Jeremy Strong Theory: On Acting and Talking About Acting
By R. Colin TaitDecember 20, 2022
So, sure, we know that Jared Leto is a pain to work with and that he held up production on Morbius so that he could go to the bathroom “in character” while using crutches (“It’s Morbin’ Time!”). We know the rumor that he sent used condoms to his Suicide Squad co-stars to get into the headspace of the Joker. And, speaking of the Clown Prince of Crime, we know the myth surrounding Heath Ledger’s accidental overdose, that he went too far into the dark places his character took him. We’ve heard about the on-set tension between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron during the production of Mad Max: Fury Road (in short, Theron thought that Hardy was an unprofessional asshole). Lady Gaga, she of the ever-changing accent in House of Gucci, admitted that she sought professional mental help after spending nearly a year “as her character” Patrizia Reggiani because she went to a similarly dark place. For Gaga, this meant researching everything about the real-life person she played, from psychic consultants to her character’s favorite nail colors. While Gaga admitted that no “actor should push themselves to that limit,” she, and many other performers, continue to do so.
Finally, we hear about “method” behavior on the set of HBO’s series Succession (2018–present), with elder statesman Brian Cox dubbing Jeremy Strong’s acting technique obsessional: “I just worry about what he does to himself. I worry about the crises he puts himself through in order to prepare.” Michael Schulman’s now-infamous piece about Strong’s work on his character Kendall Roy, entitled “On ‘Succession,’ Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke,” became a perfect illustration of how much we don’t know about acting, how much we think we know about acting, and how, generally, we consider anyone who takes themself too seriously to be something of a pain in the ass. As The New Yorker’s theater critic and author of the book on Meryl Streep (Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep), Schulman is no stranger to thinking deeply about acting, but he admitted that even he couldn’t have anticipated the effect the piece ultimately had.
In my interview with him, Schulman commented that he welcomes the reaction. His piece, he says, “invites you to have an interpretation. Some people see Jeremy as an insufferable diva. Some people see him as just a delightful eccentric, and others see him as a dedicated artist who is doing everything you should be doing.” But, as Schulman noted, those interpretations could be divisive. “It reminded me of that phenomenon on the internet with the dress that nobody knew was blue, or gold,” he said. “It’s one of those internet mysteries. It’s really a Rorschach test. It asks you to interpret it and come to your own conclusion. And I think that is great.” Thanks to the instant Twitter response, Schulman’s painstaking study — he spent more than four months with the actor, talking with him, watching him at work, and talking to his colleagues and friends — became a cause célèbre after the article’s release.
To me, the article is all about how little we know about acting and what actors do, and how we feel entitled to have an opinion on a craft that remains a mystery to most of us. (I say this as a so-called expert on the subject. I’ve been researching Robert De Niro’s career for over 10 years, and even I don’t know if I fully understand what he did. Nor, for that matter, do I think that De Niro himself fully understands the magic of his process either.)
Strong is an unusual and fascinating figure. Though we wouldn’t necessarily call him a “star,” he occupies a privileged place in the field that Jane Feuer has dubbed “Quality TV.” In addition to its lavish production values, international locales, and pretend rich people flying around in helicopters, the quality of its acting is what distinguishes Succession from other shows. The brainchild of playwright and stage director Jesse Armstrong, the show is shot in a cinéma vérité style inspired by the Dogme 95 film movement, and, reportedly, each episode is rehearsed like a play. It has an immediacy that many other shows don’t have, and viewers watch to see what new deliciously horrible things the Roy siblings will do to one another.
Succession is a series that is marketed toward a niche audience of upper-(middle)-class viewers who can afford to shell out an extra 15 bucks a month for HBO. As this audience also tends to dominate cultural discourse in mass-media and social-media spaces, the show held an outsized role in these circles, especially as it rocketed towards its third-season finale. According to Variety, this finale garnered a viewership of 1.7 million, whereas the show’s average audience barely squeezed past half a million viewers.
All of which raises the question — why do we care about what Strong does, did, or continues to do? In the larger scheme of things, he’s not as huge a player as, say, Kevin Costner in the higher-ranked (and more widely viewed) series Yellowstone. He’s one great actor in an ensemble of great actors on a popular, yet still fairly niche, prestige TV series.
Minutes after The New Yorker published Schulman’s piece on Strong, “film Twitter” responded — viscerally and viciously. Much was made of the not-so-subtle comments of Brian Cox (who portrays elder statesman and family patriarch Logan Roy) that Strong’s techniques are concerning and not very helpful to the British-trained actor. Partisans dug in their heels. People picked their favorites based on which character they liked best.
