For fans of HBO’s “Succession,” it may be comforting to know that the incredible people who made it are also still reeling from the show ending. Many of the show’s New York-based cast members gathered at a bar Sunday night to watch the stunning series finale together, including Juliana Canfield, who played Jess Jordan, stalwart assistant to failson Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong).
“Getting to see my friends on the screen, and then to be able to look just to my left or to my right and see them sitting there, it was so moving,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I feel like I have to watch the episode again. The room was so swept up in the drama of the episode, and then I was so delighted by my proximity to these people who play these characters who I’ve come to love so much. I definitely cried, but not that much. I’m a big crier, so I kind of kept it to a couple dozen teardrops, as opposed to the usual hundreds.”
Many of the “Succession” actors and writers keep in touch via several very active group chats, according to Canfield. Among the most active members, she says, are J. Smith-Cameron (who plays Gerri), Alan Ruck (Connor, who, never forget, is the eldest son) and Dagmara Domińczyk (Karolina, Waystar’s head of PR). Most days, the group chats are constantly buzzing, like cast members cheering each other on when an interview or feature about one of them is published.
The end of the show marks a full-circle moment for Canfield, who was cast on “Succession” just as she was graduating from the Yale School of Drama in 2017. It was a hell of a way to start her professional acting career, and what she thought would just be a one-episode gig turned into something far more than she could have possibly envisioned.
Throughout the show’s four seasons, it was hard not to root for Jess, who performed many thankless tasks for Kendall (among them: tending to his kids’ giant rabbit). In the penultimate episode, Jess finally quits, after watching her boss enable the apparent election of a fascist president: Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk).
Still recovering from the finale, Canfield had a long conversation with HuffPost about balancing the sadness of the show being over with her delight for Jess finally being free from the world of the Roys, what she thinks Jess would be up to next; and what the show has meant to her as an actor, from the camaraderie of the cast and crew, to the precision and specificity of the writing. (TV and film writers, including those who worked on “Succession,” are currently on strike over pay and working conditions.)
Did you know that your final episode would be Logan’s funeral, or did you have anything else that was shot afterward that didn’t end up in the show?
[Creator] Jesse [Armstrong] told me when we were shooting Episode 8 that Jess was going to quit. And I don’t think he told me which episode, but he said, “She’s going to quit.” And it was when we were shooting all of those scenes in ATN, that big long night for the election, and I heard that, and we were on set. I was like, “Juliana, don’t cry. It’s OK. Jess quitting doesn’t mean that Jesse hates you. It means he wants to give you something good.”
But we finished that day, and I got back to my trailer, and I really sobbed. I think it’s great for Jess that she quits. And I think it’s great that she has this moment where she reveals her conscience, or she is able to. She doesn’t really speak her mind, but she stands her ground, and I think that that scene felt very complicated and rich, and I had a ton of different things swirling while we were shooting it. I’m very grateful to it.
But once I saw that it was in Episode 9, I thought, ‘OK, well, in the series finale of “Succession,” they’re not going to prioritize the scene where you see Jess packing up her desk at Waystar and saying, “Fuck you, Kendall,” as he comes in to do the shareholder vote.’ So I felt pretty sure that that was going to be the end of Jess. And in a way, there was a kind of symmetry to it. I wasn’t in the pilot of the show. I was still in drama school, and I came on in the second episode, and then I sort of made my way through. There’s something kind of poetic about not being in the first one or in the last one, and being able to enjoy them and enjoy the tapestry that everyone has woven together.
But yeah, when it was officially announced that the show was not going to be coming back, I was, first of all, devastated. But I was slightly relieved that I wasn’t going to have to do a really crazy pitch to the writers to get Jess back into the office for another season.
Yeah, that makes sense. Was the final scene you shot that big scene, or was it something else?
No. Well, that was my final day of shooting, but there’s this little piece that you see right before that scene, where Jess calls Kendall. And [the siblings] are in the car, and then you see her walking along and being like, “I’m going to drop a pin so that you can find me.” So, we shot the breakup scene, or the quitting scene, and then we shot that little bit.
