Created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the HBO drama series Succession follows the Roy family – made up of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four children (Alan Ruck, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin) – who controls one of the biggest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world. And just when they thought that their aging father would be stepping back from the company, the tough patriarch changes his mind, throwing everything into upheaval and forcing the family to choose sides.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jeremy Strong talked about why he wanted to be a part of Succession, not judging his character, why he can understand and sympathize with Kendall, the bubble of privilege, what makes Kendall “the anti-hero of our time,” working with an acting heavyweight like Brian Cox, and how the desire for social status is just a displaced need for love.
Collider: I have never liked such an unlikeable group of people so much in my life!
JEREMY STRONG: Well, thank you! Of course, my job is not to judge a character, in any way, but I can see, from the outside, that there is something slightly reprehensible, bordering on monstrous, about these people. Adam McKay (the pilot director) and (show creator) Jesse Armstrong intended to make the audience both cringe and care, so if they can pull that off, it’s really something.
These people are all so horrible and I cannot get over how horrible they are to each other, but I also can’t stop watching them. I just hope nobody wants to be their friend.
STRONG: Yeah. Something that helps me, and that I’ve thought a lot about, was the sense that it’s not their fault. It’s a very quintessentially American family and it represents the American dream, displayed in a perverse way. Even though he’s a transplant, Logan is the embodiment of American values and success is a virtue. So, for children raised in that environment, they squelch other parts of themselves and try to develop the parts that can win. Adam McKay is a big fan of this documentary, called Born Rich, that HBO released awhile ago. It was made by this guy, Jamie Johnson, of the Johnson & Johnson family. It’s really intense because it’s an indictment of his own family. He interviews a bunch of his friends from the upper east side, including Ivanka [Trump], and you really for these kids because they can’t see it. They’re so insulated and in such a bubble of privilege, and you see how myopic that makes them, and how damaged they are by their inheritance and by the legacy that they’re carrying.
That made me care for all of them because you feel like they’re wounded people, but at the same time, they’re trying so hard to be worthy of their families. That’s something where Kendall has a lot to prove, sometimes verging on extreme. Without being didactic, it is about the 99% and the 1% , and it says so much about how they treat their staff. I always think you can tell a lot about a person by how they talk to their cab driver. Because he feels small, he acts out of a kind of grandiose place of privilege. I think the kids all feel small. In a family like this, Logan has earned his power, and he’s clawed his way there. The kids weren’t raised in a way that instilled any kind of personal power. They’re trying to locate and act out of a power that they lack.
Is this a character that you grew to love, as you got to know him and his motivations, or is it a situation where you just feel like you need to understand him, even if you don’t love him or even like him a whole lot?
STRONG: I think it’s the latter. It’s a bit of an acting truism that you’re supposed to love your character, but if I’m honest about it, I don’t know if I could unequivocally say that I love myself, or even like myself, a lot of the time, but I do have empathy for him. There are certain things about his struggle that make me love him, and it certainly deepens, over the course of the season, but I only got to read each script, as it came. I knew the general arc of where it was going, and it really unfolded as it progressed, so I was really excited for that. I’d never worked on a big canvas like this, where you really get to live and inhibit something, and then continue to follow where it goes. That was really exciting. It’s like climbing Mount Everest, in a creatively and personally challenging way.
I’m actually surprised that none of the Roy children have ever tried to kill their own father.
STRONG: Yeah, right?! One of our cinematographers, Andrij Parekh, who shot Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, established the visual idiom for the show and shot the pilot with [Adam] McKay, and then came and did a bunch after. He gave me a copy of Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, A Hero Of Our Time, while we were shooting, and I ended up thinking about Kendall as the anti-hero of our time. He’s this figure of ambition and resentment, in the sense of disappointment and anger. It’s a toxic cocktail. I think there’s a lot of rage in this character, and in the family, in general, because of how they’ve been mistreated by their father, and how they’ve been put down and undermined. There’s only so much a person can take before that person implodes or acts out in an aggressive way. I think what’s interesting is that you see these characters supplementing all of their aggression in the field of business. When you look around at our world, people are supplementing their familial aggression, all across the global stage, in our government and in business. There’s an episode, which is a bit of a lark, where they almost do therapy, but if they had done that, in earnest, there would be real world ramifications. I know that Adam and Jesse were really interested in the idea of when a family with this much power is this dysfunctional and has this much hostility, competitiveness and aggression, how that manifests itself, in the wider world, which is really interesting. I hope the show doesn’t billboard those things, but addresses them in elliptical and human ways.
