After a decades-long slump, the actor’s career came roaring back with the role of Connor Roy. He talks about his 80s success, his ‘attitude problems’ and his excitement about Succession’s new series
Alan Ruck is talking to me by video about the present, but he appears to be sitting in the past. The present we are discussing is the forthcoming third season of Succession, the wildly adored HBO series about plutocracies and dysfunctional families, created by Jesse Armstrong, a co-creator of Peep Show. Ruck plays Connor, the neglected eldest son of a media magnate, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Like all the actors on the show – as the Guardian’s unofficial Succession correspondent, I have interviewed Cox and Jeremy Strong – Ruck has thought deeply about his character and is very eloquent on the subject. It is, however, a little hard to focus on what he’s saying because the bright and spacious kitchen in which he’s sitting bears a striking resemblance to another kitchen audiences associate with him. More than 30 years before Ruck played Connor, he was Cameron Frye, another neglected son of a cruel and wealthy man, in the 1986 John Hughes classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Alan, I say, are you actually sitting in Ferris Bueller’s kitchen?
“Ha! No, I see what you mean, but this is my lovely kitchen. And upstairs are my lovely children,” he says in his occasionally ironic, lightly mocking tone, although that mockery is always directed inwardly rather than outwardly. At one point, he makes a fleeting reference to “a western I was once in”, and I interrupt him to say he cannot casually refer to the great 1990 movie Young Guns II as just some western.
“Oh right, OK,” he says with an embarrassed duck of his head, as if his mum was bragging to the neighbour about her son’s grades. “But you know I was just the widower in that movie, right? And you don’t want to be the sad, sorry guy in a western – you want to be the guy who rides his horse through a plate-glass window and shoots everybody!”
By the time he was cast in Succession, Ruck, now 65, was well accustomed to playing the sad and the sorry. As Captain John Harriman in Star Trek Generations, he had to deal with the loss of Captain Kirk; as Rabbit in Twister, he was the dorky member of the tornado-chasing team, prissily fussing over the maps. He worked with Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy (Class), with Charlie Sheen twice (Ferris Bueller, Spin City) and, of course, he was in Young Guns II alongside Emilio Estevez, but he was never really part of the Brat Pack. Instead, as with the Roy family, he was slightly on the outside looking in – he even auditioned for The Breakfast Club alongside Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald et al, but didn’t get it.
He is really terrific as Connor, the self-deluding eldest Roy child who can go from pathos to petulance in a blink, gazing at his smarter half-siblings – Connor was born from Logan’s first marriage – with a dash of discomfort. He describes his work on the show with charming discursiveness, referencing everything from John F Kennedy’s tragic younger sister Rosemary, who ended up being lobotomised (“Maybe Connor got a little stuck in the birth canal, like Rosemary did”) to a club at his college, the University of Illinois, called the Society for Creative Anachronists, where members would dress up like medieval lords and ladies. “I can imagine Connor being attracted to that world,” he says. “When I auditioned for the show there was a line in which Connor says, ‘Dad, there’s this job I want: it’s president of the United States.’ I said to Adam [McKay, the show’s executive producer], ‘He’s putting the old man on, right?’ And Adam said, ‘Oh no, he’s deadly serious.’ That gave me a big window into who this guy is.”
“Big” barely does it justice, and Ruck relishes the storytelling. “I think with Connor, up until he was eight years old, he was a little prince and anywhere he went with his dad, people bowed down, and he was old enough to think, ‘Oh, Dad’s a big deal. This is good.’ Then his father divorced his mother, and there were hints in season two that she had psychological challenges. So between eight and 18, Connor was alternately at boarding school or with a very sick woman, so he started to develop a very active fantasy life and now he has a delusional disorder. Then, because he wanted his pop’s attention, he probably tried business school, lasted a couple months, then maybe tried art school and realised he had no talent. And then he realised he didn’t have to do anything because there was this big pile of money in the account. Now he’s in his 50s and he’s never had a job. So the upside is, he’s never wanted for anything, but he has also never been needed. And I think it’s starting to get to him.”
That Ruck has repeatedly been cast as the bullied rather than the bully is not a coincidence. In Speed (1994), he played the good-hearted but terrified tourist who had the misfortune to board the wrong bus on a trip to Los Angeles, but the part was originally written, Ruck says, “as an asshole, an entitled lawyer whose BMW broke down. But when I went in and did a reading, I think they thought, ‘Oh, this guy’s a softie – let’s have him play that.’” Even as Stuart Bondek, the sexist and boorish assistant deputy mayor he played for all six seasons of Spin City, the sitcom starring Michael J Fox and then Sheen, Ruck couldn’t help but let Stuart’s sweetness come shining through.
“I’m a character actor with not a lot of character,” says Ruck, reverting to his comfort zone of self-deprecation. “Most character actors have their thing, like John Malkovich is kinda scary, or whatever. I’m just this white guy who’s not especially intimidating in any way, not intellectually and certainly not physically.”
But Connor Roy represents a change for him because, unlike all his other characters, there is nothing especially endearing about him. Absurd, yes; endearing, no. Is it hard to play someone with so little appeal?
