Jeremy Strong plays Kendall Roy, the presumed successor to an influential media conglomerate in HBO’s “Succession.” His performance netted him a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Drama Actor earlier this year.
Strong recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about who Kendall really is, the shocking final moment of Season 2 and the experience of feeling wrung out as an actor. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Jeremy, it’s difficult to encapsulate who this guy is in simple terms. To me, he’s very complicated but you’re probably best placed to give it a go. How do you describe him to people who aren’t quite familiar with the character?
Jeremy Strong: (Laughs.) Here we go. I sort of don’t. I try not to describe him or step outside of him because I guess I feel like my job is to almost, as much as possible, completely identify with and embody him. So in a way, I don’t have any objectivity from the outside. That being said, I think one of the great virtues and strengths of Jesse’s incredibly complex and agile writing is that it defies categorization. These characters are never a binary of one thing or the other. What I love about his writing is that it exists in a place of ambiguity and in that gray area, especially living in a time where the marketplace is so saturated with stories about superheroes. Jesse is existing in a post-heroic world where there are no heroes or antiheroes, but people who are just fundamentally struggling and grappling and in the thicket of themselves and I was thinking about this time we’re all living through right now. I think it’s a Paul McCartney song, “I’m just a man in the middle of something that I don’t understand.” That level of opacity and being lost in the middle of something and through a glass darkly is how I experience Kendall. I’m very in touch with what he needs and what drives him, what he’s propelled by and what he needs and cares about. Then I enter the arena and allow that propulsion to make me collide with whatever’s happening, but certainly Kendall is Jesse writing the shadow self, in a way. Kendall has his ambitions and he has his addiction and he has his demons, so I think my job as an actor is to try and really enter into and inhabit that place. I hope that’s somewhat of an answer. It’s a hard thing to quantify, I guess, because what you want it to be is on the vine. You want it to be a living thing and just as it would be so hard for you or I to describe ourselves in some precise way.
GD: I guess we could pinpoint a few parts of his personality and we can look back at some of your highlights from the first two seasons but for example, he’s obviously very ambitious. He has a need for power and control, recognition. I’m not quite sure how to pinpoint that. What do you think about that desperation in him? What drives that?
JS: I think that’s a great point. I think it’s a British poem, I think the poet’s name is Stevie Smith called “Not Waving but Drowning.” It’s this idea of a person who essentially is perceived as waving but they’re in fact drowning. In their desperation, it looks like they’re waving and I think Kendall often feels like he’s waving. There is, as you’ve seen, a bravura performance of the kind of person that he wants to be, a kind of alpha like his father, a primal force the way that his father is this dominating, formidable force of nature. I read a quote before we started the pilot, something that Carl Jung had said that where love is absent, power fills the vacuum. I’ve talked about that before but I only have so many touchstones, really, that I work with on this and that’s really been one of the central pillars for me, trying to understand that. There is a great desire to prove himself and to gain validation and acceptance. I also think there’s something about Kendall, which I feel a great deal of empathy for and can understand, he’s someone who often tries too hard. He overshoots the mark and it’s painful. It’s painful to experience and I imagine it’s painful to see.
You’re in Australia. Of course, the Murdochs are one of the archetypes that have probably informed the thinking of the show, while the show is about the Roys. At this point, I think the Roys have become their own dynastic family, but I remember reading in one of Michael Wolff’s books that James had a habit of tying his shoelaces very tightly and there was something about that in a visceral way, whether that’s apocryphal or not that just gave me something, a sort of tightly-controlled person who is trying, in a way, despite their own configuration as a person to be this thing that they are trying so hard to be. And then they come up against that. I find that one of the good tensions that lives in the middle of it.
GD: It’s hard to really pinpoint so much of what resonates for people like myself and countless others. For me, I empathize with a lot of what he’s doing as a 42-year-old man with my own issues and in the finale of Season 1, Kendall retreats into himself as his father has won that tug-of-war. I don’t think a moment like that has really resonated with me for a very long time and maybe I need years of therapy to understand why, but I would like to know from you as the guy who actually did the scene, how it impacted on you to do that, because it really was such a great climax to Season 1.
JS: Thanks, Rob. Thank you. It felt like a real test for me as an actor. I’ve committed my life to doing this work and it’s been the thing that I’ve cared about most of all, my whole life. That scene, it’s a chance to be held in the balance and found wanting as an actor. Those scenes are always very daunting to approach and the work that has most impacted me is usually work where an actor is not acting at all and not performing anything but having some kind of real experience. You try rigorously to hold yourself to that as an actor but that was one of those scenes where honestly, I don’t know the answer. I have no prescribed notions of what might happen in that scene. There was nothing in the writing that called for any kind of emotional experience in that scene. It was just one of those experiences where you align with the character in a way that felt almost, I hate to use the word, but spiritual to me. I’m gonna say another quote, but it’s only because these things are a part of how I understand working. I remember as we were getting to those episodes I was reading a book about the shadow, because Kendall with his addiction and as an addict, where do you place that aspect of yourself when you’re sober and it gets channeled into, I think in Kendall’s case, a need for power and control. I was reading this book about the shadow and this writer said something about how the growth experience happens when you come to the point of insolubility where you feel that you can proceed no further. I think the greatest writing in the greatest stories and in literature take a character to that point, to this Gordian knot in themselves where you can’t go any further than that and you don’t know how you’re going to untangle it or resolve it.
