunity to play in it.”
In a dinner party scene, Snook will interact with six prerecorded characters, all portrayed by her, each featuring distinct wigs, postures, voices, and costumes. Describing the setup, she expresses her enthusiasm, saying, “It’s pretty mental!”
“Are you kidding me?” was Snook’s initial reaction when she read the script for the series finale of “Succession” during the last table read. She discovered that, unexpectedly, Tom would be the titular successor — not chosen for his excellence but for his skill at bootlicking.
The day brought a series of “are you kidding me” moments because it was also when Snook found out that “Succession” was coming to an end. While filming the season, Snook was aware that “it probably could end,” but she held onto hope that “it could go one way or the other.” However, as she went through the final script, she had a realization. “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.’”
However, Armstrong eventually made the official announcement, and Snook describes it as devastating.
Nonetheless, they still had the series finale to shoot, where Shiv’s capricious decision-making becomes pivotal — a final act of betrayal by the character. Kendall has successfully persuaded Shiv and Roman to support him as CEO and reject Matsson’s takeover of Waystar Royco. Snook describes the sibling relationship during this agreement as “so seductive when they’re all getting along well.”
However, during the company’s boardroom showdown and vote, Shiv hesitates and cannot bring herself to follow through. Snook attributes it to pure instinct, a trigger response. According to her, Shiv turns on Kendall when she observes him casually putting his feet up on their late father’s desk before the vote. “There’s something in her that goes, ‘Ahhhhh!’ — sorry to swear, but — ‘Motherfucker!’” she explains. “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. However, she rejects that idea. “I never really considered that Tom becoming CEO is Shiv, by proxy, winning,” she asserts. “For Shiv, that is so not a win! That is ‘I’m once again power adjacent. I’m not the winner.’”
And then there’s the final scene between Shiv and Tom — inside a limo departing from Waystar Royco headquarters heading home. Their hand-holding, deemed the saddest ever displayed on-screen by Armstrong, is meant to symbolize “something getting locked in, which in a grim way, works for them both.” Snook doesn’t often contemplate Shiv’s future, but when she does, she envisions her falling into “quite a deep postpartum depression.” Regarding Shiv’s resigned look in the conclusion, she remarks, “I think the baby thing is really about to hit in a way that is inescapable.”
That marked the last appearance of Shiv and Tom for the audience. However, Snook, Culkin, and Strong still had more to film, and 10 days later, they traveled to Barbados to shoot the segment of the finale set at the home of their mother, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter). Here, the siblings devise the (doomed) plan to retain control of Waystar Royco. Despite Snook’s desire to return to Australia as her pregnancy progressed, she found a “levity to the scenes” that made them “really nice.”
The absolute final scene filmed for “Succession” was the “meal fit for a king” sequence in Caroline’s kitchen, where Roman and Shiv designate Kendall as the once and future CEO of Waystar. With principal director Mark Mylod encouraging the actors, they laughed and bonded while searching for food, creating a disgusting shake for Kendall that Shiv spat into with each take — “and he drank it every time, because he is Jeremy,” Snook fondly recalls.
It was “perhaps the closest we got to all three of us in our playful selves as actors — as Kieran, Sarah, and Jeremy, not just Shiv, Roman, and Kendall,” she says. “Because it was the last scene of the series, we may have leaned into a personal kind of actor celebration and indulgence of what’s going on.”
Armstrong recalls watching the scene unfold, with Culkin enjoying Caroline’s husband’s forbidden cheese, Snook preparing the shake, and Strong’s Kendall surprisingly “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.”
After the “Succession” premiere in New York in March, Snook promptly returned home. She witnessed the final season’s unveiling as a fan, much like everyone else, frequently hosting friends for viewing parties. For the series finale, her family was in town to assist with the baby, and she watched it with Lawson, her mother and stepfather, and her sister. The emotional impact left Snook in tears.
“I felt sadness for Shiv,” Snook reveals. “She put in so much effort, only to find herself in this kind of gilded cage, close to the thing she desires. The journey isn’t over for her. It’s not over for any of them, but she remains in the orbit of the CEO, and that will be genuinely painful for her.”
She shed tears for various reasons — the closing of the “Succession” chapter of her life being one. “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 laments. “Just sadness for never getting a moment to play with these brilliant actors again.” (When I mention that Culkin had suggested to me that perhaps Shiv and Roman might reconcile 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 watching the finale, Snook shared a heartfelt tribute to “Succession” on her somewhat sparse Instagram, which only contains two posts. The photo features a TV screen displaying an image of Tom on the landing page of the Australian streaming service Binge. 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.”
