> ‘Succession’ Star Jeremy Strong and Adam McKay on ‘Too Much Birthday’

‘Succession’ Star Jeremy Strong and Adam McKay on ‘Too Much Birthday’

Jeremy Strong has been commuting this August between the New York City set of “Succession” Season 4 to Sagaponack, a village in the Hamptons where his family is staying. During a Zoom conversation with Strong, Adam McKay — the executive producer (and pilot director) of the HBO show — couldn’t help commenting that summering in the Hamptons is a very Kendall Roy thing to do.

“Is it weird driving around?” McKay asked. Breaking into a wry smile, Strong replied, “Let’s just call it research.”

Strong’s Kendall began the third season of “Succession” on top of the world. His attempted coup to seize control of Waystar Royco from Logan (Brian Cox) — the cruel father who would have sent Kendall to prison in a “blood sacrifice” to pay for the company’s sins — looked promising, if not inevitable. Yet as the season went on, Kendall’s triumph ebbed, and Logan once again shored up his power, especially among the rest of the family.

Lazy loaded image

Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin).
Courtesy of Macall Polay/HBO

By the time his 40th birthday arrived in Episode 7 — titled “Too Much Birthday” — the Kendall we see is at both his most blustery and at his neediest: He’s an open wound trying to find the fun in an indulgently expensive, self-referential party filled with an A-list of strangers. At the start of “Too Much Birthday,” we see him rehearsing a planned performance of Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” which he intended to sing for his guests; by the party’s end, he’s lying in the lap of his girlfriend Naomi (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), wrapped in a He-Man blanket reminiscent of his childhood, utterly broken.

“You’re a guy who’s really wounded, and traumatized in a very real way,” McKay said to Strong about Kendall, while adding that the character is “getting destroyed by capitalism — which is his father.”

Strong won the Emmy for best actor in a drama in 2020, and is once again a favorite in the category. “Succession,” which was created by Jesse Armstrong, received 25 nominations from TV Academy voters on July 12, leading all series. Strong’s conversation with McKay, who also directed him in “The Big Short,” was observed by Variety, and served to illuminate the actor’s immersive approach to Kendall.

In an hourlong back-and-forth, Strong and McKay delved into “Too Much Birthday,” with Strong revealing how the scene of Kendall’s desperate search for his kids’ gift came about, how the character’s suicidality hit him as he was filming — and whether he thinks Kendall is doomed.

ADAM McKAY: I have gone on and on about this episode — I couldn’t shake it for weeks after I saw it. It broke my heart. I felt like it was a level of emptiness, and pain: And once again, which is what’s so great about this show, very funny at times. I mean, Lorene Scafaria is the director, who I love—

JEREMY STRONG: Me too.

McKAY: Lorene’s a person who’s brilliantly funny, but also gets the tectonic plates that are moving around. But holy crap. The ending of that episode, I’ll never — in fact, I’m talking about it now and I start to get that feeling.

You knew it was coming. I know you went back and forth with Jesse. And one of the things I love about you when we’ve worked together is you’re so voracious and rigorous, and I love it. You and I, when we did “The Big Short,” and even putting this show together, we always have a lot of fun, because we just go back and forth with each other. And all of your thoughts and ideas always come from a very genuine place. Which, to me, is why I do this kind of work. So you know this episode is coming up; it’s the birthday party episode. Tell me what you’re thinking. Tell me, emotionally, how you’re prepping.

STRONG: I knew it was coming. Season 3 sort of started with this kind of rebirth that was a bit of a false positive in the sense of there’s a sense of Kendall being airborne. And I thought a lot about Uncle Albert from “Mary Poppins” — the laughing, floating guy, trying to keep up this positivity that is really a desperate dance over an abyss. And I knew that the birthday party, which was originally titled, I think, “The Worst Birthday Ever” —

McKAY: By the way, can I say? I think it might be! “The Celebration,” that great movie, is not a birthday party.

