Interview with Jeremy Strong: “Succession” complicates character acting

EXCLUSIVE: The ‘Armageddon Time’ star tells IndieWire he finds it harder to be a character actor “when you’re working on something that’s so visible”.

Jeremy Strong will forever find it hard to shake his Succession character Kendall Roy.

“I don’t know what Kendall’s fashion is, but I’m wearing his hat right now. And I’m in,” said the Emmy-winning actor, who came to the 2022 Telluride Film Festival straight from filming Season 4 of the acclaimed HBO drama. “It’s great to be here and catch your breath for a minute.”

Strong is in Colorado for the North American premiere of his new film Armageddon Time, a film written and directed by James Gray that is a very different family drama than the hit TV show he stars in. The story revolves around a little Jewish boy, played by Banks Repeta, who comes of age in Queens in 1980 (right around the time Ronald Reagan becomes President), while Strong plays his cranky plumber father Irving, a man who is , for better or for worse, a product of its time.

“This role was a role that I was both very terrified of and attracted to at the same time, which is exactly what you’re looking for,” the actor said. “This man is trying to do his best as a father and in a lot of ways he’s not equipped to do it. He tries to toughen his children up and prepare them for an unjust world so they can survive in it, and there are misguided ways to do it. But I think there’s a lot of tenderness and love, but also a lot of cruelty.” He added that when deciding if a role is right for him, “one of the first questions I ask is trying not intellectually but trying emotionally figuring out if a character is in some sort of trouble, and the more trouble a character has, the more there is for them to work with.”

Since Armageddon Time is “James’ most personal film” and Irving is based on the filmmaker’s real-life father, an enthusiastic Strong Gray got as close as possible to figuring out exactly who the character is. “I was living in Denmark when he asked me to do the film, so I got on a plane and tracked him down, tracked down his family, met people, asked a million questions,” the actor said. “I remember giving James the Proust Questionnaire and having him answer the questions as if he were his father. . . I was relentless in asking James for details and stories and jokes and songs and finding out little things that his father loved.”

Jeremy Strong Anne Hathaway

Jeremy Strong as Irving Graff and Anne Hathaway as Esther Graff in James Gray’s Armageddon Time.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Strong’s seemingly mind-blowing approach to acting has been the subject of much debate, but he has a way of explaining how handy it is to do all the pre-production work he does. “Acting is largely about preparation, so once you’re armed with a visceral understanding of this character, you can go on set and essentially just act and be in the moment. And I would say or do anything that comes out of that understanding.” He asks himself, “How far are you going? And what length are you going out at?” as part of the characterization challenge, “but there are endless ways to play any role, really. So you have to figure out what feels necessary.”

“I do not know [Irving] as James knows him. So I had to piece this together for myself until it felt inevitable. That’s him,” Strong said. “So that was a lot of work and a lot of blind intuition and a lot of research and trying to take in as much as possible from James about the source and his experiences but also being very specific about the rendering of a particular man from Queens in the Year 1980, which is not me.”

The result doesn’t sound dissimilar to Gray himself – Strong really hits the same mark of being a Queens native – but the actor sees Irving as more of a mix of things, including his own Jewish grandfather, who lived in the same New York borough. He mentions that Gray describes the film as a ghost story. “It’s a search for a past. We cover that past and we distill that past. And so it becomes a journey for you as an actor, where you look into both James’ past and your own and then try to express that in the most authentic way possible.”

There are many reasons Strong excels in Armageddon Time, not the least of which is that he’s already been primed to accomplish this mix of fact and fiction. Reflecting on Succession, the actor said, “The truth is I’ve been working on this for almost six years now. And sometimes [Kendall] feels indistinguishable from me I guess.” That’s not something he feels bad about, though. Inspired by a Matisse exhibition at MoMA called The Red Studio, which featured a curatorial statement about the incredible entanglement between painting and real life, Strong said, “That entanglement is a really important and vital place where elements of yourself and blend elements of your work. It is impossible to say where one ends and where the other begins.”

Succession Season 3 Episode 7 Dasha Nekrasova Jeremy Strong

Dasha Nekrasova and Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Macall Polay / HBO

At the same time, the actor explores how Kendall Roy influences his perception of his professional career. “It’s something I’ll probably carry around with me from now on,” Strong said. “The show has become somewhat iconic in a way. [Though] Kendall is just another role for me to play.”

He explained, “I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor. And my heroes and mentors are character actors. And so the challenge of morphing, the challenge of becoming someone else and disappearing into a character that people don’t see you in, becomes harder when you’re working on something that’s so visible.”

That’s why he appreciates his supporting role in “Armageddon Time” so much. “It’s very rare. He’s nothing special, Strong said of Irving. “You experience moments of great tenderness, moments of stupidity, moments of anger, moments of brutality, moments where he’s a dreamer like all of us.”

“It was a real high for me and that’s what I want. But not everything is soaring, especially now,” Strong said. “So it was a real gift to be able to do that for James.”

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Lindsay Lowe

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