'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Jeremy Strong ('Succession')

2020's best actor in a drama series Critics' Choice Award winner reflects on his intense approach to acting, his many years as a struggling actor and now playing Kendall Roy, one of the most complex characters on TV.
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"It did change my life," the actor Jeremy Strong says of the part of Kendall Roy, the tortured second-oldest son of billionaire media mogul Logan Roy, on HBO's Succession, the acclaimed second season of which is current Emmy-eligible, as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. "And I wouldn't have been ready for it much sooner. It's a heavy thing, it's a heavy weight to carry a show, and to carry a show for HBO, and I think you really have to come to a place where you can kind of not give a fuck about that and really just be committed to [the work]." And if there is one thing to know about the 41-year-old — who spent years "in the wilderness" before landing this show, and whose performance was recognized with the best actor in a drama series Critics' Choice Award back in January — it is that he is totally, fully and intensely committed to the work.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Born in inner-city Boston to a social worker and a hospice nurse, Strong started acting in a church basement at just 4 or 5, and became serious enough about his craft that by age 11 he — accompanied by his father — came out to L.A. to try his luck during pilot season. He didn't land work at that time, but his passion was further solidified during a high school trip to London when he slept outside one night so that he could see Ian Holm play King Lear at the National, an experience he looks back at as "a revelatory, life-altering moment." He subsequently wound up at Yale University, where he majored in English and acted in underground productions on and around the campus. He also landed a job as a personal assistant to the legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis, "an incredibly invaluable experience for me."

After graduation, around the time of Sept. 11, 2001, Strong moved to New York to seek out jobs as a professional actor — which meant spending the rest of his time working as a waiter, a room service server and doing "anything I could to stay afloat." Sometimes he came up short. "I didn't always pay the bills," he acknowledges. "There was a time when Con Edison shut my power off." And, he adds, "There were a lot of days and times where I felt a tremendous sense of despair at being in the wilderness … but there were little crumbs along the way, enough to keep a sense of belief alive."

"A turning point for me," he says, occurred when Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Patrick Shanley came to see him in a play that was being performed in a storefront with a few dozen folding chairs, shortly after which Shanley offered him a part in Defiance, Shanley's first production since his Tony-winning Doubt. "It was like making contact with another galaxy that you've been yearning to enter," Strong says. Defiance was mounted in 2006, and started Strong's slow but steady rise to prominence, which included two Lucille Lortel Award nominations over the next four years and a two-week period in 2008 during which he made his film debut as the lead of Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs' Humboldt County and his Broadway debut as Richard Rich in a revival of A Man for All Seasons. As he puts it, "It felt like a version of the life that I hoped for and imagined."

Screen acting, in particular, presented a new challenge. "I always wanted to work in film," Strong says, while acknowledging, "It took me a long time to feel at home on a set the way I feel in the theater." He began to be cast in small parts for big directors, sometimes more than once with the same director — in Oren Moverman's The Messenger (2009) and Time Out of Mind (2014); Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Detroit (2017); and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), ironically playing an assistant to Day-Lewis' title character. He greatly impressed the few who saw him as Lee Harvey Oswald in Peter Landesman's Parkland (2013), and then scored what he regards as "my first big role in a film," playing Robert Downey Jr.'s character's autistic younger brother in David Dobkin's The Judge (2014).

Plan B Entertainment president Dede Gardner was so impressed by Strong's work in The Judge that she advocated for him to play roles in Ava DuVernay's Selma (2014) and Adam McKay's The Big Short (2015). Even so, and despite a slew of auditions, he had actually failed to land a part in the latter until, at the last moment, Bobby Cannavale dropped out, opening up the role of Vinny, a gum-chewing numbers guy at a hedge fund who saw the 2008 crash coming. When Strong was informed that the part was his, he remembers, "I knew that was a big life moment." He couldn't, however, have known just how big.

Indeed, just a couple of years later, after he had shot a part in Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game (2017), McKay and casting director Francine Maisler brought him to the attention of Jesse Armstrong, the British creator of Succession. McKay, who would serve as an EP and direct the pilot of the drama series, told Strong he could have his pick of the Roy siblings, each of whom would angle to succeed their father atop his company. "It felt like the greatest Christmas present I'd ever unwrapped," Strong says, "because it was clearly a serious piece of writing with tremendous depth and pathos and intelligence … it just felt like, 'This is it, this is the thing that I've been waiting for my whole life.'" He told McKay that he wanted to play Roman, "a bon vivant prick" who is "a flashier character" than Kendall and, he continues, "I went for about two months thinking that it was my part."

"And then," Strong continues, "I got a call saying, 'We hate to tell you this, but they've offered your part to Kieran Culkin,' who I guess self-submitted a tape and they loved it." Strong was devastated. "I wrote to Adam. I was pretty shocked — it was like PTSD. And Adam said, 'Man, I'm so sorry. I should never have told you you could have whatever part you wanted. It wasn't my place. Jesse just isn't really familiar with your work and doesn't know you, but he thinks that you might be right for the lead of the show [Kendall] — but you have to come in and read for it.' I didn't think I would get it because I was up against a much more established and very formidable, talented actor who was more well known than me."

In the end, of course, Strong did win the part, and came to embrace the emotionally grueling challenge of embodying a character who has "a real wound, a profound need to gain attention and validation and love." In the second season, following a traumatic incident at the end of the first, Kendall becomes a Manchurian candidate of a sort, forcing Strong to give a more "internal" performance and "to fill in the writing and deepen it and embody something that will come across" as conveying to the audience "the annihilation and slow leakage of a person's soul." For an actor who believes he needs to go through things like the character he plays in order to capture them most effectively, this was far from easy.

Many have likened Kendall to James Murdoch, the younger son of News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch, but Strong insists that James was but one of numerous real-world influences for Kendall. Indeed, he shares that the table read for the show's pilot happened to occur on the afternoon of Election Day 2016, after which, he recalls, "We all went down to Adam's house that he rented in Tribeca to celebrate Hillary [Clinton]'s victory — and then a sort of slow darkening and yawning abyss opened up under us, and there was, I remember, a sense that all of a sudden the thing we were working on took on a different resonance and a new sort of terrible resonance now that this wealthy pathological family had ascended to this position of power, and the immense danger of that, and what happens when a family with that much sublimated aggression and hostility and competitiveness, when that plays out on a global scale. So I do think that the Trump presidency has landed the show in the zeitgeist in a way that it may not otherwise have been in it."