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Jeremy Strong Knows What You Think

The 'Armageddon Time' star on shutting out the noise, from the buzz of 'Succession' to that one very loud profile: "There’s a lot of mythologizing about my process."

What do you do when you want to be seen but also don’t want to be seen? On a sweltering morning in September, Jeremy Strong bounds into the sunlit dining room of the Sunset Tower Hotel and surveys the industry crowd. A wave of recognition ripples across the terrace. Patton Oswalt smiles and salutes; Strong waves back. Strong considers the setting for a moment then deems it too busy for an intimate conversation.

Seconds later, he’s leading us down a cramped hallway and into the adjoining Tower Bar, currently closed for business. A harried hostess follows close behind. “It’s a bit of a whirlwind right now,” he says, taking a seat in the vacant wood-paneled lounge. “I was just in Telluride with the film.”

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The film is Armageddon Time. The title might suggest a Michael Bay blockbuster; it’s anything but. Set in 1980, it’s a minor-key memory play from writer-director James Gray — who last sent Brad Pitt to space in 2019’s Ad Astra — depicting a mournful chapter from his youth in which he turned his back on an African American friend.

Jeremy Strong
Jeremy Strong Photographed By David Needleman

Strong is dressed down in a khaki green cardigan and matching T-shirt, a brown baseball cap pulled snugly over his head. The hat, he later explains, belongs to Kendall Roy — the Succession character that turned him from a lesser-known supporting actor into an Emmy-winning leading man. Strong always keeps the hat on during production. (The HBO show is currently filming its fourth season.) He also avoids referring to his character by name. “It’s weird,” Strong explains. “It reifies. I’m in the middle of filming now, so anything that separates ‘you’ from ‘them’ is not useful.”

On Succession, Strong plays a socially awkward, perpetual-fuckup son to a domineering dad. In Armageddon Time, the dynamic is reversed: 14-year-old Banks Repeta plays the socially awkward, perpetual-fuckup son, a character Gray based on himself. Strong plays the boy’s dad, Irving Graff, a Jewish boiler repairman from Queens whom Gray based on his father. Like Succession patriarch Logan Roy, Irving suffers from an explosive temper and an inability to communicate. Unlike Logan, Irving genuinely seems to want the best for his two sons.

This is a particularly busy time for Strong. Three days later, he will face off at the Emmys with his Succession co-star Brian Cox, who plays Logan, for outstanding lead actor in a drama. Both will lose to Squid Game‘s Lee Jung-jae, but the show will pick up four awards, including Matthew Macfadyen’s for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series and the nod for outstanding drama series.

The day after that, Strong and his family, who were staying in an Airbnb near the Sunset Tower, will travel to Europe, where he’ll return to the Roy family saga. Last we saw him, Kendall was curled up on a dirt driveway in Italy, confessing to his part in the drowning death of a waiter at his sister’s wedding. “I’m blown into a million pieces,” Kendall tells his siblings, and you believe it.

Strong is aware of his reputation for artistic zealotry — and to the scoffing that zealotry may elicit, even from his peers. Among the most openly dismissive of his immersive acting technique is Cox himself. Less than a week after this breakfast interview, the Scotsman will tell a Toronto Film Festival audience: “I don’t hold a lot of the American shit, having to have a ‘religious experience’ every time you play a part. It’s crap.” Cox did not mention Strong by name; he didn’t have to.

“There’s a lot of mythologizing about my process,” Strong says. “But it’s very unremarkable and is really just about concentration.” He feels his creative techniques are wildly misconstrued, due in no small part to a New Yorker profile that instantly went viral in December 2021 and has followed him everywhere — including here — though he is determined to make this the last time he engages on it.

“I’m just an actor trying to work hard and take risks,” he says. “And the drama of all that I feel is just noise.” The awards, too, are noise. “While it’s incredible to be honored, you have to treat them as incidental things. Because what it’s really about is, when I go back to work on Wednesday, can I forget all of that? The creative work is a sacrosanct thing that you have to protect.”

At 43, he’s at a career crossroads. “I’m very acutely aware that Succession is some of the best material I maybe will ever get to work on,” he continues. Now, the series that made him a Hollywood force is approaching its conclusion. (Cox has questioned whether the show will even have a fifth season.) What lies ahead is a vast creative abyss.

Jeremy Strong in Tom Ford shirt and jeans, Berluti jacket, Castro Smith cuff.
Jeremy Strong in Tom Ford shirt and jeans, Berluti jacket, Castro Smith cuff. Photographed By David Needleman

***

Strong read Armageddon Time during a rare quiet spell after season three of Succession wrapped in July 2021. Gray’s script was therapeutic. “My parents separated on and off for most of my life,” Strong explains. His mother was a hospice nurse and “an empath,” he says — someone born with a heightened ability to detect and absorb the emotions of others. His Jewish father worked in the juvenile incarceration system.