The article revived age-old battle lines, evoking the myth of Laurence Olivier cheekily asking Dustin Hoffman, during their work on The Marathon Man: “[W]hy don’t you try acting?” And, of course, critics and audiences (many of whom had no stake in the discussion at all) took to Twitter to ask whether Strong was a serious artist, a method crackpot, or simply a garden-variety douche.
As Schulman suggests, for many (imagined) stakeholders, the article was an empty signifier for whatever they thought it was about: acting, celebrity profiles, quality TV, social class, or ambition. Soon after the profile was published, former castmate and friend Jessica Chastain came to his defense, arguing that the article was a hit piece. No stranger to celebrity press coverage herself, she characterized the article as “snark,” a “one sided” profile designed to get clicks:
The battle lines were drawn. It’s not for me to say whether Chastain’s response was an overreaction, but the denizens of Twitter certainly responded to her comment with fury. Soon after this initial Twitter post, the actress exchanged words with Vanity Fair editor Kate Aurthur:
Whether she meant to or not, Chastain may have done more to direct eyeballs to the article than Schulman’s writing itself.
In Schulman’s view, even the negative reactions extended the discourse in a positive way. “You can only dream of that kind of thing as a journalist,” he told me. “It’s inspiring. Since this article came out, people are still thinking about it and thinking about different aspects of it — whether it’s class or the history of acting. I’m very flattered by that.” While we don’t know too much about acting, we are obsessed with discussing how Twitter works, especially these days. So, Chastain’s tweet turned the pseudo-event into “real” news, and more celebrities, such as Adam McKay and Anne Hathaway, joined the debate.
Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair jumped into the fray in the following days, and Jeremy Strong became a trending topic on Twitter. Within minutes, a Reddit thread entitled “Did the New Yorker Jeremy strong [sic] profile leave a bad taste in anyone else’s mouth?” amassed a wealth of comments, as readers debated the pros and cons of the article. Respondents inevitably took hardline positions. Some said that Strong was being unforgivably pretentious, while others held that maybe it was Schulman who was the pretentious one.
After some of the dust had settled, Aaron Sorkin joined the discussion, posting a letter in which he declared that Jeremy Strong was not “a nut” and that Schulman’s article was a “distorted picture of Jeremy that asks us to roll our eyes at his acting process.”
Needless to say, Twitter being Twitter, Sorkin’s letter and Chastain’s post spun off their own memes, adding fuel to the fire and only perpetuating the discourse further.
One of Schulman’s first mainstream detractors was Alexander Larman, who wrote a full-throated defense of Strong, aptly titled: “In Defence of Jeremy Strong: Why Attack Him for Taking His Job So Seriously?” Larman takes Chastain and Sorkin’s side, suggesting that Schulman’s piece characterizes the actor as “self-important, even narcissistic.” Larman admits that Strong’s work is characterized by a “relentless, sometimes preening intensity,” but he accuses Schulman of promoting class snobbery, of writing his profile with a “sneering streak” that “implicitly accuses the actor of pretentiousness.”
Whether you agree with Larman’s assertions about Schulman’s tone or not, he asks an important, and overlooked, question: “So often we mock actors whose fame has come from privilege and good looks rather than raw talent, so why are we mocking Strong for taking his job seriously?”
I want to take this question a step further and ask a few of my own. For instance, why do we even care about Schulman’s article, Jeremy Strong, or Succession at all? What is it about this article that makes us think we can weigh in on Strong’s acting talent? Why are we so concerned with how he performs the role of Kendall Roy or how his colleagues feel about him? In short, what is it about this article that has hit such a nerve? For me, a film scholar who studies acting techniques, the key question (with apologies to Raymond Carver) is this: what do we talk about when we talk about acting?
That’s one of the big questions that stage director and author Isaac Butler asks in his remarkable new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. In our conversation about the Strong phenomenon, Butler suggested that the amount of time we spend talking about actors and acting actually obscures how little we know about them or their craft. “We know intimate details of their private lives,” he told me. “We look to them to speak out about the issues of the day. We evaluate them constantly and festoon the better ones with a truckload of different prizes. Yet when pressed to explain what good acting actually is, we usually struggle.”
I, like Butler, think that part of our fascination with Strong, and with Schulman’s article about him, stems from the fact that, as an audience, we’re not equipped with the vocabulary to evaluate what Strong says he’s doing, how Schulman reports it, or how Strong’s technique fuels his performance on-screen. As Butler suggests, even critics who write about acting and performance “often rely on a basic shorthand of ‘convincing’ or ‘bravura’ or ‘charismatic’ or ‘well observed.’ Sorting out what makes for a good performance can be like struggling to escape quicksand without the aid of a handy tree branch.” In other words, “We know good acting when we see it” and “Nobody knows anything” are two sides of the same coin.
