Jeremy Strong really loves acting. That much becomes clear as we settle in for a long conversation at the Madeline Hotel in Mountain Village, a few gondola stops away from the town of Telluride. Strong is in town for the North American premiere of his new film, Armageddon Timethe semi-autobiographical portrait from James Gray in which Strong brilliantly plays a wounded, angry, but loving version of the filmmaker’s father. He and I have just come from the festival’s annual filmmaker brunch, where Strong took in some stunning mountain views, and also a few breaths as he let his brief break from the Succession set settle in.
As we get to talking about his complex new film, despite the altitude and the rushing perhaps taking a little bit out of us, Strong proves immediately passionate, focused, playful in conversation. He’ll close his eyes for a few minutes as he gets lost in a memory. He’ll smile thinking about one scene that went especially well. And he’ll turn more serious, candid, and prepared as he talks about his past year, including going viral for a New Yorker It’s that he tells me felt like “a profound betrayal of trust.”
Vanity Fair: Have you been to Telluride before?
Jeremy Strong: No, it’s my first time.
So you were just at that gorgeous brunch.
That incredible panoramic view of the mountains, yeah. I was working until late Wednesday for season 4 [of Succession], then got on a plane and find myself here. It feels really different and special here as far as festivals go. The energy is different, there’s a feeling of community, it’s unencumbered by the same pressures that some of the other festivals seem to have. It feels like it’s really about the work. I’m pinching myself.
And you’re here for such a wonderful movie. It’s a tough movie—and I think your character, Irving, is a tough character, and key to why it works. We see him as physically abusive and withdrawn at times, but there’s also such a heart to the way you play him. How’d you find that—especially given the autobiographical roots of it for James?
It comes with a great responsibility for me. A lot of James’s work is about the relationship between fathers and sons, but this one most directly and acutely. It is tough. I always think that, as an actor, you have to find a way to get inside and empathize with a character’s struggle. This man in a way is drowning in his life. He is trying to be a father in the best way that he’s equipped to be, but he’s ill-equipped. There’s nothing malevolent about this character; if anything, there’s something ineffectual about him, uncomprehending. There’s something about that that really touches me. It’s something many people can relate to. I’m really interested in characters that are deeply flawed and deeply fallible. It’s their fallibility that makes them compelling to me, to figure out just viscerally what it’s like to be in that particular rock-and-hard-place that they’re in. It’s also a different time. There’s a different way of thinking of what’s appropriate in terms of child-rearing, so a lot of it is a misguided love expression.
There’s a scene in the bathroom, of course, where we see him particularly violent.
That was a hard day. At the end of the day, I went and got Annie [Hathaway] and I said, “Let’s bring James upstairs and give him a hug right now.” We’ve been through ritual, which drama is—we’re enacting abuse and cruelty that was inflicted on this child, and I know that was a difficult day for him, to be in a way retraumatized by it. It was very heavy. And yet I knew that James wanted to be unflinching about everything. I didn’t want to hold anything back from what I believed was the cruelty of some of those moments.
You did a kind of tour of Queens with James, right, to learn about his and his father’s world?
We visited the neighborhood and I asked him to take me to the Panorama at the Queens Museum, which I knew he’d been to a lot as a child with his grandfather. We went to a lot of significant places for him. And of course, I pried and pried and tried to interrogate him as much as I could about his father his —got a tape-recorder in his hand his. James doesn’t want the film to be autobiographical, in the sense of a one-to-one portrait. He wanted us to find the essence of what he had written. So much of it is in the page. But I also wanted to try and channel the man he had been writing about. I tried to do that in any way that I could. Whether that’s through photographs or hearing audio, which I was determined to do—
—The accent work is so specific.
Thank you. I felt like I was n’t ready to do this until my voice was his voice. Also, there’s a lot in the film unscripted. James is a great storyteller, and a great raconteur. He would tell me a lot of stories. I wanted to find out: What kind of jokes did he tell? What did he like, what did n’t he like? What was he interested in and fascinated by? By the time we started, we had a real reservoir of knowledge and understanding as much as we could of who he was. Then getting to the set to set that free. My job, in a way as the actor. You follow the line and have your instincts, and in some ways you have to double-down on those instincts. I remember Sean Penn telling me that, “As an actor, your job is to be a bodyguard for your character.” I find that to be true.