“No, it’s really refreshing,” he laughs. “You get to get all that dirty and miserable stuff out at work and then you go home and hopefully are a decent human being. What’s great about Connor, and the show, is that it’s unpredictable. I know there’s a lot of aficionados out there who are all, ‘This is what’s going to happen …’ But everyone will be surprised at what’s come out of Jesse’s brain this season. The gloves are off.”
Maintaining this sense of surprise is of utmost importance to everyone involved in Succession, and I receive multiple messages ahead of the interview from TV people saying that I am forbidden to ask Ruck anything about the new series. But it’s not easy for someone as friendly as he is to keep secrets, and multiple sentences end abruptly with: “Oh no, I can’t say that!” At one point, talking about Connor’s future, he stops himself almost that bit too late. HBO are going to have to kill me now, I tell him. “Yeah, I think they are waiting outside your door,” he says drily.
Ruck has been around long enough not to get overly caught up in the hysteria around the show. Don’t get him wrong – he is thrilled to be on it. “I’ve been waiting for a show like this for more than 30 years, something that’s ostensibly a drama but is really twisted and funny,” he says. But he also knows not to get carried away. After all, he co-starred in one of the seminal movies of the 80s, and then didn’t get another really meaty and starry role until … well, now. “Someone asked me once, ‘How do you choose your roles?’ And I was like, ‘Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt do that. That’s not how it is for the rest of us.’”
Ruck got into acting because he felt like a nobody. As a teenager growing up in Cleveland, school was a “misery”: “I couldn’t concentrate, I wasn’t athletic, my family didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t throw parties. So I was looking for something where I could get a bit of attention. Then, when I found out I could do this, I never let it go because I had an identity,” he says. By the time he played Cameron, he was 28 and married, but it was not hard for him to mine teenage misery.
He studied drama at college and acted in plays around Chicago. In his late 20s, he was cast in the Broadway production of Neil Simon’s play Biloxi Blues alongside Matthew Broderick, and the two became instant friends. It was Broderick who persuaded him to audition for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as he had already been cast as the lead. Despite the casting directors’ initial qualms about Ruck’s age, the real-life friendship between the two actors was so palpable that they cast him, and it’s now impossible to imagine anyone else in those roles. It’s especially hard to imagine John Hughes’ first choices for Ferris and Cameron, who were, according to Ruck, Anthony Michael Hall and Emilio Estevez.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is so familiar that it’s easy to forget what a weird film it is, this story of a bunch of kids who skip school, not to smoke or make out, but to go to a fancy museum and a restaurant. Because of its weirdness, superfans have long sought hidden meanings. I ask Ruck what he thinks of the theory that Ferris is actually just a figment of Cameron’s imagination because he represents who he wants to be. Ruck throws back his head and laughs in a manner inescapably reminiscent of when Ferris tells Cameron he’ll take the miles off the speedometer by driving home backwards.
“Ferris Fight Club!” he chuckles, imagining Ferris as Tyler Durden. “Well, I hope whoever came up with that got at least an A on their paper, because it’s very clever.”
The implication behind that theory is that Cameron is, really, the star of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because he – unlike Ferris – is the one going through the emotional change. Hughes often put elements of autobiography in his movies and I ask if he ever talked to Ruck about this.
“No, but he did say to me during filming: ‘The reason you’re wearing a Red Wings T-shirt [in the movie] is, the relationship with your father stinks. But you have a really good relationship with your grandfather in Detroit and he takes you to Red Wings games.’ Then I found out some time after the movie that John had spent a good chunk of his early years in Detroit,” he says with a fond smile.
After Ferris Bueller, Ruck flitted between theatre, TV and film. TV had almost no credibility then. Were his agents worried that he was harming his career by appearing on short-lived sitcoms with names like Daddy’s Girl?
“I think they were just happy that I was getting a job anywhere! I had some attitude problems that got in my way then,” he says.
Ruck is so personable that I find it hard to imagine him with attitude problems.
“Well, I used to drink a lot,” he says. “I don’t do that any more. There was always an excuse to take a drink. If things were not going well, I would have a drink. If things were going exceedingly well, I’d have many drinks. Then my manager at the time said, ‘I think you’re drinking too much.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘There’s gotta be a reason why you’re not working, and this is the only thing I can think of.’ I was so desperate at this point that I was willing to try anything, so I stopped.” Not long after that, he was cast on Spin City.
I tell him it amazes me that all actors aren’t alcoholics, given the sheer amount of rejection they have to endure.
“Yeah, it’s true with actors there are a lot of boozehounds. You try to find something to turn off the noise in your head.”
I ask what he uses now to turn off that noise.
“Well, I’m an older guy with kids, so mainly I’m just tired,” he says. Ruck has two adult children from his first marriage, and an 11-year-old and a seven-year-old with his second wife, the actor Mireille Enos. “I’m really lucky that I get a chance to do it again, but I am really, really tired,” he says.
The big kitchen behind Ruck is reminiscent of Ferris Bueller, but it’s also proof of how far Ruck has come since. Against the odds and despite the hurdles, Cameron came out good, from Brat Pack adjacent to HBO star. “The way I look at it, it was just a really happy day when I went to Adam McKay’s house for the Succession audition,” he says with a shrug. Life moves pretty fast, even if it sometimes takes a couple of decades.
The third season of Succession begins on Sky Atlantic and Now on 18 October.