Strong’s pronouncements are important because he is so verbose and willing to talk about his acting process. His excessive talk encourages us to take sides — or, as scholar Jonathan Gray would describe it, to engage with the “paratexts” surrounding acting. As Gray, author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (2010), told me, film and television shows “are only a small part of the massive, extended presence of filmic and television texts across our lived environments.” Schulman’s article, Chastain’s posts, and the lore surrounding Strong’s technique belong to an even longer tradition of acting discourse: they are elusive and curious paratexts that show how little we fully understand what an actor does.
In some ways, we, the public, have always been taking sides and have been encouraged to do so. Yet the myth of “good acting” has developed without any actual knowledge of what acting is or what it consists of. Our understanding of the phenomenon is formed almost entirely by flashy anecdotes, such as Marilyn Monroe needing an entourage to advise her on set or Brando pasting cue cards onto his co-stars in The Godfather. Actors rarely speak (or know how to speak) about their craft to laypeople. And conversely, those who do are often seen as self-centered, uncooperative, or simply eccentric — like Strong. Of Schulman’s profile and its subsequent interpretation, Gray notes that “these articles give us so much more to look for, see, and/or think we see when we watch a show. The joys of the show are never just the joys of the show, as articles like this open up a whole other game to play.”
The bond we have with actors is a close one. They have the remarkable ability to make us feel something with their performances. Thus, the close connection we have with Strong may be because of the closeness we feel for what he represents: intimacy, even amidst distance. Particularly in the pandemic era.
For Butler, we’ve all been “stuck at home for our third year straight watching TV, and so we’re more connected to famous people than ever before.” Not only did the pandemic compel us to cultivate what Butler calls “fervent personal relationships” with our favorite actors; our isolation has also led us to seek even more attention via social media, sharing our strong opinions on everything we watched and read. Our need to defend or criticize Strong is understandable, as is our need to defend or criticize Schulman. Butler also thinks that this intensification leads to us “caring about and having stronger feelings/opinions about acting than ever before.”
Butler also mentions that the #MeToo movement has rightly “made us bristle about men who are seemingly engaging in self-indulgent or ‘difficult’ behaviors.” Certainly, this view is made even more poignant in the wake of Johnny Depp’s recent civil trial, where his abusive behavior was quite literally on the stand for the public to judge. Butler carefully maintains that he doesn’t think Strong is doing anything wrong here (besides, perhaps, harming himself, as Brian Cox suggests in Schulman’s piece), but his actions resemble the overwhelmingly toxic male behavior we have taught ourselves to recognize today.
For the record, I don’t think that Schulman’s profile is a hit piece, but I do think it suffers from the limitations of the celebrity profile format. Even though he was embedded with the actor, a situation that gave him greater access than writers usually have, the issue of Strong’s acting remains reliant on Strong’s own — flawed, frustrating, incomplete — articulation of it. Strong contains multitudes. His acting philosophy, any acting philosophy, is difficult to understand, let alone be translated by an outsider.
Generally, actors are all too reticent to share their techniques. Schulman cites Daniel Day-Lewis as one of Strong’s mentors, and Day-Lewis is famous for not discussing what he does, leaving scholars, reviewers, and critics to decipher his elusive on-set behavior, to compare this with his screen performance, and to fill in the rest with speculation.
There is a precedent for the negative feedback Strong received about his acting. De Niro, perhaps the most famous actor of the late 20th century, struggled with negative press about his performance techniques, the lengths he would go to in portraying his characters — such as training as a boxer in order to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, then shutting down production so he could eat his way across Italy and gain 60 pounds! Though his performances were celebrated — he won two Academy Awards for acting — De Niro ultimately refused to talk about his process in the press since it was far too complicated to be reduced to a sound bite (as my research into his records in the Harry Ransom Center attests). De Niro said as much in interviews, faced a similar backlash, and ultimately stopped doing press for decades.
Though he cites Day-Lewis and Al Pacino as his chief influences, Strong seems a kindred spirit to De Niro. They both use behavioralist techniques — external triggers such as clothing or other physical cues — to embody their characters. They are also actors who push their performance process to the extreme — to the point of leading outsiders to believe that they are engaging in self-harm.
What Strong’s detractors and partisans can all agree on is that what he does on-screen works — that his performances are riveting, requiring technical skills that most of us (and many actors too) lack. The furor surrounding him, the debate over whether he is a diva or a dedicated artist, is as much a part of this process as is our collective desire to understand it.
R. Colin Tait is the author of Robert De Niro’s Method, forthcoming from UT Press.
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