Fam­ily for­tunes


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As the Bafta-win­ning drama Suc­ces­sion re­turns for a se­cond series, Jane Mulk­er­rins talks to Jeremy Strong – who plays heir-in-wait­ing Ken­dall Roy – about the toll this role is tak­ing on him

He’s the power-hun­gry heir to his fa­ther’s bil­lions – but the one thing get­ting in his way? The rest of his (equally greedy) fam­ily. Jane Mulk­er­rins talks to Jeremy Strong, aka Ken­dall Roy, star of the Bafta-win­ning drama Suc­ces­sion. Por­trait by Erik Tan­ner

In the days run­ning up to film­ing the fi­nal episode of the HBO drama Suc­ces­sion’s first sea­son, Jeremy Strong had a par­tic­u­larly vivid dream. ‘I saw this gi­ant ti­dal wave com­ing, and ran from it and I fi­nally got to a place of refuge… but then there was an­other one com­ing and it got me,’ the ac­tor re­calls. It doesn’t take a psy­chi­a­trist (though, help­fully, Strong is mar­ried to one) to un­pack the sub­con­scious anx­i­eties; in the scenes he was about to shoot, his on-screen char­ac­ter, Ken­dall Roy, the trou­bled heir-ap­par­ent to his fa­ther’s me­dia em­pire, would (spoiler alert) kill a young man while driv­ing high on drugs, plung­ing a car into a lake, then at­tempt to cover up the death – a sto­ry­line with strong echoes of Ted Kennedy’s no­to­ri­ous Chap­paquid­dick crash, which de­railed his pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions. ‘You take it home with you, it stays with you, and you’re op­pressed by it,’ Strong says. He was dis­cussing this very mat­ter over the re­cent Fourth of July hol­i­day with his good friend Robert Downey Jr. ‘He said, “You re­ally like to hug the cac­tus, don’t you?”’

If you’re not yet fa­mil­iar with Strong and his cac­tus-hug­ging im­mer­sion into his char­ac­ters, chances are you soon will be. At 40, he has had sup­port­ing roles in ac­claimed films in­clud­ing Zero Dark Thirty, Black Mass, Selma and The Big Short. But it is his cur­rent gig in Suc­ces­sion, the Bafta-win­ning sleeper hit of last sum­mer, that has sent his pro­file soar­ing over the past 12 months.

The darkly comic drama, a sort of ‘King Lear meets the me­dia in­dus­trial com­plex’, stars Brian Cox as Lo­gan Roy, a pow­er­ful, un­pre­dictable, self-made me­dia ty­coon with four ob­nox­iously en­ti­tled off­spring, each of whom be­lieves they should in­herit his crown, and each of whom he sees as fun­da­men­tally ill-equipped to do so. Cre­ated and writ­ten by Bri­tain’s Jesse Arm­strong, whose pre­vi­ous credits in­clude the satir­i­cal come­dies Peep Show and The Thick of It, and with a pilot di­rected by The Big Short’s Adam Mckay, it strikes an un­usual tone in its mix of drama, tragedy, com­edy, bawdi­ness and pathos. The show also stars Kieran Culkin as Lo­gan’s youngest son, Ro­man (cal­lous, cal­cu­lat­ing, ego­tis­ti­cal and en­tirely lack­ing in com­pas­sion, but with a glo­ri­ously ribald turn of phrase) and Matthew Macfadyen as his new son-in-law (a bizarre and hi­lar­i­ous syco­phan­tic buf­foon, but with graph­i­cally naked am­bi­tion). But it was Ken­dall’s hope­lessly tragic tra­jec­tory and Strong’s haunted, hol­low-eyed por­trayal of it that gar­nered the most su­perla­tives from crit­ics on both sides of the pond (‘There have

been few per­for­mances on TV this year as in­tense and as dis­com­fit­ing,’ wrote one). They heaped five-star re­views on the show’s first sea­son; the hotly an­tic­i­pated sea­son two be­gins this month on Sky At­lantic.