“They divorced when I went off to college, finally,” he says. “So I grew up with a sense of precarity. If you’re a sensitive child, you’re always absorbing the weight of that. I think acting came out of that — it was a release of a pressure valve. Plays offered a sense of levitation and escape and, later, transcendence.”

Is acting your religion, I wonder?

“It might come off sounding a certain way if I were to say that, but yes,” he says. “I think it is a sacramental activity expressing a faith, if that’s what a religion is. I feel wary of saying that because religion is religion and I don’t want to diminish what religion is. But for me, certainly. Theaters have always been a place that feel kind of holy. And the communicative and healing power of film is completely profound and mysterious. So, yeah, I’m a devout devotee of that. Yeah.”

By 12, Strong was certain he wanted to be an actor. His parents let him spend summers away from suburban Massachusetts in his grandfather’s basement in Queens. “I’d take the QM4 bus into the city and audition for things,” Strong recalls. “I was already pretty serious and committed to doing what I wanted to do. It’s a solitary path. I wasn’t at summer camp with the other kids my age.”

The Armageddon Time script unlocked a number of repressed memories for Strong: the mothball smell of the basement, his grandfather talking about opening a handyman business one day. “All of it felt close to the bone in a lot of ways,” he says.

Jeremy Strong
Jeremy Strong; In a Brunello Cucinelli corduroy jacket. Photographed By David Needleman

Strong’s agents at WME asked Gray to meet with their client. Gray, 53, is an American auteur with a fairly prolific career, having directed Joaquin Phoenix in three New York City-set dramas (2000’s The Yards, 2007’s We Own the Night and 2008’s Two Lovers) before moving up in budget and profile with 2019’s Ad Astra, a film on which he did not have final cut. “It was as painful a thing as I have experienced outside the death of a loved one,” Gray shares in the backyard of his home in L.A.’s Mid-City. Armageddon Time was an attempt to return to filmmaking basics — and to work through a memory that still haunts him.

“I had never heard of Jeremy, which is completely embarrassing,” Gray confesses. “I said to my wife, ‘Do you know who Jeremy Strong is?’ And my wife said, ‘He’s fantastic. You need to see the show Succession.’ So I watched that, and I was like, ‘Wow, that guy’s great.’ ”

Strong as Kendall Roy with onscreen father Brian Cox on Succession.
Strong as Kendall Roy with onscreen father Brian Cox on Succession. Peter Kramer/HBO

The two men chatted for several hours over Zoom. Strong was immediately smitten with the filmmaker. “He talked about something that Kubrick said in the late ’60s, that what cinema needed was ‘more daring and more sincerity,’ ” Strong says. “These are not really virtues that are valorized in 2022, but I personally love that.”

Gray offered Strong the part on Sept. 2, 2021. The following day, Strong’s wife, Emma — a psychiatrist from Denmark whom he met in 2012 at a candlelit Hurricane Sandy party in SoHo — gave birth to their third daughter. The couple split their time between Brooklyn and Denmark. “It’s something out of [Ingmar Bergman’s] Fanny and Alexander,” Strong says of the Danish side of the family. “Everyone’s in white, holding hands, singing around a Christmas tree with candles on it. It’s a very sane, gentle, cohesive place. I find it very restorative.”

Not a week after his daughter’s birth, Strong was on a plane to New York to begin rehearsals for Armaggedon Time. Gray showed him around his childhood neighborhood of Flushing; down the corridors of P.S. 173, where Gray went to school; and through the Queens Museum, where Gray and his grandfather (played in the film by Anthony Hopkins) would visit the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast scale model of the five boroughs.

That evening they ate at Shun Lee, a Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side. Over dumplings and egg rolls, Strong administered the Proust Questionnaire. (“It gives you a rather full portrait of a person’s worldview,” Strong explains.) Then they went through the questions again, but the second time, Strong instructed Gray to respond as his late father. “Only then did I think I had enough tools and information to feel like I’d earned the right to play James’ father,” says Strong.

I ask Gray if Strong’s exhaustive process could get a little intense at times, perhaps even to the distraction of fellow actors — as some of his Succession co-stars had intimated in the New Yorker piece. Cox told the magazine he felt Strong “has to be kinder to himself, and therefore has to be a bit kinder to everybody else,” while Kieran Culkin, who plays his brother Roman, recalled once telling Strong that acting “isn’t a battle. This is a dance.”

