As the prodigal Roy son Kendall in HBO’s family media dynasty drama “Succession,” Strong enters the lead drama actor race for the first time ever (and sees his first Television Academy accolade overall). Meanwhile, Cheadle’s time as Mo Monroe in Showtime’s Wall Street period piece “Black Monday” is his second consecutive time on the lead comedy actor ballot this year was his sixth in the category (10th overall), making him one of two people to become the most-nominated Black actors in that category in the 72 year history of the awards. (The other is “Black-ish’s” Anthony Anderson.)
Kendall and Mo each delivered some pretty over-the-top events this year, from Kendall’s ill-advised rap to Mo’s coked-fueled honey trap plot. This allowed them to mix undercurrents of sadness with pops of much higher (no pun intended) adrenaline.
The duo was just as high energy when Variety brought them together to talk about their characters’ internal struggles, depictions of how power corrupts and what their characters’ major moves at the end of Season 2 mean for Season 3.
Both of your characters had these big moments at the end of the second season that seem to perfectly shake up action in Season 3. How does seeing such “this is really just the start of something major to come” affect how you choose to play those moments?
Don Cheadle: I think the philosophy we tried to do, both in the first and second seasons, was try to tip over the table and figure it out next year. Like, go as far as you can to blow the thing up and then figure out how to come back. As far as a third season goes, I would hope that it would find some way to continue what it’s done, as a period piece, for the past two seasons, which is skewer now by talking about then and show how far we haven’t come.
Jeremy Strong: One of the challenges that’s new for me in terms of working on long-form television is knowing where things are going to end and then trying to bury that and arc it as far back as possible, from where Kendall arrived in both the first season and the second season so that it feels both inevitable to me but it also can be a surprise — just forget where you’re going. This season, for me, was particularly difficult because the character had to go from a place of being really dead inside and collapsed in on himself, telling [his] sister early on in the season, “It won’t be me” and really believing that —
Cheadle: That was so great.
Strong: Thank you. We get to go to extremes, which is a really a gift as actors. Don, I’ve heard you talk about Mo as being all id. Is that freeing for you, from your other body of work?
Cheadle: Mo, especially with the nature of the series and the style of the series, he’s totally untethered. To your point, yeah Jeremy, it is freeing, but I never know what it’s going to be. Like you said, the excess and extremities of where they can go is limitless. You would believe him in many, many different scenarios. And when I watched your progression of your character from last season to this season, I watched you start out a place and then the light goes out. Just seeing the transformation and how much room you found to express these pieces, it’s a crazy combination of that inside quote-unquote dead-ness and then the show is hilarious with those snap zooms. How are you able to do both of those things at the same time where you have me laughing and sick to my stomach?
Strong: Thank you so much. If we were on Zoom you’d see I’m smiling right now. But I saw your audition tape for “Devil in a Blue Dress” ages ago, which is a master class for any actor. You’re a chameleon, you’re a transformational actor, but at the same time there’s something indelibly grounded and centered. There’s a thing that I remember reading about that Laurence Olivier wrote in his autobiography called theatrical courage, and it is this quality that not a lot of actors had, especially in film, but it was always something I really valued and admired that inspired me. That courage and audacity of imagination. I’ve been watching you forever and that means so much to me, but it’s the writing. I get to be a vessel for this writing. There are some kinds of writing which just take possession of you and reach all the way down, and this show touches me to the quick. But what was hard about this season was trying to unearth in him the pain that he’s feeling from his complicity in what happened at the end of Season 1 and the way that destroys a person.
Cheadle: Which honestly was surprising to me. Had he not gone to that place — had he been able to somehow anesthetize himself in some way, I would have bought that. It’s like, “I deal with monsters every day, I can deal with a dead guy.” But I loved the place that it took you, the place that it took him — Brian [Cox] as Logan. It felt so truthful and real and like a couple of families we know very well — well, I know of them through the media they own, I don’t party with them. But it is also a family dynamic culturally, and I don’t know any Black families like this. Sure there may be one in some ways, but the power dynamic just super-charges any of that broken, dysfunctional stuff.
Strong: Don, I’ve heard you say you get to smuggle in the message, and it feels like both of these shows are indictments of aspects of our society and what happens when people who are in a position of power are this toxic or have this much dysfunction and how that impacts — the blast radius — of the world around them.
