‘Succession’: Jeremy Strong on Saying Goodbye to Kendall Roy

When filming on the final season of “Succession” wrapped this winter, the actor Jeremy Strong flew to the Danish fishing village where he and his wife have a home. Alone, he went for a walk on the beach.

“I watched the sunset and tried to say goodbye to a character I’m sure will always be with me, will always be part of me,” he said.

For Strong, who began filming the HBO drama seven years ago and won an Emmy for playing Kendall Roy, this was a happy ending. An actor of unusual commitment, he works to give himself over to a role entirely. And with Kendall, the wounded son of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a brutally successful media mogul, he felt that he had.

But for the character, “Succession,” created by Jesse Armstrong, concluded on bleaker terms. Kendall began Sunday night’s finale episode believing that he would emerge as the chief executive of a giant conglomerate. But the final scene, which also took place at the water’s edge, also at sunset, left Kendall numb, friendless, bereft.

“Somebody once said that actors are emotional athletes,” Strong said on Monday. “And this show has been like a decathlon for me.”

He has since recovered. And from a flashy Manhattan hotel room, Strong, dressed in a very un-Kendall trucker hat, T-shirt and chain and possessed of some very un-Kendall-like equanimity, joined a video call to discuss tragedy, vulnerability and sad Kendall memes. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Should Kendall have been made the chief executive?

He certainly was equipped. I watched it last night and wanted so desperately for it to unfold differently. Do I think he would have been good for the company and the country? I mean, we’ve seen him cross every moral and ethical line. He’s demonstrated a ruthless pragmatism. He’s become what his father wanted, which is being able to dominate and having the moral callousness and flexibility to do whatever it takes. I feel like he’s ready to become the C.E.O., in the tragic math of that.

Was his great tragedy being Logan Roy’s son? Would it have been better if he had been able to forge his own path?

In a way, that’s all of the Roys’ tragedies, that they were born into this. Jesse and I created this memory of a moment where my father said, “It will be you one day, you’ll have the job that I have.” It is like a death sentence to give a 7-year-old that promise. It puts Kendall on this trajectory, never with a sense of having earned it himself.

These characters have all the trappings of power, but nothing in their lives or upbringing installed in them any sense of personal power. If anything, their father and mother took that away from them and left them feeling powerless, which explains this need for Kendall to overcompensate and try too hard and overshoot the mark. He needs this to happen for his life to be OK, or to make any sense. And I found it just unbearably excruciating, the way that it then goes. He’s lost his moral compass. He’s lost his integrity. He’s lost everything. My seven years of working on this have been the slow inexorable death of Kendall Roy.

Is that what the final scene at the edge of the East River suggests?

We happened to shoot that scene in Battery Park back in February. I’ve never been so cold in my life. What was happening was like the ninth circle of hell, which is frozen. I couldn’t feel anything. I did try and go in the water. We’ve seen Kendall lose again and again and again, but this feels catastrophic.

I don’t think there’s any coming back from it. Jesse felt like once he can get past this moment, maybe there is a future for him. I felt a loss of all hope. So I got up and climbed over that barrier and walked out onto the pilings. The actor playing Colin [Kendall’s bodyguard, played by Scott Nicholson] ran and stopped me. I don’t know if Kendall wanted to die or if he wanted to be saved.

Water has always held such significance for Kendall.

He’s always in a place where he might lift off out of it, or he might be submerged and drown in it. He’s treading water for his life.

Kendall is the favored son of a very powerful man. Why has he always seen himself as an underdog, an outsider?

I know a lot of people who come from extreme privilege and who have not internalized some commensurate sense of self that you’d think would accompany that. This character has never been comfortable in his own skin. That unease and that lack has been part of his addiction and his ambition.

The finale also included some Barbados-set scenes, which emphasized the bonds and affection among the younger Roy siblings. How did you and the other actors work to feel like a family?

It’s just the amount of road we’ve traveled, 40 hours of story over seven years. The relationship we all have with each other — it’s easy to access all sides of it. There’s deep love and affection and connectedness and then also, friction and enmity. All of it. I love those people. The writing usually demanded that we meet in a place of discord and enmity, but I loved the times where we got to put our dukes down and enjoy each other’s company. That was the last scene we filmed in the whole series, the “meal fit for a king.” It was a really wonderful way to finish.

And you drank that “meal fit for a king” smoothie?

Yes, I had to. For me, if I don’t drink that smoothie, I am not invested enough in how much Kendall wants to be C.E.O. He has to drink it, ergo I have to drink it, otherwise the whole thing is just a performance. So I would drink it and go outside and retch and jump in the ocean and go back for another take. We only needed to do a few, thankfully.

People often confuse actors with their characters. What were the points of convergence between you and Kendall and which were the differences?

I have had a singularity of wanting similar to Kendall; I’ve always only wanted to be an actor. I feel pretty strongly that I am a cog built to fit one particular machine: My life only makes sense to me if I’m doing this work. As opposed to Kendall, I’ve gotten to do that.

But I understood the stakes of what that is for him. I can’t really imagine, had I not gotten the chance to practice and do this work, how unlived my life would feel. Kendall is seen as a try-hard. I guess that’s become something to judge or deride, but I’ve always had to try hard and work hard. I think there’s value in that, and I wouldn’t have known how to do it any other way.

The differences, though, are many. I’ve got three little kids and most of my life is just reading “Room on the Broom” and being a dad and a husband and a friend, just an entirely non-Kendall existence.

Kendall quickly became a fan favorite and inspired a torrent of memes — sad Kendall, babygirl Kendall. Did fans misunderstand the character?

I’ve managed to avoid all that because I’m really not online and I’m not on social media. I see people walking around with tote bags and T-shirts now and it’s wild, the way people project all kinds of things onto the character. The character is a bit of a litmus test. Some people use the word “cringe,” and then others find him incredibly sympathetic. Do I think any of that’s misunderstood? I don’t know. There’s something about this character, about this kind of boy-man — there is a lot of male vulnerability, which is something that always affected me growing up when I saw it in storytelling. In this moment in our culture, people either respond to that in a derisive way or in an empathic way. It’s not my job to tell anyone how to respond to it, but there is something about vulnerability that is polarizing.

You’ve said that your goal as an artist is to leave everything on the field. Did you do that here?

Yeah, I did. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. A friend of mine texted me, saying, you may as well move out to the desert and die.

That’s a funny way of saying congratulations.

This once in my life and hopefully, many more times — I want to do this until I die — I felt fully expressed through a piece of work.

Did you do anything to say goodbye to this character and this world? Any ritual?

This has been obviously a monolithic experience for me in so many ways, as an artist and as a person. I had three children while doing this show, it changed my life in so many ways. The ritual, I guess, was just investing utterly. When it was happening, it was all that mattered in the world for me. When it’s over, it’s really gone. I gave as much as I could give to this, but I can’t hold on to it, I can’t possess it. I don’t feel like it belongs to me.

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