Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Succession’s Jeremy Strong: On Acting Methods, Addiction & Why He Doesn’t Yet Know Kendall’s Ultimate Fate Either…

In a rare interview, Jeremy Strong talks about his Succession character, why the show is coming to an end and his feelings about it. Plus, he reveals that things were left up in the air during the filming process, so he’s not entirely sure what his character’s fate will be, and will perhaps only find out at the same time as we are watching at home…

Jeremy Strong hasn’t had the easiest time in the press over the last couple of years. The Succession actor has won a slew of awards for his portrayal as tormented Kendall Roy – including an Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG award – which sit alongside the ensemble cast awards he had already won for his performances in The Big Short and The Trial of the Chicago 7.

But it’s his Succession role that has really thrust him into the spotlight, as well as the fact that it that seems every interview he does, it winds up landing him headlines. Whether it’s because of the seriousness with which he takes his job (and himself sometimes), his acting methods, or his penchant for answering questions with a naval-gazing quote, he seems to always say something headline-grabbing.

In a GQ interview he rattled off an exhaustive number of quotes attributed to noted authors, theologists, politicians and artists from Carl Jung, to John Keats to Bob Dylan. “People have been making fun of me about it for as long as I can remember,” he said, when it was pointed out to him. “I had an old girlfriend who used to call me Kierkegaard.” A New Yorker profile in 2021 ran with the headline: ‘Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke‘, in which he was quoted as saying ‘I take him [Kendall Roy] as seriously as I take my own life.” It was that interview, that portrayed him as being pretentious, that prompted several well-known friends of Jeremy to jump in and defend him. One such friend was Michelle Williams, who felt so strongly about it that she spoke about a time in her life that she is notoriously silent about – the death of her ex-partner and father of her daughter, Heath Ledger. In a Variety interview she described the article as being far removed from the man she knew, and how difficult it was to read – and see the backlash inspired by the article. She spoke about her friendship with Jeremy and how in the wake of Heath’s death he moved into her home to support her, spending endless hours letting her daughter, Matilda, ride on his back.

“Jeremy was serious enough to hold the weight of a child’s broken heart and sensitive enough to understand how to approach her through play and games and silliness,” Williams says, adding, “[Matilda] didn’t grow up with her father, but she grew up with her Jeremy and we were changed by his ability to play as though his life depended upon it, because hers did.”

So, it’s little surprise that Jeremy has been reluctant to do any press about his performance as Kendall. Fortunately, this year, in the final season he has agreed to talk all about the end of the era, the reasons behind it, what it’s like to play an addict and the memories he will treasure most from his time as Kendall Roy…

Why is Succession ending?

I think that’s really a question for Jesse Armstrong. But I think that Jesse feels that it’s run its course. I feel the same way about my character’s journey. Of course, these brilliant writers could have extended the show and found infinite riches in terms of the terrain and the material that they could have mined.

But I think he felt that this was the right place to land. The journey, when I think back for me, of getting in that car and listening to the Beastie Boys rap, to where we’ve ended: it’s really just a tremendous, incomprehensibly big journey that I’ve been on.

In the opening episode of the new series, we meet an ebullient Kendall. He, Shiv and Roman are “the new-gen Roys [and] we have a fucking song to sing”. What, for the siblings, is that song?

I love what you said – I think Kendall is ebullient at the beginning of this season. We last saw him in the dirt, on the ground of a parking lot in Italy, blown into a million pieces. And so he’s put those pieces back together in whatever precarious way he’s able to. I think he’s been living in LA and driving around Mulholland, singing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and popping sunflower seeds. And he’s ready to find a new anthem to sing with his siblings.

I think the “new-gen Roys and [having] a song to sing” is about the triumvirate. It’s about the three of them together, in opposition to their father. In that counterpoint that they’ve always been in. And about how they’re going to make their mark in the world, individually and as a trio. Threesome.

As Roman says in that scene: he’s the only one who wants to start a business for business reasons. Shiv is doing it to “fuck Tom”, Kendall to “fuck dad”. Why is Kendall still so gripped by this desire to, paraphrase Roman, fuck his dad?

Well, I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think, as ever, Kendall’s motivation is complex. I think he sees a really good opportunity on the deal front, with acquiring Pierce media as a legacy media brand. He’s got the same nose as his father does. Part of what we see in this season, I think, is whether or not Kendall has Logan in his DNA. And whether or not he will become his father. That question has been hanging over the writing all four seasons.

But the Pierce acquisition, having that in Kendall’s laser sights, is something that makes sense to me on a business level. With the added bonus – and I think there’s a moment about it [in the episode] – that it’s pretty fucking funny to screw dad over his lifelong white whale obsession.

You referenced the scene from the last episode of the last series, when Kendall breaks down out by the trash cans. You had that great line: “There’s something really wrong with me. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me?” What is, or was, wrong with Kendall?

