Perhaps, as an interviewer, I made a mistake. Perhaps I didn’t. Speaking to Jeremy Strong earlier this month it was difficult not to ask the “Succession” star about the unexpected rap performance his character Kendall Roy gives during the program’s second season. If I was paying attention and properly done my job I would have seen that Strong has talked at length about the moment since the episode aired over nine months ago. He’s called it “cringeworthy” and constantly downplayed it even when campaigning for an Emmy nod for the song alongside composer and lyricist Nicolas Britell. Frank Ocean even reached out to him about it, which he said was a compliment, but during our conversation, he seemed incredibly conflicted about what became something of a pop culture moment in the latter half of 2019. Perhaps that sort of reaction is hard to avoid when you’ve committed so much of yourself to a character.
As evident in our interview, Strong, who earned his first Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category this year, has truly given his blood, sweat, and tears as the oldest member of the Roy family. Having spoken to his fellow nominated cast members Brian Cox, Sarah Snook, Nicholas Braun, Kieran Culkin and Matthew Macfadyen, he’s the only member of the ensemble who asks series creator Jesse Armstrong for specific details surrounding character’s arc before each season begins filming. Granted, Kendall has gone through the wringer both in his personal and professional life over just 20 episodes of television so far, but it also demonstrates just how seriously Strong takes his craft. Something that will become quite obvious during our discussion.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Playlist: What was your reaction to landing the Emmy nomination this year?
Jeremy Strong: Oh, man, I felt kind of indescribably happy. I would say that this piece of work, this show, and this character is, to me, the most important piece of work I’ve ever gotten to do. And so to be recognized for something that matters so much to me by this community in this age of peak television where the bar is so high, it’s a huge honor. And the other actors in this category, many of whose work didn’t get recognized, I’m just floored by the company that I’m in.
The Playlist: I think the other thing that was amazing was that so many of your castmates were nominated as well, which I don’t think many people expected. That must have been sort of an extra bonus when the nominations where announced.
Jeremy Strong: I mean, look, I certainly didn’t expect any of it. I’ve been working for so long that I think you come to a place as an individual where you have to get past hoping for anything like this to happen and just commit to doing your work without any recognition and without any accolades. And so when they do come, it’s immensely gratifying. And I was so happy for everyone else on the show and for the show. From the moment we had our table read the day that Donald Trump was elected president, things have sort of constellated in this way that they rarely do on a film or a television show. I think we’re all aware of having the privilege of working on something that feels like a show of our time and for our time. And at the same time, there’s so much television right now of such high quality. The films that I grew up watching and wanting to be part of, the great films of the ’70s, they’re all on television now. I feel slightly amazed that the show has found the place that it has in our culture.
The Playlist: I know you’ve talked about the fact that Jesse gives you a heads-up about the arc for Kendall each season, but has he given you a longterm, series arc for him?
Jeremy Strong: No, and as much as I’m a glutton for punishment, I think I’ve had my work cut out for me season to season. And that feels like the right metric for me in terms of the metric of pain and the metric of distance to travel. It’s been incredibly challenging each of these seasons to try and figure out knowing where it ends. And I remember reading in Elia Kazan’s autobiography, he talks about how it’s the final moment, it’s the last beat of any character’s arc that is the most important one and then you have to reverse engineer as far as you possibly can away from it so you can travel the greatest distance.
The Playlist: What do you like about working with Jesse?
Jeremy Strong: What I love about Jesse’s writing is he’s not a linear writer. He arrives at things in a slanted and sort of oblique way. So, threading the needle for Kendall has been challenging, [In] season two, to go from a place of total collapse and to have his heart and spirit so broken and then to come back from that in that final episode, and find the reasons why that felt necessary to me, that was really challenging. And I think if I knew too much more beyond that, it would sort of overload me. And it’s always this struggle between, in a way, the dramaturgical part of your actor brain where you’re trying to construct a performance with pretty precise kind of architecture so that you map it out for yourself and you’re trying to build something that is emotionally legible to the audience and render that.
The Playlist: Obviously you knew going into season two it was going to be heavy. When you guys were preparing to shoot season three in the spring, before the stay-at-home orders, you must’ve thought where Kendall was wouldn’t weigh on you so much.
