James Cromwell Breaks Down That ‘Succession’ Eulogy and Promises a “Miraculous” Finale
The Emmy-winning actor speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about his final farewell to Logan Roy, and what’s ahead in the finale: “I always thought ‘Six Feet Under’ had the best last episode ever. This one is pretty damn close.”
BY JOSH WIGLER MAY 23, 2023
James Cromwell as Ewan Roy in HBO’s ‘Succession’ MACALL POLAY/HBO
This story contains spoilers for Succession season four episode nine, “Church and State.”
After sitting out the entirety of season three, James Cromwell’s Uncle Ewan returned to Succession for the penultimate episode of the series, “Church and State,” delivering a powerhouse eulogy for Brian Cox’s Logan Roy. It was revealing, scathing, brimming with tragic love, giving context to the life and times of the Succession universe’s veritable All-Father, all while giving voice to the very real rage the show’s characters and its audience feel toward the Logan Roys of the world.
It’s also just the beginning of the end. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about his turn in “Church and State,” Cromwell has one eye on the finale, airing May 28, the last time any of the Roys will ever gather under the same roof. An Emmy-winning veteran of the American Horror Story franchise, not to mention a key cast member of another beloved HBO series, Six Feet Under, Cromwell knows a thing or two about stories coming and going from our television screens. Looking ahead at creator Jesse Armstrong’s ending for Succession, Cromwell walks away with some very big praise.
“I always thought Six Feet Under had the best last episode ever,” he says. “This one is pretty damn close. It’s miraculous.”
But Cromwell is also focused on the more present miracle of “Church and State,” and the riveting words Armstrong wrote for Ewan. (“It begins with the words,” the actor and activist wrote on Twitter this week, voicing support for the WGA during the ongoing writers strike. “All of us win when the writers win.”) In that effort, Cromwell relives Ewan’s timely speech, the new view on his fictional brother’s backstory, and what he hopes Succession viewers will take away from the series once it’s all over.
How much did you know about the final season and this episode when you were called back into action?
Nothing! I didn’t know what it was until I actually got there and I looked at these phony fliers for the service they were handing out, which said I had died. I thought, “No, they can’t be having a custom fitting if I’m dead…” [Editor’s note: As a misdirect for the public and press, they billed the funeral as Ewan’s.]
Unless Succession truly turned into American Horror Story at that point.
That’s right. (Laughs.) Because of all the people involved, there were NDAs, the security was very tight. There were all of these extras. There were crowds outside as well. Civilians passed by and would go, “What’s going on? Are you dead? Are you dying?” And I would just sort of smile at them. So, I had no idea where it was going.
Once you caught up on what’s happening in the story, how did you process Ewan’s role at his brother’s funeral?
Well, I’m at that point in my life where there is a lot to process. I had had a very busy and fraught year. I couldn’t remember lines, and I’d never had that problem before. I could say the speech to myself, but as soon as I went out for a walk, every word was gone. It turned out I had long COVID. I told [director Mark Mylod, who helmed unbroken takes for the eulogies], “Listen, I don’t know what I can deliver. I might misremember some lines.” I had written it out in long hand, and he told me I could read the speech if I wanted, just raise my head every once in a while.
As I went up and put my cane down and got behind the lectern, I took out my reading glasses and looked out at the audience — and I love when I can see people, rather than in the theater where it’s dark — and I said, “Good morning.” And everybody, 600 people, all said, “Good morning.” They cut it out, but I realized that I had them. I actually had them. I could feel the support. I went through the first run without a stop, with only one word wrong. They asked me if I could do it again, and I said yes. I did it a second time. My better angels decided this was not the place to fail. Bless their heart.
How much of the eulogy surprised you, in terms of Ewan and Logan’s history? Did Jesse Armstrong ever read you in on the story or were you discovering it for the first time as well?
I was discovering it as well. A dear friend of mine, a wonderful actor named Charles Keating, went through the blitz in London and he came back from school on three different occasions when the house he’d been living in was flattened. He didn’t know whether his family was in the house or still alive, whether they had lost everything, because it was all under rubble. I realized these two kids [Logan and Ewan] would get on this boat, these engines failing, are abandoned by the rest of the fleet making it across to safety, just floating adrift in a U-boat area.
