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Who will win 'Succession'? The actor who plays Frank wants to know, too

"I’m into the journey as much as you," Peter Friedman said in an interview. "I’m being kept on tenterhooks by what these cool writers have in mind."
Jeremy Strong and Peter Friedman in HBO's "Succession."
Jeremy Strong and Peter Friedman in HBO's "Succession."Peter Kramer / HBO

The world of HBO’s “Succession” can be a nasty place: vicious feuds, startling betrayals and some of the most inventive insults on American television.

But then there is Frank Vernon, the seemingly even-keeled corporate lieutenant who has patiently survived more than three decades of C-suite drama at Waystar Royco, the media conglomerate at the center of the series.

The character is rarely a focal point, but he is an intriguingly ubiquitous presence, quietly hovering around the edges of the Roy family psychodrama, loyally serving the big boss, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), and withstanding barbs from the acid-tongued scion Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin).

Frank is played by Peter Friedman, a veteran character actor with nearly a half-century of experience in theater and television. He is also a reliable presence in independent movies, perhaps most memorably as a cult-like “self-help” guru in Todd Haynes’ haunting “Safe.”

In a recent phone interview, Friedman, 72, talked about his own impressions of the character he plays on “Succession.” Is he as decent as he seems — or is there darkness under the surface? Friedman did not weigh in on the latest episode because he had not seen it yet. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NBC News: Logan Roy has a knack for humiliating everybody in his orbit. He loves to “kick” people, as his ex-wife says in the latest episode. In the very first episode of the series, Frank is unceremoniously fired and replaced after 30 years of loyal service to the firm. Why do you think Frank sticks around? Why do you think he takes it? 

Peter Friedman: Boy, that is the question, Daniel, that is the question. [Laughs.] I purposely have not asked the creators because I don’t want them to have to commit to anything before they’re ready. It’s a mystery to me and it’s also an entertainment for me, to see — just like a viewer — how this is going to come out. How does this guy fit in here?

We haven’t seen blood on his hands, as we have with everybody else, and yet he’s hanging with a bunch of thugs and he keeps coming back. [Laughs.] He’s had plenty of time to go to a [different company], and probably the means and the cred to go elsewhere, if not the right age to go elsewhere. I’m as intrigued as you are.

You touched on something interesting: Frank, relatively speaking, seems like a decent enough fellow—

I know, right? But we don’t really know. [Laughs.]

Is that how you see him?

I think so, until we find out otherwise. You know, from the very beginning, I think we all had questions for [series creator] Jesse Armstrong, but then we realized, “No, they’re writing this and they’re making this up. They might have broad ideas for us, but they’re putting this together in real time.”

But what’s wonderful about not knowing is that everything they hand me to do, I do truthfully. There’s no reason to quote-unquote "act duplicitous." I’m doing what is written. If it proves to be that [Frank’s demeanor] is an obfuscation or a trick or a fraud later on, I’ll be the first to know about it and I’ll be delighted. But right now it’s all straight ahead for me.

I think the original draft of the fourth episode, once upon a time, began with Frank in his quote “opulent bedroom” sitting at his desk [and] a woman in his bed gets a call from the doorman saying, “the FBI is here.” I said, “Whoa!” I had no idea I had an opulent bedroom. I had no idea I had a woman in my bed. 

But then it was erased, so it never really happened. I was just so glad for these teeny clues. 

I’ve debated with friends and co-workers whether “Succession” is fundamentally a comedy or a tragedy. When you are rehearsing and performing your scenes, do you imagine you’re playing in a particular genre?

No, I don’t. I hope it’s not obvious that I’m pushing one way or the other. I think we’re trying to go for some sort of truth. David Rasche [who plays Karl Muller] is called upon to be a humorous type, but I don’t see him with a klaxon horn or anything like that. He’s playing it pretty straight, you know?

When you joined the cast, did you do research along the lines of talking to real-life media executives?

Yes, before the pilot — was I COO or CFO originally?

COO, and then Roman took your spot.

Yeah, it lasted one episode. I did some research, and I had a friend hand me over to a person who is indeed a COO. We had a nice 45-minute conversation where I understood what the hell their responsibilities are — and then boom, I’m fired. I don’t know what [Frank’s job] is now. I really don’t.

Peter Friedman watching Roy family drama on "Succession."HBO

You’re not part of the Roy family. You’re not vying to replace Logan. It’s not even clear to me if Frank has a formal title at this point.

I read a recap in The New York Times a few episodes back, and a viewer’s comment was, “Frank has all the authority of an intern.” It’s absolutely right. [Laughs.]

In addition to “Succession,” do you keep up with TV these days? Do you follow other shows?

I’ve been watching “Kamikaze” on HBO Max. But the one that stands out for this entire pandemic period, when it became a ritual to sit down every night with my wife and choose something we could sink into, was “Halt and Catch Fire,” from a few years ago. I love that thing.

I know there's a lot you haven't been told about the future of the show, so I’m asking you as a fellow viewer: In your gut, who do you think will ultimately succeed Logan Roy?

[Laughs heartily.] I don’t have a thought on the subject. You could see it going so many ways. I don’t know! I don’t know. I’m into the journey as much as you. I’m being kept on tenterhooks by what these cool writers have in mind. I like not knowing.

I could imagine Logan living forever.

That’s right! They’ll take his brain.