“We Didn’t Talk About 45”: How ‘Succession’ Created Its MAGA-esque Presidential Candidate for the Big Election Episode

Justin Kirk at the Outfest Documentary Competition Screening of Every Act Of Life at the DGA Theater on July 15 2018 in...

Justin Kirk at the Outfest Documentary Competition Screening of Every Act Of Life at the DGA Theater on July 15, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.Courtesy of Amanda Edwards via Getty Images
Justin Kirk on fleshing out Jeryd Mencken, the HBO series’ terrifying political figure, in just two episodes.

Justin Kirk has only appeared in two episodes of Succession total (so far), but his outsized presence looms as large as a series regular. Kirk plays Jeryd Mencken, the right-wing presidential candidate Logan Roy chose to endorse, with the full weight of his political influence, back in season three. The dialog, especially Shiv’s panicked pleas to rethink this decision, make it clear that Mencken is a MAGA analog in the Succession-universe: a candidate who promotes fascist behavior and a disregard for the constitution. Crucially, Logan doesn’t care—he and Roman just see a political figure with real star power and a loyal base, who will say yes to everything they ask of him if he wins.

That election finally came to a head in last night’s episode, “America Decides.” Mencken convinces Roman to have ATN call his election win early despite a fire in Wisconsin that destroyed votes (most likely perpetrated by Mencken’s followers), while Kendall and Shiv weigh their own careers against their better angels and eventually let the whole trainwreck happen. The episode ends with Mencken’s acceptance speech, where he spews nonsense and claims to love democracy with an eerie smile on his face, his eyes glimmering. 

None of it would work without Kirk doing a lot in very little screen time. The 52-year old actor’s breakout role was in Mike Nichols’ 2003 adaptation of Angels in America for HBO, which earned him an Emmy nomination. But Kirk is primarily associated with his role on the Showtime dramedy Weeds, in which he played Andy, the lazy, sometimes infuriating but mostly affable stoner, who helped his widowed sister-in-law raise her kids and sell weed. Recent years have seen a Kirk surge on the Home Box Office: heappears in Perry Mason, as Hamilton Burger, the (closeted) district attorney whose cynical approach to the US justice system often puts him at odds with Perry’s idealism. In all of Kirk’s roles, including the beguiling but menacing Mencken on Succession, charm is his greatest weapon.

Kirk spoke to GQ about joining Succession back in season three, Mencken’s unsettling speech, his tight bond with Roman, and kissing a Coke can to win Logan Roy’s favor. 

Before we talk about this week’s episode of Succession, could you tell me about how you got involved in the show in season three?

They were kind enough to ask me. It was my first COVID job and I knew enough to know I better go do this. “You better man up and get on a plane,” and so I did. At the time, the memo said, “possible recur.” So as far as I knew, that was it. There was also certainly a suggestion that there could be more. I had my fingers crossed and here we are. And now I’m the goddamn president.

Had you been a fan of the show before you joined?

I’m going to have the courage to admit to you, and maybe it’ll be the last time, that I had not. When I got the part in 2021, I had not. I knew that… I had not been watching Succession, but I knew enough to know that I would be soon and that I should be, and that’s when I got the job. And so I watched the first two seasons in a week, so three episodes.

It’s a good binge.

It’s a good binge. But also knowing that I was about to wander onto the world of Succession, I was like, all right, maybe you should put this down so it’s not too freaky to suddenly be in the TV that you’ve been looking at for the last several days. I’m certainly a fan. Then the great thing about being a guest on Succession is that most of the time I’m just watching it, and it’s weirdly jarring when I show up.

When did you find out that you were going to come back for the fourth season?

I really wanted to come back, obviously, and so I tried to play it cool. I would check in with my agents and they said, “Yeah, they’ve reached out to check your availability, on several occasions, but nothing concrete.” Then one day it was like, “We think they’ll probably want you for this, this, and this.” You just stay ready. They’ve got bigger fish to fry over there, so you just wait, and then they let me come back.

There’s been instances this season where we hear that Mencken is going to make an appearance but we never see him, like the gathering at Logan’s apartment the day after his death. Was there anything you filmed that did not make it?

That’s the nature of television. The funny thing is, we shot stuff that was very heavy on this season’s teaser. I tuned in and was shocked to see it not arrive. But that’s fine with me. I trust even more than usual Jesse Armstrong and his band of folks to tell the story the way they’re telling it. And to be honest, after the initial, oh, I hope it wasn’t something I did thing, then now watching the show, they mentioned me [Mencken]  at least twice an episode. Maybe it’s better to be talked about in the anticipation. My friend who’s a TV writer, said to me the other day, “I got to say as a showrunner, I get it. I get the sort of building and anticipation for this character.” So I’m cool with that.

Given how episode eight ends, it is more effective. What you don’t see of Mencken makes him a more terrifying figure.

When I finally am back, when Roman comes to visit me in the hotel room, and maybe I was imagining this, but I feel like they gave me a little bit of a star reveal. 

