“AI ain’t gonna write Succession, or Chinatown or The Godfather,” says Jeremy Strong of what’s at stake with the writers’ strike. “It’s just not going to,” the actor who brought Jesse Armstrong’s words for Kendall Roy to life bluntly adds.
The Emmy winner knows of what he speaks.
In the end, with the conclusion of the HBO satire on May 28, there was nothing artificial about the demise of squabbling siblings Kendall Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) in their failed desire to succeed their deceased father Logan (Brian Cox). In the end, for all his scheming, all his buzzwords, all his entitlement, Kendall could not grasp the Waystar Royco crown, and it was his sister and brother who denied it to him. In the end, Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) and tech giant GoJo’s multi-billion-dollar takeover succeeded, and Kendall Roy was just another broken rich guy looking in at the action from the outside in what was a brutal and beautiful finale — as I said in my review.
Already coronated as one of the greatest television shows, the four season run of the Armstrong created Succession was both intimately of its time and an opening of the aperture of our times. Coming mere days after Warner Bros Discovery relaunched its streaming platform as the awkwardly named Max, the end of Succession leaves an America and a Hollywood in dangerous flux and facing some vexing choices.
As well as the WGA’s now four week old labor action, Strong spoke with me about reaching the end of the Roy road, how he got there and the journey with co-star Cox. As well, the actor opened up about his process and the shedding of the Kendall Roy skin he was worn for the past several years.
DEADLINE: Now it is all done, who was Kendall Roy to Jeremy Strong?
STRONG: He is me and I am him.
It’s hard for me to extricate myself from that or look at him in any other way. He’s this concatenation of all these misfires and abortive attempts and a kind of desperate wanting.
He’s kind of the embodiment of it, you know? The full catastrophe of the tragedy of tragedy of ambition. To me, and I’ve said this before, the show could have been called The
Inexorable Death of Kendall Roy.
STRONG: Well, as much as I was fighting all along to keep him up above that water line, there was always that undertow was always stronger. His backstory is stuff that I’ve always had, you know? I had a Bible and a timeline that I’ve referred to over seven years working on this. And then of course, I’ve kind of built my own understanding.
DEADLINE: Which is?
STRIONG: His fate was sealed from the moment his father sat him down, when he was seven years old, at the candy kitchen in Bridgehampton and told him he would be the CEO one day. It’s a sentence passed on him as a child.
DEADLINE: Obviously, he does not take over the company, which might have been a good thing – at least for the shareholders …
STRONG: I think fate should have brought him where he needed to go. I genuinely feel that he was capable and should have taken over.
DEADLINE: To that, how did you discover from Jesse how it would all end?
STRONG: Honestly man, Jessie and I talked very little about the ending — I knew that the contours of it.
There was a day after I read the script, where I asked to meet with Jesse and Mark and sat down with them and said, I think that I need to try and in my life at the end. I told them, I don’t see any other way for Kendall. I don’t see any way out.
DEADLINE: I understand that, especially who he is, and I know you actually shot a scene where he tries to go over the fence into the water at the end, but, besides this being the series finale, why was this defeat for Kendall different?
STRONG: I think that this is different from all the other times we’ve seen him try and fail, all the times we’ve seen him lose again and again and again. Before, he’s always been able to get back up. This time is different, because the loss is total on all sides.
He’s lost everything.
He’s lost his children. He’s lost his marriage. He’s lost his love. He’s lost his father. He’s lost his siblings, and he’s lost the only thing he ever wanted. That thing, that job, that role was the only thing, is his reason for being And personally, I thought that was an extinction level event and there’s no coming back from it. He’s lost his soul.
DEADLINE: Now that Succession is over, now that time has gone by since you short your final scenes and now that you’ve seen the reaction to the conclusion over the last day or so, why do you think the show resonated so much as it did?
STRONG: I mean, it’s a lot of things right? Jesse wrote that great piece in The Guardian this weekend about how the day of the table read of the pilot was Trump’s election. So there, there was a historical consilience that happened. And the rise of populism, and of course, watching it almost in real time, plus the acquisition of Fox by Disney and all the seismic changes in our industry, and big tech.
the show was able to, in a kind of tilted way, speak to all of the themes of the time, all of the stuff that we’re confronting as a society now — but I don’t think that’s the answer.
STRONG: No. The answer lies in this moment and the writers’ strike. The answer is writers.
