On “Succession”, Jeremy Strong doesn’t understand the joke

When Jeremy Strong was a teenager in suburban Massachusetts, he had three posters stuck to his bedroom wall: Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot”, Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” They weren’t just his favorite actors: their careers were a roadmap he obsessively followed, like Eve Harrington mentoring a trio of Margo Channings. He read interviews his heroes gave and, later , managed to get crew jobs on their films. By his early twenties, he had worked for all three and had adopted elements of their acting methods in full immersion. In his mid-thirties, after fifteen Years of hustle and bustle in the industry, he had had minor roles in a leading film series: “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Selma” and “The Big Short.” He had played the role of a staff member in both the 19th century White House and the 21st century CIA. ?

“You come to New York and play Off Off Broadway plays, and you’re out in the wild,” Strong told me of his early career. “Your concentration is only focused on the job and every time you try to go to an inner ledge. And you get used to people not noticing it.

Then it happened. In 2016, Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker”, gave her a big role, as a national guard in her film “Detroit”. Around the same time, Strong had lunch with Adam McKay, who had led him as a financial analyst on “The Big Short.” McKay said he was producing a new HBO show called “Succession,” which he described to Strong as a “King Lear” for the media-industrial complex. McKay gave him the pilot script and said, “Tell me what role you’re connecting with.” Strong chose Roman Roy, the youngest son of Logan Roy, a media titan à la Rupert Murdoch. “I was like, Oh, wow, Roman is such a cool character,” Strong said. “He’s, like, this bon vivant jerk.” I could do something that I had never done before.

In August, Strong, who was living in Los Angeles with his fiancee, went to shoot “Detroit”. He had researched extensively for the role, watched military documentaries, and practiced marksmanship on a shooting range. He managed to miss some of his wedding week’s festivities for the shoot. But, after a day, Bigelow fired him. “I just wasn’t the character she had in mind,” Strong said. “It was a devastating experience.” (Bigelow says the character didn’t work in the story; after Strong begged her, she offered him another role, as a lawyer.) Then he flew to Denmark to get married, staying in a castle called Dragsholm Slot. It was then that he got the call that the people of the “Estate” had chosen Kieran Culkin as Roman.

Read more An interview with J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri in “Succession”.

Obviously, the role had not been given to McKay. Strong tried to let go of the fantasy he had so determinedly pursued for decades. But series creator Jesse Armstrong agreed to audition for the role of Kendall Roy, the moody second son and heir apparent to Logan. “I always felt like a stranger with a fire in my stomach,” Strong told me. “And so the disappointment and the feeling of being upset – it only sharpened my need and my hunger.” I entered with a vengeance. He perused books on corporate gaming, including Michael Wolff’s biography of Rupert Murdoch, and handpicked details he loved; apparently Murdoch’s son James ties his shoes extremely tight, which told Strong something about his “inner tensile strength.”

During the audition, Strong, his shoes tight, read a scene between Kendall and the CEO of a startup he is trying to acquire. Armstrong was skeptical. He asked Strong to “loosen up the language” and the scene changed. “It was, like, bringing up the Beastie Boys,” Strong recalls. “I was missing the bro-speak dialect.” At the end of the day, he got the part.

Kendall is the show’s Dark Prince, a self-styled mogul inflated with false bravado. He is often ridiculous in his seriousness, especially when he tries to dominate his indomitable father. Strong was portrayed perfectly: a long distance player who had spent his life aspiring, and often maneuvering, to replace his gods on an interim basis. “Kendall desperately wants her turn,” Strong said. Last year he won an Emmy Award for the role.

Strong, who is now forty-two, has the sled dog face of someone who was not destined for stardom. But her soft appearance belies a relentless, sometimes smoothing intensity. He speaks with a slow and deliberate cadence, especially when he talks about acting, which he does with a monk’s solemnity. “For me, the stakes are life or death,” he told me of Kendall. “I take it as seriously as I take my own life.” He doesn’t find the character funny, which is probably why he’s so funny in the role.

