There are so many touch points of HBO’s Succession you could grab a hold of and treasure: the tinkling, tingling score; scenes of billionaires yearning for death or prison or a hug; A-list guest stars jostling for a touch of buzz. But for me, it’s the constellation of support staff — the bodyguards, housekeepers, executive assistants, and C-suiters alike who hover around the Roy family, arms open to receive coats, hands out to supply water bottles, pills, and backup devices.
The one I hold nearest to my heart: Jess Jordan, the executive assistant to the heir apparently not, Kendall Roy. The lovely Bambi eyes of actress Juliana Canfield transmit panic and preparedness — and finally, this season, joy — as Jess stands at her boss’s shoulder, watching his repeated endeavors to torch his own life.
I tell Canfield this when she calls me on FaceTime. She’s indoors but wrapped in a parka — “I’m helping my friends do this project, and we’re in this icebox of a rehearsal space in Gowanus,” she explains. “Super-Gowanus. Very Gowanus.” It’s a tidy departure from Succession’s colossal, creamy interiors, and of course Canfield off-duty is a world away from her buttoned-up character: more freckled and fun, bubbling over.
Growing up between Washington, D.C., and the New York City suburbs due to her parents’ jobs, Canfield took part in a children’s Shakespeare theater because all the kids in the neighborhood were doing it. At 7 years old, “I asked my mom how you became a good actress, and she said, ‘Well, the best actors go to the Yale School of Drama,’” she says. “Okay, well I guess I want to go to the Yale School of Drama.” She attended Yale first as an undergraduate for English literature and hid her ambitions from classmates, worried she might not actually be good enough to do it seriously. For her graduate audition, “I put a scarf over my head so that no one would see me going to the drama building. I was worried about being really embarrassed if I didn’t get in.”
But she did get in, and she surprised herself further by thoroughly loving it. “It was learning how to breathe, learning about my spine. It felt super-rudimentary in a way that was so satisfying,” she says. When she graduated in 2017, she auditioned for Succession, specifically for the role of Willa. At this detail, she jokingly strains her eyes even bigger at me to emphasize what an insane mistake it would have been to have her play the delusional escort to a 60-something man.
Canfield was called in to play one of Kendall’s assistants and believes her screen time increased because of actor Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall via a dedicated Method approach that must be mentioned in any article about Succession. “There were times when Jess wasn’t written into a scene and he would be like, ‘Where’s Jess? I think Jess would be here,’” she says. “That’s why I ended up in those scenes and why I kept coming back, because Jeremy is just so committed.” She points to a sort of breakthrough scene in the first season, when Kendall throws his phone at Jess — “It was kind of a toss, a sharp toss” — which wasn’t in the script. Her own lack of coordination created a funny little hot-potato moment that cemented her understanding of the job and the character: “I have to be on the ready all the time.”
Thus Canfield waits and watches Strong, mirroring their characters’ dynamic. “He might not consciously involve me, but I try to involve myself in a way that’s invasive or disruptive,” she says. “She’s one step ahead of him, in his needs. So whatever process Jeremy’s in, I just try to clock it. When he is going through the Kendall roller coaster, that makes it really exciting for me.”
As with seemingly every female character (and many female viewers), Jess just wants to rescue Kendall, Canfield thinks. “She has to have a soft spot for him and sees some goodness in him,” she says. Or maybe it’s just that familiar “messed-up thought process”: “I can be the one who lifts him out of his own tortured head space, and then he can be the genius visionary that he should be.”
When I point out that despite being a drug-addled, volatile sorta murderer, Kendall is actually one of the best bosses on the show, Canfield is gleeful: “Dude, tell me about it!”
She didn’t study or speak with any other executive assistants for the job but is happy to hear that as a former Condé Nast magazine assistant, I think she’s nailed the shimmering anxiety and the quick-step shuffle 18 inches behind the executive. She says the hair and shoes help her get into character the most. “Putting on those little stilettos and those pencil skirts and having my hair in a tight bun? The shoes really, really make a diff.” It’s a look she’d never touch in her real life — “I’m a big Brooklyn chick” — where she’s never been recognized.
She’s even thinking like a real assistant too — as in, When will I get to do something more? “I wonder if Kendall would ask her, ‘Jess, what do you think about this?’ But not just about what to feed the rabbit,” Canfield says. “If they want me to speak more, I’ll definitely speak more. If they want me to just roll my eyes and mutter under my breath in the middle distance, I will do so happily.” She smiles. “It’s just so much fun.”