a long talk

Walking on the Moon

Succession’s Jeremy Strong on Kendall’s elusive moment of triumph — and what it has cost him.

“We see this character plugged into a certain kind of voltage, like an electrical socket, and I always found myself wishing that would be sustainable.” Photo: HBO
“We see this character plugged into a certain kind of voltage, like an electrical socket, and I always found myself wishing that would be sustainable.” Photo: HBO

Spoilers follow for Succession season four, episode six: “Living+.”

It’s the rare installment that ends on a note of triumph for Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong). “Living+,” the sixth episode of Succession’s fourth and final season, sees the co-CEO spearhead a scheme to artificially inflate Waystar Royco’s value, pricing it beyond the reach of arrogant tech billionaire Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). At the same time, he introduces the episode’s eponymous product — a housing development that would sound like a retirement home crossed with a pharmacy and social-media platform if Kendall didn’t do such an unexpectedly good job selling it to investors.

Strong has been reluctant to discuss the nuts and bolts of his performance with journalists this season. Whenever he does, he comes off like the embodiment of the stereotypical capital-A actor — a “cringe” person. He prolifically quotes literature, drama, and reportage and analyzes Kendall in the language of a therapist and literary scholar. “People have been making fun of me about it for as long as I can remember,” he told GQ. “I had an old girlfriend who used to call me Kierkegaard.” A 2021 New Yorker profile titled “Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke” depicted him as a pretentious social striver (Strong comes from a working-class background and had no preexisting industry connections) and quoted his co-star Brian Cox conceding that while Strong’s all-consuming identification with the tortured Roy failson got “tremendous” results, it embodied “a particularly American disease … this inability to separate yourself off while you’re doing the job.” In an HBO behind-the-scenes video about season four’s “Connor’s Wedding,” Strong described the death of Logan Roy as a storytelling choice that made sense “dramaturgically,” a statement that almost instantly got memed. “I’m a theater nerd, and it’s a theater-nerd word, so I stand by it,” he told Entertainment Tonight.

Strong agreed to cannonball into the deep end of theater-nerdom with Vulture, because he was so excited about portraying Kendall’s triumph. His passion came across not just in his analysis of the series, and his own decisions as a performer, but in the way he alternates between referring to the character as “I” and “Kendall” — sometimes within the space of a sentence. “Talking about this stuff is always slightly painful for me,” Strong said at the start of the conversation. “It’s hard to talk about my work without feeling a little bit ridiculous or self-important. But I really loved this episode. So let’s talk about it.”

I was on the edge of my seat thinking, Is Kendall going to fail again here? Were you similarly nervous when you read this episode’s script for the first time?
I got the script when we were shooting in Norway. I felt very concerned when I saw Kendall’s name on Logan’s note reanointing me as the incumbent. I was waiting for the writers to give me what felt like my best shot. Then through Norway, going to see Matsson, I felt that I capably handled that confrontation, although I did want to rip him apart limb from limb on that mountain top after he called me a “tribute band.”

In this one, the slingshot was pulled all the way back — the “moon shot,” I should say. I didn’t think Kendall was gonna fail. Jesse Armstrong and the writers do this very filigreed thing where Kendall’s grandiosity becomes an exercise in, as he said later in the episode, walking on the moon. He really takes it too far, which is something the character has often done: overshooting the mark. In this product launch, Kendall saw the opportunity to do something he thinks is visionary.

How does that reading of the script manifest itself in terms of your choices as an actor?
The first thing I did when I read the script was text the costume designer and the director from Norway and say, “I need a flight suit to wear for the product launch.”

[Laughs.] That was your contribution?
Yeah! I started doing some research, and there was this costume designer named Jose Fernandez who designed a flight suit for Elon Musk. It was a “Chief Twit” thing I wanted to embody. And I had read about Shari Redstone doing a ViacomCBS product launch where she rode in one of the Transformers cars. It was Bumblebee — this yellow car. I went off with costume designer Michelle Matland and designed the flight suit and put these patches on it — we wanted to make, like, a Maverick jacket, and that element really unlocked something for me. The way Lorene was shooting it, the Chief Twit almost felt like a Leni Riefenstahl thing.

Lorene Scafaria, the episode’s director.
I love her. I love her! The birthday-party episode and the wake episode have been my favorite things to work on. Episode three of this season was incredibly hard and deeply fulfilling. One of the things I love about this episode is that we see this character plugged into a certain kind of voltage, like an electrical socket, and I always found myself wishing that would be sustainable.

