by James Mottram

The inspiration was Gray’s own upbringing, making it the most autobiographical film of his distinguished career. So, how did it feel to play a fictionalised version of Gray’s own father? “It’s terrifying,” Strong chuckles, when FilmInk meets him at the Cannes Film Festival the day after Armageddon Time premieres.

“It’s a massive responsibility,” he continues, “and it calls on everything you can possibly summon as an actor, to absorb and internalise as much as you can from the writing and from what we can learn and intuit about these people. But then also, to be free enough to have ownership of it and not feel a sense of checking in with James.” The film comes across like a ghost story, he adds. “We were in a way these living sort of apparitions of his family.”

Despite making films with Spielberg (Lincoln), Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit) and Sorkin (Molly’s Game, The Trial of Chicago 7), Strong is still best known as Kendall Roy, the rebellious son in the sensational HBO show, Succession, which centres on a family-owned media conglomerate. And while Armageddon Time is chiefly seen through the eyes of Irving’s school-age son, Paul (Banks Repeta), its Reagan-era backdrop inadvertently joins the dots to Succession.

“I hadn’t been conscious of that at all,” Strong admits. “I think as an actor, you enter into a piece fully… so, Succession doesn’t exist for me when we’re in this world.” And yet, with the film’s title that comes from both a dub reggae cover by The Clash and a reference made by Reagan in his 1980 presidential campaign, a thread can certainly be drawn from the Reaganomics seeds planted in this period to the world of the ultra-wealthy, like Kendall Roy.

In one of the film’s more curious moments, Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain, in a cameo as the sister to ex-President Donald Trump) comes to Paul’s school to tell the pupils that they’re the next generation’s elite. As Strong puts it, “the fault lines” start to crack in Armageddon Time. “[Those cracks] become the political and social and racial divisions in our society and in the world today. The television show I work on, which is in so many ways about late-stage capitalism and terminal decadence in the United States… certainly you can find the kind of prefiguration of all of that, in a way the genome of it, in this film.”

For all its political and social backdrop, Armageddon Time is a poignant coming-of-age tale. Strong calls it “a very unflinching exploration of very personal experiences”, something that Irving seems to embody. “He is someone like a child in a way, who is carried away by a tide of feeling,” says the actor. “Because he is roiling with all this chaos inside and confusion and pain. And there is this sort of reservoir of feeling that doesn’t know how to express itself. And so, it comes out in these violent ways, or in these displaced ways.”

That certainly applies to the scene where Irving punishes Paul for being caught smoking pot at school, with a heavy beating. “I read the script and this character was described as a Jewish Stanley Kowalski with an engineering degree,” says Strong. “And there is a violence in him. And a brutality and a cruelty. And I think it was necessary to tell the story fully to go there. And with a very courageous young actor… within boundaries… but those were very difficult days on set.”

Watching Strong, who is known for staying in character, go full tilt was educational for young Banks Repeta. “It was definitely a choice,” he says. “I found it impressive because of how seriously he took it, which was good. Because he was authentic, and he knew what he was doing.”

Gray, who has repeatedly worked with Joaquin Phoenix, another Method-style actor of considerable intensity, agrees. “I love that. I think that means the actor usually is really committed and is going to do great work.”

Anne Hathaway, Michael Banks Repeta, James Gray, Jaylin Webb & Jeremy Strong at Cannes. Photo: Olivier Vigerie/Hans Lucas

Raised in Boston in a working-class family – his mother worked as a hospice nurse, his father had a job in juvenile jails – Strong says he felt a personal connection to Irving. “My grandfather was a plumber. And he lived in Queens, he was Jewish and had dreams of opening a shop that ended up sort of being in a pipe dream. I used to live in his basement when I was little over some summers. And I was very close to him. And he was very affectionate to me and quite hard on my father. There’s a lot that resonated with me.”

The scenes where Irving dines with his family – including wife Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Paul’s grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) – are among the film’s best, with Gray beautifully capturing the complexities of life at the Graffs. “I love those scenes, because it shows the togetherness of this family, as dysfunctional as it might be,” says Strong. “This sort of cacophonous, riotous dinner… everyone is talking over each other and there is confusion and misunderstanding and affection and tempers flaring. And it is a very specific thing, I think, in James’s memory, of that culture and time and place.”

When discussing Irving, the 43-year-old Strong swings between extremes. One minute, he calls him emotionally inept: “He doesn’t know how to express or absorb love. He is an island.” And yet, he adds, “he was also capable of great warmth and tenderness”. But he doesn’t want to sound too prescriptive. “I think it’s important as an actor to not have judgement for a character and instead find a way to empathise with where they’re coming from. And I try and understand it.”

Whatever your feelings towards Irving, he’s light years from Strong’s Emmy-winning Succession character Kendall Roy. He will return for the fourth season of Succession in early 2023, with the story on a knife-edge. Is he ready for the mania around the show to start up again? “In a way, the whirlwind of all of that happens outside of me,” he shrugs. “I think I’m just trying to quietly work hard and take risks. It’s amazing that I get to be here [in Cannes]. And that is a result of that. And I feel very grateful.”

Armageddon Time is in cinemas from November 3, 2022