Your characters are not thinking about how power is corrupting them or the world around them, though, so how do you allow or avoid those elements to seep into your performances?
Cheadle: I feel somewhat thankful that we’re doing it in comedy: We’re laughing and having a quote-unquote good time as we’re playing these awful people. We will have moments where a down note will hit really hard or be something where we’re dealing with real things — and any actor is attempting to really pull that in when they get there. We’re trying to be truthful so, yes, you go to those places, but as Jeremy said, we’re trying to smuggle those moments in, and the moments of release are the exception in his show. But the things that killed me are how big they are. They’re so needed when they happen, and they’re [sometimes] a runner that goes on for two more episodes. For our show, it’s a pure sitcom on cable, which is a rare thing, and the reflection and the light we’re trying to shine, in the same way “Succession” is but from the other side of the coin, is the greed and using people as pawns and nothing matters, really, at the end of the day but winning. And when I was talking to the traders, it was a sport for them: If somebody didn’t bleed on the other side of the deal, you didn’t make a good deal. It wasn’t enough to win, they had to be hurt — and it was nothing that they thought about until they were out of it and looked back on it.
Strong: I felt like I had to learn everything I could about that world and saturate myself with an understanding of it on a visceral level, and one of the books I remember reading was Sumner Redstone’s book “A Passion to Win,” and it captured the ethos of that world: it’s about strength and domination and success as a virtue. But when I’m working on the show I’m not thinking about any of those things; I’m just trying to be inside Kendall and his struggle, and connect to that. And just as you’re saying you find the moments of levity in our show come as a relief, Don, I find the moments of gravity come as a relief and they allow me to check in with you on your show. The camera will hold on your face for a few moments and we’ll see the pathos in Mo. I’m very drawn to characters who are in trouble — who are struggling or somehow in peril — and Kendall is in peril from the level of his soul. And so for me, the corporate drama, the media industrial complex drama is all the backdrop, and then there’s a story about individuation and damage and the way that power and ambition and the impact that this toxic legacy has on these kids and how they’re warped into being something that they’re not. And Don, saying you don’t see that family in Black culture, I guess what I hope is the strength of the show is that universality of those emotional dynamics.
Cheadle: Oh, 100%.
Strong: That weight on children, trying to carry a burden that’s too heavy for them to carry. The world depicted in our show is so foreign to me personally, and yet on some level I can recognize it.
Cheadle: The inner dynamics between the family members, for sure. And the ways that kids can be pitted against each other by messed up parents. That has nothing to do with economic status. The money just super-charges it. What I loved in the second season, that my wife and I talked about a lot, was making daddy proud. It’s like I kill you to make you proud. It’s so great, that loop around, and it feels like such a victory, to me. But it wasn’t like he won; I was waiting for the next scene where he called his dad and was like, “You see what I did there?”
Strong: Yeah that’s right, which is a devastating thought. But there is a sense in which he is double-bound and no matter what he does he can never escape from his father. I remember going to visit the writers’ room before we started Season 1 and I sniffed around when they took a tea break and there were note cards on the wall and there was one note card that stood on its own without any reference and it just said, “Kendall wins but loses.” What I love about it is it’s these compound extremes where one catastrophe amplifies the next and whatever ground the character gains falls out from under him. I thought about this poem by the English writer Stevie Smith called “Not Waving but Drowning” when they said I was going to do this with you because I thought about how perfect it was: both of these characters think they’re waving, but they’re drowning.
Cheadle: Yes, exactly. The devastation, I feel like it’s a very similar note of, “I win” but “OK great.” And we’re a family on our show too — we created this family that’s obviously not by the gene pool but by what we decided to do and, in a similar state, are locked into this death spiral.
When you are embodying characters who have these undercurrents of pain, do you find there’s more release in exploring that pain on-screen or burying it under heightened plot-driven moments?
