‘I’m a crier – I sobbed when I found out Succession was ending’: Justine Lupe on waving goodbye to the Roys
When the stars of Succession were told that the show was ending after four seasons, they cried. They cried so much, in fact, that the writers of the HBO wealth satire joked that there should be a competition for who wept the most. The winners? In joint first place, I’m told, were Nicholas Braun, the cultish 6ft7in softie behind “Greg the Egg”, and Justine Lupe, who is sublime as the willowy, eye-rolling plus-one Willa. “I’m a crier anyway,” Lupe tells me, through yet more tears, as she sits cross-legged on her bedroom floor in LA. “And it was just, like, waves and waves of grief.” She lets out a watery laugh. “I remember at one point looking around and just sobbing and just being like, this is a nightmare, everyone’s just watching me just lose it to this level of hyperventilation-kind-of-crying.” A pause. “Whatever, it’s just an indication of how much I care.”
Lupe, who also stars in the Prime Video series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, has been in Succession since it began in 2018. Over the past five years, the modern-day media saga about the ludicrously loaded Roy family has been adorned with breathless five-star reviews. It’s won 13 Emmys. Five Golden Globes. Spielberg’s a fan. It’s full of some of the worst and most narcissistic characters ever committed to the page, but writer Jesse Armstrong has somehow made it a delight to spend time with them. Armed with a writers room full of scruffy Brits and Americans, he has brought us Shakespearian showdowns, brutal double-crossings and killer insults such as, “It was supposed to be choreographed. That was about as choreographed as a dog getting f***ed on roller skates.”
The third season came to a typically back-stabbing finish with three of the Roy siblings pitted against their father, and their older, ostracised brother Con (Alan Ruck) proposing to Lupe’s escort-turned-playwright Willa at his mother’s wedding in Tuscany. Willa sleeps on the proposal, before accepting with the delicious line: “F*** it. Come on, how bad can it be?”
When I speak to Lupe on Zoom, a few days before the show’s New York premiere, neither of us have seen any season four episodes and she’s being very tight-lipped about what they filmed. Do Will and Con tie the knot? “You know I can’t tell you that!” she says with mock outrage, as she strokes her rescue dog Lily’s black-and-white fur. “But it was so fun to deliver that ‘f*** it’ line… it’s such an amazing way to accept a proposal.”
Lupe was only ever meant to guest star in three episodes of the first season, with a break-up scene originally written for Willa and Con, but the script kept changing and Willa kept popping up at Roy events on Con’s arm. Lupe eventually signed on as a series regular in 2020. “I went from 27 to 33 years old on this show, which is a huge transition from being kind of a girl into being a woman,” she says. “I think that’s one of the things that’s the most heartbreaking about this being the end – the women on this show, we got really close, and they helped me through some really huge transitions in my life.” Lupe’s career aspirations shifted, her mother had health issues and a serious relationship ended. “Walking into dating at 33 is a very different thing to dating at 27,” she says. “It’s a different set of thoughts completely. The way that you handle the world, the way you think about what you want and what you care about – it all changed so vastly during that time.”
When Lupe first joined Succession, Willa was introduced by Kieran Culkin’s unfiltered fibber Roman as the “hot-party-girl-who-wouldn’t-look-twice-at-you/hooker”. Her relationship with Con – the only Roy sibling not fixated on taking over his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) business because he is aiming instead for the White House – started out as a purely transactional set-up. But over the years, it’s evolved into something, while still totally deranged, quite genuine. Lupe says that Willa is well aware that Con is “cuckoo”, but she has compassion for him. “She sees the way he’s been pummelled by his family and you feel her defensiveness coming through as the seasons go on. She’s coming into her power and she has his back, so their relationship has become more of a companionship, rather than this weird power imbalance. Once you see someone’s vulnerabilities and who they are, it’s really hard not to become connected to someone. That’s how I feel, at least.”
