HBO’s Succession was called “the surprise hit of the Summer” when it aired on the network. For ten episodes we followed the Roy family. Logan Roy (the superb Brian Cox) is the family patriarch running a media empire where his children – his three sons and one daughter- had one goal: the fight for power and eventual control of their father’s company.
Throughout the season, the takeover was being planned, and then in the season one finale, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) stepped up to the plate and stormed in for a hostile takeover. His previous attempts failed, so why was this going to be successful? SPOILER ALERT: it wasn’t. Kendall is a relapsed drug user, and as the location moved from New York to Scotland for his sister’s wedding, things went horribly wrong.
Logan’s children are entitled and their souls are dark and so corrupted by wealth, but if anyone was put through the wringer this season, it was Kendall.
Jeremy Strong’s portrayal of Kendall Roy as he went from apparent heir to having an epic father-son moment in the series finale is without a doubt one of the best characters we saw on screen all year in one of the best shows of 2018.
I caught up with Strong who is shooting season two to talk about his season one arc and playing the complex and dysfunctional Kendall Roy. We talked about that incredibly emotional season one finale,
What’s it like for you to play someone like Kendall and we’ve gone on this great first season journey?
It’s running the gauntlet especially in season one. Jesse put me through everything imaginable and beyond a threshold of what I think most individuals could handle, and then where the show left for me was teetering on the cliff of that and how much I could bear and to be pushed further.
In a way, the writing is so good that a part of you only has to submit to it and then you go down the rapids and just get wrecked by those rocks. On the other hand, I think the great challenge of this – I understand seeing the characters from the outside one can make lots of judgments about them – my job was to fully inhabit in a feeling way just what it was like to embody all of that and to be in his skin. It was hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
There’s this trope that as an actor you have to love your character and I might have said this before, I always thought there was something about that that struck me as wrong because I don’t know that I could say unequivocally love myself. I think rather this show asks of you to take an x-ray of yourself and all of the parts of us that are inadmissible and hidden away, to bring those things out and to live in those places. Kendall is very driven. He’s ambitious. There’s a certain monstrousness to that ambition, but there’s also a monstrous amount of pain that he has inherited and that is being inflicted upon him.
I remember reading an interview with Dustin Hoffman when I was a kid and he said that the job of the actor is to confess your deeper crimes. It felt that some of the writing was asking you to go into those darker recesses – the addiction, the striving for power, the need for validation, the addiction to power and the whole catastrophe of life. It was really – in terms of the canvas of the whole season, it was an immense battle.
You talk about being put through the wringer and you see that more so in the last episode with the lake scene and then emotionally with his dad. How do you prepare for a scene like that where you’re being plunged into a water tank one minute and the next you’ve got that scene.
That stuff was horrible. The lake and the tank, it was quite scary for me and putting oneself through that. I think the way I felt was that this was horrible for Kendall and if I’m going to really embody it and understand it I shouldn’t try and get a free pass. There was that and that work took care of itself because I was in the lake. The rest of it, that’s where acting is a total mystery to me and why I both love it and find it terrifying because I don’t know that there is a way to prepare. I read this interview with Meryl Streep who once said, “There’s always one scene in the script where you just read it and think, ‘Oh Fuck. Fuck me, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.'” That’s how I felt about that final sequence. I think you just hope that I would in a sense be able to get out of my own way and allow the circumstances and these faultlines of these tectonic plates that had just over the course of the season been pushing up against me more and more and were tightening. In a sense, you internalize that. I internalize that over the six months that we shoot and taking that all in, that pressure which is a terrible pressure and it felt – in that final scene – like some crevasse and the ice just broke open in me. It did. That’s one of those things where I think if you try to go into a scene like that as an actor with some prescribed idea or some result in mind, you’re just fucked.
I think the discipline is to just try to be as honest in the moment as you can and let the writing fall on you which is what happened that day.
I don’t even feel that I can take credit for it. When you do your best work, you’re just like a vessel. I think it was a combination of the writing and all of the dynamics that Jesse and the amazing writers structured to build to this crescendo. Brian Cox is such an immense actor. He’s so powerful and so present that he has a profound effect on me.
