AND THIS MAN WANTS IT ALL
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