Jeremy Strong: You’re absolutely right. I mean, I remember having a dream before we started season [two] where the words carry the weight just sort of were kind of like billboarded to me and that felt very clearly like that was my summons for the season, to carry the weight of this character and carry the weight of his pain. And of this John Berryman poem that Jesse had written at the end of the first season about this thing that had sat on my heart so heavily that after a thousand years weeping and sleepless, I could not make good. And so it felt like I had to somehow try and find a way to make that real and really commit to that. This season is sort of like “The Revenant” and coming back from the dead. And when I got past the episode where I had to go visit the family of the boy, that was a harrowing thing for me to shoot and to experience. And past that point, I think Jesse and I talked about the character reaching a moment where he’s essentially accommodated himself to the terrible things that he’s done and is able to kind of just put it away. And while he has irrevocably lost a part of his humanity I think and is sort of a facsimile of who he was in season one, I think he’s basically free of that weight. By the end of season two, we see him kind of come into his own power in a way. It’s both a death and a rebirth, I think. And what I’m excited about when we do get back to this, and yes, when I was getting ready to start in April, I did feel a sense of, “This character is going to be kind of Prometheus Unbound.” It’s his turn and we’re going to see what Kendall’s reign looks like in a pretty unfettered way.
The Playlist: Knowing that, you still got to have some fun, especially with Kendall’s rap. Did you work with Nicholas Britell on it? How did that even sort of come about?
Jeremy Strong: You know, I didn’t imagine that it would have the life that it did. We were shooting in Glasgow. We had a table read in a hotel. The only thing that was written was “Kendall does a rap” and then it had sort of one lyric or something. And it was like, “Yo, kick it, MC.” And I cringed, honestly. I was like, “I can’t do this.” I actually lobbied very hard to Jesse to cut the rap. I was sort of like, “Have mercy on me.” But then he pointed me in the direction of someone’s Instagram, this guy, Mikey Hess, who’s a sort of billionaire oil heir, had a birthday party where he got up on stage and rapped with Nelly. And he’s actually, he’s quite good, and he certainly committed. And Jesse was like, “That’s what I’m thinking tonally.” And when I saw that, and then Nick Britell called me that night and he did the whole thing for me over the phone. And Nick is, I think, a genius and as soon as I heard him do it, there was a sense of like, “O.K. well, I have to just go as far out on a limb as I’ve ever gone in order to try and do this and pull this off.” And that’s kind of what I love about this show is I don’t ever know what limb they’re going to make me go out on. The first time I ever did it out loud was when the cameras were on. And I don’t like to rehearse. And so everyone’s reactions were the true reactions and their mortification was revealed. But I have to say I’m not really in on the joke with the rest of everyone. I actually, I think the rap is sincere and I think something that I really care about in this character is how hard he tries. He tries so hard and I think that is where people might have the response that they have and talk about how it’s cringeworthy or other things that I’ve heard people say.
The Playlist: Oh.
Jeremy Strong: But I guess I feel like there was a poem that I read that I thought about by this English poet, Stevie Smith called “Not Waving But Drowning.” And the idea is you have a person who, in the case of the poem, it’s the onlooker from the beach, from the shore, who sees someone and thinks they’re waving, but they’re actually drowning. I think with Kendall, he often thinks he’s waving and what the audience sees is a person drowning.
The Playlist: I don’t know if you go on social media.
Jeremy Strong: I try not to.
The Playlist: But I think, the reaction actually was not as cringeworthy as you think it was. The reaction was actually was more impressed by how good you or Kendall were.
Jeremy Strong: That’s nice.
The Playlist: I mean, people dressed up as Kendall in that baseball jersey for Halloween.
Jeremy Strong: The rap was a moment where finally the character had a chance to be expressive rather than muzzled and sort of castrated and shut down. So, there was joy in that. I mean, I talk about it being difficult and I think when a character is in the ninth circle of hell, your task is to try and understand that and respect that.
The Playlist: Right.
Jeremy Strong: So, I don’t really permit myself to have too much fun if the character is suffering. And at the same time, I have tremendous joy in the creative process itself and in the collaboration with the directors and with the other actors. And there’s no better feeling than walking away from a scene feeling like you’ve left everything on the field. I think that’s sort of the thing that I live for. It’s interesting this getting nominated for a performance. A performance isn’t one thing. It’s not a monolith. It’s thousands and thousands of hours of really just attempting something. It’s a series of imperfect attempts at a scene. So I think what feels really meaningful to me is that those thousands of hours added up to something that had an effect on people.
“Succession” season two is available on HBO and HBO Max.