For Jeremy Strong, the Role of a Lifetime

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen September 17, 2019
Actor Jeremy Strong

presley ann/getty images

Kendall Roy is the role of a lifetime for Jeremy Strong. The character he plays in Succession was the role he had been looking for since he decided to become an actor. Kendall is the eldest of the Roy siblings—Roman, Shiv, Connor - who all fight to take over their father’s conglomerate: Waystar Royco. In the first season, Kendall’s attempt to make this happen fails and he is left in a state of shock from a dramatic event that has made him the subject of his father’s manipulation. When we met Strong he explained to us the complexities of developing the character and why this show means so much to him.

What kind of person does it take to survive in the Succession environment?

I think that the event that happened at the end of the first season is really catastrophic for this person. Jesse Armstrong shared quite a bit of research and articles with me on people who have caused accidental death and one thing that is clear is that it is not something that you come back from. I obviously cannot speak about it from personal experience but your job as an actor is to really try to embody that and to understand it as much as you can within limits. It is this line that he has crossed that separates him from the rest of humanity and makes him alone. So yes, in a sense it allows his father, as you say, to sort of use him and control him because it has debilitated him. Even the word debilitated is not strong enough of a word. It has fundamentally incapacitated him and I felt that whatever engine that had been driving his life, it was as if this engine had fallen out of its vehicle and there is just nothing left there. So when Jesse first pitched the idea of where Kendall starts in the season over the phone last summer or fall. I remember thinking of The Manchurian Candidate. It is someone who has almost been lobotomized and then because of that is able to be weaponized. So it seems at least in the beginning of the season that Kendall is in this very passive, shot-down, subservient state where he is there to sort of do his father’s will and otherwise has surrendered and submitted his own will because it has been broken.

The central question of Succession is: Who will be Logan Roy's successor?

I am going to jump in and disagree with you because I think the central question of Succession is: Can you escape family? And another word for family is legacy. We all have that issue and this is not my idea. The very first time I went to the writer’s room in London that was on the wall on a 3 by 5 note card as the very first question and posited as the central question. The question you ask fits into this question but I really think we see each of these characters struggling with whether they can free themselves from this family and from the legacy that they have inherited and the way that it defines them. We all fight this battle.

Why is it so important to all the Roy children to become their father’s successor?

I think it is important because it is their innate circumstance: the well water that they have grown up drinking. So it is all that they know. It is just in their DNA and other people under other circumstances might not value that legacy as much and care about who becomes the CEO of Waystar Royco as most people don’t. But for them, that has been set up from their earliest lives as the myth they live by. It is the defining monomyth and it is all they know. And it is a great question that the writers ask: Can they create a new myth? And can they maybe at some point escape the narrative that they are so stuck in. You know: Who is Kendall apart from his father and apart from that striving? You can point to someone like Rupert Murdoch and someone like Conrad Black or one of these people. That is who they are. You cannot locate that outside of that and their life is married to their work. You cannot separate the dancer from the dance. As far as I can tell, if you scratch away on Waystar Royco, there is nothing left underneath inside of Logan Roy. It is a black hole and I would say probably the same for those other men and that is why their need for power is so ravenous and bottomless.

A scene from "Succession", HBO, 2019

Jeremy Strong in a scene from Succession.

hbo

What kind of inspiration did you seek for creating your character?

That is a hard question to pin down. I can probably give you what would seem like an articulate answer, but it would be a lie. It is probably the result of a lot of instincts that are not articulable and my own experiences of striving and ambition and role models and the sort of elemental things that are within Kendall, you have to look at them within yourself in a real way. We have all more or less known what it is like to want to be loved, validated and accepted and to prove ourselves – all of those things.

 

What kind of research did you do?

I read pretty exhaustively about the media landscape and I read pretty exhaustively about everything I could get my hands on about the Murdochs, the Redstones. There is a lot in the current landscape with what just happened with Fox and Disney and CBS and Viacom. There is a lot of stuff that I can eternalize and digest. As an actor you crack experts on your space so while I am not equipped in a real sense to be the CEO of a multinational media conglomerate I think you have to have at least a visceral and basic understanding of what that entails. So you read a lot. I read James B. Stewart’s book “Disney War”, which had a big impact on me, which is about Eisner, Ovitz, and Katzenberg and that whole time. I read Redstone’s autography. I read books about Edgar Bronfman when he tried to take over MCA, Universal, and his experiences. I read about the AOL, Time Warner – there is a great book about Jerry Levin and Steve Case.

How does this help you shape the character?

You kind of become a detective looking for clues not knowing where you might find them. But I think if you look enough, just every once in a while something will drop in and stay with you; little details and little details of emotional physics that stay with you. A composite start forming in you and of course you let that go before you go anywhere near a set and it becomes about the writing and internalizing that as deeply and fully as you can and then just showing up and being present on the day. So the homework and preparing are really just to fill up the container so that hopefully on the day your instinct is informed by something. This was fun to do research on. Michael Ovitz just released a biography earlier this year that was a really interesting read and very relevant and when the New York article came out a few months (ago) on the Murdochs, Fox News and Trump, it became clear to me that this show – in a way that could not have been foreseen by Jesse Armstrong - has just landed right there in the middle of these major cultural and social fault lines and the show sits right on the fault line of all of these interceptive things: the media landscape, the political landscape and the rise of the 1,0 percent – the dominance of Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Amazon and Google. All of these things that there has not until now been much drama about. So it is really exciting to be in the middle of all that.

What has being a part of Succession meant for you, personally?

I tend to not really think about it as a show. It is very clear to me, and I said this to my wife recently, “Succession” is the mountain that I would like to climb for the rest of my life. I have always wanted a chance to be fully expressed as an actor and I think that is what you hope for as any artist: to have a canvas to put it all out there on in form. There is a great poet named Stephen Dunn and I remember this poem that he wrote when he got out of college and he said; “All I wanted was a job like a book so good I’d be finishing it for the rest of my life.” I remember for many, many years, being in the kind of wilderness as an actor when I had skirmishes here and there but never a chance to go to war with something. I remember feeling; where is that job so good that I would be reading it for the rest of my life? That is what “Succession” has meant to me. It is this incredible mountain to continue to challenge me and climb and it is difficult and takes everything but I guess that is what I have always wished for.