[This interview contains spoilers for the Sunday, Sept. 1 episode of HBO’s Succession.]
On one level, the “Safe Room” episode of Succession was one of the HBO drama’s funniest to date, from Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) withering exposure to the family’s theme park business to Connor’s (Alan Ruck) deliriously non-specific eulogy to Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) frustrated confrontation with Greg (Nicholas Braun) to Holly Hunter‘s perfectly prickly introduction to the cast.
That is not the level that Jeremy Strong’s Kendall finds himself on. In an extended personal nadir since last summer’s finale, Kendall kept drifting to a skyscraper rooftop in existential crisis and ended the episode with an utterly heartbreaking conversation with Shiv (Sarah Snook), one in which he seemed, perhaps for the first time, to have a clear vision of his future.
Strong spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about Kendall’s deepening despair, a low point that didn’t make the cut in the third episode and what it feels like to rarely be part of the show’s hilarious side. He also weighs in on fans rooting for Kendall’s awfulness and what he’s rooting for himself.
That last conversation with Shiv is almost unimaginably sad. What was your first reaction to reading that scene and, I have to ask, am I a chump for thinking that Kendall’s sincere in it?
I hope not. I mean, I was sincere. I think that is all sincerely felt, and just so poignantly and expertly drawn by [creator and showrunner] Jesse Armstrong, in terms of this inchoate, lost, desolate, deadened person trying to articulate where he’s at. I was very moved by it when I read it.
It was a relief for Kendall, a moment of connection for Kendall that he has not had this season. It was something, a bit like water in the desert for me, because of where we find him when this season starts. Part of what happened at the end of season one, is a total and complete inward collapse of a person, it’s like the engine fell out. And all of the drive that had been animating him, his whole life force in a sense was extinguished by this catastrophic event, and really spectacular disaster and failure on his part. But the cost on him is really enormous, on Kendall. And part of that cost is this extreme estrangement from other people. He can’t tell anyone what he’s done, ever. And that isolates him and makes him very alone.
And he has to live with the anguish of it. When I re-read Crime and Punishment before we started this season, Dostoevsky uses the phrase “monstrous pain” to talk about what Raskolnikov is carrying with him, and that was something that I really thought was important to try and embody. So it was hard to find that place in yourself, hard to live out that place. But that scene with Shiv at the end of [episode] four, that “monstrous pain” is a part of that whole episode for me, it’s why I keep going up to the roof, it’s why I find myself sort of on that precipice and I’m sure having thoughts of suicide.
In the hunting episode in Hungary, there was a scene where I was off in the woods alone hunting and I unload serially, all of these bullets into a boar. And in one of the takes, I found myself putting the rifle in my mouth, and just sat there with it in my mouth for a very long time. And it obviously didn’t make it into the cut of the episode, but I think that’s because they wanted to build to where four builds to.
This season, what have been the challenges of playing the shades of melancholy that Kendall has been going through? I imagine at some point you have to be a little bit nervous yourself that that’s all going to come through on camera, that you’re going to be able to convey the different gradations that you’re trying to play.
Some other kind of actor might answer that differently and have more technical facility in terms of rendering those shades. My belief is, if you actually inhabit a place of brokenness and grief and then just let that live, without in any way trying to control or prescribe or present what that might look like, that’s been my goal, to live in and inhabit whatever given circumstances are, emotionally as best I can, and hope that the way that is emanating and coming through me, or even existing in me in an embodied way, will be felt by the audience, if it’s real for me.
But in terms of the gradations, I don’t know. Hopefully it’s not all the same color gray because I think as we’re doing it, I’m having quite a real and personal experience. You have to figure out what are the things that would break me? What are the things without which, or if I was to lose them, or if I were to cross this line or that line in some irrevocable way, would just shatter me? And so those are the kinds of creative puzzles that you’re struggling with as the actor.
That’s all very highfalutin, but really the writing just brings it out of you. I think of the writing as a set of magnets that just magnetizes out of you, the emotions and gradations that it requires. It just summons those things out of you, so you just need to be a vessel for that. So I guess that I’m not very aware of what’s showing up on camera, and I don’t want to be. I trust that if it’s coming from the unconscious in me, then that’s right. If I ever become too self-aware, then I feel further from the truth of it.
Does your process require that you dig in and stick with these gradations of gloominess? Or do you have to force yourself to have moments of silliness between shots, just to kind of shake this off?
No, I find that I need to dig in and entrench myself and then stay in. I would also say gloominess is a symptom of something, but what Kendall is experiencing is closer to a despair that is as close as you can be to wanting to die. It is a hell that he’s in, and it is despair. The interesting thing about despair is it, as the absence of all hope, it’s very inactive. That was a challenging as an actor to try and play, because the truism is that you always need something active to do as an actor.
So this was an experiment for me to try and kind of be in a dead man’s float for as long as I possibly could, in the arc of the season, until something comes along that might reanimate me. But it really did feel like The Revenant, in a sense of just a person who’s essentially dead, who at a certain point in a later episode, something will galvanize him that makes him want to live again. But in those early episodes and in four I think we’re still dealing with a level of despair that is the absence of life in him. Whoever that guy was that we met rapping in the backseat of the car in the very first episode, he’s not there anymore. That was tremendously sad for me.