STRONG: No, exactly. And you know what? That’s actually one of the first things we talked about when we talked about this — was Vinterberg’s film. But I knew it was going to have the genome of the whole season in this one episode in terms of Kendall’s arc. For me, this season goes from the “Juice Is Loose” in the first episode to “I’m Blown into a Million Pieces” in the final episode. And somehow in microcosm — and this was really incredible as an actor opening a script, to see that arc played out in miniature, but in fullness — in the course of one episode of television.

Going from those two end points, and trying to go through that ordeal and earn it so that it really starts out with this real need and belief for him that it’s going to be the best birthday ever. He thinks it’s going to be this pinnacle moment of his life, but turns into, as you say, one of the most empty — it turns into the nadir of his life. And I found it incredibly sad and painful to do, but I was very invested.

McKAY: The tragedy of that episode is that you’re right. The beginning of that season is Kendall made the right choice. Kendall did the right thing. And now, he doesn’t know how to be a good person. He has none of the skills to love himself.

STRONG: No.

McKAY: What’s so heartbreaking about it is he wants to be that. And oh my God, I’m going to make myself tear up. He really wants to do it! He wants to not be his dad. He had this moment where he took this brave stand, and he flipped it on his dad. Now, that wasn’t entirely out of being a good person. Part of it was this weird Cronus relationship with his father: And you’ve got to kill the God to be the God.

But he can feel it. He kind of did the right thing. And he doesn’t know the next dance step. And oh my God, is it painful to watch.

STRONG: In a way, this show is about legacy. But it’s also about the legacy of trauma and emotional abuse. And in a way, these people in this family, they’ve internalized a kind of abuse that they enact on themselves. And they might have grown up with the externals of power and the trappings of power, but nothing was ever instilled in them that gave them any sense of personal value or self-esteem. Or real power.

There’s this beautiful pendant that this incredible artist, Rashid Johnson, made based on a series of paintings that he did call the Anxious Man paintings that I wanted to wear for it. And this DJ in LA, named Myles Hendrik, put together an incredible playlist that I had going all the time. And the Gucci bomber jackets and all that stuff, I was really interested in. And I guess also, the emotional architecture of the episode.

One of the things that really I find astonishing about Jesse Armstrong is the way some of these scripts evolve. He’ll have these emotional lock-pick moments during rewrites, often after a table read, where I’ll have this feeling like there might be more there to mine. But then invariably, because Jesse’s so much smarter than I am, he’s so many steps ahead. And he will come back with a draft, which he did in this case, which was the whole storyline of my kids bringing me a gift.

 

Lazy loaded image

Kendall before the party.
Courtesy of Macall Polay/HBO

McKAY: You looking for the gift from the kids, and then the girlfriend giving you the watch, is one of the most — I mean, it was like I was punched right in the stomach. I still think about that moment. That was something that was added after the table read?

STRONG: None of that was in the original drafts. Something about the table read draft made me think of “American Buffalo,” which is a play that I really love. And we ended up talking about that scene at the end of “Buffalo” where Teach trashes the junk shop. And he’s pulling shelves down and saying: “The world is lies. The world is lies.” And it’s so gutting. I hoped emotionally for some event or some ordeal like that. And then, Jesse discovered Rosebud. I felt this was Rosebud.

McKAY: It’s worse than Rosebud in a way. Because that character, at least, had Rosebud. That character got to play on Rosebud. I don’t feel you ever really have — Kendall, I’m sorry. That Kendall has never really even had the joy of five, six years of Rosebud.

STRONG: You’re right. No, he didn’t have that. A lot of text was actually cut from the episode. I sit in that pile, surrounded by all these Hermes gifts and a Ducati and John Derian plates, and all kinds of stuff. And the detritus of it. And the only meaningful thing being whatever my kids have made me wrapped in this rabbit wrapping paper. And there was even a line to Naomi about, “Basically, you’re the only person in the world who gives a shit about me at all. And you gave me this generic watch.”