It is a sticky, close July af­ter­noon when we meet in the gar­den of an Ital­ian restau­rant in Wil­liams­burg, Brook­lyn, where Strong and his wife, Emma, are reg­u­lars. Hand­some and pale, with dark, slicked-back hair and a quiet in­ten­sity, Strong is thank­fully much more re­laxed than his jit­tery, jan­gling on-screen coun­ter­part (who is of­ten ei­ther tak­ing co­caine, or try­ing to stop him­self do­ing so), but not en­tirely worry-free. ‘I was dread­ing com­ing back to work on Suc­ces­sion, to be hon­est,’ he ad­mits. He doesn’t mean to sound un­grate­ful, ‘I just feel like I’ve been in Hades for the past few months. It’s been like The Revenant.’

Strong be­came a fa­ther for the first time a month after film­ing wrapped on sea­son one, in April last year, and the fam­ily spent six months liv­ing and de­com­press­ing in Copen­hagen (his wife is Dan­ish). He ea­gerly whips out his phone to show me a pic­ture of their daugh­ter, In­grid, now 14 months old, in a high chair, with food all over her face and her fin­ger up her nose. He then made a Guy Ritchie film, The Gentle­men, in Lon­don, with Matthew Mcconaughe­y, Hugh Grant and Michelle Dock­ery, which he de­scribes as ‘high camp, very fun, like do­ing Noël Cow­ard or some­thing… Then I slowly re­alised I had to re­turn to this.’

By this, he means go­ing all-in, in the man­ner of his hero Daniel Day-lewis, which, when your char­ac­ter is not only bat­tling ad­dic­tion, but is also di­vorced, lonely, iso­lated, blood­lessly com­pet­ing with his sib­lings and plot­ting against his own fa­ther – while si­mul­ta­ne­ously, des­per­ately do­ing all that he can to win his ap­proval – is a lot to take on.

In an early episode, Ken­dall’s ex-wife ac­cuses him of be­ing a psy­chopath. ‘I re­ally don’t think he is,’ says Strong. ‘He’s a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict, so a lot of the things that he is do­ing are ways of try­ing to man­age and stay in con­trol of his life, so that he doesn’t be­come en­gulfed by that dark­ness. And he uses his am­bi­tion, and his work iden­tity, to ad­dress that dis­ease in him­self.’

That’s some­thing Strong can re­late to. ‘I throw my­self into work in a way that’s a bit of an es­cape, and I’m not quite sure what I would be with­out it,’ he ad­mits. His own younger brother, who lives in Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, and works in

tech, is, he says with a wry grin, ‘tem­per­a­men­tally the op­po­site of me: a re­ally con­tent, happy guy’.

Per­son­ally, I’ve missed Ken­dall ter­ri­bly. I want to hug him, pro­tect him, and some­how save from him­self (I have a weak­ness for a bro­ken wing). But I’ve seen the first two episodes of this next sea­son, and, so far, Ken­dall is more iso­lated and bro­ken than ever. Pulled out of re­hab after less than 48 hours to do his fa­ther’s dirty work and prove his loy­alty to the fam­ily with soul-de­stroy­ing acts of cor­po­rate bru­tal­ity, he is soon af­ter­wards seen in a toilet cu­bi­cle, once again seek­ing com­fort and con­fi­dence through a rolled-up $20 note. Is there no hope of re­demp­tion, I wail to Strong. ‘One of the only things that is re­demp­tive, that can bring a per­son back to life, is love, and there’s some of that this sea­son, which we haven’t had be­fore,’ he says. This is some small com­fort.

Part of the rea­son for the show’s suc­cess, on both sides of the At­lantic, is not only its con­tem­po­rary take on age-old sub­jects – am­bi­tion, legacy, power – but also its un­set­tling pre­science in ex­am­in­ing busi­ness, tech­nol­ogy, pol­i­tics and the me­dia. ‘It’s as if ev­ery­thing ac­cel­er­ated when we started do­ing this show,’ says Strong. ‘Be­tween the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate and Faang – Face­book, Ap­ple, Ama­zon, Net­flix, Google – stream­ing wars, the rise of the 0.001 per cent [the su­per-rich and pow­er­ful bil­lion­aire class to which the Roys be­long]. But there has not been a de­fin­i­tive drama about those things un­til now.’

