In May, Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway dazzled the Croisette as they appeared on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival to promote their roles in James Gray’s new film Armageddon Time. Two weeks earlier, however, they are together in New York discussing their work on the small screen. Strong reached new heights of acting as Kendall Roy, the abandoned and confused descendant of a media dynasty, in the third season of HBO’s “Succession.” (He already has an Emmy on the shelf for his work on the series.) Elsewhere in the broken-spirited corporate animal universe, Hathaway played Rebekah Neumann, first lady of a doomed coworking company, on Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed.” The duo, who met on the set of the 2019 film “Serenity,” strike up a conversation about shared memories and their mutual passion for the craft.
JEREMY FORTE: We never sat down and talked about acting. Doing creative work and talking about creative work are separate universes.
ANNE HATHAWAY: I think talking about creative work is something I’m still not entirely comfortable with. I’m still in a place where I’m so focused on being an actor – getting the jobs, developing the material. Making time to sit down and talk about the process feels intimate in a way that I’m still figuring out if I’m comfortable doing it.
STRONG: Me too.
HATHAWAY: So let’s find out together here.
STRONG: Preparing for this, I went back and watched a lot of your work.
HATHAWAY: I’m just trying to picture you watching “The Princess Diaries.”
STRONG: I haven’t watched “The Princess Diaries”.
HATHAWAY: “To review”. You are good.
STRONG: I think we both feel that the virtues of commitment and courage are to be aspired to. And I look at his work and I’m impressed by his versatility, but also by his courage and investment.
HATHAWAY: The one thing I’ve noticed as our friendship has deepened, and one of the reasons I’m so grateful that we’ve been friends, is that it’s so wonderful to know that you do it with all your soul. May you do this with everything you have. I know how extraordinary your brain is and the way you are able to remember quotes and verses seemingly effortlessly. It’s so much more exciting to know that right now, in this particular moment where there’s a lot of chaos going on, there’s someone out there who just wants to be an actor and takes it very seriously, and who’s built their life on exploring what that means. And it’s really happening to you. You are being revealed as one of our great actors. My first question is, what did you say to yourself during those years when you were building it, before you had this really beautiful cosmic explosion?
STRONG: It is the central issue. What keeps us going despite the lack of evidence that we will have the chance to do the work we want to do? I do not know the answer. I think it was just the need to do it and the feeling that it was worth dedicating your life to. I don’t know if it was apocryphal – if you really were the ninth choice for “The Devil Wears Prada”. But that ninth choice feeling, whether or not it’s the case, I think is a great engine. I remember you saying something once about Vivien Leigh and how she would crawl on broken glass if she thought she would fit the scene. This character, this show is a gift. It’s the mountain I’ve always wanted to climb.
HATHAWAY: We were filming together when you found out you had been cast?
STRONG: Right, in “Serenity”. I think I had done the pilot and found out we were going to do the show.
HATHAWAY: You are known for your immersive process, and I remember seeing you while we were on the beautiful island of Mauritius, walking around with such a deep character. And I remember once approaching you and saying, “Listen, I completely respect what you’re doing, but I also want to be human. So I will be very open if you want to talk.” And you just nodded, because you were so deep into your character. A few weeks later, I remember you showing up at my side and saying, “I think I need to breathe.” And you came for dinner and it was so much fun. We talked about life. Do you remember what we drank that night?
STRONG: We drank Penny Blue rum.
HATHAWAY: A lot of it. And you told me about “Succession” and it sounded great. But it’s a show about the legacy of abuse. That’s a lot to carry, especially in a multi-season series. How do you plot a character over multiple seasons when you don’t know exactly what’s coming next? Do you crawl on broken glass? Now that you’ve done this three times, how does it work?
STRONG: Honestly, I don’t want to assign too much ownership to this. I think a performance is not a monolith. It’s a thousand imperfect attempts at a time. Personally, I find that I always feel on the edge of uncertainty and confusion, and from there, I make tentative attempts based on intuition. In terms of mapping, I feel very fortunate to work with Jesse Armstrong and the writers, who have such an incisive, forensic understanding of psychiatry, of interiority. So a lot of that needle is threaded for you. And like very powerful magnets, it only takes from you what you need. And this is the hardest part – you have to make yourself available for it and be a container for it. I feel like I’ve been coerced by these rapids for a few seasons and I love it. The weight of it is heavy. There are many moments in “WeCrashed” that I found completely heartbreaking. These are two people who try very hard. Rebekah feels marginalized and invisible. This thing of trying to break down negative emotions and imagine a golden light. There’s a moment when you close your eyes – I don’t know many actors who can do both of those things: this level of precision and this level of pathos and soul.
