Actor James Cromwell says he demanded his character on Succession take a moral stand against his unscrupulous, ultra-rich family – and hopes the hit show does not normalise the abuses of power and privilege as The Apprentice did for Donald Trump.
The 81-year-old actor, best known for his roles in The Green Mile, Babe and LA Confidential, as well as the TV series Six Feet Under and ER, plays Ewan Roy, the older brother of Brian Cox’s media mogul Logan Roy. Ewan is largely estranged from his fractured family on political grounds, though he retains a fortune worth $250m (£180m).
In season two, he gives his grandson Greg an ultimatum to either stop working for Logan or be cut from Ewan’s will. Ewan is also suggested to be leaking company secrets to undermine his brother.
Cromwell, a longtime activist for animal rights, racial justice and environmental causes, told the Guardian his character was rewritten to reflect his politics as a condition of his participation in the HBO series. “I demanded that we have similarities,” he said.
Ewan Roy had originally become alienated from Logan after being given a lesser share of the Waystar Royco wealth, said Cromwell.
“I was the brother who got shafted … and got probably millions of dollars, but a lot less than his brother got.
“He was a spoiled curmudgeon filled with anger and bitterness and jealousy over his brother’s success; he was going to come down [from Canada], behave like a jerk, and leave.”
But Cromwell said that, over an hour-long conversation with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong before signing on to do the show, he insisted that Ewan’s objection be made a moral one. Ewan is a veteran of the Vietnam war; Cromwell’s political activism began when he was arrested at anti-war demonstrations in Washington DC in May 1971.
“Jesse’s position was all these people are culpable, they are all the same … I said, ‘You can’t take the guy who’s fought in Vietnam, and seen what he has seen, and think that he is going to be the same sort of asshole that the rest of his family is’. Yes, of course, he’s privileged, and everybody is flawed – but he will have seen the truth.
“You can’t have him turn around and say, ‘I stand for something [but] if you give me a million dollars, maybe I’ll think about it.’ You can’t do that, and Jesse agreed with me.”
As an actor and an activist, Cromwell has long been a vocal critic of “the cancer” of capitalism. He said he hoped that the immense popularity of Succession did not normalise exorbitant wealth or abuses of power and privilege, drawing a comparison with Donald Trump’s move from reality TV to the White House.
“There’s no morality, they’re just in it for themselves, and I hope that the programme does not normalise that behaviour like it normalised it when Trump was on The Apprentice and people looked at it and said: ‘He’s got power, he makes decisions and he follows through. That’s the kind of guy I want [as president].’”
It was especially important to Cromwell that his character resist the Roys, given the real-life parallels with dynasties such as the Murdochs, he said.
“I’ve played crooked characters, but it’s one thing to be the bad guy and chew the scenery up when it’s a totally fictive situation. This is not a fictive situation. There’s a family living in Australia that [they] epitomise.
“They’re doing even worse than the Roys are doing on television and it still goes on. You watch the Leveson inquiry and you see a performance from Murdoch that no actor could touch.”
Cromwell adopted a vegan diet and became active with the animal rights organisation Peta after his experience of working with piglets on the set of Babe in 1995.
He was arrested in 2017, and spent three days in jail, for protesting about a fracked gas power plant proposed in his hometown in Orange County, New York.
Shortly after being released, Cromwell was arrested again for disrupting an orca show at SeaWorld with Peta. He is currently serving a six-month probation for having broken his bail conditions with a demonstration against medical research on dogs at Texas A&M University in October 2019.
Cromwell said that his activism had been to the detriment of his prospects in Hollywood. “Of course I’m getting older, but I also think that [film-makers] understand that by employing me, they are giving me the bully pulpit to address issues.”
Even his insistence that his character on Succession be positioned in opposition to the Roys had limited his scope within the show. “Now I think they don’t really know what to do with me, because I always have to be up against them,” Cromwell said. “I’m on the other side – but I wanted to be there. I didn’t want to be a schmuck.”
Though Ewan is not without an agenda, he “is the closest thing to a moral conscience the show has,” wrote Vox’s critic at large Emily VanDerWerff in 2019.
“He points out that Logan may be the single human being most responsible for destroying life on this planet, and he’s not wrong … it’s worthwhile to hear every so often that they’re really rotten people, who are tearing the planet apart for no real reason beyond their own self-regard.”
His on-screen brother Brian Cox, an avowed socialist, has likewise spoken out against the Roys’ entitlement and greed, telling the New York Times: “I see the wealthy all finally getting hoisted by their own petard … it’s a kind of super-vanity they share.”
Cromwell said Succession’s success was due to its shedding light on the horrible truth about those in power.
“The writing is wonderful, the acting and direction superb – and we are all aware that we live in a society where there is such wealth inequality that we would sort of like to know: ‘Who are these people?’ I think what Jesse is saying is: ‘Take a good look.’
“You want to know who? When they testify in front of Congress, or they show up at your favourite charity, or they’ve got a wing of a hospital named after them, or they’ve gone off in their spacecraft … now we know that there’s another side to that, the side that makes that kind of wealth possible – and it is not done honestly. It is a criminal enterprise.”
Season three of Succession begins on HBO/HBO Max in the US on 17 October, and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on 18 October.