And I am grateful that they did that because I think if my last scene had been that one, the very tenuous membrane that I was able to construct between my feelings as Jess and all of my sadness about this chapter coming to a close, it all just would’ve dissolved, and the scene would’ve been just sobbing, saying goodbye to Kendall.
So, we shot that scene, and then we were shooting outside, I think on 86th Street on the Upper East Side. And Jeremy had other stuff to do, but he was like, “Hey, J.” And I was like, “Yeah?” And he was like, “Awesome job,” and gave me a fist bump. And I was like, “Don’t ... I can’t do this right now, Jeremy. I have another scene to do.” And he’s so respectful of actor processes, and he was out of there.
But then Kieran, that little troublemaker, was like, “I remember your very first day on set, and you were so excited, and you were doing this and this and this.” I’m just weeping and weeping on 86th Street, as Kieran is poking at my most vulnerable sense of nostalgia, and screaming for hair and makeup so that they can come and deal with the streams of mascara that are running down my face so I could do that little tiny scene that no one will ever remember. But yeah, that was the order of the day.
In the scene, as soon as it became apparent she was about to quit, I was like, “Yes, go Jess!” I was also thinking about “Why now?” She alludes to the fact that it’s time to move on. But I also wondered how much of it is due to Mencken winning, or is it all of the above? Is Mencken winning the final straw for her?
Yeah. I don’t think that Jess was lying when she said, “I’ve been thinking about it for a while.” But I also think that if Mencken hadn’t won the election [does air quotes] ...
... then she maybe would’ve kept thinking about it for a little longer. But I think that event was the catalyst. It was the clarifying ingredient that made it clear what she had to do.
I don’t think she ever says to herself, “Well, I’ll only take it so far. But if my boss and his company help elect this man, that’s my line in the sand.” But I think when Mencken is declared the winner, she’s like, “Well, that’s the line.” It wasn’t premeditated, but it suddenly becomes clear that that’s the line, and it maybe encapsulates everything that was hard for her about working for Waystar, and Kendall’s complicity in it encapsulates what was hard about being his employee or his assistant.
When you started on the show, and then as you have played Jess over the years, did you think about a backstory for her? Like, how did she end up at Waystar, and what has kept her there?
Yeah. I did come up with some ideas over the years, and a couple of things felt definite to me, but I also didn’t know ... I mean, when I got this job, it was a co-star role. I thought, I could have written a whole bible about her motivations, but I also thought I was going to do one episode, and then I was going to be out.
And then I think the great thing about the show, too, is that you don’t really know what’s going to happen to the characters, and I wanted to leave room for things to come in, or for me to make decisions that felt organic in the moment and not based on an idea that I had about who she was.
But I think she went to Penn or Georgetown, and I think she’s from the East Coast, and I have a couple of other things that I thought, like about her family. But they’re kind of fun for me to think about. They’re like my little secret Jess stories.
Does she have a sense of loyalty to Ken that perhaps keeps her there longer than maybe she wants to be there?
Yeah. Yeah. I think she does. I mean, Jeremy Strong is a remarkable actor, and was the first person that I ever acted with professionally. He’s astounding. It was a true gift of my life to be able to watch how he prepares and how he works on set, and the care that he puts into it.
And I think, I can’t help but give or endow Jess with some of that sense of wonder at what he’s capable of. Obviously, Kendall is a more morally ambiguous figure than Jeremy is, and I think there’s far more frustration and disappointment, and a pity wrapped up in Jess’ feelings towards Kendall. But I think she’s an extremely loyal person, and she’s attached to him. She’s deeply attached to him. And I think she’s attached to both his potential and what she knows that he’s capable of doing. And I think she’s also attached to his failures and how she thinks she can ameliorate those failures, or help compensate for those failures.
I remember when we were shooting Episode 9, I was sitting in the very back of the cathedral, and so I watched that whole day basically from the nosebleeds. And during the table read, none of the siblings or Ewan read their eulogies, so when we were hearing them on that day, I was hearing them out loud for the first time.