Everything an actor hopes for is a role that requires you to go beyond yourself and go beyond the limits and boundaries of what you feel is possible. This role was and continues to be that for me – constantly demanding that I put everything on the line and risk colossal failure.
I was happy to be through with it and now we’re in Season two and those events that have happened have taken hold of the character and now he has to live with that and that’s the baseline of everything now, this sense of whatever engine of drive and positivity that he had in the first season has broken and died. There’s an individual that is bereft and emptied out. It’s a very different kind of fight now. It’s an internal one. It’s a very lonely thing and there’s a heaviness over him. There was a heaviness in the first season, but it was animated by this desire to take over the company, and it shifts in season two.
In terms of his arc from the taxi ride from the opening episode to that ending, how much did you know about Kendall?
I went to London before the season started and the writers talked me through broad strokes of the arc so I had a sense of where things were going. When they took a break I took a look at the 3×5 cards on the wall and tried to get as much as I could, but it is really only when you read the writing that you know what the journey is going to be internally.
There was a general sense of visibility going forward, but it also continued to evolve and to surprise. In the case of episode 9 and 10, those shocked me. There’s this amazing thing about long-form television where a cumulative thing happens. I experienced it in my 20s when you’re doing a play for a long time and you make this exchange with the character and it takes over and you’re just living with them more than you are your own life. I care about Kendall as much as I care about my own life. I think you have to. It was painful to experience all the things that he was made to experience. It’s not without a sense of trepidation that I opened every next script thinking what next?
You’re working with Adam McKay and you’ve worked with other great directors in the past. How does that style of improv work for you where he gives actors freedom?
I love it. I like to do a lot of research. You want the rainclouds to be as saturated as they can possibly be so when you go to set it can just rain. Having the freedom to really be that free on the day – I improvised a lot – I try to come loaded up with a lot. Not just with the contours of the scene as written, but with a whole container of everything else that surrounds it and all of the circumstances that surround it. It allows for you as an actor to have a very important and rare sense of ownership. I don’t feel like I’m working on a TV show. I feel like I get picked up in a van, get dropped off on set, and then relate to these people and there are cameras around to witness that. I think that’s the best way to work. We don’t rehearse a lot, we try to discover the scenes and attack them on camera so that those moments and those collisions are really happening. The dynamics between us all are aligned with the way the dynamics are aligned in the script.
You totally get that sense of naturalness, that chemistry and that dynamic really comes across.
I’m in a different place in my life and in my relationship to acting. I think the goal is to not feel like an actor at all, but instead, to try to authentically to embody your own experience as a person and the writing being refracted through that. Jesse’s mandate is to try to examine and explore these lives as truthfully as possible and that takes the feathers off you. I feel people are hungry in this world of so much noise, people want to hear a real sound. I know I am. That’s what we’re committed to and that’s what we aspire towards.
You talk about research. Did you dive into all those books on dynasties?
I did everything. I tried to watch everything and read everything, whatever I could get my hands on about all of these families. The Redstones. The Murdochs. The Sulzbergers. I think it’s important to get a sense of the landscape and the world of it and to really understand in your bones what that job would be. To be the incumbent CEO of the world’s fifth largest media conglomerate. It was the visceral connection to things that matters and that stuff is personal. There you just turn to your own closet and pull out whatever you need. I believe writing is a powerful magnet and it just magnetizes those things out of you without you having to coax them out and great writing does that.
There was a lot of reading and I continue to read whatever I can get my hands on that is about the subject and stay abreast of whatever is going on in business and tech, trying to walk in those shoes. That stuff is ultimately decorative and allows you to have ownership when you’re speaking those lines that can get quite arcane. I think it’s important to become an authority as much as you can on the subject. Jesse’s really good at not playing the homework and research and owning it enough to throw it away.
Did you have a favorite line of Kendall this season? I really liked, “Get your hard-on out of my face?”
Oh wow. I couldn’t actually point to one. In a sense, they’re all gone. Last season feels very far away to me now. I’m so tangled up in this season. I miss that old Kendall and the life that was in him and the striving and yearning in him that has been leveled by what has happened.