McKAY: Oh, the watch! The watch. Jeremy, so I’ve got to ask you this, just because I’ve done some acting, but I’ve never even come close to the level you’re doing it. How long before you filmed that episode are you kicking around the feelings of looking for the kids’ presents and then getting that watch?

STRONG: It’s an interesting question, because whatever gets kicked around — and maybe it’s like this when you’re writing something — it’s almost happening in the dark room of your own unconscious. I don’t sit down and map out any of it. I sit with the script endlessly, just trying to absorb it and read it and read it and read it and read it, until it feels like it’s in my organs.

And then, there’s this leap of faith, I guess, that it will be met with some understanding in my unconscious. There is a scaffolding that I work hard on setting up. Like, I was sending Lorene sketches of what I hoped the gift pile might be like — originally, there were not going to be that many presents there. And I wanted it to feel like “The Princess and the Pea,” or whatever — like, a giant pile that he’s almost lost in. And to be able to really rummage through it, and not perform rummaging through it. Really look for this thing, and really be unable to find it. And we did hide it in there. And I couldn’t find it.

Lazy loaded image

Naomi (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) and Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
Courtesy of Macall Polay/HBO

McKAY: Oh, wow. It was in the pile?

STRONG: Yeah. Somewhere, somewhere.

I care so much about this person; and he’s a person to me. Like, he’s not a character. The empathy, and trying to enter into that and inhabit it and live through his circumstances — it actually just lands on me, probably because of the writing. And then it all comes out.

What was interesting about that gift pile scene is there’s a line in the text where he says, “I wish I was…,” and then there’s an ellipses: “I wish I was home.” And I didn’t know this working on it, but when I got to the day — well, it’s hard to talk about. When I got to the day, in that moment, I realized that the word that he was going to say was another word. And that had a big effect. That had a big effect on me in that moment.

McKAY: Oooh. Did you ever tell anyone that word, or was that just for you?

STRONG: Well, I mean, I think he just wants it all to be over: “I wish I was…”

McKAY: Oh, I see. I see. Wow. Yeah.

Kendall is a guy who’s just — you know, he’s like a cowboy who’s gut-shot and is dying over the course of five days. I know from the beginning days of this show when Jesse had written the pilot and we were discussing it, you were always the character that had a chance. Kendall is really in the balance; there is a chance that Kendall could step away.

Tell me about your feelings about Kendall in that regard. Are you so in the moment you’re never thinking in these terms? For you as an actor, do you feel like Kendall has a chance, or do you feel like he’s pretty much doomed?

STRONG: Well, I certainly don’t feel that he’s doomed. I think a lot about the emotional architecture of the whole thing, and then on the day, you can only purely be in the moment because you can’t act an idea or a theme.

But I don’t think he’s doomed. I do find myself often in the balance. It is Greek: Can you escape your fate? Character is fate. Like, I’m not sure that Kendall can escape this family. And I think this character keeps being thrust back upon himself because things again and again don’t work out, or he falls short of the mark, or he misses the mark again and again and again and again. And I think I’m still very much in that struggle, but that’s also what makes it so compelling to me. It’s why I’m so engaged in it, because it feels like the stakes are so high. I mean, that gift room, it feels Biblical. It’s like: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”

Which is also kind of what the show is about.

McKAY: I’m always amazed by how impoverished Kendall seems. Like, it’s amazing that you get so used to the cars and planes and boats — and this is one of the things I love about the show: The grotesque wealth really is depressing. I say that fully aware that there are people that can barely afford their rent; I’m not talking about wealth in that regard.

STRONG: I understand. Yeah, of course not. No, no, it turns to ash. Again, the only thing that is alive is this gift that his kids made, but he’s lived his life in a way that he’s no longer even connected to them, to that lifeline. And everybody’s there at his party, like Jeff is there and Elon is there, and everybody’s there. She goes through the list, and they name all those people, and he’s hoping that that will fill the sense of lack in him.

But of course it doesn’t. And that’s a very — well, that’s probably an eternal tragedy, but it’s also a very modern thing. We feel like stuff will fix things.

