On “Succession”, Jeremy Strong does not understand the joke

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When Jeremy Strong was a teenager in suburban Massachusetts, he had three posters taped 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 road map he followed obsessively, like Eve Harrington knocking out 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 men and adopted elements of their full-immersion acting methods. By his mid-thirties, after fifteen years of jostling in the industry, he had had minor roles in a series of high-profile films: “Lincoln”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Selma” and “The Big Short”. . “He had played a staffer in both the 19th century White House and the 21st century CIA. But, as he neared his forties, he felt his master plan wasn’t working – where was his Benjamin Braddock, his Michael Corleone? ?

“You come to New York, and you do Off Off Broadway plays, and you’re in the desert,” Strong told me, of his early career. “Your focus just becomes the work and try to go to an inner edge every time. And you get used to people not noticing that.

Then it happened. In 2016, Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker”, gave him a big role, as a national guard in her film “Detroit”. Around the same time, Strong had lunch with Adam McKay, who had directed him as a financial analyst in “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 and industry complex. McKay gave him the script for the pilot and said, “Tell me what role you connect with.” Strong chose Roman Roy, the wise youngest son of Logan Roy, a media titan à la Rupert Murdoch. “I thought, Oh, wow, Roman is such a cool role,” Strong said. “He’s, like, this good-natured asshole. I could do something that I haven’t done before.

In August, Strong, who was living in Los Angeles with his fiancée, went to film “Detroit.” He had researched extensively for the role, watched military documentaries, and practiced marksmanship on a shooting range. He managed to miss part of his wedding week festivities for filming. But, after one 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. . That’s when he got the call that the folks at “Succession” had cast Kieran Culkin for Roman.

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

Clearly, the role was not McKay’s job. Strong tried to let go of the fantasy he had doggedly pursued for decades. But series creator Jesse Armstrong agreed to audition him for the role of Kendall Roy, Logan’s moody middle son and heir apparent. “I always felt like an outsider with a fire in my stomach,” Strong told me. “And so the disappointment and the feeling of being thwarted – it only made my need and my hunger worse. I entered with a vengeance. He tore up books on entrepreneurship, including the Michael Wolff’s biography of Rupert Murdoch, and handpicked details he loved; apparently Murdoch’s son James ties his shoes very tightly, which tells Strong something about his “tensile strength internal”.

During the audition, Strong, his shoes tied tightly, read a scene between Kendall and the CEO of a startup he’s trying to acquire. Armstrong was skeptical. He asked Strong to “release the tongue” and the scene transformed. “It was, like, Beastie Boys-ing it up,” Strong recalled. “I was missing the patois of bro-speak.” At the end of the day, he had the part.

Kendall is the dark prince of the series, an aspiring mogul puffed up with fake bravado. He is often ridiculous in his seriousness, especially when trying to dominate his indomitable father. Strong was perfectly cast: a background player who had spent his life aspiring, and often maneuvering, to fill the shoes of his acting gods. “Kendall desperately wants it to be her turn,” Strong said. Last year he won an Emmy Award for the role.

Strong, now forty-two, has the puppy dog ​​face of someone who was not destined for stardom. But its soft appearance belies a relentless, sometimes smoothing intensity. He speaks with a slow, deliberate cadence, especially when discussing acting, which he does with monkish solemnity. “To me, the stakes are life and death,” he told me of Kendall’s role. “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 have just realized that I am indifferent to the landscape.”
Cartoon by Victoria Roberts

When I asked Strong about the rap Kendall performs in Season 2, at a gala for her dad — one of the main contenders at Kendall’s goofiest moment — he gave an unsmiling answer to about Raskolnikov, referring to Kendall’s “monstrous pain.” Kieran Culkin said to me, “After the first season, he said to me something 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 “Succession”‘s appeal is its blend of drama and dry satire. When I told Strong that I, too, considered the show a dark comedy, he looked at me in disbelief and asked, “In the sense that, like, Chekhov is a comedy?” No, I say, in the sense that it’s funny. “That’s exactly why we cast Jeremy in this role,” McKay told me. “Because he doesn’t play it as a comedy. He plays it like it’s Hamlet.

Actors try to find the real in the imaginary, but anyone who’s worked with Strong will tell you he goes to some unusual lengths. Last year he played Yippie activist Jerry Rubin in Aaron Sorkin’s film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” While filming the 1968 protest scenes, Strong had a stunt coordinator bully him; he also asked to be sprayed with real tear gas. “I don’t like saying no to Jeremy,” Sorkin told me. “But there were two hundred people in that scene and another seventy on the team, so I refused to douse them with poison gas.” Between takes of the trial scenes, in which the Yippies mock Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, Strong would read Langella’s memoir aloud in silly voices, and he would place a remote-controlled fart machine under the court’s chair. judge. “Once in a while I would say, ‘Great. Let’s do it again, and this time, Jeremy, maybe don’t play the kazoo in the middle of Frank Langella’s monologue,” Sorkin said.

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

This fall, Strong was filming James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” playing a plumber based on the director’s father. Strong let his hair go back 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 nuts” with a Queens honking 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 wore that was really important to him, and for compositional reasons we wanted to try it in a different color,” Herzog told me. “I remember he said the shirt he was wearing worked like his armor and that new shirt wasn’t like armor.” They let him keep the shirt.

Strong’s dedication strikes some contributors as impressive, others as forgiving. “All I know is he crossed the Rubicon,” Robert Downey, Jr. told me. In 2014, Strong played Downey’s mentally challenged brother on “The Judge.” (To prepare, he spent time with an autistic person, as Hoffman had done for “Rain Man.”) When Downey shot a funeral scene, Strong paced the set crying loudly, even though he didn’t. was not called that day. He requested custom props that weren’t in the script, including a family photo album. “It almost crushed him 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 whatever ordeal 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 buffalo liver for “The Revenant” — is often described as method play, a much misused term that, in its classic sense , involves the summoning of emotions. starting from a personal experience and projecting them onto a character. Strong does not consider himself a Method actor. Far from undermining his own life, he practices what he calls “identity diffusion”. “If I have a method, it’s simply this: eliminate everything that is not the character and the circumstances of the scene,” he explained. “And usually that means clearing almost everything around and inside of you, so that you can be a more complete vessel for the work 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 quoted snippets of wisdom from Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Karl Ove Knausgaard (he’s a “My Struggle” superfan), Robert Duvall, Meryl Streep, Harold Pinter (“More the experience is acute, less articulate its 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’ve concocted my own hymnbook.

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