And it was such a magical day. It was one of the most virtuosic displays of crew collaboration and directing and acting that I’ve ever witnessed, even from all the way in the back. But also, I remember feeling when Kendall was giving that eulogy, after all of the mistakes that he’s made and all of the ways that he’s diminished me or ignored me or done nefarious things for the political future of the country, or all of the laundry list of disastrous decisions, I remember sitting there thinking, “Wow, he can really do it, and this is the guy that I worked for, and this is the Kendall that I believe in.”
And I think she has a deep sense of loyalty to that version of Kendall.
Right. The best version, the ideal version of him.
Yeah. And he comes out — not that often — but when he does come out, the best boy version of himself, when it emerges, it emerges so clearly. And not to mention that Jesse is just the world’s best writer, and gave him such wonderful things to say. But hearing Kendall say “corpuscle”...
“The corpuscles of life!”
I was like, “Oh my God! I’ll never have another boss who says that, ever.”
Oh my God. “The corpuscles of life gushing around this nation.”
Yeah, that was a $10 word, and I was very proud of Ken for finding it in that moment.
One thing that has always struck me about Jess is that she’s almost always the only Black woman and woman of color in these very, very, white and very, very male spaces, which obviously is very true to the world that people like the Roys inhabit. How has that affected the way you approach her as a character? Or is it even more basic, that her very presence in these rooms kind of speaks volumes?
Yeah, I think it kind of feels more like the latter to me. I mean, Jess was not a big enough part when I got it to warrant an audition. I auditioned for a couple of other parts, and then they said, “Oh, we think we’re going to just give you this one.” It didn’t seem to me that there was a plan for her to be necessarily any particular race.
But I do think that in casting me, there’s so much work that happens for free in just seeing these rooms, both the corporate offices and the social events, that are very homogenous. And I try not to put too much onto that, because I really do think that the show and its casting and its writing speaks very loudly and for itself, and doesn’t need any kind of hammer.
But there was that moment, I think maybe it’s Episode 2? Yeah, when the three younger siblings are planning for The Hundred. And Kendall’s like, “Jess, would you watch a news channel that’s just all stories about Africa?” And I love that because it’s just so dimwitted. He’s like, “OK, who can I ask about this? Oh, perfect. I can ask Jess if she would like this.”
And just that little moment of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe my boss is asking me this question about an African news channel.” Watching him ask me that question, I don’t even remember what I did with my face, but I was just like, that’s kind of all that needs to be done. There doesn’t need to be anything else.
Jesse and the writers were so precise in how they put everything together and orchestrated the world. But also, I think this is a testament to their skill as writers, and also maybe it’s a British sensibility, of being sly or oblique with commentary. And I love that about the show.
There was one moment — this isn’t really about race, it’s about the misogyny of many of the people on the show. I loved the moment in Episode 9 when Shiv was giving her eulogy and said, “My father was tough with women. He couldn’t really fit a whole woman into his head.” And then they cut to Kendall, who had just had these two breakup scenes with two women in his life. And I thought, what a juicy, interesting and non-obvious way to make a comment about this character. It doesn’t have to be explicit, but it’s just in the edit. And I thought that was brilliant.
Yeah. I remember noticing that too, and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s incredible.”
I know. It’s savage.
And it’s also right after the camera cuts to Gerri and Karolina, which again, reinforces the point of the misogyny in the family and in the company. It’s just brilliant.
Yeah, it’s brill.
As you mentioned, there’s so many moments in the show where you don’t have to do much, and it just kind of says volumes. We’re talking about very serious, tragic moments, but a fun one that I always think about is when Jess has to feed and take care of the giant rabbit. And then there’s that scene where you do that incredible eyeroll-slash-facepalm, and I think about that scene all the time because, in that one second, you just capture everything about this moment.
Yeah, the circus that is the Roy family and Waystar. I learned so much on this show, and one thing I’ll take with me to my grave is just that the best thing you can do for yourself as an actor on a set is to just really be listening all the time. I don’t even remember that moment. I don’t remember shooting it. I don’t remember knowing the camera was on me. I don’t remember. It was just, Kendall was sitting right there talking on the phone about the rabbit.