In a show explicitly centered around control, the creation of “Succession” surprisingly embraced a freewheeling spirit, with Armstrong actively welcoming input from the expansive ensemble of actors. Therefore, it’s fitting that the rich narrative involving Shiv’s pregnancy itself emerged as an improvisation. This creative turn of events unfolded after Snook informed Armstrong last fall that she was expecting.
Snook acknowledges, with a laugh, that her pregnancy “wasn’t a planned thing.” She adds, “I think the fear from women can be that they will be sidelined, or considered less-than” — echoing how Shiv was treated her entire life within the Roy dynasty. However, Armstrong’s response, as Snook recalls, was supportive: “Bring it — let’s work out how we can make this work for you.” Snook emphasizes, “Not ‘You ruined my story! You ruined my imagination games!’”
She can’t recall whether she approached Armstrong in October or November to share the news, as production on the show had commenced during the summer. For Armstrong, the news was met with delight: “I was just delighted because they’re lovely people,” he says of Snook and Lawson. While planning Season 4, he and the writers had actually considered a Shiv pregnancy but abandoned the idea. In their attempts to depict the world of the Roy family realistically, Armstrong was adamant about not resorting to a pregnancy belly. “Any extra layer that you have to put in in terms of prosthetics, or pretending, is a layer,” Armstrong remarks, emphasizing the term with a slightly negative connotation.
However, for dramatic purposes, the development fits seamlessly: Shiv’s pregnancy adds complexity to the strained state of her marriage with Tom and amplifies the character’s evident ambivalence about motherhood throughout “Succession.” A few weeks after Snook shared her pregnancy news, Armstrong informed her that he had decided to incorporate it into the story. “It felt like it was, narratively, just giving us so much more than it was restricting us,” Armstrong explains. “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.’”
On the show, Shiv keeps her pregnancy a secret. She learns about its viability during a phone call from her doctor in the fourth episode of the season, set the day after Logan’s death. Lorene Scafaria, who directed that episode, returned in early January to film the additional scene. However, even without altering anything, Shiv’s pregnancy has a powerful impact — as evident in a shocking scene later in the episode when she falls down the stairs of Logan’s apartment, just hours after talking to her doctor. “As Sarah, I wasn’t pregnant on the day that we shot that,” Snook reveals.
As an audience member in Melbourne, she describes it as a game, saying, “Watching this season for me has been fun, because it’s like, ‘Am I pregnant? Am I not pregnant?’”
While Shiv managed to hide her pregnancy, Snook faced a different challenge: she was quite ill for the first 22 weeks. During a scene filmed in New Jersey at the end of the previous year, she had to request the van driver to pull over. “I’m just vomiting violently outside, and thinking, ‘It’s so visibly me,’” Snook recalls. “It’s Shiv, totally projectile vomiting outside the door, with oncoming traffic.”
When Snook joined “Succession” in 2016, she was an emerging Australian actor with a diverse background in TV shows, movies, and theater. After graduating from the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art, where Cate Blanchett is also an alum, Snook, the youngest of three sisters, had built a résumé. Growing up in Adelaide as an outdoorsy tomboy, she attended a high school with an excellent drama program on a scholarship. Despite her love for performing, Snook initially didn’t consider acting as a viable profession: “I don’t think I grew up knowing that you could turn your passion into work.” Procrastinating her application to NIDA, she was nudged by her mother to pursue her dream.
Even after excelling at NIDA, Snook struggled with self-doubt 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 reflects. In 2010, shortly after graduating, Snook found herself in Los Angeles for the first time during David Fincher’s global casting search for the ideal Lisbeth Salander for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” While working in a café in Sydney, she had to juggle shifts to make the 14-hour flight to L.A., once for Fincher and a second time for a camera test with Daniel Craig.
Recalling this whirlwind experience, Snook sees herself as the “Antipodean dark horse” among the candidates. “I have no right to be here!” she thought. “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 ‘The 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 went on to secure the role. Not landing the part of Salander was “only disappointing in the way that 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 consistently in Australia, casting director Francine Maisler selected her for 2015’s “Steve Jobs” to play Andrea Cunningham, the Apple publicist whom Jobs orders to turn off the auditorium’s exit signs at the first Mac launch. Maisler also played a pivotal role in casting “Succession.”
“Francine was like, ‘This person is amazing. You’re gonna love her,’” Armstrong recalls. “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!”