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

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

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

For Strong, who began filming the HBO drama seven years ago and won an Emmy for his role as Kendall Roy, it was a happy ending. An actor of extraordinary commitment, working to give himself up to a role entirely. And with Kendall, the wounded son of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a brutally successful media mogul, he feels he feels it.

But for Jesse Armstrong’s “Succession” character, it concluded on bleaker terms. Kendall kicked off the final episode on Sunday night thinking he was going to appear as the CEO of a giant conglomerate. But the final scene, which also takes place at the water’s edge, also at sunset, leaves Kendall numb, friendless, and vulnerable.

“Someone once said that actors are emotional athletes,” Strong said Monday. “This show was like a decathlon for me.”

He has since recovered. And from a gaudy Manhattan hotel room, Strong, donning Kendall’s trucker hat, T-shirt and chain and possessing some un-Kendall cool, joins a video call to discuss tragedy, vulnerability, and Kendall’s melancholy diary. These excerpts have been edited from the conversation.

Should Kendall be appointed CEO?

It was definitely equipped. I watched it last night and I desperately wanted it to turn out differently. Do I think it would have been good for the company and the country? I mean, we’ve seen him cross all moral and ethical lines. He showed tough pragmatism. He has become what his father wanted, to be able to dominate and have the ruthlessness and moral flexibility to do whatever it takes. I feel like he’s ready to become CEO, in the tragic math of that.

Was his greatest tragedy the son of Logan Roy? Would it have been better if he had been able to force his way through?

In a way, these are all the tragedies of the Roy family, that they were born into it. Jesse and I created this memory of a moment where my dad said, “It’s going to be you one day, and you’re going to have the job I have.” Giving that promise to a 7-year-old is like a death sentence. He sets Kendall down this path, without ever feeling like he’s earned it himself.

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These characters have all the trappings of power, but nothing in their lives or upbringing pinned them to any sense of personal power. If anything, their mom and dad took that away from them and left them feeling helpless, which explains this need for Kendall to overcompensate and try too hard and cross the mark. He needs this to happen in order for his life to be okay, or for it to have any meaning. And I found it unbearably painful, the way things were going after that. He has lost his moral compass. He has lost his integrity. He lost it all. Seven years of working on this has been a slow, unforgiving death for Kendall Roy.

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

We shot this scene in Battery Park in February. I have never been so cold in my life. What was happening was like the frozen ninth circle of hell. I didn’t feel anything. I’ve tried and gone in the water. We’ve seen Kendall lose over and over again, but this one looks disastrous.

I don’t think there is any going back from it. Jesse felt that once he got past this moment, maybe there might be a future for him. I felt like losing all hope. So I got up and climbed this barrier and walked on the pillars. The actor who plays Colin [Kendall’s bodyguard, played by Scott Nicholson] He ran and stopped me. I don’t know if Kendall wants to die or if he wants to be saved.

Water has always held such importance to Kendall.

He’s always in a place he might slip out of, or he might just be submerged and drowned in. He tramples water for his life.

The finale also included some scenes shot in Barbados, which emphasized the bond and affection between younger siblings, Roy. How have you and the other actors been working to make you feel like family?

It’s just how much way we’ve come, 40 hours of story over seven years. The relationship we all have with each other – all aspects of it are easy to get into. There is deep love, affection, and bonding, and then friction and enmity. Entire. I love these people. Writing usually required us to meet in a place of contention and enmity, but I loved the times when we put our duchesses down and enjoyed each other’s company. This was the last scene we shot in the entire series, “A Meal Fit for a King.” It was a really nice way to end.

And you drank the “A Meal Fit for a King” juice?

Yes, I had to. For me, if I don’t drink that juice, I’m not invested enough in how much Kendall wants to be CEO, and he has to drink it, and I have to drink it, otherwise the whole thing is just performance. So I would drink it and go outside and jump in the ocean and come back for another shot. Fortunately, we just had to do a little.

People often confuse actors with their characters. What are the similarities between you and Kendall and what are the differences?

I’ve had the uniqueness of wanting like Kendall; I’ve always just wanted to be an actor. I feel strongly that I am a cog designed for a machine: my life only makes sense to me if I am doing this work. Unlike Kendall, I’ve been able to do just that.

But I understood the risks this involved for him. I cannot really conceive, if I had not had occasion to practice and do this business, how unlovable my life would have been. Kendall is seen as trying hard. I think this has become something to be judged or laughed at, but I always had to do my best and work hard. I think there is value in that, and I wouldn’t have known how to do it any other way.

But the differences are many. I have three young children and most of my life I just read Room on the Broom and being a father, husband, and friend just an existence that doesn’t quite belong to Kendall.

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Kendall quickly became a fan favorite and inspired an avalanche of memes — Kendall is sadAnd Baby Girl Kendall. Did fans misunderstand the character?

I’ve been able to avoid all of that because I’m really not online and not on social media. I see people walking around with bags and t-shirts now and it’s fierce, the way people offer all sorts of things to the character. Personality is part of the litmus test. Some people use the word “cringe,” and then others find it incredibly sympathetic. Do I think any of this is misunderstood? I don’t know. There’s just something about this character, about this kind of guy — there’s a lot of male vulnerability, something that always affected me growing up when I saw him in storytelling. In this moment in our culture, people are responding to it in a sarcastic way or in an empathetic way. It’s not my job to tell anyone how to respond to it, but there’s just something about vulnerability that’s polarizing.

You said your goal as an artist is to leave it all on the field. Did you do it here?

Yes, I did. Yes. Yes. Yes. A friend texted me saying, You can also go to the desert and die.

This is a funny way of saying congratulations.

This once in my life and I hope it will be many times – I want to do this till I die – I felt fully expressed through a piece of work.

Have you done anything to say goodbye to this character and this world? What rituals?

Obviously, this has been a monolithic experience for me in many ways, as an artist and as a person. I had three kids while doing this show, and it changed my life in so many ways. The ritual was, I think, quite an investment. When it was happening, it was all that mattered in the world to me. When it’s over, it’s really gone. I’ve given everything I can give for this, but I can’t hold on to it, I can’t own it. I don’t feel like it belongs to me.

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