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What It’s Like to Act Very, Very Rich

Photo: HBO

Hiam Abbass, 58, currently plays one of the wealthiest women on TV: Marcia Roy, the third wife of Logan Roy, a billionaire media magnate on HBO’s Succession. Part of what makes the show so great is that it stops short of rich-person-lifestyle porn — which, of course, makes the Roys’ Upper East Side world seem that much more believable. With her luxurious beige home(s), household staff, and tasteful jewel-toned wardrobe, Marcia exudes the kind of ease that money can buy. For Abbass, however, the Roys’ world is the exact opposite of the small Palestinian village where she grew up. Here, she talks about learning to embody the casual entitlement of extreme wealth and what it’s like to strip it off at the end of the day. Succession returns to HBO for its second season in August.

A lot of TV shows about wealthy people tend to make them into caricatures, but Marcia Roy seems very real. Did you study anyone or do research to prepare to play her?
I have to be honest with you: not really. It’s almost if I had to find inside my body a rich woman that I could have been once. I don’t want to overdo it, or imitate a rich person. The show is not based on real people or on rich people that we’ve seen. The characters are surrounded by money and some of them were born into it, but it isn’t the real motivation of their dynamics. Wealth can cause conflicts between them, but it’s not the wealth that makes them love or hate each other.

What is it like to embody that kind of wealth? Marcia just looks expensive, but not in an overt way.
If I’m sitting at home and I think, what is a rich woman? How would she stand or how would she eat or how would she move her hands or her body? Then I don’t think I’d get anywhere. Once you throw yourself into a character, you abandon the prejudices and ideas that you have in your mind about what type of person she is. You want the feelings to direct you, rather than the thoughts.

Women who marry wealthy older men often get a certain reputation. How did that affect the way you play Marcia?
When I started this show, I did want some understanding of why Marcia is married to this wealthy man, but she’s not a woman who would reveal herself easily to people. I think that she met and fell in love with Logan not because he’s wealthy. I think that she met him at a stage of her life where she needed comfort because of things that had happened to her earlier. I think a big part of their relationship is that they are also self-made. Neither of them come from wealth.

How do you show the difference between someone who is self made and someone who is born wealthy?
I think both Marcia and Logan have worked very hard, and they are survivors. That gives them a certain power. Marcia was maybe even poorer than Logan when she was a kid. If wealth makes people socially different, she understands both sides. I think she knows hard work, and she’s not afraid of it.

Is that something you relate to in your own life, growing up in Palestine and having made a name for yourself as an actor?
When I was young, I never dreamt of going to the States or getting to Hollywood. As a little girl in a village in the north of Palestine, the American dream was unknown to me. It just wasn’t on my horizon. But I do remember telling myself that I would never ever accept the force of any person or tradition that would forbid me from doing what I believe is right for myself. Things built up slowly from that moment. I still find myself surprised by where I am. To my surprise, I speak four languages. To my surprise, I lived in England and now Paris. I found myself doing cinema all over the world. Every time a new thing happened to me, I was thrilled of course, and the happiest person on Earth. But I always told myself, be careful, Hiam. Today it’s here. Tomorrow it might not be. You never “arrive.”

Having this window into a super luxurious life, has it affected your relationship to money or possessions?
Not really, no. Sometimes I just laugh when I walk into these places where we shoot — the buildings and houses in the U.S. and in England. You arrive and it’s really like, wow. You know that you will never ever own one thousandth of whatever you’ve seen. I now understand that there are people who are very, very rich in this world. But honestly, for me, it stops there. Money is something I’m not interested in, personally. I think the show reconfirms to me that my goal in life is not to have that kind of money. It’s for me to fulfill my ambitions and live in a dignified way.

Is playing a wealthy Upper East Sider and walking red carpets in Cannes ever jarring to you, having come from a small village?
When I was really young, I used to watch Dallas, and it was the farthest thing from my life. There were no similarities whatsoever between what I saw in that show and what I was living. I wasn’t fascinated by the wealth itself as much as I was fascinated by American society and these wealthy people in it, and just how foreign it all was. But I think it’s human nature to be curious about something you’ve never seen or experienced before. Now, when I do things like play Marcia or go to a red carpet, I am lent these incredible jewels and dresses. But I understand that these are things I have only for the moment. They’re not mine. And sometimes it’s a pain in the neck to be dressed like that all day. You just want to get back in your sneakers and jeans. The clothes are heavy.

Maybe one of the takeaways from playing Marcia is that it’s exhausting to be that rich.
It’s exhausting for the actor. I don’t think it’s exhausting for the people themselves who are that wealthy. But maybe! I don’t know.

What It’s Like to Act Very, Very Rich