Right, feeding the bagel.
Feeding it the fucking bagel, and then he’s going to die. Megathump, this rabbit that I’ve developed an attachment to over the past several days or however long he’s had the rabbit. But yeah, I mean, I love that moment too. And it’s a testament to the camera team, that they know the show so well, and they know the characters so well, and they really understand the story.
And the camera operators did so much to give the world the show that is “Succession,” because they just intuit — Pat Capone and Katelin Arizmendi were both the DPs this year, but then there’s Gregor and all of the camera operators — and they just know the show, so they know where the punchlines could be, and they know who’s going to be having a fun reaction, or a terrible reaction, to any given moment.
And the writing on the show is brilliant, but I also think on the other side of that, the reactions in this show are just insane. I mean, that’s the crew. They got all of that, and kudos to them forever.
Yeah, I mean, the camera, we can have a whole entire conversation about that, because it’s just such a crucial part of what we see — and also what we don’t see — and how it all comes together. And the editing too.
Tell me about it. Yeah. I mean, the editing, I’m not there for that part, so I don’t even know how the sausage gets made, but it’s brilliant. There have been so many times when I’m on set, where I’m watching at the monitor or something, and someone on the camera team will do a move with a camera that makes me laugh out loud. What they catch, it’s like they’re telling jokes with the camera, and that’s just amazing to have witnessed. It really is.
On the big-picture level, we’ve talked about this a bit already, but how has being on the show changed you as an actor? And especially since you started right out of drama school. It must be incredible to have done this show right out of the gate.
Yeah. [Pauses] I mean, I get very misty about it. What was the question?
Sorry, that was a lot. How has being on the show changed you as an actor? I imagine there’s just no way to even begin answering that question.
Yeah. There are so many technical skills I learned on this show, like what I said about just listening all the time. I don’t think that I would’ve learned that on another show that doesn’t shoot in the same way. Or learning to have confidence in riffing, or improv, or keeping the scene going a little after the scene ends on the page, or to get it starting a little before the scene begins on the page. Just learning how to find life that goes beyond the constraints of what you see in the final episode.
I think the episodes feel so rich because everybody is living beyond what you see. And I got to watch all of these actors working with complete gold, and then making more of it. And, I mean, that’s an amazing experience to have out of the gate, and to imprint upon and to try to emulate as I go further.
I was looking at my phone today, looking at all these photos, the thousands of photos from “Succession,” and I found the one that ... I took a selfie outside of my honey wagon on my very first day on set ever. I was so excited. I had this little honey wagon and my costume, and I was just bursting at the seams. And I think I was also afraid that being on a TV show wouldn’t be as magical or fun as I had always dreamt it would be, and that I would be disappointed by the experience, or bored, or scared.
But I look at that, and I just had no idea. I just didn’t know how big it would be. I mean, there’s no way to encapsulate how much this show changed who I am and changed my life.
You know that thing that they say that a person’s cells completely change over every seven years? I was thinking about that at the wrap party because I was like, “I am almost a completely new person, cellularly, from the person I was when I got this job. By next year, I will have no pre-‘Succession’ cells in my body.” And I really feel cellularly changed. And obviously it was my first job. It made me be able to say, “I’m a working actor,” and it gave me independence as an actor, and I’m sure that it is basically solely responsible for every job I’ve gotten since, and maybe many jobs I’ll get for the rest of my life.
And I now have these dear friends who I’m going to talk to all the time, and also colleagues who I might not talk to all the time, but who I feel connected to forever. It was just the whole world in this show for me. And there’s kind of no way to tie it all up in a bow.
Did “Succession” help put things into focus for you, like the kinds of parts you want as an actor, or the direction of your career, those sort of things?
Jess, I mean, God bless her, she really was a tiny speck in the cosmos of the show. And in the beginning, when I got it, I mean, nothing changed. I was going to every audition, and taping things, and not getting most things. And I still audition for all the parts that I go for.