Gray stares at me quizzically. “Never,” he responds. “Jeremy has such a tremendous intellect without being pretentious. He’s a genuine artist, someone really interested in digesting, absorbing and diving into the work. He’s my kind of actor, which is that on the set, there are no rules. On the set, we go as deep as we possibly can. On the set, it’s our time to explore. I think people who make fun of, ‘Oh, so-and-so is a method actor. Ha-ha-ha!’ — I think that’s an excuse to be lazy.”

Anne Hathaway, who co-stars in Armageddon Time as Irving’s wife, Esther Graff, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, says in an email that Strong (whom she first met on the set of Serenity, a 2019 suspense film) taught her “not to apologize for being uncompromising, specific and detailed.” She also disputes the notion “that crews aren’t ‘into his level of commitment,’ ” she writes. “Each time I worked with him, I found he left everyone in awe and inspired.”

Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway in James Gray’s Armageddon Time, in which the actor plays a father based on Gray’s own dad.
Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway in James Gray’s Armageddon Time, in which the actor plays a father based on Gray’s own dad. Courtesy of Focus Features

Similar testimonials surfaced in the wake of the New Yorker profile. Jessica Chastain (who has a small role in Armageddon Time, playing Mary Trump — yes, the mother of Donald Trump) tweeted that the story was “incredibly one-sided” and later shared a page-long letter from Aaron Sorkin (she explained that he “doesn’t have social media”) in which the screenwriter and director — who cast Strong in The Trial of the Chicago 7 — expressed concern he’d contributed to “a distorted picture of Jeremy that asks us to roll our eyes at his acting process.” Succession executive producer Adam McKay, who also directed Strong in 2015’s The Big Short, tweeted that Strong got the part on Succession “precisely because of his passion the New Yorker writer mocks.”

Strong kept his own feelings on the piece to himself until this year’s Telluride Film Festival, when a Vanity Fair interviewer broached the topic. “It was something that, for me, felt like a pretty profound betrayal of trust,” Strong said. He added that reading it “was painful. I felt foolish.”

I ask him if he wants to elaborate on that.

“I kind of want to put this whole thing to rest and just get on with the work,” he replies. “I don’t want to throw any kindling on a fire. His perspective was valid. I’m sure he felt that it was a well-balanced and objective forensic examination.” Strong adds that he doesn’t want the negative experience to affect the way he interfaces with the press: “I don’t want to learn the lesson. I think as actors your job is to remain open. So I don’t want to learn a lesson of not doing that.”

As antiwar activist Jerry Rubin (left) with Sacha Baron Cohen in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.
As antiwar activist Jerry Rubin (left) with Sacha Baron Cohen in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Courtesy of NICO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

“But,” he continues, “it’s something I really just want to free myself from. As actors, we don’t want any of that baggage. We want to be a blank slate for an audience. It’s funny — there’s something about this work. A lot of actors I know are just trying to escape, get out of their skin and disappear. But then, of course, there’s a very public element. The result of your disappearing act is seen by a lot of people, and then you talk to journalists and you have this sort of public life. There’s something incongruous there.”

Then he invokes the name Lynn Hirschberg — a veteran culture reporter who has written for Vanity Fair and The New York Times. “I read a lot of her profiles when I was a younger actor, and they were formative for me and vital for me. And I kept them all in a cardboard box. I learned so much,” Strong says. (Hirschberg, it’s worth noting, frequently elicited the ire of her subjects — most notably Courtney Love, who responded to a piece by writing and recording the song “Bring Me the Head of Lynn Hirschberg.”)

The New Yorker piece likens Strong’s early efforts to meet three acting heroes — Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Daniel Day-Lewis — to Eve Harrington from All About Eve “casing out a trio of Margo Channings,” the Broadway legend, played by Bette Davis, whom she befriends and ultimately replaces.

“As an actor, you’re kind of in the wilderness and there isn’t some system of apprenticeship where you can learn from masters or learn from the greats,” explains Strong. “So part of what I tried to do with my life and my early life was to try and find masters to learn from — which has nothing to do with hanging out with famous people.”

He continues: “One of the things those masters teach you is that they can’t teach you anything, that ultimately you’re on your own and you have to figure it out for yourself, and you have to be on the frontier of your own confusion and uncertainty. But I sort of had to ‘travel around the world in order to arrive home’ kind of thing. So for me, those stories are a narrative of learning and tutelage and apprenticeship and enormous desire to do great work. And that narrative can be seen in different ways by different people. But it was painful for it to be put out to the world, maybe in a less compassionate way than I would’ve hoped,” he says. “I felt that I had a safe forum at The New Yorker. I felt that I had a safe forum to share those things — and ultimately that experience was put in doubt.”

“Were you hurt at all that your co-stars come off in the story as being dismissive of your process?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. “But a lot of that is just things that are presented out of context or with a certain agenda. I know what everybody said, and there was an angle and a narrative that was being presented. Which is not to say that there was never friction between my co-stars. We’re a family in every sense of the word. But foundationally, there’s deep respect and even love.”