Along with really smart, challenging, adult writing, one of the things I really love about the show is just how tremendous the cast is. You all are just a real pleasure to watch.
STRONG: Thank you so much.
What’s it like to not only work with the trio of actors playing your siblings, but to have some of the moments that you have with Brian Cox?
STRONG: Well, Brian Cox is one of the great actors alive. He’s a heavyweight. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve gotten to work with some incredible actors. Brian is so incredibly present. You don’t ever catch him acting. There’s nothing false. He’s so completely in the moment. You can’t ask for anything more, as an actor, to have a scene partner like that. We would often, at my insistence and I think to Brian’s great annoyance, not rehearse our scenes together, so that they would have this extra charge of tension and danger that I found very useful and potent. The scenes I had with Brian, especially in the last few episodes, were the most electrifying that I’ve ever gotten to do. It all comes down to the writing. I feel so lucky because I’ve gotten to work with Aaron Sorkin (on Molly’s Game), and then I got to do this film with Steven Knight (Serenity), who’s my other favorite screenwriter, and I knew Jesse Armstrong’s work. Jesse is like Chekhov to me. He’s created this universe with so much pathos, that isn’t afraid to have levity and satire, but also really goes for the jugular, in terms of the moral stature of this modern tragedy cloaked in a satire. It’s a vision of a fallen world. If this is the hero of our times, it’s a craven time. It’s about America’s first family, not in the sense of the family currently in the White House, but in the sense of a family that is emblematic of this moment in America and the way that big business is the nucleus of our culture.
By the end of the season, do you think that we’ll feel differently about Kendall and where things are left for him and this family?
STRONG: I do. I hope so. I know that I do. The first episode starts out with the character at his most armored. He’s got his armor on. He’s got his corporate identity, which is at odds with his true nature, but he’s trying very hard to be someone like his father. Over the course of the season, things happen that gradually erode and chip away at his armor, and then finally completely break through his armor and penetrate down to the child that is at the core. In that sense, it’s something that I can identify with, and my hope is that audiences will be able to identify with it. A lot of the behavior of these people, while it may seem noxious, is actually coming out of a deep insecurity and woundedness, and a desire for love. I read this book by British pop psychologist Alain De Botton, called Status Anxiety, that’s a survey of the history of status. His idea was that our need for status and our desire for social status is just a displaced need for love.
Kendall does have great ambitions, in terms of WayStar being the fifth largest media conglomerate in the world, and wanting to guide that into the new digital landscape, but he’s also driven by a need to prove himself to his father. In that sense, he is never free of his father, and never free of his father’s shadow. What I’m rooting for, and what I hope the audiences might look for, is for him to free himself from that shadow, and step out into his own self and his own independent life, whatever that might be. I don’t know if I have great hopes for that, though. One of Jesse’s go-to books, in the beginning, was Disney War, by James Stewart, which is fantastic. I think it’s the best book written about Hollywood, and it’s about Ovitz, Eisner and Katzenberg. It’s taken out of the War Of Roses and is totally Shakespearean, with epic passion and epic betrayal. There’s the lure of power and the perils of power, in an Icarus myth. It’s just such rich terrain. Reading that book, I was like, “These people are all pretty violent, but at the same time, they’re trying to fill some lack, within themselves, by accumulating position and power.” That’s something I can understand, and shouldn’t judge.
Succession airs on Sunday nights on HBO.