HATHAWAY: That particular moment you’re talking about has a history. My first job was on a TV show called “Get Real”. It was my last year of high school. I was away from home. I was filming in Los Angeles. I was 16 years old. There were a lot of feelings I had that I didn’t really understand. I would have to go on set and feel really nervous and start crying, but I would know I couldn’t cry my makeup. So I would take a tissue and fold it in half and cry into the tissue. After doing this a number of times, I remember thinking to myself, “That would be great to see on camera.” And I’ve tried to put that moment in a movie on several occasions, and everyone always looked at me like I had three heads when I suggested it. She has to cry without crying because of the makeup, which is something I think a lot of women understand. I just had the feeling that it would get really strong on camera to watch the tears just saturate the fabric but not fall out.
STRONG: When we were in Mauritius, I had just started working on the series and had read something that really impressed me and became something I think about all the time. I tried to put that into the work of “Succession”, which was something that Jung said: “Only what is really ourselves has the power to heal”. Maybe there’s something about the fact that the moment came from deep within your being.
HATHAWAY: I remember when I was younger, an actor saying, “You can only really play yourself.” And I thought, “I don’t know if I fully agree with that. I’m trying to play as many different characters as possible.” I don’t necessarily work that way anymore, but early in my career, I connected with my characters through trauma. I was kind of looking for parts of myself where I was broken and parts where they were broken and I was trying to find my way to them that way.
STRONG: I think my only goal right now is to be as free as possible. … Here I go. I’m not going to censor myself and quote something.
HATHAWAY: This is one of your gifts. That’s why I brought this because it’s amazing.
STRONG: There’s an amazing book on painting I read last year about Edvard Munch. The writer says that the painting must not just reconstruct a moment; he himself must be a moment. It must not exist in advance, but arise the moment it is expressed.
HATHAWAY: That is the goal.
STRONG: In a way, every time someone calls action – and I don’t like it when they call it action; I like it when you just follow your lead – but then you blindly follow a sense of truth and really do it rigorously. Then you find out what it is, and it reveals itself to you. But I never know where I’m going. If you prepare enough and internalize enough, then you will simply know.
HATHAWAY: I’m so glad you mentioned prep, because when we worked together on “Armageddon Time,” your character was a plumber. And you went to learn how to fix a refrigerator. It was a humbling moment for me as an actor to realize that you have more kids than I do, and you were stepping out of this big elevator. Plumber is a trade. It’s something you can go and learn. Was there anything with Kendall that you really delved into?
STRONG: I think each time, you’re starting from nothing. Right? He tells you how to work on it and you follow the line of your intuition. With Kendall, there’s nowhere to hide. It sounds like it’s calling something else, which is bone marrow honesty, for lack of a better word. Ideally, it should always be honest in this way, but without any embroidery and without any spins. Of course, I’ve read everything there is to read about the media industrial complex. So there’s a lot of well water to draw, but nothing for character. Too little for the character.
HATHAWAY: But there’s a feeling he’s trying so hard not to drown.
STRONG: Yup. It’s so funny you say that. Then there’s a poem by Stevie Smith called “Not Waving but Drowning”. The idea is that it is imperceptible which it is. I think that’s true of both of our characters, actually. Which is one of the things I find so poignant about her. You can’t help but care about this person. You give so much care and respect for who she is and the way she is a student of life.
HATHAWAY: Your character in “Succession”, my character in “WeCrashed”, they line up in a very specific way, but yours is inspired by someone. I was playing someone very, very real. So there was a component where I had to sit there every day and check in like, “You’re playing a real person.”
STRONG: She will watch this. She must.
HATHAWAY: Be fair. Be honest. I think a lot about negative space. I think it’s so important when you find someone’s balance. We all grew up in fairy tales. But we all know that reality is much more complicated and that villains are never convenient. We’re also having an interesting time where we’re back and we’re reconsidering what we think about villains, period. It seems the best way forward is empathy. Then, in one of the books I read about something she deeply believed in, I came across this sentence, which read, “Judge all people favourably.” What that means is not seeing what they are doing. You see someone – maybe they come in and are acting ridiculous. You can provide a generous reason, or you can go to the person and ask if they are okay. I found that the only approach I could take to this, to playing this role, was a new level of compassionate curiosity.
STRONG: One of the things I love about being an actor is that your only job is to have compassionate curiosity and try to empathically understand what that person’s struggle is. And you can’t be out of character or above, certainly, out of character or into it with any judgment.
HATHAWAY: It’s not fun for the public to watch someone who’s been pre-judged. This story can be told in a minute.