And you don’t want to stay in that place, it’s a bit like holding a rubber ball that is your spirit and positivity underwater for months at a time. But I think that’s what I tried to do, and attempted to do, to try and make this as fully felt and embodied as I could. But those days where you’re on the ledge on the 75-story building, I don’t know how to personally work where you can kind of come in and out of that. You need to really, really go stand on that ledge and find reasons why you might do that.
If last season was like climbing this mountain of his life’s ambitions, this season has been like starting at the bottom of this deep crater, where he has just cratered out and then trying to get out of that. But for a long time the writing doesn’t give me any rungs in the ladder, to climb out of the crater.
What’s such a unique thing about this show is that you can have Kendall being on the 75th floor contemplating suicide in this nihilistic, existential crisis and then at the same time, you have Tom and Greg in a panic room throwing stuff at each other, totally wacky hijinks. How aware were you at this point in shooting that you were almost in a different show from half of the cast?
I felt in a different show for a majority of the time, and there’s been certain islands within that. For example, last year when I went to New Mexico when Kendall got high again, where I felt like I could join in the camaraderie, even in this really fucked up way. But those days on set I remember feeling much more buoyant, because it brought out this other side of Kendall that he’d kept under control. But in general I feel pretty isolated from that aspect of the show. As an objective outsider, it’s a real testament to Jesse that he can straddle these different sensibilities. I come from the theater and so of course I think about Chekhov, who had these extreme pathos and extreme levity side by side, and Jesse’s able to do that with hilarity and absurdity and then also have such gravity.
But I’ve always felt that in a sense Brian [Cox] and I are sometimes in a different show totally where we are both engaged in this life and death struggle in a very serious way, and then the hijinks are just happening around it. We are all in the same piece, and that is so exciting and somehow it works. There’s something very ineffable about that. I don’t know if Jesse knew if it would work; if he could put all these things together in the same container.
It’s funny because when I describe the show to people, I call it a “very dark comedy, but with these tragic veins running through it.” Do you come at it as almost the exact opposite?
Yeah, totally. I see it as a drama with these dark comic, satirical veins going through it, but at its core and the ballast of it is this dramatic throughline. The very first conversation I had with [exec producer] Adam McKay and Jesse about it, was about the Danish film The Celebration, which is also darkly comic but very much a drama about trauma and family trauma. And of course we talked about the Godfather films, because who doesn’t? But I do think there is an element of that in this that I have been not very aware of, but certainly informed by. But I do see it as sort of a heavyweight drama.
This episode is also the first appearance from Holly Hunter, and this is obviously a cast that doesn’t lack for powerhouses, but what is the different energy that someone like her brings when she comes on the set for the first time?
It’s interesting because Holly is such a formidable force as an actor, and is someone that we’ve all known for a long time. When I heard that she’d been cast, you always wonder if that might upset the apple cart in terms of the center of gravity, having such a revered, known person come into a show where Brian is obviously well-known, but in a way, we’ve become this family for audiences, so all that by way of saying, god was I happy that Holly Hunter came and did this role on our show. She really is a force of nature, and I think she elevated and deepened the environment, she brought a singularity of focus to the environment, she just raises the bar.
So it was exciting to have that caliber of an actor come into the show in a supporting role, and give that role and this world even more weight. I had a lot of fun with Holly, I think we both approach the work in a very similar way, and we both put ourselves on human airplane mode, shutting out everything else. I really appreciate that in her, and she really has a level of mastery, as Brian Cox does, that is just exciting to be around and to be in the ring with.
I don’t know how much attention you pay to such things, but two episodes ago, with the gutting of Vaulter, there was a lot of, “Yay, Kendall got his mojo back.” Whereas I viewed it as kind of a rock bottom moment for him. How do you respond to people rooting for Kendall to get his awfulness back?
That’s interesting. One thing is that I’m not at all aware of the [conversation]. I block all that out, which is probably wise for me to do, and just stay inside of it. I agree with you in that I think it really is a rock bottom. Where when I first talked to Jesse about this season, where he said his idea was seeing Kendall as this defeated, submissive, subservient and subjugated lackey to my father. I immediately thought of The Manchurian Candidate and trying to create this almost somnambulistic, just dead-eyed soldier who’s been weaponized, who’s been made to cross further and further his own moral and ethical lines.
I thought about this line from Richard III, where he says he’s “so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.” And that was something that I thought about as we were doing that, so it felt awful. It felt awful to do, it feels slightly awful that people are rooting for awfulness, but maybe it sounds like they’re rooting for Kendall to get his mojo back, which is not so awful.
I know that I was rooting for him. He’s got the wind knocked out of him in such a bad way, and while these people are not just the most sterling, spotless people, I think they are very fallible, but I do think they are trying to be some version of their best selves. I know Kendall is trying to do that, what that version looks like is different from what most peoples versions looks like. But he is trying to do that, so I hope that’s something to root for.