James Gray is open about his ongoing fixation with the messy dynamics between fathers and sons. He sent Brad Pitt into deep space to find his dad Tommy Lee Jones in Ad Astra; drove Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland permanently into the jungle together in The Lost City of Z; made Joaquin Phoenix witness his dad’s death in We Own the Night. His latest film, Armageddon Time, which premiered to a seven-minute standing ovation at Cannes last night (after which Gray admitted he had finished the film “last Saturday in a panic”), is no exception.
The film is a semi-autobiographical take on Gray’s childhood, starring Banks Repeta as a sixth-grader named Paul Graff who, like a young Gray, is a fledgling artist growing up in a working-class Jewish family in 1980s Queens under the dark specter of Reagan, virulent racism and antisemitism, and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war. Paul argues about food and homework with his long-suffering PTA president mom Esther (Anne Hathaway), has a deep and loving relationship with his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), and mostly ignores his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell). But his relationship with his father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is particularly difficult and fraught.
Armageddon Time is both a deeply personal coming-of-age story and a macrocosmic meditation on privilege, racism both casual and explicit, white guilt and hypocrisy, and the way xenophobic ’80s politics have insidiously laid the groundwork for our current era (with the Trump family indicted specifically). It’s an acting showcase for everyone involved: Hathaway brings understated humor and deep pain to Esther; Hopkins is gentle and lovely as the family’s beloved patriarch, whom Esther describes as the “only person who can reach Paul.” Jaylin Webb is at turns funny and heartbreaking as Paul’s friend Johnny, one of the only Black kids in a majority-white public school who’s struggling against an impossible current, with little bits of light going out of his eyes in each successive scene. Jessica Chastain even pops in for a quick, startling cameo as Donald Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry, showing up at Paul’s new private school to lecture a bunch of burgeoning assholes in sweaters about “working hard” and “never accepting handouts.” But Strong’s performance stands out, both in the film and in James Gray’s Pantheon of Sad Dads, for its extreme range and intensity.
As Irving, a version of Gray’s own father, Strong is goofily mensch-y and unremittingly dark. He’s a working-class contractor with a hair-trigger temper, a striver in a newsboy cap and gigantic glasses who wants nothing more than his sons to grow up to be “better than I am.” In early scenes, he’s portrayed as something of a schlemiel, choking pathetically on his drink at dinner, brown bubbles pouring from his mouth as his sons laugh wildly, or parading around the house singing into a potato masher as a way to wake Paul up for school. But mid-film, in an incredibly upsetting scene, a black-eyed Irving breaks down the bathroom door, The Shining–style, to beat a cowering Paul with a belt after he’s caught smoking pot at school. In a later monologue, exhausted and beaten down by a series of bleak moments, Irving gives Paul terrible advice about how to get ahead in the world, about seizing opportunities that rely on the downfall of people less fortunate than him.
After the screening, there was buzz that Strong’s performance was also a nod to Gray himself, with some calling it an uncanny Gray impression. I caught up with Strong at the Armageddon Time after-party, where he was surrounded by fans of the film, to ask him about it.
I’m seeing things online about you doing a James Gray impression, or channeling James Gray for the role. Was that part of it for you?
No, I certainly wasn’t doing an impression of James. I mean, I think it’s what’s on the page. Clearly it’s a very personal story of James, and there are a lot of autobiographical elements. The character is inspired by his father. So there’s a lot of that in there. And there is my grandfather, who was Jewish and was a plumber who lived in Queens. I used to live in his basement growing up in the summers. I was very close to him. There’s some of that in there. It’s impossible to — I don’t know what’s in there! It’s a mystery to me. It’s the amalgam of a lot of those things. But it’s really searingly off the page. Your job as an actor is to create a character who can say, “Go ahead, eat the meat.” That really has nothing to do with anything in real life. Like Stella Adler said, “You have to be as large as life.” And this is a large character. And that appeals to me, going out on the limb of that.
Can you tell me about the conversations you had early on with James about the character? How did he describe him to you?
He didn’t. It’s all on the page. James wasn’t interested in making a one-to-one ratio of Annie and I doing an impersonation of his parents. He didn’t want to share videos or any photographs. He was interested in us using our imagination and empathy and trying to find, in his words, the “most authentic possible expression of love” in this complicated family.
Irving has a lot of very dark moments. How did you perceive him?
I see him as someone who’s a product of the time he was brought up in. In a way, the brutality that he experienced … I see him as inept, really. I don’t see him as a malevolent character. I see him as a fallible man who is not equipped to be a great parent the way that we might understand that. His ineptitude when faced with extremity … I say that and it sounds like a judgment. I feel like, I love this character. I love him. And I think his struggle to be a good father — he’s trying to raise these kids in the best way that he knows how, in pursuit of what he believes is the American Dream. Which is a kind of success that he’s defined for himself. And his idea of Camelot in Queens. That line [about being “better than me”] is the essence of who he is. He’s not perfect as a father. But there’s also a tremendous amount of tenderness and goofiness and sort of professorial expertise. He’s a bit of a crooner and has a certain amount of brio. It’s a feast of a character.
Did it make you revisit and consider your relationship with your own father?
Sure. I think you have to. I did a tremendous amount of research and homework and detective work. It’s like the Nina Simone thing: “Don’t give ’em what they want, give ’em what they need.” And what this needed was a rendering of the man that this character was inspired by. So I had to find ways to find that out and make that alive. And own it. And set him free. As you can imagine, it’s so personal to James that it must have been a very challenging thing for him to allow — to set Annie and I free to embody his parents.
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