I realized that both of these guys have incredible childhood trauma that they can’t even articulate as mature adults. They can’t get back to the amount of terror they managed to sustain. They come to Canada … [Logan] ends up in a school where they don’t like him, they take him away from his brother, and he has abandonment issues probably right up until his teens; the death of his sister. Now, all of those things together, plus what [Ewan] has been through with two tours in Vietnam. I had developed some backstory for the character on the basis of that, which I had to change. I don’t know if that adjustment helped or hindered me.
What did you have to change about Ewan’s backstory?
[Speaking as Ewan] I got out of going to the war by having had a psychiatrist write a letter to the inspector’s office that I was crazy, which is actually pretty cowardly, but I didn’t know anything about Vietnam, and subsequent to that, I always wished I had taken a more principled position and had gone even as a conscientious objector. I wish I had done something like that, and I didn’t. But it changed my perception. So, I watched on television the absolute destruction of American values, the polarization, much of it based on color but also on a class system that alienates us one from the other so we don’t listen to each other anymore.
Were you disappointed not to have a final scene between Ewan and Logan?
No. He knows his brother. I don’t think there’s anything else to say. You don’t know a person is on the precipice of death. But at this point, Ewan has nothing to say to him. He doesn’t care if I love him or try to love him. He doesn’t care if his love is appreciated, if he ever gets in touch with it. He’s sick and tired of my condemnation and self-righteousness. We’re at loggerheads. There’s nobody I care about [in this family]. I care about the people of this country in the abstract because I think they’re getting the dirty end of the stick, and I resent that. I resent having the money that came from that kind of abuse.
At the end of the monologue, I said, “I loved him, I suppose. I’m sure some of you did too, in whatever way he would let us.” Because he didn’t allow himself to be loved. In some ways, [Ewan] is like that, when I say, “I have a meanness in me too. I try,” which means, I’m trying to do something with what I have. But I’m not doing it the whole hog. I don’t know whether it makes any difference. Greenpeace does great things and they could always use another hundred million.
Greenpeace reminds me, of course, about Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who tries to stop Ewan from giving his eulogy, but as soon as it’s done, basically says, “Great job, Grandpa!” How much is he still angling for his inheritance, even now?
I think he always wants it. If he had the inheritance, he wouldn’t have to eat as much crow as he does in the show, which would be nice for him. He always knows he’s the “poor cousin.” He also knows his grandfather is a man of his word. Ewan said, “You should leave this. If you leave this, I’ll support you. If you don’t, if you become part of them, I’ll have nothing to do with you.” He knew the kid was going to fail. He knew nobody could stand up to that family, especially with no power at all, just on the most tenuous of familial relationships. It’s unfair. It’s mean-spirited. It serves no function. But he wouldn’t give Greg any money because Greg has bought into the system, hook line and sinker, and he’ll become just as foul as the rest of them. Maybe he already has. I don’t know.
As an audience, we certainly sense that degradation in Greg. Does Ewan sense it in the church?
I think so. Listen to what Greg says. He says one thing out of one side of his mouth and two minutes later, he’s negating it depending on the circumstances. He’s the quintessential corporate man. “Yes sir, no sir, two bags full, sir.” I think he’s beyond the pale.
The eulogy is brilliant, but one look can say a thousand words, which brings me to this look Ewan shoots at Kendall (Jeremy Strong) after Kendall’s speech. How do you interpret that moment? Is there anger in that look? Does Ewan see his own brother in Kendall now?
I would think that’s it. You have to make a distinction between the issue and the person. To condemn a human being is to invalidate all of the choices and accidents that have happened along one’s life. It’s not to release them from their responsibility, but it is to say, “I love the being. I love my brother. I disapprove of everything he does.” I think looking over at Kendall, who has just given a fully-felt glorification, he just glorified his father as the mover and shaker of a system he knows is foul and doesn’t represent the people. It’s not for the people. It’s just about money and power. He’s completely internalized it. He uses it as a way to say, “Yeah, he was a shit. But! Look at what he created! The movies! The TV shows! The ships! The buildings!” Blah, blah, blah. You think, “What the fuck? He’s destroyed the goddamn country!”
He doesn’t give a shit. So, I think [that look is] condemnatory, but at the same time, it’s too bad. The kid is gone. He’s lost. There’s no recovery from it. You’ve tasted the Kool-Aid. It’s poison.