They did. In the shadowy room.

I’ll take that. I also noticed that there were times when I was just a picture on someone’s phone, but I still got billing at the end, so I must have good agents.

Mencken and Roman develop this relationship that essentially helps Mencken win the presidency, if you can call it that. Why did Mencken choose Roman out of all of the people in the Roy family or at Waystar? 

I think they’re cut from a similar cloth, personality-wise. They both like being dicks. And they both find it hilarious to say terrible things.

That’s evident in the scene that they have later in the episode in the bathroom. 

Maybe also he just gets lucky. One thing leads to another. A big part of getting Waystar or ATN behind me as a candidate, is the fact that I show off to Logan that I’m not impressed. And Logan seems to have been a guy that finds it appealing when you don’t suck up to him.

For sure. And then you kissed the can of Coke.

I kissed a can… right. Well it’s just because I heard Logan wanted one.

Was kissing the can of Coke in the script? It seems like a very Jesse Armstrong detail.

I’d like to pretend it was all me, but no, I think it was [in the script].

Is it difficult at all for you to get in the mindset of someone as evil as Mencken? It seems like you have a good time doing it.

I don’t understand any actor that wouldn’t feel this way, but playing villains is the best because you can say horrible things and really dive into them and it’s not your fault. If it’s good writing – and it doesn’t get much better than these guys – it’s always… not easy, but it’s always fun to ride out that stuff.

Is it easier to play something that’s so far away from yourself, that doesn’t have anything in common with you at all?

You don’t know that. You don’t know if that’s true.

I don’t, but I assume.

No, your assumption is correct.

I assume you’re not a fascist.

I hope not. Nor am I running for anything. Not to get actorial on you, but you pretty much just say, “well, how is this something similar to how I feel about something?” Then you go from there. If the writing’s good and you memorize the words it comes out.

Did you do any research when you were looking into how you were going to portray this character? Did you reference any politicians or any performances?

I’m pretty aware of the American political landscape, and I think he’s very specific, much like a lot of things on SuccessionSuccession is its own parallel universe, but also mirrors reality. The fun thing about this character is that he’s far right, but – at least from his perspective – he’s not playing to the lowest common denominator. Usually that’s a thing in the modern conservative politicians, what we see from those guys. For better or worse, much worse probably, this is how he thinks America should be.

In the real America, Mencken might be a little too what they call “coastal elite” for the type of fan base that might gravitate toward his views.

That’s what I thought too and do think, and we see that in his scenes with Roman or just in life. Maybe his public persona and his speeches are different than that. I don’t know. We’ll see how that plays in terms of the weird acceptance speech and all that.

During the speech I was like, “I understand the words he’s saying, but also what the fuck is he saying?”

Let me tell you, it got even weirder. There are couple things that weren’t in the episode that didn’t make it on there.

Oh, really? Anything specific?

I can’t remember, honestly. It was big words, let’s put it that way.

Did you ever discuss, I hate to say his name, but Donald Trump,?

We didn’t talk about “the former guy,” as I say… or you can say 45, that’s a fun way to do it. No, we didn’t talk about that. I remember doing that speech, the acceptance speech, and the only vague note was, “keep it cheery.” Because of these terrible things I’m saying, they wanted to make sure that it was couched in a happy land, which I think is smart.

And that’s what made it so creepy. You have this smile on your face and this glimmer in your eye. I don’t know if you can intend to have a glimmer in your eye, but that’s what was coming through on the screen.

I’m so glad to hear that. It was also a very foreign experience because in terms of what’s really happening, he’s probably in front of a room of hundreds of supporters. And I was alone except for a very sparse camera crew in a room in New Jersey at CNBC headquarters. I was definitely trying to pitch that: should I be imagining that I would take beats and things, and assume there was an audience in the background? Because if someone’s fucking just gotten elected president, he’s usually in a ballroom with the true believers.

Throughout the episode, you’re on TV in the background. Did you film a lot of extra random stuff for that?

We did. I filmed several campaign speeches on a green screen and they were like, “we’ll put these in throughout. You might be on a TV in the background.” Actually, the very first thing I did this season was they sent a crew out to my house here in LA and we shot some campaign photos for posters and stuff. I have no idea to what degree any of that is what shows up on the show.

What is the set like? Especially when you’re in scenes with the entire cast, how does that feel from your perspective as a guest star?

It’s surreal in the sense of being a fan of the show. But to be wishy-washy and say the thing that people say, but I really mean it: That group was so welcoming to me, both the cast and all the writers. They’re all aware of being part of something extremely special, and so they’re happy to be there.

It’s so in sync and even people who aren’t in the show that much like you and a lot of these amazing New York actors that come in to say a few lines per episode, everyone feels like they’re on the same page.

That’s a good way to say it, the same page. When you’re cooking, and that’s one of the privileges of long series television, is that it becomes its own machine because they show up with each other every day and just keep making it.

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