The show created a sort of impossibly high bar that I have to do my best to ignore, in a way, because I think trying to chase an experience like this creates a sense of dissatisfaction. It’s even worse than the dissatisfaction that is already a part of being an actor.
In any job, even before these past few seasons of “Succession,” and hopefully forever, every time, I just want to feel like I’m getting to do something new, creatively, or in terms of responsibility, or in the people I’m getting to work with. And there’s not a real way to quantify those changes. But I just feel now more equipped to say, “What feels like something new that I haven’t done yet?” And I think that just comes with time in this profession.
But maybe no assistants for a while. Although it’s a great, what’s the word? What’s the word for a character? It’s a great ... It’s not “trope.”
Archetype. Thank you. I think an assistant is an underappreciated archetype.
As you were talking about an assistant being such a great archetype, I realized I forgot to ask you: What do you think Jess’ next move is? Or maybe she takes some time off first. I feel like she deserves that.
At the very least, I think she needs a long weekend somewhere warm with no cellphone service. I saw Natalie Gold the other night, who plays Rava. She had this great idea that she thinks that Rava runs a consulting firm and that Jess goes to work for Rava in an executive-level position.
I love that for a couple reasons. One, I think that Rava is super smart and no bullshit and has a really good head on her shoulders and is ambitious, but not maybe in the same kind of psychological minefield that Kendall is.
And I think that they have a longstanding rapport and friendship because of their connection to this man. But the other thing that I like about it that I was thinking about after she floated the idea by me is that there’s something really petty about Jess going to work for Rava. She could go work for a lot of people in the world, and the person she chooses to work for is her former boss’s ex-wife.
Jess seems like a good person with integrity, in the context of the show. But the pettiness and the nastiness has rubbed off on her to some extent. She’s not immune to it. And I love the idea that she could get this little dig in on him.
That’s perfect. I love that.
I hope that for her. It would be great. And also, a social life.
That reminds me that we see her witness so much on-screen, but then for every horrible thing she’s witnessed in the course of the show, there are all these other things that we haven’t seen. Like, I picture her having to answer a call from Kendall in the middle of the night.
Yeah. I think that’s totally true. Thinking about Jess picking up drugs for Kendall was always kind of fun because she seems to me to be a person who might stick out in a drug deal kind of transaction. And imagining the way she has to make these deals happen and facilitate them, I always got a little laugh out of what she might be thinking as she’s doing that for him. I think for every sort of horrifying, or horrifyingly funny, thing that you see in the show, there are 30 others that are worse.
Actually. Oh, this is fun. I forgot about this. So we had a wrap party in New York before the three younger siblings and Caroline and a smaller crew went to Barbados to shoot stuff from Episode 10. We had a wrap party in New York, and someone in the props department, or in the production office, made all of these posters with little jokes about the characters. And they made one for Jess that was the cover of her Pulitzer Prize-winning tell-all about her time working for Waystar called “Roy Toy No More.”
And it was like a poster of her giving a talk and doing a book signing at The Strand. So I think maybe she goes to work for Rava. But I think when her NDA wraps up, then she writes the book and wins a Pulitzer. So, a pretty nice life for her.
Oh man, the stories Jess has to tell.
Oh my God.
I’ve been thinking about, both as someone who’s covered it, and also just as a fan of the show, it’s so nice when there’s such a satisfying ending. It sort of lessens the sadness of the show ending, when you realize, “Oh, that was such a perfect way for it to go out, and every character has a great way of going out.”
And to that point too, I feel like the finale, what I loved about it is that it feels decisive and there’s an outcome. But it doesn’t feel neat or pat. You can feel the life of the characters going on. I mean, it’s, like, torturous, but also delicious to know that they go on somewhere, and that it’s just a secret.
So many great pieces of art or books or movies or TV shows have embedded in them, these little secrets that remain, even when all is said and done and all the chips have fallen, and that there are secrets between the characters that we’ll never know the answers to. And there are secrets between the actors, and between the writers and the actors. And I feel that. I feel that Jesse brought it home and gave the world a beautiful end to the show — but also preserved the little secret garden of the world of the show. He locked it up, and it’s just going to continue to be there. And so I love that.