As Succession winds down, on the other side of this eerie election episode feels like a warning shot about what’s still on the horizon, and with this board room battle looming in the finale, what do you hope viewers take away from the series, ultimately?
We have to do something. It’s the people, of course, but it’s the system, primarily. The 600-pound gorilla in the room is capitalism. Capitalism and participatory democracy, meaning “one man one vote,” are not compatible. Every institution now seems to be failing us, including the fourth estate. Everything has been so warped. Did you see Chernobyl? What the scientist was looking for is, “What’s the root cause?” Yes, there were problems in the control room, but what was the root cause to see just far enough ahead to avoid this and not be the prey of human emotional states that make it impossible for us to function properly in a perilous situation? He finds that, and it is a condemnation of the entire Soviet system, where everything in the system is a lie, but they tell the lie to everyone, even themselves. They don’t believe in it. It’s cynical.
I would hope that [in the finale] you can distinguish the humanity and the pain and the sense of loss and the bewilderment and the friendlessness and the isolation of those three kids — and they’re not kids anymore — inheriting the structure, but the meat [is gone]. They’re emotionally incapable of doing the same things that Logan did naturally because he had no quibble whatsoever. But Kendall might have a quibble, and Shiv (Sarah Snook) may be torn between the love for these corporate assholes and what she wants from her own ambitions and wants, and then Roman (Kieran Culkin) has dissolved to the child he’s always been throughout the entire series; he walks around like an adult, but he thinks and speaks like an adolescent. Which was such a wonderful performance; that beautiful transition of, “Is he in the box? Can we get him out?” I found it very moving.
I’ve been in some really good series. Not only the crew — that we shot that scene the way we shot it, in one take, repeated over and over and over for an entire day, with no stopping? The expertise and the vision that goes into making that possible. And then those performances, right from the get-go. From the first take. Of course, you know the deal: you learn your lines. But then you have to react. The spontaneity of it. The perception, the apperception, the context of this ceremony of death where we relinquish [a person]… it was bloody brilliant on everybody’s part.
Below, read Ewan’s eulogy in full:
It is not for me to judge my brother. History will tell that story. I can just give you a couple of instances about him.
You probably all know we came across the first time during the war for our safety, but the engines of our ship let go and the rest of the convoy sailed on without us leaving us adrift. They told us, they told us, children, that if we spoke or coughed or moved an inch, that the U-boats would catch the vibrations through the hull and we would die in the drink right there in the hold. Three nights and two days. We stayed quiet, a four-year-old and a five-and-a-half-year-old speaking with our eyes. So there’s a little sob story.
And once we were over, our uncle who was so to speak, a character, he … well they, they had a little money and they sent Logan away to a better school, and he hated it. He just hated it.
He wasn’t… he wasn’t well. He was sick and he mewed and he cried, and in the end, he got out and came home under his own steam. But when he got back, our little sister, she was a baby, but she was there by then. He always believed that he brought home the polio with him, which took her. I don’t even know if that’s true, but our aunt and uncle certainly did nothing to disabuse him of that notion. They let it lie with him.
I loved him, I suppose, and I suppose some of you did too, in whatever way he would let us and we could manage. But I can’t help but say he has wrought the most terrible things. He was a man who has here and there drawn in the edges of the world; now and then darkened the skies a little; closed men’s hearts, fed that dark flame in men, the hard, mean, hard-relenting flame that keeps their hearths warm while another grow cold, their grain stashed, while another goes hungry, and even has the temerity to tell that hard — funny, yes, funny, but hard — joke about the man in the cold. You can get a little high, a little mighty when you’re warm.
Oh, yes. He gave away a few million of his billions, but he was not a generous man. He was mean, and he made but a mean estimation of the world. And he fed a certain kind of meagerness in men. Perhaps he had to because he had a meagerness about him.
And maybe I do about me too. I don’t know. I try, I try.
I don’t know when, but sometime he decided not to try anymore, and it was a terrible shame. Godspeed, my brother. And God bless.
Above interview edited for length and clarity.
The series finale of Succession releases Sunday May 28 at 9 p.m. on HBO and Max. Follow along with THR‘s Succession final season coverage.