I didn’t feel that any of Kendall’s ideas were wrong or unacceptable. There just wasn’t sufficient time to implement them. Kendall walking through a prototype house with cottonlike clouds overhead, like he’s the star of some 1950s TV special, is actually a fun idea but not one you can pull off in 12 hours.
Right! Similar to the beginning of season three, where Kendall says, “The Juice is loose,” this episode created a feeling of the character being unbound. In his mental health, Kendall has extreme highs and lows. There is a manic quality sometimes.

He’s a pinball in a pinball machine.
Yes. I start the season telling my sister, “I’m done now.” He says he needs something super fucking absorbing in his life — he has smoked heroin and he needs Eiger to climb. At that point, it’s gonna be The Hundred. But the moment that call to adventure comes again in the form of his father’s final letter, it regalvanizes and reignites that same old drive his character had from the beginning — in the sense of that old Greek idea that character is fate. We’re seeing that play out: He gets a chance to implement what it would be like if he was running the company.

And, like Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, as long as he’s way up there laughing and keeping it up, he’s gonna stay floating on the ceiling. So the product launch was this sense of “I’m gonna keep a thousand plates spinning” — the tightrope over the abyss.

Maybe, all this time, Kendall just needed an interpreter. He’s speaking his own language. Nobody else on the show talks the way he does. 
That’s true. And he’s an enthusiast. He gets excited about these things. We shot a lot more than ended up in the episode. One other thing we discussed was this translucent, polycarbonate sun that James Turrell was going to design. There were going to be birdsongs. We got into the details of what kind of brickwork there would be. When Kendall finally gets a chance to deliver, he answers that call — and often over-delivers or under-delivers. But I felt that he met this particular moment.

What I found slightly terrifying about this episode was when Kendall is saying to his brother that you lose your faith in capitalism when you realize you can just say anything. It’s very funny and very scary. And the manipulation of his father’s voice to lie to the shareholders is Kendall showing an extreme moral flexibility to get the job done. I think he feels like possession is nine-tenths of the law. He wants to hold on to what he has.

“He gets a chance to implement what it would be like if he was running the company.” Photo: David M. Russell/David M. Russell

He laid claim to his father’s image — and to his ghost, in a way. The episode opens with Kendall watching footage of his father. Even if he’s not consciously deciding what he’ll do with it, something is percolating in his mind. He didn’t get the dream house he wanted to walk through, and the clouds were all wrong, but he takes that footage and creates something much more impressive: a public dialogue with his father. The effect is strangely like Hamlet talking to his father’s ghost on the parapet — except it’s a manufactured encounter. And I got the feeling that other people within the fiction were watching that moment and thinking, Uh, you know, that kind of works.
You mean the investors?

And the old guard and his siblings. 
I think you’re right. Maybe Jesse always intended for Kendall, when he gets to the point where he has to land the plane in terms of this product, to have the final statement be “What would I give to have more time with my dad?” To go to a very real emotional place.

Like Don Draper making people cry during the Carousel presentation.

He’s cynically using the stuff that’s vexing him, but he means it.
He is cynically using — and in a mercenary way, even weaponizing — this loss. And monetizing his grief. For business.

Isn’t that what his dad would have wanted?
That’s right! Jess and I talked about Richard III, how this season is that line: “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous.” He’s taking a play out of his father’s book. What Kendall says to his brother in Norway is “Dad would have done whatever the fuck he wanted.” So I feel heady and empowered. It’s not often that Kendall feels that sense of self-possession, largess, and grandiosity. I felt it in Scotland with the “L to the OG.” And I felt it at the beginning of the birthday party, before I crashed and burned and plummeted to some very painful depths. But in this one, I got to stay up there!

I was listening to this Kanye West track, “Moon,” for most of the episode. There’s a refrain: “I want to go to the moon.” It’s a beautiful song. The whole thing — the flight suit, the big swing of it, the sense that Kendall had of being airborne. I think Kendall felt this sense on investor day of If only my dad could see me. And he created this scenario in which his father, or a simulacrum of his father, could see him, and he’d have this audience in his fingertips and demonstrate just how equipped and capable he actually is of being Kendall Logan Roy.

He does bear his father’s middle name!
And that has been both the gift and the curse the character has grappled with for the whole series. This is the episode where he finally lives up to the crushing burden of that legacy. And that’s why this feels, more than any episode so far, like the closest the character has flown to the sun.

There is a real sense of triumph the character experiences — one that has eluded him to this point. I don’t think I’ve ever felt triumphant in this series. It has always been about not meeting the moment — or missing the moment. And while that triumphant moment in this episode might seem delusive from the outside, Kendall feels like he knocked it out of the park.

Is the real problem that Kendall was supposed to be an artist? You don’t see any of the other characters passionately and creatively engaging with art the way he does. Or listening to songs and quoting lyrics. 
Interesting. He does really listen to the lyrics of songs.