Lazy loaded image

Left, Jeremy Strong; right, Adam McKay.
Getty Images

McKAY: But also, it is what Kendall was raised to be. This is just us talking; the writers are the writers: But just as far as your feelings, what do you think happiness would be for Kendall?

STRONG: It’s why the central dilemma of this character is so powerful to me. Happiness resides outside of himself, in the sense that I think if he were to get a certain kind of response from his father that looked at him with love and value. I think he feels like if his father could see him and value him, that he might be able to feel that way about himself. But that’s a real problem, because I don’t know that he’s going to get that. And I don’t think going to Hydra and hanging out on a Grecian isle with Naomi would’ve made him happy.

I do think possibly running Waystar, because that is connected to his life force, his ambition, what he’s been raised to do — I think in a way, that might be what the picture of a fulfilled life for him would be. But I don’t know, Adam. I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

There was a scene in the birthday party that we cut. We spent a long time picking out this He-Man blanket, and there was a crib in one of the many rooms at the birthday. And I put this sort of shitty, very ratty raccoon that was my childhood raccoon doll, Ralph the raccoon, in this crib, and walked over to the crib wearing the blanket around me. And it was this sort of regressed moment. But I guess what I’m saying is it kind of was a Rosebud. Like, whatever happiness might have existed was in his past, and he’s trying to recover it that night. And he can’t.

McKAY: The whole episode feels that way. I mean, the whole episode feels like Kendall has taken his psyche and cut it up like a jigsaw puzzle and is trying to put it together in a different shape.

STRONG: Honestly, I’m going to look back at this time, and it’s all going to be a wild blur. If I have a day off, I’ll come out here, and I don’t really have any days off — on the weekends, I’ve got scripts to learn.

But this is what you want, right? It’s like you want a Matterhorn to climb. All of us do. It’s the way you grow, and so it’s been great and difficult to be back. Yeah, there’s just ordeals for this character to go through that I feel like it’s my job to go through.

McKAY: Obviously, reading the scripts for this season, they’re wonderful as always, and I’m not going to say anything, but there are scenes that I’ve seen that you’re doing that I can imagine must be very difficult and challenging. And yeah, it’s another phenomenal season. I’m so excited about it.

But wait, holy shit: That opening with singing “Honesty” is just such a beautiful blend of cringe, irony, painful sincerity. How do you even walk into shooting that? As an actor, I just can’t even imagine emotionally what you’re doing or even what your resting state is that you’re trying to get yourself to when you shoot something like that.

STRONG: You know, it wasn’t in the table reads. This is one of the other amazing things about Jesse is he remembers everything, and he files things if they’re of interest to him. And there was another point where I put these speakers in the Waystar office when Shiv is giving a townhall meeting, and the speakers ended up playing a Nirvana song.

I pitched that I show up with a karaoke mic and sing “Honesty” — and then it showed up here, which was brilliant because the combination of that with hanging on a cross, wearing a USB cable crown-of-thorns is just the most demented and inspired thing. But you said the word resting state, and I guess that’s really it: It’s trying to just clear everything else away and create a kind of negative space, so that your unconscious can do it. So I literally don’t know what is going to happen when they say “action,” and I think that’s the juice for me.

It’s all a real-time discovery where you could also go down in flames every day. And so that was just one of the particular planks that I had to walk for this. But I feel like Jesse knows that I like walking the plank, and so I hope that he just keeps giving me stuff like that.

McKAY: All right, so here’s my gift to you. After all these wonderful seasons, whenever this show ends, and who knows when it’ll be? Knock on wood, hopefully it’s eight more seasons of incredible stuff. But whenever it’s over, my gift to you is we are doing a rom-com together.

STRONG: Man, I would love that.

McKAY: So I don’t know what the movie’s about, the rom-com we’re going to do. But the name of the movie is going to be “Lunch With Boo Boo.” I’m going to start putting the story together.

STRONG: I’m going to start sending you crazy pitches for “Lunch With Boo Boo.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Leave a Comment