I think as an actor, I had to submit myself to that. I had a very personal and cathartic experience. It did feel therapeutic. I had a belief reading this show and talking to Jesse about the arc of the season and where it needed to go. In a sense, that season as well as this last season hinged on the final scene. It was as if the whole season was leading up to this final moment being able to rotate in some radical way and reveal something that has been there all along but that you’ve not tipped the hat of for the audience. I guess I felt like the armature of this character, which he has presented and hidden behind, it needed to be cracked and pierced and you needed to see and feel the wounded child inside. I guess I feel like it was one of those miraculous times as an actor where you feel like you, by some power other than yourself, have an experience that then gets transmitted to the audience. I don’t understand what went into that scene or how it happened but you’re living in the skin of that character for so long and Jesse has pressurized and tightened the noose. There are so many things that are pulling this character apart that I felt, when I came to the end of that season, and going through the harrowing experience of what happened in the lake and filming that stuff, and believing in it utterly, I just felt something collapsed inside me and also was released. It was a real release and then the second season was such an entirely different pivot from that.
GD: Yeah, and then he spends so much of the second season downtrodden and wary of his toxic father but then it ends so enormously satisfying with a shocker that Kendall once again betrayed his father but this time it’s in public where he’s really saying, “Dad, you’re effectively a corrupt, criminal co-conspirator.” Take us back to shooting that scene because I spoke to Brian Cox about it a few months ago and he talked me through the smirk that he gives the TV at the end, which I loved, but your part is so wonderful because for me, it was another catharsis but a different one.
JS: For me too. It was incredibly difficult to hold myself, in a way, trapped under a sheet of ice for the whole season. Downtrodden is right but I also think it was more extreme than that. I think you had to feel that this was literally the shell of a person who is broken inside in a way that might never mend, irreparably broken by what he’s done, and whatever ethical core he had as a person, its moral rot has taken over. He’s separated from everyone from his family and from the world by this unbridgeable divide because of what he’s done, and he’s haunted by it. I think his way of coping with it is to shut down. Jesse talked about “The Manchurian Candidate” and this idea of an almost lobotomized, weaponized… that being said, everything that was active in Kendall in Season 1 went dark and the engine fell out. To live in that place was hard, so when I got to a point finally where I could get out of that place felt incredibly freeing. I knew that that scene was going to happen. Jesse and I always talked about the architecture of the season so that I can construct it in the work, but the precursor to that scene is really the scene with he and I in his bedroom on the boat when I see, I think for the first time, the Gorgon head behind him, this monstrous cruelty, that I think until that point, I had willfully blinded myself to because I needed to believe in him and when he uses the phrase, “No real person involved,” tying it to the caterer waiter, that was a moment. If I’d been screaming inside the whole season, that was the moment where everything went deadly quiet.
GD: I’m grinding my teeth as you speak. It brings back this visceral reaction. Not a lot of shows can do that.
JS: I really do think it’s the power of the writing. I’m the luckiest actor in the world to have what is both the role of a lifetime but also a writer and collaborator who is incredibly open and when I got the first draft, I wrote to Jesse because in the first draft, all that was there was my father telling me that I’m not a killer, and while I felt that is, of course, a catalyst, that’s also something that he says to me in the first episode of the first season, essentially. That dynamic is there already and it felt like the trigger was there and the firing pin was there but we needed a hammer and there were subsequent revisions and then some new pages came in where I think Jesse woke up at three in the morning and had one of those epiphanies where he tied those two things together and it just made everything coalesce in this terrible way for me. In a way, it made me think of “All My Sons,” that moment where the son finds out that his father was complicit and knew about the faulty airplane parts. Once I see that, I can’t unsee that. That changes everything. So in that moment, I think the fire that had been extinguished and the light that had been extinguished, the fire comes roaring back to life in my belly and then it was quite easy from then on to do what I had to do because it was a phoenix from the ashes kind of the thing. The shooting of the scene proved surprisingly difficult. It was one of those scenes that felt like, oh, in the table read this feels in the pocket and I know what it is and we’re just gonna show up and do a few takes and that’ll be that. I don’t like to rehearse and usually you have the experience of the scene and make those discoveries, I find, right off the bat, if you’re prepared enough. With that scene, for some reason it was very, very elusive. I think we were on take 12 or 13 and I put a caesura between the word “but” and the rest of the speech where everything hung in the air. That was just an accident but everything came from that. That speaks to the environment, the work environment that we’re in where it’s so permissive and they allow you to take risks and try things. I think I tore up the paper, the letter at the end of that take and that was something that they used. But no, it’s an exquisite scene and this show and this role, it’s like I get to travel. All you want as an actor is to feel wrung out completely by a role and feel like you’ve just left everything in the ring and to give everything. So I feel very spent when I get to the end of it and there’s nowhere left to go and nothing left to offer. I am at this point ready and excited to go back for another round.