He even gets up in front of hundreds of people and raps.
Kendall would love to have heard you say all that. I remember this anecdote from a book by Michael Wolff about being around a table reading broadsheet newspapers — this idea of a family that spoke the language of commerce and strength. What would it be like to be in that family if that wasn’t your native language? That always stayed with me. Kendall has a sensitivity and a fragility. When Sarah Snook (as Shiv) says, “He’s got that gleam in his eye,” I find it so concerning.

What does it feel like to play that kind of moment? The gleaming?
There’s this thing called a Seabob. It’s like a jet pack you ride on in the water. You hold on to it and point the nose of it down. It takes you down under the water, it goes really fast, and you use your body to turn it. I’ve sometimes felt that I would go into this jet pack with Kendall. It always felt like it was going down and down somewhere. It’s not going to lead him to some kind of clearing. Whatever these moments of triumph are, they are inevitably followed by “behind every silver lining, there’s a thundercloud.”

I remember reading in Anton Chekhov’s letters, “Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you who you are.” Kendall told us what he wanted from the first episode of the first season. The show has explored the ways the thing he wants shapes, misshapes, and deforms him. What is amazing and painful about episode six is that he’s sort of lost. When they’re watching him and I say, “Big shoes,” and they say, “Big hat, big nervous breakdown,” they’re not entirely wrong. When Roman comes into the dressing room and says, basically, “I’m not gonna do this with you,” I love that scene. We see the antics — the charismatic, propulsive thing — fall away for a moment. And the character … I mean, we’re talking about addiction, right?

The thing that is right beneath the surface all the time is a terrible quicksand that could take him under at every moment. When he says, “I need something absorbent in my life,” that he needs an Eiger to climb, he means he needs something that will allow him to be above and to ward off the whirlpool, the vortex, of his addiction and even, in a sense, his suicidality. That’s where my mind would often go when it felt like the way forward or the way up was blocked. There’s nowhere else for him to go. He needs to succeed in his objective.

And it costs him. Terribly.
We see this very gradually, the erosion, over the course of four seasons. Whatever his principles or moral code might be, the line in the sand gets redrawn and redrawn to the point where, when he gets the objective (or when he feels that he might get it), I’m not sure how much of him will be left.

That’s Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies.
And that’s the tragedy this show is. We talked about The Godfather a lot at the beginning. Jesse and Mark Mylod said this was a show about family trauma. And while it is a wickedly funny satire — so funny that it hurts — on late-stage capitalism, for me as Kendall, it mainly just hurts.

They’re all processing and dealing with the loss of their father in different ways. They structured the ending of season one as this bear-hug letter, this attempted coup that ended in an actual bear hug between my father and me. There’s something about this launch of the new Kendall that is connected to, as you say, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Kendall is still tethered to his father.

The accident that reconnects him to his father at the end of season one plunges him into water, from which he emerges. The incident happens at night, in the rain, so it’s a satanic rebirth almost.
Yeah! That’s right.

The new Kendall might have been born in that accident, but it takes him a while to mature. We perhaps see the final maturation of the reborn Kendall in the product-launch scene.
And I think he does fill those big shoes. He’s very aware of what he’s doing if he pushes the number above 193, making the deal impossible for Matsson. There’s all kinds of skullduggery involved in creating a media empire, and this is something his father would have done: “Let’s Hollywood this thing, dress it up, and find a way to present it, because then it will become a self-fulfilling thing and the end will justify the means.” There is a ruthless pragmatism — an amoral pragmatism — that Kendall exhibits here that proves he is his father’s son.

And to take it back to The Godfather again, it’s that moment when Michael is sitting in a chair with his jaw wired shut after corrupt policeman Mark McCluskey, who’s on the payroll of his family’s mortal enemy Virgil Sollozzo, beats him up. He asks the others in the room, “Where does it say that you can’t kill a cop?”
That’s right! And there’s another moment I think of from the first Godfather, where Michael comes home after his first wife has been blown up in a car. That’s like that satanic birth you talk about, where Kendall comes up out of the water. He has suffered an irrevocable loss of a piece of himself. Of a piece of his humanity.

And it’s retaliation for Michael killing Sollozzo and McCluskey. When he killed them, he killed his future wife, too, and he hadn’t even met her yet.
It’s like Oscar Wilde said: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”​​ You cauterize a piece of yourself in order to enable another part of yourself to achieve its aim. There’s a point where I say my father was essentially a machine for the completion of aims. That is something Kendall has as well. And the amorality that led his father to say “No real person involved” is now extant in him.