Toxic relationships are the only relationships in Succession, and Lupe has done a lot of thinking about what, in contrast, makes a healthy one. She often comes back to one analogy that her co-star Sarah Snook, who plays daddy’s girl Shiv, once gave her. A good relationship, she said, is when “you’re two horses running on a beach in the same direction”. “So you’re there with each other, but you’re both moving independently,” says Lupe. “That’s it – being able to look at your partner and respect them and where they’re at and say, ‘I want be your teammate.’” Snook, she says, has been a good friend “to have some pretty intense talks with”.
According to Lupe, Snook and Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Shiv’s spineless partner Tom, are the least like their characters in real life. On the show, Snook is all designer pantsuits and bruised ego. In reality, she’s “groovy and funny and wearing tie-dye sweats and a cap”.
I was so smitten with Matthew Macfadyen as a teenager
Other stars on Succession are a little more on the serious side. A now-infamous New Yorker profile with Jeremy Strong revealed the actor’s extreme dedication to the craft after he told the magazine that he takes his role as Kendall as seriously as his own life, and does not think of Succession as a comedy. Lupe doesn’t want to talk about what Strong is like on set, but does say he’s “incredibly talented” and that he was a great friend to her when she arrived in LA in her early twenties, feeling lonely and daunted. “Jeremy was really kind to me,” she says. “He helped me get some auditions that were really hard to get and introduced me to a few people that ended up being instrumental in my life. He was just so warm and enthusiastic. The relentlessness he’s shown in terms of getting to where he is… it was cool to see someone who’s so open about being like, ‘This is what I want.’ He’s really unabashed his approach to theatre and art and film and his devotion to it.”
I’m going to hazard a guess that the actor with whom Lupe was most excited to work on Succession was Macfadyen. When I bring him up, she practically turns back into a 17-year-old, recalling her teenage crush on him. “Oh my gosh,” she says. “I don’t know how you could watch Pride & Prejudice and not be in love with Matthew Macfadyen. Truly, I remember the movie theatre I saw it in. It was the Esquire Theatre in Denver, Colorado. I saw it with my mom and I walked out of it and thought, ‘There’s no one more dreamy than that man in that movie.’ Like, it’s just perfect. I had a boyfriend at the time and I named him Mr Darcy in my phone. Like immediately. Walking out of the movie theatre. I was just so smitten with him.” She confessed all of this to Macfadyen on set. “I had zero chill,” she says. “Within the first couple of episodes I went up to him and I told him I’d been in love with him as Mr Darcy. He was like,” – she puts on a plummy English accent – “‘Oh, that’s so… thank you… oh, OK.’ I mean, Jane Austen knows how to write her men and he knew how to perform him so well. So that’s that!”
Lupe grew up in Denver and came from an artistic family. Her mother, a former ballerina, worked in various mental health roles throughout her career, from a stint as a therapist for abused girls to providing cognitive behavioural therapy for women with borderline personality disorder. Her father is a visual artist, who worked at the Denver Art Museum as an exhibition specialist. “I knew very, very, very young that I wanted to be an actress,” says Lupe, who went to theatre summer camps and schools that specialised in drama before going to Juilliard. She’d watched a PBS documentary about the illustrious New York performing arts school, and decided it was the place for her. She got in, graduated in 2011, and the following year had a small part in Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s indie Frances Ha. Consistent work followed in legal drama Harry’s Law and Texas-set sitcom Cristela, before she secured prominent roles in the Stephen King TV adaptation Mr Mercedes and the Jewish dramedy The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
In Maisel, she plays Astrid, a woman who is converting to Judaism and who, like Willa, is teetering on the edges of an intense family unit. “They’re both outsiders,” says Lupe, “Willa is very much like, ‘I’m here, whether you want me or not,’ whereas Astrid is just pounding on the door, doing everything that she can to prove herself and her commitment.”
Like Succession, Maisel is also entering its final season this month, after seven years. And while Lupe does have a new TV project coming up, she’s not allowed to say any more at this stage. She gives a sad smile. “I’m saying two goodbyes at once.”
‘Succession’ season four premieres on Sky Atlantic and NOW at 2am on Monday 27 March