The headline for the New Yorker piece is “The Straight Man” and quotes McKay as saying Strong approaches the material “like he’s playing Hamlet.” I ask Strong, “Do you truly fail to see the comedy in Succession?” He breaks into a broad smile.

“I mean, that’s ridiculous,” Strong says. “That’s just ridiculous. Sometimes when I read it, I can’t stop laughing. Of course it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy, it’s a satire, it’s a tragedy. What I meant more was that I don’t treat it as a comedy in my lane. We’re all co-existing in the piece. I’m never trying to make a joke. I’m not on a sitcom. I’m investing in the reality of those given circumstances and treating it the way I would treat a drama. So that the stakes are real. It’s about investiture.”

I later reach out to Michael Schulman, the writer of the New Yorker piece.

“I think the piece was a Rorschach test,” he tells me. “It invited interpretation. A lot of people felt like he came across as just an incredibly dedicated, hyper-committed artist. Some people saw him as a benign weirdo. And other people as an insufferable diva. I don’t think any of those interpretations are wrong. And I think the piece went viral because it invited you to decide what you felt about this extreme person.”

At one point in our backyard conversation, I mention the profile to Gray. “I had one written about me,” he shares. “And I think that the writer Nathan Heller did — unfortunately — a fantastic job capturing me. It’s sort of looking in a three-way mirror. It’s uncomfortable to see parts of yourself that you’re not familiar with. It’s like, ‘Oh, I did do that.’ I don’t read them anymore, profiles. Because I always feel like the subject is feeling what I felt.”

I bring this up to Strong. He gets quiet.

“Maybe that’s all it is,” he says. “Maybe it’s just that difficult to feel exposed. Cate Blanchett said something the other day at Telluride. She was given a medal. And she said, ‘I was just standing in the wings right now full of fear and doubt, and that never goes away.’ She said, ‘The hardest role to play is yourself.’ And so maybe it’s simply that. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Yeah.”

Strong won the Emmy in 2020 for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for his role in HBO’s Succession. We’re a family in every sense of the word, Strong says of his co-stars.
Strong won the Emmy in 2020 for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for his role in HBO’s Succession. “We’re a family in every sense of the word,” Strong says of his co-stars. ABC via Getty Images

***

I’m stuck in traffic on the 10 East and my iPhone pings. It’s Robert Downey Jr. — a confidant of Strong’s ever since the two worked together on 2014’s The Judge. I had emailed some questions about their friendship to the Iron Man star. Downey responded with five voice memos:

#1: “Jeremy is a connector. In his work, in his friendships, in his extended family. Jeremy is the ultimate tour guide of anything and anywhere you go. My long-suffering wife depends on him whenever we’re scheduling vacation time together.”

#2: “Jeremy’s rhythm and acting style is somewhere between Sisyphus and James Dean.”

#3: “Not the ‘eternal punishment via Zeus’ Sisyphus, but rather the individual rolling the boulder up a hill. We call that process and sacrifice for your craft.”

#4: “The James Dean side is the loneliness. The sacrifice. I have never encountered an actor who has spent more time preparing to meet his job in the middle.”

#5: “But mostly — again James Dean — only the gentle are ever really strong. I mean, it’s the guy’s surname. And if I had to pick one word to describe his heart, it would be gentle.”

Later, I receive a phone call from Dede Gardner, co-president of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment. Gardner met Strong over a business lunch, the kind of general meeting people like Gardner take hundreds of times a year. This one was different, she says.

“It was electric,” Gardner recalls. “There was a lot of overlap in our interests — literature and art and music.” That meeting led Strong to score a number of small roles in Plan B films like 2014’s Selma and 2015’s The Big Short. Now Strong and Gardner are close friends and creative collaborators. “We talk every day,” she says. “We trade books ideas and notions. A lot of it is anticipating what happens when Succession is over. We both envision a big constellation of co-efforts.”

The two have set up a limited series at Amazon about the sequence of missteps that led to the Boeing 737 Max disasters — two crashes resulting in 346 deaths — that would star Strong as an engineer, a composite of several real figures. Strong also is working on a “Chernobyl-esque limited series,” he says, about the cancers that beset 9/11 first responders, to be written and directed by Tobias Lindholm.

While listing his post-Succession plans, Strong quotes the abstract painter Frank Stella: “I’m only interested in what I can’t do.”

“Is every role Mount Everest?” I ask.

“I guess so,” he replies. “I guess that’s a way of making it meaningful to me. I said to my agents two years ago: ‘There are two things I’m always searching for, which is the possibility of transformation, and the possibility of risk.’ I guess anything else feels a bit like a bunny slope.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.