Ken­dall, like­wise, is a very mod­ern anti-hero, nav­i­gat­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of a cul­ture of toxic mas­culin­ity into which he doesn’t quite fit. ‘His fa­ther is this prim­i­tive mas­ter of the

‘It is very Amer­i­can, this credo of win­ning, and des­tiny, and the Amer­i­can dream – which, in some ways, is in its death throes’

uni­verse, which has been a cer­tain kind of par­a­digm for a very long time, es­pe­cially in Amer­ica. But maybe these di­nosaurs are dy­ing,’ sug­gests Strong. ‘And the dam­aged, trau­ma­tised, sen­si­tised child of that colossus [Ken­dall] feels very mod­ern to me. A sense of pow­er­less­ness, and a des­per­ate need for power, but an in­abil­ity to lo­cate that power in­side of him­self. It is very Amer­i­can, this credo of win­ning, and des­tiny, and the Amer­i­can dream – which, in some ways, is now in its death throes.’

Strong is cere­bral and in­tensely thought­ful, ref­er­enc­ing a litany of big hit­ters – Dos­to­evsky, Balzac, Knaus­gård – some­how with­out sound­ing pre­ten­tious. His book­ish­ness served him well in re­search­ing the role of Ken­dall; he read, among other things, A Pas­sion To Win, the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Sum­ner Red­stone, the 96-year-old bil­lion­aire who, along with his fam­ily, con­trols US me­dia giants CBS and Vi­a­com, and Dis­ney­war by James Ste­wart, about, ‘this in­cred­i­ble Machi­avel­lian War of the Roses. I read about the Ne­w­houses [whose pub­lish­ing em­pire in­cludes Condé Nast] and the Sulzberg­ers [the fam­ily who con­trol the New York Times]; I read about Con­rad Black and the Koch brothers [bil­lion­aire in­dus­tri­al­ists heav­ily in­volved in po­lit­i­cal fund­ing, who own the se­cond-big­gest pri­vate com­pany in the United States].’

He also, he ad­mits, with slight hes­i­ta­tion, ‘read ev­ery book on the Mur­dochs’. While he re­jects the (slightly lazy) con­jec­ture of some crit­ics that Ken­dall is based on James and /or Lach­lan – ‘The show is not about the Mur­dochs,’ he in­sists – he can­not deny the close par­al­lels, par­tic­u­larly given re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the Mur­dochs’ own fam­ily drama. ‘Watch­ing the Sky/ Com­cast deal – es­sen­tially watch­ing Lear divvy­ing up the king­dom – the sale to Dis­ney and the ab­di­ca­tion of the throne,

watch­ing Lach­lan come back into the fam­ily fold and take the top spot, watch­ing things un­fold for James, who is an em­i­nently ca­pa­ble leader, and who I have no doubt will have his next act which I’m sure will be very im­pres­sive and ex­cit­ing…’ He pauses and sips on his wa­ter. ‘Well, I’ve fol­lowed those events very closely and with a great deal of em­pa­thy.’

In Michael Wolff ’s book on the Mur­dochs, The Man Who Owns the News, there is, he says, an in­ter­view with Lach­lan. ‘He talks about how it’s not easy to wake up in the morn­ing and be him.’ That stayed with Strong. ‘From the out­side, these kids may ap­pear to have ev­ery­thing that you could want, ma­te­ri­ally, but, while Lo­gan has built this em­pire and amassed all this power, his chil­dren have not been raised in a way that in­stils any power in them. They’re grasp­ing for it, and that puts a ter­ri­ble weight on them.’

