The second season of Succession ends with a bang for Jeremy Strong’s Kendall Roy, the troubled second son of a Murdoch-inspired media dynasty built by his imposing father, Logan, played by Brian Cox. Kendall has been selected by his father to become the family’s sacrificial lamb, as a crisis threatens to engulf the Waystar-Royco empire. “One meaningful skull to wave,” as Logan puts it, to protect the family’s control on the business. And, for Logan, Kendall has never had the cutthroat spirit to run the company, an admission he makes as he swings the hangman’s ax down on his own son’s neck.
But after two seasons and a lifetime living in the pillory Logan Roy has constructed to keep his own children in line, that final swing becomes the release that Kendall has longed for, even if he never knew it. At the press conference set up for him to admit culpability, Kendall rejects the statement prepared for him to deliver. “The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully and a liar,” he tells the assembled press. “And he was fully personally aware of these events for many years and made efforts to hide and cover up.” He pulls a set of index cards from his jacket pocket, and lays out the full truth, for perhaps the first time in his life. “This is the day his reign ends.”
“It’s an eleventh-hour buzzer-beater moment,” says Strong of Kendall’s electrifying press conference coup de grâce. “A somersault flip that has been a long time coming.”
In Kendall’s mind, one imagines, are those final words his father left him with. “You’re not a killer,” Logan told Kendall, before accidentally lighting the flame he had previously been tamping down. “You have to be a killer.”
But Kendall was a killer, in a very literal sense. At a wedding towards the end of the first season, he had slipped from his sobriety and been responsible for the death of a waiter in a car accident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, very quickly hushed up and tucked under the rug by his family’s frightening and unchecked power. Everyone had moved on, but Kendall could not. And on the verge of tears in that final conversation with his father, he had brought it up. Perhaps he deserved to be his family’s fall guy? “No,” Logan had assured him. “Don’t beat yourself up; no real person involved.”
It was an exchange folded into the script by creator Jesse Armstrong in one of its later drafts, after debating the scene with Strong. “We had a hammer, we had a trigger, and we were missing a firing pin,” Strong says. “I know my father’s a bastard, and I know he’s cruel. But I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen the gorgon head of his evil before, and I think that has a real effect. Despite the glaring evidence of my father being a false god, I have been worshipping at his altar for so long. I’m ready to be his sacrifice. But I think, in that moment, I finally see him for what he is.”
Strong often talks about Kendall like this; in the first-person, as though the character is as much a part of him as any memory he holds of his own life. It is not affectation. Strong’s approach to his work has always been to internalize and embody fully. Even before his acting career gained steam, he had worked with Daniel Day-Lewis, serving as his personal assistant on The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Later, they worked together in front of the camera, with art imitating life as Strong played John Nicolay, the private secretary to Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s eponymous biopic of the President.
Watching Day-Lewis’s work was a lesson to Strong about how to approach his own. “What I saw in him was a willingness to make a fool of himself on the day in front of the crew and the other actors so that he could really believe in the thing and commit to it,” Strong remembers. “I think commitment is a worthy goal; you have to leave everything else at the gate. I was 22 and it was a great privilege to get to witness that.”
He chuckles. “At the same time, he’d be so mad to know I’m sitting here talking about him as if that were something special. He is an actor who is endangering himself for love, I guess, like we all do, and I think part of what became difficult for him was the way in which it elevated him, or gave him some kind of special status in other people’s eyes. But between us, he’s an otherworldly force.”
‘Endangering’ is an apt choice of word, especially considering the emotional weight a character like Kendall Roy has been carrying around. The flipside of an all-in, method approach to acting is that it isn’t so easy to leave that weight on the soundstage at the end of a day. “I don’t know that acting in itself is the sanest or healthiest pursuit,” Strong says. “I was in a f**ked-up headspace, in a very intensely deadened place, for months on end, in a way that was difficult because that’s not my nature.”
But there was no avoiding it. “You have to really go there and give everything to it, and whatever it costs you is what it costs you. I don’t really believe in tempering things so that you can stay healthy, if what the character is experiencing is a form of hell. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the millions of people, potentially, who might experience something from the storytelling. That might be moved, or even have a cathartic experience, if you come from a real place and truly embody what the character is thinking.”
Still, despite the frequent opinions held about the irrationality of method performance—perhaps most famously (and perhaps most apocryphally), Laurence Olivier telling Dustin Hoffman, after a discussion of Hoffman’s method, “My dear boy, have you tried acting?”—Strong insists there’s a very clear line. He may try to lose himself in the characters he plays, but he is never truly lost. “For me, it is a game. You’re approximating something and trying to render it, but it does exist within lines on a court. I wish you could lose yourself in it completely—and there are moments within scenes in which you do, and that’s usually when it’s good—but I guess you bring yourself up to the ledge as best you can.”
He insists that he can step away from Kendall, and keep his creative and personal lives separate. But occupying the inner thoughts of a different person requires a bit of revving up and throttling down either side. He admires those actors who can switch their characters on and off like a light bulb. “Meryl Streep talks about that; pretending to the level of belief so she’s just there when they call action,” he says. “But, for whatever reason, my runway—my taxi and takeoff—is just a lot longer and there’s more in my way.”
There is no rehearsal built into the production of Succession that might allow him to get up to speed, but Strong is pleased about that. The discoveries you make in rehearsal, he says, are given added artifice when they’re reenacted for the camera. “You have to walk into a scene not knowing what’s going to happen. We get to work in this wonderfully dangerous way, but it gives us the possibility of capturing these real moments. A lot of the scenes between Brian and I are just the two of us getting into the ring together and going for it.”
But so much, he says, about being fighting fit in the moment revolves around the work he put into understanding the peculiar mindset of an entitled enfant terrible of a billionaire family. The Roy siblings all exist in a state of emotional immaturity, instilled in them by their privilege, and their parents’ detached approach.
“Kendall is full of these things that have been planted in him by his father’s abuse and his mother’s lack of nurture,” Strong reflects of Kendall’s urgency to please. “What’s so great about the writing is Jesse pulls from so many sources. So, of course, I read a lot about the Murdochs and thought a lot about what it must be like to be James and Lachlan, growing up at that breakfast table and having a father whose only language was commerce and strength, if that might not be your own native tongue. But I also think there’s elements of Biff in Death of a Salesman. And Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who has both an inflated sense of self and an abject insecurity. You imagine that tug of war is always going on inside of him, and so it does make me feel a lot of empathy for his struggle.”
Kendall’s triumphant press conference moment feels like it might be his most apposite chance to escape from his father’s rule and set his own destiny. But the final shot of the season rests on Logan’s face as his son tears up and discards those index cards that have just exploded his carefully controlled world. And, just before the episode cuts to black, a wry smile starts to form at the corner of Logan’s lips. He has finally seen his son become a killer.
After a lifetime spent chasing his father’s validation, that means all bets are off for Kendall Roy. “I don’t have the kind of relationship with my father that Kendall has with his,” says Strong. “But I do know what it’s like to have heroes and to not measure up to those heroes. That’s as much as I’ll say about that, but by inference, I’m sure you can understand what I mean… and what a powerful thing that is.”