[Pause] I don’t know. I think when he says I don’t know, I don’t know either. I mean: don’t we all sort of feel like that sometimes? [Laughs] Something is out of alignment with him, in his life. He has a Grand Canyon-size hole to fill, that he’s been trying to fill. First through addiction, and now through ambition.

He thinks that if he becomes CEO, if he becomes the alpha, if he becomes the dominant person in this family drama, maybe that will do the trick. But with Kendall, we’ve seen him so desperately try to hold things together, and to cling to whatever positivity and buoyancy he might be able to cling to, like a life-raft.

If he lets go of that positivity, and self-belief, he’ll drown. Kendall is always straddling that razor-sharp line. So when he says there’s something wrong with me, part of it, of course, has to do with the accident, and the death of the boy in England, and the pain he’s been carrying around.

But I would say there’s more wrong than that. And the feeling of unease, or dis-ease, is what they talk about in [recovery] programme, of course. That feeling that something is wrong, and something is out of joint.

I wanted to ask you about that point. You have that other line in the first episode: “I’ve smoked horse and it’s really, really fucking nice.” The backbeat, or the throb, of being an addict is always there for Kendall. How did you, as an actor, go about building that aspect of his personality? What research were you able to do, I guess going back to the beginning of the show?

Yeah, it does go back to the beginning, doesn’t it? Of course I’d feel, as always, a tremendous obligation to try and understand whatever struggle the character is in, and whatever turmoil the character’s in, so that I can hopefully embody that in a real way. You can only do that approximately. There’s only so much you can understand if you yourself haven’t had the experience. And that’s whatever the mystery of acting is. That’s part of that mystery.

I set myself a lot of achievable tasks. I went to some meetings with friends of mine. I talked to a lot of people. I read a lot of memoirs about addiction. I just tried to understand it as best I could, in a visceral way. And then you load that into everything. That’s there in the substrate of everything you’re doing.

But I think when Kendall says that, he needs… that thing – he’s a mountaineer. He needs an Eiger to climb. He needs some kind of high. He needs something to fill that void. That sort of howling void. And in this case, it’s TheHundred, this new project that is like – what do I say in the episode? – “Substack meets The Economist meets Masterclass meets The New Yorker”. Which both sounds great and is hilarious.

That becomes the new thing. And I think he approaches those things with a certain zealotry, and almost fanaticism, that one does when one needs that thing to stay on track and stay afloat. Because without it, you might fall apart.

There’s been much discussion of your all-or-nothing commitment to this part. How did knowing this was the final series impact on the rigour which you approach Kendall for one last time?

It’s a really interesting question. But the honest answer is: “not at all”.

On the one hand: I didn’t know if it would be the final season. We didn’t know until we were close to shooting the final episode. On the other hand: I also believed, and felt ready, for it to be done for my character. So I’ve always had that in my mind – because he also felt that way. There’s only so many more moves he has left.

We’ve seen Kendall essentially lose everything. We’ve seen him at the highest altitude, and at these summit moments. And we’ve seen him in the ninth circle of hell. And dramatically, an arc can only go so far [with] moments of incredible catharsis, and moments of incredible transformation, and road-to-Damascus moments along the way. So I felt not surprised when Jesse decided to call it.

I guess, when we filmed the final scene, and the last take of the final scene, I became acutely aware of what that meant, and the momentousness of it. Which, to be honest, has no place in a take. You can’t put that onus on anything. So it probably wasn’t the best take!

But, yeah, no, the rigour is the same, no matter what.

How satisfied are you with the conclusion of Kendall’s story over these final 10 episodes?

Very. Very satisfied. With Jesse Armstrong and these brilliant writers, every season we get to the end, I’ve had this sense of: how can we possibly go any further than that? How are these guys going to clear that bar? And then they do. This season felt like a double black diamond, again and again, to me. That we all had to go down in unison together.

One of the beautiful things about working on something for so long, is the ensemble that it creates. I had a lot to do with my siblings this year. And just the sheer flight time that we’ve had together allows us, as actors, to be present and trust each other, between action and cut, in a pretty profound way – that you don’t get when you just work on a single film or a single thing. And that was very exciting.

I still think how Jesse actually is going to end it, for my character, I don’t know. There’s some choices still to be made, and it’s up in the air. So I won’t know until you know.

A tough one to end on: if push comes to shove, what’s been your favourite – or most memorable, tough, rewarding – scene to film over these 40 episodes and 40 hours?

I mean, it’s impossible really. But the scenes that I’ll carry with me for my whole life include the finale of season one, walking into the room with my father and Marcia. My mother’s kitchen. Going to the [deceased] boy’s house in Scotland, with my father. The boathouse with my siblings. The press conference. The birthday party gifts room. That dirt parking lot in Italy. The dinner table in Italy with my father.

It goes on and on. It’s really– I can’t– It’s incalculable to me, the size of this gift, as far as the writing and what it’s given me to go through as an actor.

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