Succession’s scorned heir shares how he portrayed Kendall Roy’s desperate grab for power and esteem.
Kendall Roy’s fall from grace throughout Succession’s first season was steep and rapid. Jeremy Strong explains why he can still sympathize with Kendall and how his actorly ambitions prepared him for his character’s struggle.
HBO: Did you draw on any previous experience in preparation for this role?
Jeremy Strong: I thought a lot about the question of legacy as I started working on Succession. There are a lot of people I looked up to that I wanted approval or validation from. You kind of run aground when you seek that instead of becoming yourself. That was a theme I was able to hook into. Fortunately, I come from a nurturing family. But I understand the anxiety of influence and the burden of legacy—of trying to emerge from the shadow of a powerful role model to become yourself. As an actor, I also understand the pressures that come from being ambitious. The importance of making it as an actor is not unlike Kendall's experience. I had to allow my own experience of the daily pressures.
HBO: What do you think drives Kendall's desperation for power?
Jeremy Strong: If there's a desperation for power, it has everything to do with his relationship with his father. The currency of this family is business. The language, the emotional lexicon: business. So the way you gain love and esteem in the Roy family is by attaining stature in the business world. Logan is a kind of primitive, primordial, ruthless, brute-force kind of boss. He comes from this old-school world where business is just a "big dick competition," as he tells Kendall early on. But Kendall and his other children want to be cherished by him. So whatever need Kendall has for power comes from that void. He understands that until he shows strength and ruthlessness in business, that he will remain a softie in his father's eyes. Of course, on some level he is different. He's different than his dad, but he's trying to be something he's not. Whenever you do that in life, it leads to suffering—which is Kendall's central conflict, and perhaps the show's.
Also, Kendall has his finger on the pulse and zeitgeist in a way Logan does not. He has a vision for his company that his father doesn't—arguably a better, more forward-thinking one. That's the Vaulter deal in episode one. He's got ideas on how to steer Waystar outside of legacy media and print journalism into a digital age.
HBO: How does Kendall justify the duplicitous behavior he displays towards the season's end?
Jeremy Strong: I think Kendall genuinely believes that if he were in charge of Waystar, it would be better for everyone: the company, the shareholders, even his family. He also believes Logan is running the company into the ground. So while his behavior is mercenary, there's a tacit assumption that by seeing him act in this cavalier way, his father will finally respect him. He needs to destroy his father because that's what he thinks his father would do. The Shakespearean social Darwinism makes their relationship so compelling.
HBO: Do you maintain sympathy for Kendall as his behavior devolves?
Jeremy Strong: I see my job as an actor is to have no judgment for him, but to connect with his struggles. I care for Kendall immensely. He crosses these lines, against the better angels of his nature, but to get his father's attention. It's all, "Look at me, Dad!" That's what it comes down to. I think that's very tragic. Kendall is certainly flawed, and this whole family lives in a gray moral area, but in the credo of winning and business, the ethos he's been brought up with, all of his actions are within bounds.