Like a stock chart, the fortunes of the four Roy siblings rise and fall during the first season of Succession, Jesse Armstrong’s HBO drama about a wealthy media family’s Shakespearean struggles.
After appearing poised to kill the king, the patriarch and media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox), with a hostile takeover manoeuvre called a bear hug, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) instead finds himself in his father’s fearsome embrace after a tragic turn of events adds Chappaquiddick to the show’s list of real-life echoes.
Strong, 39, known for roles in based-on-a-true-story films like The Big Short, Selma and Lincoln, gave Kendall an intense mix of arrogance and insecurity as he deals with business cutthroats and looming substance abuse. He speaks from Copenhagen — where he is lying low with a newborn and says he hasn’t seen the show (“I’m sort of staying away from it”) — about getting in the ring with Cox and what might be ahead for Kendall in season two. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
You spent a ton of time with the real Vincent Daniel before The Big Short. For something like Succession, where it’s more fictionalised, how did you figure out who Kendall Roy is?
I did a deep dive on the media landscape in general, but also on a number of dynastic families. There’s a number of great books on the Murdoch family, of course, and Michael Wolff’s book was important to me to read, The Man Who Owns the News. But also looking at the Redstones and at Conrad Black and at the Koch brothers and the Newhouse family and the Sulzberger family, and trying to cast as wide a net as possible on the question of legacy. Something that really stood out to me was this idea of the credo of winning; that winning — and, in a sense, success — is a virtue. That seemed to be a common thread throughout all these books; I mean, Sumner Redstone’s book is called A Passion to Win. It’s a part of our culture in this moment — you know, The Art of the Deal, another book that’s sort of about that ethos. So I guess my way in was trying to understand the ethos of the world that Kendall is in, and then separately trying to understand who he is.
It seems like he’s trying on these different personas. Is there an aspect of Kendall that’s the ‘real’ him?
I think he is, certainly at the beginning of the episodes, trying on this corporate identity and this armour, this kind of tech media bro persona that is his attempt at showing strength and projecting an image of confidence and an image like his father projects, a fearsome image. And I also think he is ridden with doubt. I would say at the heart of Jesse’s conception of the character is also addiction, and that’s something on a kind of spiritual level, in a sense, that malady and the need to fill some lack in himself.
A lot of what seems to get Kendall in trouble in the business arena is that he’s overly trusting.
Absolutely. I think on some level, Kendall just simply doesn’t have that killer instinct. He’s not a ruthless person; he’s not an amoral operator the way his father is. That being said, the arc of this first season — Kendall has it in his DNA to become a man like his father. He either is going to escape his family’s legacy and the poison of that, or he’s going to internalise it and become his father. You know — and I’ll be struck down by lightning — but in Godfather, which of course we all looked at, and always sort of referenced, Michael [Corleone] in the beginning is a sort of guileless student and then he becomes a man of blood. And that journey, that gradual erosion of his morality and the ways in which he’s forced to cross his own moral lines, I do see some parallels in terms of this character and I think that anything is possible, really, going forward.
Playing off the idea of the father-son relationship, what was it like working with Brian Cox?
You know, Brian, he’s a heavyweight actor. And he’s a very, actually in life, gregarious and open, kindhearted man. Part of the way that I like to work is to allow for the dynamic in the material to exist as much as possible in the environment, and so that meant, for me, keeping distance and allowing for there to be real tension, because I think it’s important. And so I didn’t have all that much interaction with Brian apart from meeting each other in the ring, in a sense. But God almighty, when you are in the ring with him you get everything you need, because he completely embodies that character and he can be very terrifying.
We’ve mostly talked about the dramatic aspects of the show, but at times it was hilarious. When you pop up at Connor’s ranch for the family therapy — they used one of the songs, right? Where you go, ‘Fam-ily! Ther-a-py!’?
Right, right! Yeah, good! [laughs] I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say, but I knew that I needed to take some risks for that episode. I knew that what was required for when he veers off course and falls off the wagon was to step into chaos in a sense and to actually not be in control. It was exhilarating, and scary, and, I mean, I got pretty [expletive] up for some of it. So New Mexico was an exciting episode in that sense, because I had no idea what was going to come out. But I knew that I wanted to be a wrecking ball.
Did anyone keep the Lanvin sneakers from the Dust pitch scene?
Oh, dude. I spent a long time trying to pick out the right sneakers, and Michelle Matland, the wardrobe designer, is really incredible. It was very important for me to really wear the clothes and for the world they were in to have the weight of reality. But yes, I kept the Lanvins, along with a bunch of other stuff that I’m rocking in Copenhagen as we speak.
Don’t miss it!
Succession is airing now on OSN First HBO HD.