It’s Jesse Armstrong’s writing. It’s his insight. It’s his profound insight and his ability to embed in this satire, a completely comprehensive chronicle of the time that we live in in a painful, tragic, absurd way. I also think that it has to do with the depths of these characters. And, to that, at the end of the day I think people recognize, committed, honest work from actors, and that’s what we all tried to do.
The show gave us all a chance to embody the furthest extremities of life. It feels operatic, but Dominic, I’m not a good spokesperson for the show, because I’m too inside of it. It’s almost hard for me to be outside of it.
DEADLINE: How do you mean, in terms of depiction or description?
STRONG: In terms of I feel like I’m watching somebody else — if I’m really honest with you.
The only way I can describe it is when I’m inside of it, it takes over. It’s the only thing that matters in the world. When I’m done with it, which was March 1 in Barbados, and one in the morning, it’s over. It leaves me and I no longer even really have a relationship to it.
STRONG: This is slightly different because just the cumulative force of so many years it’s such a journey – I haven’t gone on such a journey with a single character before. But I do feel very outside of and separate from the show right now and quite detached. from it.
I got to be the first chair violin for a Mahler symphony, but at the end of it, I pack up and leave. I didn’t write the score, I just had to be tuned up for it. I go home and the music reverberates in me, but it isn’t me, but it is at the same time.
DEADLINE: Does that make it hard for you to watch the show itself?
STRONG: It’s always painful for me to watch these things. It’s always painful, because ultimately, you when you’re an actor in films, you show up and what happens on the day happens. It’s a series of attempts that are imperfect attempts at the truth
DEADLINE: When you talk about the score, the blueprint for the truth, it’s the writing, Jesse’s writing, the show’s writers, as you said …
DEADLINE: You brought up the WGA strike, so I got to ask: what’s your take on what’s happening and the studios’ not making a deal with the writers?
STRONG: There’s a Lincoln quote I’ll paraphrase: an industry that does not honor its writers will not long endure.
DEADLINE: That’s to the point
STRONG: AI ain’t gonna write Succession, or Chinatown or The Godfather. It’s just not going to. If we don’t nurture and provide the infrastructure and the apparatus to support and engender and create another generation of writers who are deep thinkers who are grappling with the big things the way Jesse, Aaron Sorkin and Eric Roth and Amy Hertzog are grappling with the big things then then what’s left is decadence. And that’s terrifying because in our culture decadence is the last stage before collapse.
DEADLINE: On that, one the profound impact Succession has had on you, how did that journey, as you termed it, change you? Or did it?
STRONG: I know that I’m a different actor than I was when I started this seven years ago.
It’s forced me to walk through the fire so many times and come up against things that I thought were my limits and, and confront those limits. It’s really been a crucible of growth for me as an as an artist, and taught me maybe that none of us know what we’re truly capable of.
DEADLINE: As an actor, you have received a lot of scrutiny over the years on Succession for your method, literally and figuratively.
DEADLINE: Some of that scrutiny has come from Brian Cox, who has praised you but also been critical of the immersive quality of your methods, to put it politely. So, now it’s over, what’s your perspective on that scrutiny?
STRONG: What I’ll say is I think that what happens in the workplace and on a set is sacred and should be protected and safeguarded. And that includes how people feel about how people work and how people work. You know?
It’s a bit of like a don’t talk about Fight Club situation.
I’ll also say, I think Brian is a brilliant actor. I’m glad he’s having this time in his career. It was one of the great privileges of my life to be in the saddle with him.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you think it was a lot of white noise and bullsh*t?
STRONG: The truth is this, you prepare, you learn your lines, you prepare as best you can. And then the rest is kind of a mystery, and everything else is kind of bullsh*t, you know?
Like that, actually, I’m probably not that different from Brian, he’s probably not that different from me. We’re all trying to get at the truth, and however anybody comes out of it is valid. I mean, you can’t argue with the work that he does, and I don’t think he can argue with the work that I do.
DEADLINE: It sounds complicated, and so simple at the same time …
STRONG: Yeah, it’s complicated. You know, I listen, I work the way I work, and I don’t know how to do it any other way. I work only to try and serve the material the best I can. As for the white noise, you’re right. We’ve come into this place, in our time where we’re talking about how much turpentine and linseed oil is this painter mixing and what hand is he holding the cigarette in, and less about what is the painting? What is the work? So, you know, that whole dialogue in a way, I’d rather just sort of leave that alone.
It’s the work that matters.