Talk to Ken Leung about the debut season of HBO’s soapy finance drama, Industry, and you realize there aren’t always easy answers when it comes to volatile managing director Eric Tao. When Leung asked showrunners Mickey Down and Konrad Kay why the bat-wielding banker who barks orders at subordinates is Asian American, they told him that he was based on a real person. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to get into it, and I didn’t really need to know much about this person,” he says about the bully boss who has become the just-renewed series’ fan favorite. “Knowing that you’re playing somebody inspired by somebody … starts your imagination going, Who is this guy? Oh, so when he’s this way, it must come from something,” he explains. “His callousness, maybe his showmanship, isn’t just a writer trying to splash a bright color onto a page.”
While Eric’s stock-in-trade is intimidation — he lashes out at his sales team for every infraction but has a soft spot for self-starter Harper (Myha’la Herrold) — Leung’s biggest concern was convincingly playing a master of the universe. “I know even less than the average Joe about finance,” he says with a laugh. “What a great thing to play. At some point, I let that stuff go and really just had fun with it.”
Though less bullish about getting into the fundamentals of Eric’s combustible behavior, he says his constant blowups could be the last gasps of a desperate man whose “old-school, world-domination mind-set” may soon be unwelcome in Pierpoint’s changing corporate culture. “From the first moment we meet him, he’s under assault [because] his dominance is being threatened by Sara (Priyanga Burford), the new president.”
Spoilers ahead for the season-one finale of Industry.
In the final episodes of season one, his wily protégé, Harper — with a big assist from VP Daria (Freya Mavor) — ultimately gets him fired for dressing her down in a locked conference room because she has revealed information about his ex-client Felim (Andrew Buchan). In a final twist, Harper double-crosses Daria, along with fellow grad Yasmin (Marisa Abela), to help orchestrate his return.
Leung says the Industry cast probably won’t return to Wales to film the new season until next summer. In the meantime, we asked him to weigh in on some of the series’ most high-stakes moments — and he may have channeled his character for some of his answers.
After Harper tells Eric that Daria knows why Felim left, he lowers the blinds, locks the conference-room door, and reams her out. She later tells Daria she was terrified, and we see her in tears. But she tells Sara that Eric may have locked the door absentmindedly. Does Eric realize how menacing he was?
Well, what do you think? What do you see? There’s no right or wrong answer.
It doesn’t matter what I see.
I could argue that it matters more what you see than what I see, as it’s for you.
Theoretically, she could have gotten up and walked out. We see that when Eric goes to unlock the door, he doesn’t remember he locked it. So maybe he also doesn’t understand how threatening he is?
Well, he needed to know what was being told. He needed to get a lay of the land, how much trouble he’s in. Hence the blinds, hence the door — the absentminded locking — the sitting down and being very firm with her, and also calling up how he’d done everything for her. Seemingly, she has screwed him over. So that’s where it came from.
This situation is unique in that Eric is not in a power position. He’s in a kind of desperate desperation that she’s never seen. Ordinarily, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He changes his clothes on the trading floor. Suddenly he cares a lot. He doesn’t want anybody to see. He doesn’t want anybody to walk in on them accidentally. So this is a new him. This is a case [for Harper] of, What’s with this boss that I thought I had? I can’t speak for her. But maybe that is part of why she stays.
It’s interesting that you don’t think he’s in the power position.
I mean, in the sense of — when you’re in a power position, you don’t have to lock yourself in a cave and do things in secret.
He then gives Harper her bonus early — which she learns is £25,000 more than the other grads got. When she asks Eric why now, he says she deserves it. She doesn’t seem convinced. Is he trying to apologize, trying to buy her silence for his abusive behavior?
Does that make watching it more enjoyable to know that? If I say he did it to apologize, is it like, Oh, okay, so I feel this about the show? I mean, what is it we’re getting at? So, yes.
We get to understand a little bit more about the character.
Well, if I said it was a little bit of this and that, do you still understand? Or is that confusing it more?
Daria suggests that Eric makes Harper feel special. Is that why she chooses him and the old-boys’-club mentality over Sara and Daria’s efforts to improve the bank’s culture? Is she acting against her own interests?
You would have to ask her. I mean, what you’re saying happened looks correct on the face of it. But, you know, from the first interview scene [between them], Eric has taken her under his wing and tried to give her a legitimate start in this crazy world. So I think one could say that she is paying him back for that. To say what she did is siding with the old boys’ club, I don’t know if that’s fair. She is saving him.
In the elevator, Harper asks him what he said to Felim to win him back. He laughs and says he has “no fucking idea.” Does he really not remember?
[Laughs.] I think there were times when he did and times when he didn’t. I don’t remember which take they used.
When the elevator door opens, Harper gets out and Eric stays behind and looks … perplexed, relieved? What’s going on for him at that moment?
This is the thing, Lisa: It’s not a math problem. So if I just tell you, it kills the scene. If I say, “Okay, this is what I did to prepare for this scene. This is how I played it. This is what it reminded me of. This is what I was playing in that moment” — it takes something from me that’s awkward to give [laughs]. I mean, it’s not — it’s inappropriate. So I don’t know how to answer that. There are times when I personally had in my mind what I had said and then all that changed when I had feelings about it, you know? … And then when I go to play the scene, I have a kind of soup of all this prep. Then, depending on which take they use — on some takes, I may be like, You know what? It’s this. I knew, and this is what I said. And then there were takes where I was like, Let me try really forgetting, really not knowing: I don’t know what it was, and it’s been bothering me this whole time. And fuck it — I have no idea. So let me play that. And then a year goes by and somebody asks me, “What were you thinking about in that moment?” I don’t know how to answer that.
When Eric discovers that Harper’s a college dropout, he tells her it’s important that he be able to trust her. Can she trust him now that they’ve been through this roller-coaster series of events? Are they now on equal footing?
The season ends with the tables kind of turning, right? Harper is in a place of power that she wasn’t in before. She’s like, “Put your phone away” [in the elevator] — something she would have never dared say to Eric. And, as you pointed out, when she leaves the elevator, he’s left feeling — we don’t know what. So the tables are turning. I don’t know where we go now. Anything is possible. A gauntlet is thrown when Daria is fired. Logically, Sara might be the next one in the crosshairs.
Eric knows that it was a close call. Does he go back to his old-boys’-club ways when he knows that change is coming? He’s a smart guy. How does he negotiate having survived this close call? I don’t know how that translates into “Can she trust him?” It depends on what the writers have in mind for them to go through. Eric survived the guillotine that cut off his tie, so anything can happen.
You’re not online, but if you were, you’d see that you’re the show fan favorite. What does that say about us as the audience?
People like loose cannons. They like to watch that. I have to say — Eric aside, for a second — the show in general really excelled in that kind of Anything can happen at any time [feeling] almost across the board. With Eric in particular, because he’s such a live wire, you want to keep watching because you don’t know what’s going to happen. When things do happen with Eric, they’re loud and kind of attention-getting. I think that’s what people are gravitating to. What’s the next crazy thing that he’s going to do?
Speaking of which, what’s with the epithet-filled repartee between him and his wife?
[Laughs heartily.] Hopefully we’ll see more of her in season two. She’s even more powerful than he is in her world. So they’re like this crazy power couple that, like, who knows? [Laughs.] Anything could be happening to them. Hopefully we’ll see more about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.