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‘Succession’: Jeremy Strong Knows Kendall Roy Has Always Been Drowning

"I think when you have done something like he has done, the impossibility of love, that is really the punishment."

Jeremy Strong in "Succession" Season 3 Episode 8 HBO

Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 3, through Episode 8.]

When, in the course of any given television season, you interview a creative involved with the show, there exists a great power imbalance, with the interviewee knowing the entire narrative arc to come and the interviewer stumbling through, looking for clues to piece together a better understanding of the full story. The interviewee has read — and in some cases written — the entire book, and the interviewer is only on Chapter 3.

Basically, it’s a Sisyphean nightmare because all of these conversations exist sans context.

Such was the case earlier this year when I spoke to Jeremy Strong about Season 3 of “Succession.” Though I had seen the first seven episodes, through “Too Much Birthday,” and the interview went well, it was difficult to shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Strong’s answers were thoughtful and detailed — they always are — but something was missing.

And after the airing of Episode 8, “Chiantishire,” I finally understood why.

The first question I asked Strong was if his character, Kendall Roy, was OK. In retrospect, it was clear that Kendall was in no way, shape, or form “OK,” but still, I was hoping to understand just how not OK the character was.

As is so often the case with the actor, he responded with a literary reference, name-checking a poem by Stevie Smith titled “Not Waving but Drowning.” In retrospect, yes, it’s a little on the nose, but in early October, there was no way to tell just how on point it was. For me, at least. I suspect with Strong it was no accident.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning. 

In the days since “Chiantishire” and revisiting the interview, I’ve been rolling Smith’s words over in my head and I suspect that in its twelve lines lay the whole of the tragedy of Kendall Roy. It’s easy to get waylaid by the mention of drowning, given the events of the Season 1 finale, in which Kendall is involved in the drowning death of a young caterer, particularly given the callback to that precise incident in the most recent episode, when Logan Roy (Brian Cox) weaponizes it to put Kendall in his place.

Succession Jeremy Strong dinner Brian Cox Kendall Logan

Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

And it’s not even the final scene of “Chiantishire,” which social media scholars have spent the days since arguing about, in which Kendall is floating on a raft in a pool and his head begins to sink beneath the water as though death were imminent, that Smith’s poem calls to mind.

Because none of those events were the beginning of Kendall’s struggle. Nor are either of them the end.

When people suspect that the man in the poem drowned because it became too cold and he was too far out, they were corrected, by the dead man himself. “It was too cold always,” he said. “I was much too far out all my life.” That’s Kendall’s secret. He’s always been drowning. It’s always been too cold. He’s always been too far out, flailing in water too deep for him to find purchase, knowing it was just a matter of time before his head dips beneath the surface and he’s tugged below by the undertow.

So before the Season 3 finale of “Succession” airs, before Kendall’s fate is revealed and we get answers to all the questions we didn’t know enough to ask months ago, here’s Strong’s insights into Kendall’s journey, his sadness, his pain, and the water of it all.

IndieWire: Off the top of my head, my first question has to be, “Is Kendall OK?”

Jeremy Strong: There is a Stevie Smith poem called “Not Waving but Drowning,” about this idea of, “Is this person waving or are they drowning?” In a way, the magic trick that Jesse [Armstrong] has pulled off is that it could be either. I think that certainly Kendall feels like he’s OK. He’s clinging to that belief with real tenacity, and it is a life raft in a pretty hostile ocean. There is a real buoyancy to where he is when this season starts.

I think the character feels like he has wrested himself free, finally, from his father’s stranglehold and in a way has kind of slayed the dragon. There is a sense of liftoff, there is a peace that comes over him and a clarity. What goes up must come down, but certainly the attempt is to stay up for as long as possible. And to me, there is a key change between Season 2 and 3, and this is a very different key and it is in a higher key and a sharp high key that the character needs to stay in until he cannot any longer. But I do think what is amazing about the writing is that there is a way in which he can be on top of the world and still be in the ninth rung of hell.

Succession Season 3 Episode 1 Kendall Jeremy Strong Cousin Greg

Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

David Russell / HBO

With Kendall, do you feel as though their are mental health issues in play? Do you think this is the result of growing up in a psychologically, emotionally abusive household? Or is it just that special amalgamation that every person’s history creates?

I think that if someone were to look at it from the outside, they might feel like they are seeing something. I did read and spent a lot of time talking with Jesse about “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book about, essentially, how if I cracked, I would make the whole world crack with me. There is a line in “The Crack-Up” about the hope that things will adjust themselves through a great spiritual or material bonanza.