Perhaps you could even say that Kendall becomes his father — even though he certainly doesn’t realize it yet — when he emerges from that brackish water. Because surviving that means embracing an individual, personalized version of that evil phrase, “No real person involved.” The other person’s death will be disappeared and forgotten for the good of the company.
What is so painful for Kendall in the aftermath of that event is that he doesn’t leave there forgetting or disappearing that person. He does feel that there was a real person involved. But he gets to a point where there’s a look in his eyes at the end of episode four of season four with Hugo …

“But no fingerprints.”
I hadn’t seen that before in Kendall. Jesse’s feeling was that at a certain point, enough time will have passed for Kendall to wake up one day having accommodated himself to what happened — it will no longer be a spike in his heart. I can’t point to the moment when it happened, but it became “No real person involved” for Kendall. You will see, as this season progresses, that there is more. It’s that slow leakage of his humanity that is very Michael Corleone.

But the bombast and grandiosity that you see in the back of the car in the first episode of the first season with the Beastie Boys — I loved rediscovering that. It’s like Tom Cruise on an aircraft carrier in Top Gun. I made a Maverick jacket! That’s what Kendall wanted that moment to be. Then there’s Kendall at the end of this episode going into the water again. Season one ended with Kendall coming out of the water at night. Season two began with him in a bath in Iceland.

For the episode about Kendall’s birthday, he chooses a place where there’s lots of water falling or pooling.
Yeah! I also think about Italy — in the pool.

“Jesse writes that it’s both as if the world is off its axis and the unimaginable thing happened, and at the same time, the character is free and he feels, in this moment, like a wraith — or a superbeing.” Photo: HBO

At the moment with the raft near the end of season three, he seemed so defeated that some viewers speculated Kendall might have killed himself. And here we see him at the end of this episode in the water again. But he’s on his back floating. There’s no danger.
There was a sense of elation because of the product launch going well. We shot at Zuma Beach in Malibu. There were big swells that day. Kendall is always somebody who is up against these big waves coming at him. He has had to go through more than anyone. I loved the metaphor of that.

I wish I could read you what Jesse wrote — I can’t quote it exactly, because I don’t have the script with me — for the stage directions in the moment where I find out my father has died and I’m standing up there on the deck of the boat. Jesse writes that it’s both as if the world is off its axis and the unimaginable thing happened, and at the same time, the character is free and he feels, in this moment, like a wraith — or a superbeing.

This episode is where I got to put that into practice. The wraith and the superbeing are both in there. The superbeing is what we see coming to the forefront here, but the wraith is waiting in the wings, hiding in plain sight at all times, to pull him down. The superbeing feels that. And at the end of the episode, when I shot it, it was going into these big swells, but there was a feeling of invincibility that I had as Kendall — just taking on these waves.

There were moments in the episodes following Logan’s death when Kendall was exercising a tactical restraint that was unusual for him. In the confrontation between Roman and Matsson on the mountaintop, Kendall doesn’t move to rein in his brother — nor does he join him. He just lets it all play out. And on the way out of that scene, it looks to me like Kendall is walking differently. He seems heavier and more solid, more deliberate.
There is an inner shift, and maybe that manifests itself physically — as these things do (not in a conscious way). We see growth in Kendall as a strategist and a tactician. In the beginning, I read Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War, because I think Kendall would have been into that, that it might have been something Logan might have given to him. There is an operant thing there: Let this play out. Don’t show your hand. Let Matsson self-destruct. I don’t think I should restrain or intervene, because my brother is having a release he needs to have. Also, as at loggerheads as we are at certain points, Kendall is ultimately on Roman’s side. In that scene where my father hits my brother, that self-protective older brother comes into play, and you see that I want to put my father’s head through a wall. It feels like a dangerous and potentially foolish thing my brother does on the mountain, but I think he is correct. He says to Matsson, “This is just a tactic.” All is fair in love and war. But Kendall is not as unhinged as we’ve seen him in the past. He’s in a position of power and strength.

And it’s not him in this episode firing people just to prove he can do it. That’s Roman.
Kendall feels that, finally, his kingdom has come.

In the episode where they read Logan’s handwritten addenda to his will, the show never answers the question of whether the disputed mark on the page was an underline or a strike-through. What was your opinion? What was Kendall feeling when he first looked at the document? 
What went through me was the seesaw of “Is this real, Frank?” When Frank said my father had named me as his successor, it was like a bolt went through me — a bolt of old, powerful, dangerous electrical current of the highest voltage. Because in a way, at that point, I wanted to get out. I had been in abeyance in terms of taking a back seat to my brother and sister. I was passive in the first few episodes of this season — succeeding my father, inheriting the kingdom, was no longer my endgame. Then an old, deep need and craving returned.

