[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 1, Episode 10, “Nobody Is Ever Missing.”]
The first time Jeremy Strong read for the script for the “Succession” Season 1 finale was about 48 hours before they went into production on the final two episodes. After arriving in London to film Episodes 9 and 10, Strong discovered Kendall’s fate at a network table read. As anyone who’s seen those episodes can attest, that last chapter — which ends with a shocking late-night car crash and an ensuing escape from a lake — wasn’t an easy one to process.
“I felt, by the end of reading those scripts [all] in a row, very wrung out and kind of destroyed. It’s sort of a terrible sense of dread and a terrible pressure at knowing that I was going to have to go through what Kendall goes through in those two episodes,” Strong told IndieWire. “You sort of at that point want to get back on the plane and go home and avoid having to go through that. I think in truth, when they were reading those stage directions, I stopped looking at the script and closed my eyes. But I remember very much being taken along, sort of like in the rapids once the car had gone in the water. But at the same time I had no idea how I would do it, or what it would take.”
Tasked with preparing for the fateful closing sequences with only two days of prep ended up being a tricky proposition for Strong and resulted in a more fundamental response to what Kendall had to go through.
“I’m quite a cerebral person, so a lot of the work I have to do is to connect viscerally to the thing. Having very little time and having the stakes be so high, at that point, I felt like inhabiting Kendall’s skin, so I could have gone anywhere with it. I think I felt ready to sort of go along for the ride and fight his fight,” Strong said. “Great writing sort of tumbles on you and that’s sort of what happened. I knew that I had to commit to Kendall’s struggle and then let the events fall on me.”
Strong had never taken part in a significant on-screen stunt before, much less one that necessitated a night shoot in freezing cold lake water or a stint in a giant water tank at Pinewood Studios. Though much of production on the final two episodes focused on Shiv and Tom’s wedding, the challenge to come was forefront in Strong’s mind.
“The water tank was actually the very, very end. And the stuff in the lake was the last week, so it was sort of looming,” he said. “But I guess the great thing about a physical obstacle is that what you really have to do is put yourself in that situation, in those given circumstances, and then deal,” Strong said. “So I had to get in a lake that was close to freezing cold temperatures in the middle of the winter and it is horrible as it would be. Those things in a sense actually are easier than the, for lack of a better word, emotional work.”
With the series’ medical staff on standby, Strong pushed himself to the physical limits of Kendall’s circumstances.
“You don’t have to do anything on top of that except to commit fully to the physical task; to try and save his life and then to get the fuck out of the water because it’s freezing cold. Your head is burning and your limbs are numb, so you don’t have to act that basically,” Strong said. “That was very scary, just letting the air run out in my own lungs to the point where I felt just enough in jeopardy and in danger so that I was really in the situation and then trying to extract myself from it. But there were certainly moments where you’re trying to put yourself in danger and then you have the best people in the world around you to make sure that you’re safe. I don’t think you can really skirt the danger and get some sort of E-ZPass through it. I think you have to commit to the ordeal.”
Strong credits episode director Mark Mylod, production designer Stephen Carter, and cinematographer Andrij Parekh for giving the sequence a “cinematic scope” in its final form. To help mine the depths of Kendall’s emotional crisis during the filming of the lakeside scenes, Strong turned to some help from a Polish composer.
“For that big sequence at night, I found myself working with the sound department. I found a few pieces of [Krzysztof] Penderecki cello music that were very harrowing and they set up these giant speakers. The weather was freezing and it was raining and we were working nights and so the conditions were extreme, which was helpful because of what Kendall is going through,” Strong said. “But then they would have the tarp over the speaker be blasting this really, viscerally unnerving music and that sort of helped. That was not something I planned in advance. It was just sort of a hunch that maybe this would help evoke something, and to their credit Mark Mylod and Jesse [Armstrong] were open to trying that.”
Armed with that musical assistance and with a team of professionals on hand, Strong ended up spending more time filming the scene than anticipated.
“I knew that it should cost something of me. So I was not looking forward to it,” Strong said. “I remember saying to Mark and Jesse, I only wanted to go in that water once, because it was so freezing. And then eventually, on the night, they had to stop me from going into the water because the medic was worried. I feel like I continue to discover things take after take. I think it was such an important part of the story that I wanted to be under there for long enough so that when the character comes out of the water, you really feel a sense of the stakes of it.”
As powerful as the crash sequence is, the season’s final hammer blow came in a confrontation between Kendall and his father, Logan (Brian Cox). Logan offers Kendall absolution for his part in the death of the other man in the car, which shows the son at his most vulnerable — a crying child in his father’s arms.
“That’s one of those scenes when you read the script and you just think, ‘My God, I have no fucking idea how I’m going to do this scene.’ I hope that the thing in me will show up on that day that can serve this scene that I feel like a steward for, but am absolutely not in control of. And so that scene felt like it manifested in a powerful and real way,” Strong said. “All the things that I think had been pent up and building up inside this character for the whole season, something about that scene sort of cracked the dam open. Jesse had this pretty ingenious sort of dramaturgical thing, which was, I bring my dad this bear hug letter and then this thing ends with a bear hug. And I thought that that was very powerful, the way it played out.”
To keep that largely wordless final interaction between Kendall and Logan tapped into the same raw emotion as the crash escape sequence, Strong asked that all those interior scenes be grouped together on the shooting schedule.
“I worked closely with Mark and our first AD Cristo Morse to try and schedule everything that happened what I call ‘post-event’ together. A film schedule is so scrambled, but everything that happened from the car event on, I asked them and they complied to sort of rope that off and to do it in a way where that sort of life and death sentence could permeate the atmosphere of our whole set. Because it sort of all of a sudden felt like a very different thing and not something I wanted to fuck around with by sort of mixing it up with more low hanging fruit and not really going there.”
With Cox’s cooperation, Strong requested there not be any rehearsal of the final scene.
“That was a scene that I had asked Mark that we not touch, that we never rehearse it, that we not talk about it. And Brian agreed to do it that way,” Strong said. “So whatever happened in that scene was just what happened. I find that a very thrilling and, for me, necessary way of working, where you just discover it on the vine. Without prescribing anything, not knowing the path, but being fully prepared and locked and loaded before you walk in the door and then leave it up to your scene partner and the combustion of that.”
So with such a gutting sendoff to this batch of episodes, how much further does Kendall have to fall?
“People have written to me saying, ‘I feel like this person is redeemable.’ I think everyone, anyone is,” Strong said. “I think a lot of these people that we see in business and in government are operating from a place of resentment, which is when you look at that word means I think disappointment, anger and fear, and it’s a real toxic cocktail. So I think Kendall will either double down on that aspect of himself and become his father or he’ll be stuck with the life-rending pain and grief forever, like a spike in his heart. I’m not sure where he goes from there or how he recovers from there except potentially deeper into addiction.”
It’s all speculation at this point, as even Strong hasn’t been privy to Season 2 details yet. But even in the depths of what very well could be Kendall’s lowest point, Strong still retains a certain sense of hope.
“Your guess is as good as mine. But throughout the show, in a sense, Jesse’s been willing to show the worst in people, but is also always trying to show these people, at least Kendall, try to be the best version of himself,” Strong said. “I remember reading the Kenny Lonergan play, ‘This is Our Youth’ a long time ago. Someone says about Warren that he’s above all things a trier. I relate to that and I think Kendall is very much a trier and there’s something both laudable and desperate in it.”
“Succession” Season 1 is now available to stream on HBO Now.