“I just realized that I am indifferent to the scenery.”
Caricature by Victoria Roberts

When I asked Strong about the rap Kendall performs in Season 2, at a gala for his father – one of the main contenders at Kendall’s most despicable moment – he gave a non-smiling answer about Raskolnikov, referring to Kendall’s “monstrous pain”. Kieran Culkin told me, “After the first season he said something to me like, ‘I’m afraid people will think the show is a comedy. And I said, ‘I think the show is a comedy.’ He thought I was kidding. Part of the appeal of “Succession” is its amalgamation of drama and dry satire. When I told Strong that I too considered the series to be a dark comedy, he looked at me with incomprehension and asked, “In the sense that, for example, Chekhov is a comedy?” No, I said, in the sense that it’s funny. “That’s exactly why we picked Jeremy for this role,” McKay told me. “Because he doesn’t play it like a comedy. He plays him like he’s Hamlet.

The actors try to find the real in the imaginary, but anyone who has worked with Strong will tell you that he goes to unusual lengths. Last year he played activist Yippie Jerry Rubin in Aaron Sorkin’s film “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. While filming the 1968 protest scenes, Strong had a stunt coordinator brutalize him; he also asked to be sprayed with real tear gas. “I don’t like to say no to Jeremy,” Sorkin told me. “But there were two hundred people in that scene and seventy others in the crew, so I refused to spray them with poison gas.” Between shots of the trial scenes, in which the Yippies mock Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, Strong would read Langella’s memoir aloud with silly voices, and he would place a remote-controlled fart machine under the chair’s chair. judge. “Every once in a while I would say, ‘Great. We’re doing it all over again, and this time, Jeremy, maybe not playing kazoo in the middle of Frank Langella’s monologue, ”Sorkin said.

Strong has always worked this way. In his twenties, he was assistant to playwright Wendy Wasserstein, typing her manuscripts. At night he performed a solo piece by Conor McPherson at a small downtown bar, playing an alcoholic Irishman. Wasserstein discovered that Strong spent a lot of time with his Irish porter, studying his accent. Prior to Wasserstein’s death in 2006 – Strong was one of the few people who knew she had lymphoma – she had considered writing a play based on him called “Enter Doorman”.

This fall, Strong was filming the James Gray film “Armageddon Time”, as a plumber based on the director’s father. Strong let his hair return to its natural gray – it’s darkened for “Succession” – and sent me videos of himself following a real handyman for research, repeating terms like “flare nut” with a honked Queens accent. Costumes and accessories are like talismans for him. In 2012, he played a possible victim of childhood sexual abuse in Amy Herzog’s “The Great God Pan” at Playwrights Horizons. “There was a shirt he was wearing that was really important to him, and for design reasons we wanted to try it on in a different color,” Herzog told me. “I remember him saying that the shirt he was wearing had functioned as his armor, and this new shirt was not like armor.” They let him keep the shirt.

Strong’s dedication strikes some contributors as impressive, others as complacent. “All I know is he’s crossing the Rubicon,” Robert Downey, Jr. told me. In 2014, Strong played the mentally disabled brother of Downey, Jr. in “The Judge”. (To prepare, he spent time with someone with autism, like Hoffman had done for “Rain Man.”) When Downey, Jr., shot a funeral scene, Strong paced around the set. crying loudly, even though he was not called that day. He asked for custom props that weren’t in the script, including a family photo album. “It almost pushed him away like he was an annoying gnat – I had more important things to deal with,” recalls a member of the design team.

“I think you have to go through all the ordeal that the character has to go through,” Strong told me. This extreme approach – Robert De Niro shaving his teeth for “Cape Fear”, Leonardo DiCaprio eating raw bison liver for “The Revenant” – is often described as a method of acting, a much abused term which in his sense classic, involves invoking emotions. from personal experiences and project them onto a character. Strong doesn’t see himself as a Method actor. Far from undermining his own life, he practices what he calls “identity diffusion”. “If I have any method, it’s just this: clean up anything – anything – that isn’t the character and the circumstances of the scene,” he explained. “And generally that means cleaning up almost everything around and inside you, so that you can be a more complete vessel for the job at hand.”

Speaking of his process, he quoted jazz pianist Keith Jarrett: “I relate every musical experience I have, including every day here in the studio, with great power, and if I don’t submit to it, nothing. does not happen. During our conversations, Strong cited bits of wisdom from Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Karl Ove Knausgaard (he is a superfan of “My Struggle”), Robert Duvall, Meryl Streep, Harold Pinter (“The More experience is acute, less articulate his expression “), Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, TS Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, and old proverbs (” When fishermen cannot go to sea, they mend their nets “). noticed he was a sponge for quotes, he got serious and said, “I’m not a religious person, but I think I concocted my own hymnbook.

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