In Armageddon Time he takes on quite a responsibility. Playing director James Gray's father. Convincing everyone from his grandchildren ('shocked') to the Academy (which will probably give him an Oscar nomination). Meeting a successful non-protagonist who works on characters "incessantly" and also tackles TV series (remember "Succession"?) as if he were Shakespeare.
To write that Jeremy Strong is a tortured actor risks ostracism. A good chunk of America's celebrity community rose to his defence when, in December 2021, the New Yorker published a heart-to-heart interview of the artist made famous by the TV series Succession, which highlighted his maniacality. A trait that every actor should wear like a medal.
Jessica Chastain also published tweets on behalf of others (for director Aaron Sorkin, who is not on social media) in which she called that portrait 'one-sided' and adopted a new interpretation: 'Jeremy is a source of inspiration and a passionate artist'. Others echoed her.
Jeremy Strong in the interview he granted to Io Donna to talk about Armageddon Time, the film by James Gray that passed in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and that has just been seen at the Rome Film Festival, seemed to us tortured and we write this with all the benevolence possible. Because he is really very good – as is everyone else, from Anne Hathaway to Anthony Hopkins, to the two kids, Banks Repeta and Johnny Davis, the real first actors – so much so that the American specialised press guarantees his nomination for an Oscar as a supporting actor.
Kendall from Succession as Hamlet
Strong, who is currently finishing filming the fourth season of Succession, an undoubtedly choral work, and who does not hesitate to describe himself as 'a character actor', i.e. 'a non-protagonist who plays singular or eccentric characters', will probably never lose his singularity, but it is possible that from now on he will often have his name at the top of the credits. The actor who, according to his colleagues, plays Kendall, the middle child of Succession as if he were Hamlet and who considers "the greatest challenge, to disappear into a character", will in fact star in two new series to begin with.
The first, produced by Brad Pitt, will tell the story of the 2019 Boeing 737 Max crash, the second the post-9/11 seen from the side of the rescue workers. In Armageddon Time, which comes out at the end of the month in America and will arrive in February 2023, he is as "singular" as a plumber from Queens determined to crush any artistic ambition in his youngest son can be. Irving, the plumber, however, is the father of director James Gray and the little boy, who is enchanted by a Kandinsky on a school trip to the Guggenheim Museum, but who does not excel at school, is the director himself. "An 'origin story' of the birth of an artist," Strong explains. "But also an origin story of the America we find ourselves in now, shot through with racial and political divisions. I'm very distressed when I think about it, but I have faith in the younger generation."
What James Gray has staged in Armageddon Time is in fact the moment when a teenager is forced to make his first decision as an adult – to stand by his black classmate or to choose his own racial and class privilege – but it is also a snapshot of a precise moment in American history, the 1980s, when Donald Trump's father, tycoon Fred, and his older sister Maryanne (a cameo by Jessica Chastain), appear on the scene ('A direct attack on capitalism,' the director subtly quips).
Being Irving Graff, a burden on his shoulders
"This is a very personal film for James. He grew up in a Jewish family in Queens. When he was 12 years old Ronald Reagan was elected and the nation went through great upheavals. Armageddon Time is his search for lost time, the tale of a moral upbringing,' Strong continues. The actor searches for words carefully, partly because Jessica Chastain's responsiveness cannot always be relied upon, and partly because the responsibility of embodying the leader's father would make anyone hesitate.
"There's a painting by William Kentrige depicting a man in a suit who is on his knees," he says. "I thought of him when I started working on Irving: a man carrying a great burden on his shoulders. My experience is different from his. I am a father, I have young children (three girls, aged 4, 3 and 1, ed), I feel fallible, I have within me the desire to move earth and sky for my daughters, but I know I am not always equipped to do so. I can understand Irving and I can understand his son'.
Jeremy Strong and (dis)united families
The film is about a family struggling to stay together. For five years with Succession Jeremy Strong has been inside a family that tears itself apart with regularity in each episode. In each case, an emotional tour de force, we ask him. Strong starts a couple of sentences and then drops them: 'I can tell you this. The character I was able to create is not exactly what James wanted me to do, but it's the way I found to tell his story. And James accepted it. As an actor you only have one way to embrace your character. And there comes a time when you can no longer think of him as the director's father, but only as an individual in his own right, a new man, you have to free yourself from the obsession with truthfulness and also from what the director thinks you should do. To search for your truth. A search that must proceed unceasingly'.
The choice of the adverb is not accidental, if one considers that the former boy who had a poster of Daniel Day Lewis (but also Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman) in his bedroom and who, at 18, was taken to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for a summer course, ended up at 25 as Daniel Day Lewis's assistant on the set of The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Before that there had been graduation from Yale and all sorts of jobs to support himself in New York, including 'roles on stages so off Broadway that there was only the river beyond'.
The memory of his father
Strong had read Laurence Olivier's autobiography and fell in love with the idea of being 'daring', so it is not surprising that he chose the Oscar-winning actor for My Left Foot as a role model. For Armageddon Time and in the name of the audacity he deserves, he spent days with truer-than-true plumbers and asked the director to share photos and family memories. Gray – who is quite straightforward in interviews ('I've been making films for 30 years, it hasn't been that bad. Maybe because I've never done anything for money. If you want a film to make as much money as possible you have to be a banker not a director,' he told Io donna. And of course: 'Mine is a personal film, of course, but personal is political, you can't separate yourself from what's going on in the world') – talking about his happy casting choices he summarised: 'Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong are identical to my parents. If you saw a picture of my family you would understand. Jeremy speaks exactly like my father. Someone told me he talks like me, but it's because I talk like my father! My children saw the film and they had met their grandfather, my father died a few months ago. Well, they were shocked because Jeremy looked exactly like him and, even though they had never seen him in fits of rage, had never confronted his more violent side, they recognised him'.
Robert Downey jr. who in 2014 had directed Strong in The Judge, another family story in which Jeremy played a mentally disabled man, impressed by the intensity of his performance, said he 'had crossed the Rubicon'. Which, off the top of my head, basically answers "one of the first questions I ask myself, not intellectually, but emotionally, when it comes to whether I can play a character" Namely? "How messed up is this guy? And the answer is usually that the more screwed up he is, the better I can work with him'.