Actor Jeremy Strong is having a week that his Succession character Kendall Roy could only dream about. And only part of it has to do with what happened on the season 3 finale, ‘All the Bells Say,” after much speculation about his character’s potential death.
[Ed. note: This story contains major spoilers for Succession season 3.]
Succession season 3, episode 9 arrived after another implosion for Kendall, last seen floating in a pool (and a misery of his own making,) and a similar supernova moment for its star. A new New Yorker profile of Strong, alternatively titled “On Succession, Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke” and “The Straight Man” paints the actor as one who aggressively gets into character to an extent that even his coworkers find it a little off-putting. The profile set off a moment of drama that, in several ways, accomplishes what Strong has always wanted out of acting: To “elide the line,” as he puts it in the profile, between character and real life.
Among the revelations: Strong missed part of his “wedding-week festivities” to film Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, hung out with the playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s Irish doorman to learn how to play an Irish alcoholic, often refuses to rehearse, and when shooting to quote Kieran Culkin describing the process as Strong told him “you get in the ring, you do the scene, and at the end each actor goes to their corner.” It’s not a strategy that Culkin particularly endorses. “I’m, like, This isn’t a battle. This is a dance,” he says in the New Yorker feature, reflecting on his costar.
“It’s the cost to himself that worries me,” Brian Cox says in the profile, after the piece describes a series of injuries Strong has had on the not particularly action-packed set of the show about a family of bickering moguls, of whom Cox is the cruel patriarch. “I just feel that he just has to be kinder to himself, and therefore has to be a bit kinder to everybody else.”
Strong’s approach is not so different than how Kendall started Succession season 3: constantly going viral on Twitter. The one difference is that while Kendall Roy has found himself increasingly isolated, Jeremy Strong has real friends sticking up for him. In the seventh season 3 episode, “Too Much Birthday,” partygoers are promised a trip into the world of Kendall Roy at a beyond-lavish birthday at The Shed at Hudson Yards, a venue which critics have called a meeting point of “touristic commerce and capitalist worship.”
It’s a perfect venue for Kendall, who rides ravishing highs in the episode only to be met with crushing lows. By far the most powerful of these is his quixotic search for his son’s birthday present, with the only clue being bunny wrapping paper. His small army of assistants failing him, he stumbles through a mountain of presents, treating each individual gift with either indifference or outright disdain. A motorcycle? Who cares? A watch from his girlfriend? He already has one. In the end, he collapses under his own duress.
It’s a scene that plays into the classical influences often brought up around Succession, including by Strong himself. In the profile, he references both Dostoevsky and Chekhov. One example it called to mind for me was Leo Tolstoy’s 1866 short story “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” in which a peasant named Pahom who makes a deal with the devil for more and more land, before learning that all a man really needs is six feet for a grave.
Tolstoy’s parable bears striking similarities with Kendall, who, struck out against his father in the penultimate episode in hopes of proving better and smarter. And now, in the season 3 finale, he’s anything but dead, confessing for his manslaughter incident in season 1 and teaming up with his siblings (“for the first time since they were teenagers,” noted director Mark Mylod in the post-show feature) to prevent further action from Logan Roy.
In the post-show reflection on episode 9, creator Jesse Armstrong said that some people might be see Kendall, Shiv, and Roman’s team up as growth. “I’m on the fence about human beings, and people certainly change what they do,” Armstrong went on, “but in my view, people’s essential selves do not change. In a way that’s what makes drama and choices interesting.”
How the future goes for Kendall will be left for fans to discover in Succession season 4, which was recently greenlit by HBO. As for Strong, the immediate aftermath of the profile has prompted some major names to come to his defense. On Instagram, pal Anne Hathaway also stood up for Strong’s choices as an actor, saying, “I deeply value his qualities of thoughtfulness, sincerity, authenticity, sweetness, depth, kindness, generosity, as well as his powerful intelligence and extraordinary sensitivity.” And Aaron Sorkin, via a letter posted to Twitter by Jessica Chastain, put it bluntly: “Jeremy’s not a nut.” Arguing that the profile “asks us to roll our eyes at his acting process,” Sorkin compares Strong to Dustin Hoffman, who comes up repeatedly in the profile — New Yorker writer Michael Schulman notes that Strong had a Rain Man poster on his wall as a teenager. Ultimately, Sorkin says, “there isn’t a writer, producer, or director on Earth who wouldn’t grab at the chance to cast him.”
Shortly after the Succession season 3 finale aired on HBO, Schulman took to Twitter to reveal a detail from his now-controversial profile that didn’t make the cut due to spoiler reasons. Strong told the reporter that, during the big confession scene in the parking lot, he had originally been sitting “on a stone pillar that Jeremy asked the production designer to make. They did nine takes and he just wasn’t feeling it.” The actor ultimately found himself in a “place of despair” and, according to Schulman, thought he had “come to the limits of what I can do.” So, after nine takes, Strong decided to change things up and sit on the gravel in the parking lot, and play the scene a new way. All the previous work was unusable, but the actor told Schulman that “the whole scene opened up.”
Sorkin is probably right: there may not be a writer, producer, or director on Earth who wouldn’t want to cast Strong, if for no other reason than he’s starring in one of television’s hottest shows. But if the actor’s process seems to be an inherently isolating one — one non-famous member of a production said Strong “was an annoying gnat”— than at least he has one thing that Kendall Roy has never had, even with all the money in the world: people who care about him.