I asked not to see that piece of paper until we were shooting the scene. I think my initial reaction was like that of most viewers: I wanted to believe my name was underlined, but I felt anguish at the thought that it had actually been crossed out, then a double anguish at the realization that I would never know the answer. If my father had actually wanted it to be me, maybe we could have sat down and had a conversation. That means he made me hate him, then he died — that would be a devastating thing for me. It would be easier if my name had been crossed out. But my life made sense if it was underlined. It would have meant there was still hope for me to attain the full personhood I’d always wanted to attain — and that I hoped my father wanted me to attain. I don’t know which is worse, knowing that he wanted this for me and not being able to hear him say it or feeling that I’d been crossed out — a vote of no confidence.

I can see from the way you play this guy that you’re feeling it. I know some actors are able to compartmentalize, to go home from set and have a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep. But you don’t strike me as one of those actors. Do you ever feel like, Oh my God, maybe this is bad for my health?
When we were doing it, I don’t think I could have done it any other way. I just am that way. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I have to take it all on. I can’t escape it. It’s a responsibility that I personally feel is sacred. We’re water carriers as actors. I have to carry that water. And yeah, I think reaching a state of conviction and, as you say, feeling it — you’re not always able to experience everything they’re experiencing, but the dream is to try to have something like that experience, in a “felt” way, and try to embody the character’s experience. I did feel the emotional whiplash and gyroscoping of this character.

There’s something about this character, at least in my hands — if somebody else played him, it would’ve been different — that is quite sincere. He’s sincere. So I’m always struck when people talk about how cringeworthy Kendall is. There is something difficult about feeling as exposed and open as I can possibly be in service of this character.

You’re not protecting yourself.
No. No. No! And I don’t think I should.

Sometimes when Kendall is in pain, it looks to me like you’re in pain. And at those moments — for instance, in the aftermath of the death of the waiter — I actually had this thought: I hope he’s okay. Meaning you, the actor. I know it’s just make-believe, but …
See, I don’t think it is make-believe. I think the reason you feel my character is in pain is because I am in pain. I was in pain. I had to be in pain on a cellular level so that it might be transmitted to the audience in a palpable way. Without words even. And there’s a lot of work that goes into doing that. Episode three of this season was about dealing with events and experiences in human life that are as extreme as it gets: death and the suddenness of grief and being overtaken by it and the incalculable, gaping feelings of loss and howling pain. There’s no way to do that right and shortchange yourself or protect yourself. Not for me. It’s serious business. It’s serious work.

I went to see Raging Bull at Film Forum the other day. First of all, my God, what a film. Those performances! And Robert De Niro’s performance! But mostly, I thought, This is a film about self-destruction and a man who’s destroying himself, and I am watching someone, the actor, go through something difficult in order to make that come alive for all of us. That’s the altar I’m trying to make offerings on.

What do you think about that phrase I often hear in discussions among actors? “The body doesn’t know you’re acting.”
I actually don’t know that one. Unpack that for me?

If you cry your eyes out for ten straight takes, your body doesn’t think, It’s okay, that wasn’t really crying. It takes something out of you, right? You’re still crying.
Part of what makes it meaningful for me is entering into it fully, trying to invest in it, and trying to commit to the reality of the imaginary circumstances and live in them. The gamut this show has allowed me to go through — or the gauntlet, maybe, I should say — is as incredible and staggering a journey as anyone could ever hope for as an actor.

When you describe acting as sacred, it reminds me of my favorite quote from David Mamet’s acting book True and False
[Strong grins as he pantomimes jabbing a stake through his own heart.]

Yes! “Actors used to be buried at a crossroads …”
“… with a stake through the heart.”

I love that you memorized that quote. And I hate it when people describe moments when Kendall is at his most pathetic, or your discussions of your own process in interviews, as “cringe.” 
I hate it too. The great, late Philip Seymour Hoffman said that you have to take your “cool suit” off, and he was right.

I read something recently that differentiated between self-presentation and self-disclosure. The kind of work I’m interested in is disclosure, not presentation. I hate the word cringe, because it denotes a judgment. I’m not in the business of judging. We, as a culture, would be a lot better off if we judged a little less and empathized more. But certainly, as an actor, you cannot judge your character. You cannot be above them. You have to find a way to connect with them. If you can do that in an unprotected way and the response is “That’s cringe,” well, fuck it: I’m not gonna stop doing it. And if just one person passes me on the street and says, “Thank you. I felt that,” it means I did my job. I served the thing, and I’m content.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Walking on the Moon