Industry’s Ken Leung on Eric’s Moment of Decision

Photo: Nick Strasburg/HBO

Spoilers follow for “Jerusalem,” the season-two finale of Industry.

After spending most of Industry’s second season being screwed over by his protégés, CPS’s one-time trade daddy Eric used the season-two finale to take back a position of control, and he promptly rode that position hard and fast. “Jerusalem” flirts constantly with resetting the table, first making the audience think Harper, Eric, DVD, and Rishi might pull a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then transitioning into a Harper-Eric double act where DVD and Rishi look endangered, before ending with one final swerve when Eric saves Rishi and gets Harper fired for her lack of a college degree — a Chekhov’s gun that’s been on the table since the show’s first episode. After a season of lows, Eric ends on a high.

Or does he? The way the firing plays out doesn’t feel like an Eric win. “I’m doing this for you,” he tells Harper as they get off the elevator, and for once on this show someone looks like they mean it. Viewers don’t see him make the choice to cut Harper, but the last direct interaction we see between the two is when Harper calls him “Dad” over the phone in order to not tip off Rishi to the fact that Eric’s calling. Especially at the end of a season that foregrounded Eric’s private life, it feels possible that maybe he was doing it for Harper.

Ken Leung, who plays Eric, certainly thinks so. “At the end he does this protective thing,” he told Vulture. “It doesn’t seem protective, but it is.” In an attempt to process a season of constantly shifting dynamics, Vulture caught up with the actor to talk about Eric’s inner life, the value of his purple sweatshirt vs. his baseball bat, and what it was like filming Netflix’s upcoming Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series, in which Leung plays Zhao.

Konrad Kay and Mickey Down have said they didn’t write enough for you in season one. How has your relationship to Eric changed over the course of this season in which your character was written with more intentionality?
The first season was an intro — not only to the audience, but to us. Eric was a bold color. With season two, we went underneath. We started to meet these characters as people who are not “this color” or “that color,” but are a blend of many different things. It’s post-lockdown. Eric was not in his element working from home, and his numbers reflect that. He’s no longer this bold color; he is in this in-between place, trying to claw his way back to prominence.

That was all fun to play only because we had that first base of the bold color. You can’t go under something that you don’t build, so the building of the foundational stuff was great. The two seasons are so different and serve different purposes in the storytelling.

The boldest color on Eric is often anger. How do you approach Eric’s angry scenes?
I don’t have an overall plan. You take a scene and, for that moment, that scene is your whole world. On Industry, we were good at trying out different things. We would improvise and go, “What’s fun to try?” I remember last season, a big question was,What did you say to Felim’s wife?” That was so hard to answer for completely invisible reasons. It’s because of how we play: Sometimes I’d say, “You know what, I think I said this,” and I’d play that, sometimes I’d change it, and the next take I’d be like, “You know what, I don’t remember.” What’s great about that is it creates this layering. Even if I play the take so I don’t remember, having already played a take where I said a specific thing, a bit of that is in there.

When Eric reveals that he’s gotten Harper fired, we as the audience don’t get to see him make that choice. When the moment of the decision isn’t there, how do you approach acting around it?
For that scene, even though you don’t see me make that choice, you see how I feel about it. From that you can intuit the making of the choice. In the elevator, before they come out, he says, “I’m doing this for you.” In his mind, he doesn’t see it as a firing, he sees it as if he’s saving her … from jail, potentially.

The way good shows are made is that the audience plays a part. We give you these certain pieces and then you provide your own piece. That makes it a kind of two-way thing. I’m not showing you something and you’re sitting back folding your arms. Together we make the story.

How has your perception of Eric’s relationship with success changed over the course of this season?
Eric is a clawer, and he’s a creator of his own reality. His strength comes from saying, “This is the way it is because I say it’s the way it is.” He loses that in season two. He’s just lost his mentor who inspired him to have this “reality creator” mentality. Pieces are falling away. It’s like, How do I get back to the thing I do? Success becomes about survival.

There’s a very telling moment for me personally when Eric goes into the elevator and there’s Harper and DVD. I don’t think it’s obvious to the audience, but he has just come back from therapy. He doesn’t have to step into that elevator, he’s obviously in a state, but he does. He goes in with his crap and his messiness. He is being broken down and yet he is saying, No, fuck it, I gotta take the elevator. He’s damaged, but he’s still trying to stand tall.

One thing Industry is interested in, but that Eric hadn’t been involved with until this season when he cheats on his wife with his ex-girlfriend Holly, is sex. What did you learn about Eric through that new context?
Holly represents Eric at his peak, when he didn’t have these age issues. It comes from this place of wanting to get some of that mojo back. She, out of everybody in the whole season, still sees him as the old Eric that she knows. She gives him something nobody else gives him. He does it in such desperation and moral ambiguity that it reveals how lost he is.

