Thanks to Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Spin City and memorable guest spots on series like Justified and Bunheads, Alan Ruck has been a familiar face for decades, but with Succession, he's found a role unlike any he's played before. As Connor Roy, Ruck plays the oldest of the Roy siblings who, as the series begins, seems to have largely distanced himself from his family. But any sense that this distance comes from lofty principles evaporates as soon as Connor starts talking, espousing outré theories and political beliefs that he's nurtured living in the isolating bubble of extreme wealth.
Part of the magic of Ruck's performance comes from his ability to deliver Connor's eccentric thoughts with a straight face that makes them seem almost rational — at least at first. Succession's first season ended with Connor declaring his intention to run for president, a declaration others greeted with a joke until the seriousness of his intent became apparent. Season 2 has seen him making good on that declaration and moving to New York to support the theatrical dreams of Willa (Justine Lupe), his live-in companion. The move has also seen Connor drawn increasingly back into the orbit of the rest of the Roy family and the tumult enveloping them. By phone, TV Guide spoke to Ruck about this, his thoughts on how Connor's mind works, and the pleasure of working with writers who trust actors.
When the series began, Connor was more at the margins of the Roy family business and assumably had been for a while. When you took the role, did you know that he'd be drawn back into the family circle?
Alan Ruck: I think in terms of like Waystar/Royco, I don't know that he's going to ever be really directly involved in the day-to-day, the machinations of what goes on. For one thing he's sorely ill-equipped to operate in that kind of world. This is not his forte, big business strategy.
It raises the question of what Connor is equipped to do.
Ruck: The direct answer is very little. This is a guy who has never worked a day in his life. I think there were some ADHD issues back when he was young that weren't properly addressed. I think that's something that happens with these dynastic families: People who aren't glittering stars kind of get pushed off to the side or swept under the carpet because it doesn't add to the family brand. It doesn't add to the name if someone's struggling in any capacity. Connor's never worked a day in his life and he's got some issues. He has delusional disorder certainly. I think he probably tried a bunch of things. He probably tried to go to business school to impress his dad and that was a disaster. Maybe he went to art school and found out he had no talent. Then just was happy to live off the trust fund and collect different objects d'art and spend money on girlfriends-for-hire.
It's odd when his interests surface, whether politics or Napoleonic artifacts. Do you have a sense of what his catalog of interests are? Or is it as surprising to you when you get the script?
Ruck: The truth is we get information, basically we get scripts right before we're gonna shoot them, you know? [Show creator] Jesse [Armstrong] and the gang, they're so talented and they cannot leave it alone. So things are being adjusted up to the last minute. On any given shooting day we're presented with a full sheet of alternative lines. As for his interests, I think it's pretty much anywhere the wind blows. At one point there was a line about Connor's failed yurt endeavor. Apparently Connor was gonna go into the yurt-building business in the Southwest and it did not go well. You know this guy, he's not a dummy, he's just really damaged. He reads a lot but his noggin is sort of like a trunk full of Trivial Pursuit cards. It doesn't really add up to much besides, "Oh, that's an interesting fact." There's no design to the information that he's gathered. There's no purpose to it other than him thinking that something might be interesting at any given moment.
It's hard to figure out if he has the most complex inner life of the Roys or if it's only all there on the surface.
Ruck: I think he's just as needy as the other kids in terms of, in pursuit of the old man's attention [and] affection. I mean that's the driving force for all the kids. That's it. "Will this impress dad? What will dad say?" Even Siobhan who did a 180 and went into politics and [could say,] "See how great I am without you, I don't need you. I'm on the other side of the aisle and I'm succeeding and I don't need you." And then as soon as he said, "You know I would love to have you come run the company," she came running. She came galloping back.
In terms of inner life, I think he's a mess. Besides Willa, he's never had a serious relationship in his life. There have been hints that Connor's mother was suffering from mental challenges, which I'm sure did not improve once she and the old man divorced. So Connor was stuck with this woman who was dealing with her own problems. I think there's a lot of privilege, a lot of opportunity, but not much love to be had.
When you're playing a character who's running for President, does it help you to have a sense of what his political beliefs are or is that something that's kind of OK to let develop over time?
Ruck: Just going from what Jesse and the writers have given me, his core beliefs are pretty spare. I mean, he's not playing with a full deck of cards. It's like, "Let's stop masturbating and let's stop taxation."In the first season [he was against] onanism and usury. He wants people to stop lending money and stop the spilling of good seed. I mean, what do you say about that guy's political beliefs? It's, at the very least, outside the norm. I don't know anybody else like Connor. The whole political thing, him running for President, this is something that he feels would impress his father. If he could get to be President of the United States, then his father would finally have to say, "Connor, I'm proud of you." That's what this is all about. Connor has no idea of what he's getting into. He has no strategy. It's just something he wants. It's just a toy.
Has the experience of working on Succession been what you were expecting going in?
Ruck: Honestly, I didn't know what to expect going in. It's just that I knew that [executive producer] Adam McKay was involved. What little I read... I mean, truthfully, I went to Adam McKay's house. It's a long story, but I was not fully prepared to do the audition, because I had to fly back to Chicago and there were family things going on and so forth. They said, "Just go to Adam's house now." And Adam just said, "Make it up. Improvise. Just, you know, whatever comes out of your mouth. You know what the situation is. Just go." So, I didn't know a lot. I hadn't read a lot of the material upfront. I just knew it was going to be about this dynastic media family. I knew that Brian Cox was involved. I didn't know anybody else. So, I think everything has been a happy surprise.
Is improvising in those kind of situations something you're comfortable with?
Ruck: I am actually. It's a funny thing: I mean everybody tells this story now, because during the pilot Kieran Culkin was really upset, because he was not a fan of improv-ing. He said, "I like writers to write my lines and then I like to say them." Adam McKay was having us just make stuff up on the spot. Kieran felt like a fish out of water. Now that guy, he could hold master classes in extemporaneous acting, because he's sort of like a bottomless well. He's like an artesian well of just inventive, caustic shit. Much to everyone's delight. I've always enjoyed doing that. It's a fun way to work, because this happens with writers who are very confident. They know what they're capable of. And so, like on our show, you'll run through it once as written. And then, they'll come up with a page full of alternatives. You want to do all of them, because they're all so good. Then one of our directors, usually Mark Mylod, will say, "Okay, gang, free one." So it's whatever comes out of your mouth. Lots of times, you're basically paraphrasing what the writers have done. But sometimes, somebody just takes a left turn. If you hang on and you go with them, you can get some really surprising results. It's a fun way to work.
Succession airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.