While there is, he says, ‘a lot more of me in this char­ac­ter than any char­ac­ter I’ve ever played,’ Strong’s back­ground could not be fur­ther from the he­li­copters and Hamptons man­sions of the Roys. His mother was a hospice nurse who took him to ‘ashrams, and an African Methodist Epis­co­pal church where she sang in the choir’, and his fa­ther a so­cial worker who ran youth pris­ons in in­ner-city Bos­ton, where the fam­ily lived un­til Strong was 10 years old. ‘The schools we were go­ing to were pretty dan­ger­ous, so we moved out to an af­flu­ent sub­urb [Sud­bury, Mas­sachusetts] where the pub­lic [state] schools were much bet­ter. It was real, bu­colic, Amer­i­can sub­ur­bia.’ It was, he says, ‘a real cul­ture shock. I’d never seen a Mercedes-benz be­fore.’ As an 11-year-old try­ing to fit in, ‘there was an as­sim­i­la­tion that needed to hap­pen, and that prob­a­bly had some­thing to do with act­ing – the abil­ity to re­make your­self based on en­vi­ron­ment or ex­pec­ta­tions’.

He’d al­ready been in­volved in ama­teur dra­mat­ics in church base­ments from the age of five (‘I found a sense of free­dom that I’d never re­ally had and still don’t have in my real life, just get­ting lost in it and leav­ing your­self be­hind’), when, in high school, his two English teach­ers, who also di­rected him in plays, took his class to Lon­don. ‘I slept out­side the Na­tional to get tick­ets to see the 1997 Richard Eyre/ian Holm [pro­duc­tion of ] Lear. I’d never seen any­thing like it and I think it changed my life.’

He stud­ied English at Yale, acted in his spare time, and spent three months in Lon­don at a Rada sum­mer pro­gramme. ‘It was so ex­cit­ing to be on Goodge Street – Ken­neth Branagh was a real hero for me.’

After grad­u­a­tion, he spent some time with the pres­ti­gious Step­pen­wolf Theatre in Chicago, then moved to New York aged 21. The first few years were, he says, ‘in­cred­i­bly hard – a lot of years of do­ing plays in lit­tle the­atres above falafel shops’.

The turn­ing point was play­ing Lee Har­vey Os­wald in the film Park­land in 2013, then, sev­eral months later, play­ing the autis­tic brother of Robert Downey Jr’s tit­u­lar char­ac­ter in le­gal drama The Judge,

‘My job has some­times been to go to work and find my­self on the ledge of the 75th storey of a build­ing’

along­side Robert Du­vall and Billy Bob Thorn­ton. ‘I felt the tide com­ing.’

He met Emma Wall, an Ox­ford-ed­u­cated psy­chi­a­trist, in Oc­to­ber 2012. ‘It was the night of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. I lost power and wan­dered out into the city, and we met at a party at a mu­tual friend’s loft in Soho at 3am, in the mid­dle of a hur­ri­cane.’ They mar­ried in Copen­hagen in Au­gust 2016, and are ex­pect­ing their se­cond daugh­ter this Novem­ber.

I ask if be­com­ing a fa­ther while film­ing a show about a toxic pa­ter­fa­mil­ias has af­fected his per­for­mance. ‘It’s very chal­leng­ing to com­part­men­talise. But my job on the show this sea­son has some­times been to go to work and find my­self on the ledge of the 75th storey of a build­ing, so you have to re­ally keep them sep­a­rate,’ he says. ‘And the way that home feeds you and is a source of joy and full­ness, has no place, re­ally, in Ken­dall’s world.’

He takes out his phone again, to look up a quote. ‘It’s ei­ther Henry James or Flaubert. Or… is it not ei­ther of them?’ he asks me, doubt­ing him­self. (It’s Flaubert.) ‘Be reg­u­lar and orderly in your life, so that you may be vi­o­lent and orig­i­nal in your work.’

To­mor­row, he’ll fly to Croa­tia to film the fi­nal episode of the sea­son. ‘So, there’s light at the end of the tun­nel, but I am still in the tun­nel,’ he smiles. And, after a hug (which I silently try to trans­mit to Ken­dall), he is gone, in a van, back to Hades. Suc­ces­sion sea­son two be­gins on Sky At­lantic and Now TV on 12 Au­gust

Strong with Kieran Culkin, who plays his younger brother, Ro­man As Ken­dall Roy in sea­son one of Suc­ces­sion

Clockwise from top left Strong in his pre-suc­ces­sion roles in Park­land (2013), The Judge (2014), Molly’s Game (2017) and The Big Short (2016)

With his wife, Emma Wall, in 2015

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