I think Kendall has this hope that if he does this thing in the press conference and if he slays the dragon and if he does what he has been born to do and take over, then things will adjust themselves and be OK. If he gets what he wants, then things will be OK. As we have seen through the great dramas of history, that is not the case and it is not going to fill this howling void that is in him. So the closer you get to the ostensible goal, the more despair, I think, comes when you realize that it’s not going to do it. As they say in programs working with addiction, it is an inside job. And what these characters do not have the equipment for is the inside job. They are thinking of things only in terms of the outside job. In a way, it is the failure to do any of that inner work that then gets sublimated outside and comes out into the world in all kinds of awful ways.

But Kendall sees himself, and I see him, as a really good person who is actually, in this case, doing a noble thing. And he is on a sort of moral crusade and there is a clarity to it. It feels like he has, in a sense, sat under the Bo tree and had this experience of enlightenment where all of a sudden he is free and clear.

Do you think that contributes, then, to his frustration when life does not align itself to how he expected? Like when his siblings did not immediately jump on board with his enlightenment?

In a way, it is a bit like being a born again, in the sense of the conviction of a convert, you have to really double down. I think Kendall feels this new role of his [is] the sort of moral crusader and the savior, in a sense. I think he sees himself as the savior of the company and of the corporate culture. He is very invested in that narrative of himself as savior. Because if there is another narrative there, if he is deranged, then he would fall apart.

Succession Season 3 Kendall Shiv Roman Episode 7 Jeremy Strong Sarah Snook Kieran Culkin

Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin in “Succession”

Macall Polay / HBO

What do you think Kendall wants from his siblings? He gets rejected by them time and again, but he is always trying to bring them back into the fold. Is he trying to assure himself that there is true emotion between them? 

I think there is true emotion between them. I think my favorite scenes making this show over the past five years have been the scenes where the four of us — I was going to say the three of us, but we always forget about Connor — the four of us are together, either in a boat house in England or on the deck of the yacht in Croatia. I find that under the waves, under the turbulence, in the place where things are kind of still, they actually love each other and connect with each other and there is an authentic connection between them. Then they leave that place. When they are out in the scrum, it is all very different. I don’t know what Kendall needs from them. I think, in a sense, like any siblings, they are frozen in time at a certain age where they are still kids. On some basic level, I think he wants them to like him, which is very human and relatable.

Speaking of the siblings, take me through that final confrontation between everyone at Kendall’s soul-crushing birthday party. Things have finally come to a head and get super nasty. Kendall is very hurt that Shiv and Roman are clearly there on business. What was filming that like, and what was occupying that space like for you as an actor?

I think that was my favorite piece of writing I have ever worked on, on anything. It was devastating. Talk about being on top of the world and also being in the ninth rung of Hell. There is this feeling that a great spiritual or material bonanza will help fix things. Throw the greatest party ever with all your supposed friends and people who might love you and it turns out the only thing that could possibly be meaningful is this present that his children have made for him that he can not find. The rest is just a mountain of meaningless garbage, all of it. I thought a lot about “American Buffalo” [the David Mamet play] — the scene in the end, where Teach trashes the junk shop, and he says, the world is lies. The world is lies.

There is this sense of, I can not keep it up anymore. I cannot hold onto the life raft of this belief that everything is OK. I am a savior and I have done the right thing. I am a whistleblower and that was noble. It is inarguable that the woman that I love gets me this totally banal gift that is not very caring or thoughtful, that I do not really have any friends, and that I am trying so hard to be Gatsby. It was incredibly painful. It was a really hard episode to film. You get a piece of writing like that, and that is like opening the greatest Christmas present ever.

Succession Season 3 Episode 7 Annabelle Dexter-Jones Jeremy Strong

Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Macall Polay / HBO

I brought some stuff from my childhood, a stuffed animal that I had, and some things and some photographs, and the blanket was very important to me. Where it goes in that episode, just the arc of that episode, of starting out feeling like this is going to be the apotheosis of my life. And then it actually goes to a place where it’s the nadir of my life. That is an amazing span within a single episode.

Who does Kendall love?

I don’t know. I don’t know if I can answer it.

He does not feel particularly close to anyone. I think in a sense, he loves Naomi. There is not a lot of spaces where you and I might have where there are people to confide in or really open up to, and because he can not do that to his siblings really anymore, and because he has this thing that he has done, but he can not tell anyone about that, that just separates him from the living world. I think when you have done something like he has done, the impossibility of love, that is really the punishment. When you talk about crime and punishment, it is like the loss of love. So I think that is something that he sort of realizes that at the birthday in a way, as anyone would.

“Succession” airs its Season 3 finale Sunday, December 12 at 9 p.m. ET. The first three seasons are available to stream on HBO Max. The series has been renewed for Season 4.

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