The Brilliance of 'Succession' Improvisation Is All Thanks to EP Adam McKay
For the last three years, Succession has rapidly evolved into a certified HBO hit. The dramedy features an ensemble cast to portray the 1% familial media empire, the Roys, and senior-level executives of the company, Waystar Royco.
The show has received widespread critical acclaim, particularly for its writing and direction. The cast, as well as the crew, bring significant essence to the show. While it's true that creator Jesse Armstrong produces scripts, executive producer and director Adam McKay has allowed the show to go the extra mile with his improvisation guidance. So, how much of the production relies on improv?
How much of 'Succession' is improvised?
Over the course of the series, more moments in the show have relied on the addition of improvisation, thanks to the expert himself, Adam McKay. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the value of improv in media and how he always does his best to incorporate it in most of his projects.
"When you have your ideas for how scenes go, you want the actor to play it a certain way. I always get a little itchy when everything’s lining up too nicely,” he said. "I want to make sure there are some mistakes flowing around, so I always jokingly say on the best day of my life, I was right about 68 percent of the time, so I throw improv in there to make sure that there’s some collisions and accidents."
Now for some actors, we know that improv is a big step out of their comfort zone. He admitted to THR that at the start, he received pushback from the Succession stars.
"But in this cast, we had some classically trained actors who just looked me straight in the eyes and told me, 'There’s no way I’m improvising,' and sure enough, on the day, we would get there and I would yell out, 'Hey, try this,' and they would go, 'No.'"
For some, improvisation is similar to speaking skilfully about a topic you aren't familiar with, but Adam McKay's approach generates a safe environment for everyone. He encourages the cast to learn the lines but to think of ways to change the scene and mess it up to change the tone and create a new flow of events.
Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook improvised their sibling brawl in Season 1.
In Aug. 2020, Kieran Culkin discussed Succession on WTF with Marc Maron, the stand-up comedian's podcast. Kieran said he's been in the industry for 30 years, and he's worked with hundreds of actors with diverse methods and approaches to their craft. Kieran said he's the type of actor to play it out, just like his co-star Sarah Snook.
He told Marc, "[Sarah] Snook and I have done a few scenes where we kind of know the lines but the scene sort of changes and develops because we just throw different things at each other."
Also, Kieran admitted he and Sarah improvised their sibling brawl scene, featured in the second episode of Season 1.
"I slapped her once, and she put me in a headlock, like, we just sort of came up with that. That kind of stuff is fun because we’re just trying to play with each other."
Logan Roy's birthday party celebration was improvised.
Adam McKay also revealed that one scene in Succession, focusing on a birthday dinner celebration for Logan Roy (Brian Cox), was improvised.
Per the previous THR publication, Adam McKay said, "I gave everyone their own conversations they were going to have, and I just did the dolly track around the table, and we just circled the table for a full mag and did it three times in a row, and they were incredible."
Catch up on the first two seasons of Succession on HBO Max, and watch new episodes of Season 3 airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.