Does it reveal anything about Eric’s relationship to Newman, his former mentor? 
In this weird way, it’s keeping a piece of him. Eric is so moved by seeing that office replicated that he’s trying to smell him in the hat. He’s trying to keep him alive.

Did Newman being a Trump supporter change how you looked at that relationship?
I don’t think so. Eric’s love of Newman didn’t have anything to do with his political beliefs. It’s a piece of him. When you’ve lost somebody, any piece of that person, you don’t judge that piece. It just happens to be a MAGA hat. Who cares?

One of the central tensions of Industry is it has the most diverse cast of any “big business” show, but the characters resist the idea of being positive representation.
In spite of themselves, those systems influence them. The very fact that Eric accepts Harper to mentor is because he sees something in her. There’s something about Asian men and Black women.

You’ve said before that they’re similarly marginalized.
I don’t know where I heard that, but something about it felt right. Unconsciously, maybe, that played a part in him taking her under his tutelage. I don’t know that there’s a place for the characters to overtly talk about that stuff, but it plays out in our behavior.

When Vulture talked to Jay Duplass about this season, he referred to Industry as a brutal experience.
[Laughs.] Undeniably brutal. I can see how one could say that. I don’t see it that way. When I play a part, I try to get into a certain headspace and I try to live there. With Industry, it helped that we were in Cardiff, which is industrial, cold, wet, often uncomfortable, and brutal. It wasn’t brutal in the sense of Oh, I wish I wasn’t here. It fed into this mindset. I like being in the zone. I like trying to be a new person for a while and then leaving it.

You talked recently about how you found playing Commander Zhao difficult on the new Avatar: The Last Airbender series, partly because you weren’t in it constantly.
Exactly! It was a scheduling thing, no creative reasons. It filmed in Vancouver, and I live in Brooklyn, and I have a little boy, so I would try to come back as often as possible. That meant that there were times when I shot for two or three days and then would have to leave for five or six months. It was this really kind of choppy experience. On top of that, I was playing a character that, if you’re not careful, can very easily cease to be a person. He’s not written as a person.

He’s a cartoon!
Right, he’s literally a cartoon. But we’re not making a cartoon, so you have to find the person in that. That made it very difficult.

What did you find within Zhao?
We’re in this fantastical world where you can kill the moon, and Zhao feels that there is a cosmic order that he is meant to be at the top of. Various bureaucratic things have failed him, and he is in this corner of the world waiting for that moment that he is, in his mind, cosmically promised. Then, out of nowhere, Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh show up on his doorstep, and he’s like, This is it.

So what you’re doing is taking the character to an emotional place that is fantastical but isn’t a cartoon?
Right. The thing about Avatar was, it’s so beloved. There’s a part of you that is like, I have to use that. I need to ask this huge fan base to be a part of this. Let’s investigate this character together. It’ll be interesting to see how people receive the crossover where we’re bringing in some reality.

Bringing it back to Industry, I’m curious: If you could only keep the baseball bat or the purple sweatshirt, which one?
That’s your question?

Baseball bat.

Why the baseball bat?
The baseball bat is a perfect metaphor for Eric. It’s the whole character in an object. It’s threatening, it’s scary, it’s out of place, and yet it can easily be broken.

Is that why you chose the wooden bat?
That’s exactly why I chose it. I was given a selection, and it was the only wooden one. The others were aluminum. I felt an organic relationship with the bat. The purple sweatshirt, I think people took to it because I look like a little boy in it on one hand, but on the other hand, you can see that it’s Eric in it, so that mash-up was fun to watch.

It was also so out of place on the trading floor. In the moment when he needed to be at his most intimidating, there was something about the confidence to look out of place that made it scarier.
Like putting one of those hats with the little propeller on it in a horror movie. That dichotomy was interesting for people, but the bat is deeper.

Did you feel a certain swagger walking around with the bat?
You can’t not. You play with it, you treat it like a weapon, and then you don’t think about it and you just have it. It’s like your partner. But the thing about the bat is, why do you need a bat unless you feel threatened? It’s very obvious when you think about it, but maybe sometimes it doesn’t seem that way because of his swagger. The swagger covers it up. But why do you need a threatening weapon unless you are afraid of being attacked? It’s very revealing.

It’s like the physical manifestation of a lot of his insecurities and his strengths.
But it’s a loud, hard strength. It’s a scary thing.

When you say “loud, hard strength,” I can’t help but wonder, When does Eric have a quiet strength? and I go back to that final scene again.
Yeah, it’s when he cares about somebody, maybe not entirely consciously. When he really cares about somebody, we see that.

Industry’s Ken Leung on Eric’s Moment of Decision