Cheadle: When you check into those moments, that’s when you get locked back into the show. We all feel that and we all want those moments where we’re really connecting and talking to each other on a deeper level and not just trying to land pratfalls and deliver jokes and all of the other stuff the show needs to do. That really allows you to see who these characters are, and that’s important because if it’s all jokes then nothing matters and who’s going to want to watch it? It has to come from some place where you feel the heart beating. I’ll speak for myself: I relish it all. I tend to under-value the effect it has on me, but as I’ve gotten older I realize it’s real and your body and your nervous system doesn’t always know that you’re acting. You come home and you’re like, “Why are my shoulders up to my ears?” I think at Mo’s center is a very uncomfortable person. I think of him, inside, as if there’s 1,000 chairs in a room, you’re sitting on each one of them for two or three seconds and none of the chairs are comfortable.
Strong: Wow. That’s an amazing description.
Cheadle: That’s how he feels to me: He’s always shifting and moving, and he doesn’t want to sit anywhere for too long because someone might get a bead on you and you can’t have that! You put these clothes on and you start to give signals to your body that you’re this person again, and you start getting into these different tempo rhythms and different things start getting accessed. So there is and there can be a residual thing when you get into dark characters and when you’re playing a lot of heavy, emotional stuff — and we can all talk about actors and creative people not being able to pull out of the places they put themselves in. You have to be careful and you have to take care of yourself, especially now, in this environment. Self-care is real and listening to yourself and taking care of that is really real. But I feel like there’s a balance of material on my show that I really appreciate. The hours are tough — the actual shooting of it is tough: we shoot in five days and it’s a lot of work to do in five days. All of these things do inform who you are, where you are, how you approach the work, but I absolutely love when these really outrageous characters sit down and get deep — it grounds it and it gives us the ability to go further on the other side, too, because you know there’s somebody really there.
Strong: I certainly feel a tremendous responsibility to the text and to serving the character, and that responsibility comes with a lot of weight and a feeling of pressure for me. With a show and a role like this, I find I have to be all-in and take Kendall as seriously as I take my own life, and there’s no release for this character. I think [he] desperately seeks a release that is not given to him, and there is a low-decibel anguish that I had to sustain for most of the season — until he wakes up one day and that anguish fades and he’s able to brush his teeth and carry on, although a part of him has been irrevocably lost. The release almost came once that happened — after I had to go visit the house of the boy and after I got to put all that behind me, then I had a sense, even when filming, of being out of hell. And when I got to do the rap, that felt like a release because I didn’t have to be tied to that monstrous pain any more; the character had a license to swagger and it was expressive, when so much is internal.
What did you learn from your first season that really helped with the stamina required for these things in the second season?
Strong: I felt, honestly, extremely daunted by the workload and the lack of time. I’m somebody who, if I had my way, would sit with all 10 scripts for six months and internalize them all and prepare so I could show up and be free. So it only have four days often to learn a whole script is just a constant losing battle that you have to fight for the entire time. It feels like a miracle that I am prepared enough each time I walk on set. It is about being really economical with your time and trying to get rest and creating enough negative space around you so you can really focus intensely on creating a belief in what you’re doing so it feels anchored in some kind of truth. And then the emotional stamina — I guess the good news is although it is depleting, no matter how heavy it is, there’s still tremendous joy in the creative process and in showing up and playing. And once you’re in a flow, then I find it energizing — but it is much harder to achieve a state of flow in TV than it is on a movie where it’s more immersive and you have a few months to prepare.
Cheadle: Yeah, and our show, especially Season 1, was a runaway train. As we were taking off, duct-taping an engine, one of the wheels would fall off — and we landed it, but there were some casualties. But the next season, understanding what it’s like to work at a pace like that, understanding, like Jeremy said, how ahead you can get in the material and what it is you’re trying to play in advance of the moment you’re coming onto set, that’s so important. You mentioned this Jeremy, but I have the same process: I go into the [writers’] room early; I want to see where Mo has to get to and then forget — for Mo not to know and to go through it as much as you can.
Strong: I feel like those five days [you have to shoot an episode] lets you take bigger risks. Same with us. We don’t rehearse much. I try not to rehearse. There’s the time constraints and we shoot on film, so there’s a sense of danger that I really enjoy and I think creates a good charge in the atmosphere. And then there’s the improv. I know the text, but I feel freedom on the day to respond in the moment in any way. It’s a very exciting way of working. Do you guys get to improvise? The writing on the show feels pretty tight.
Cheadle: It’s a mix of both. The creators of the show are joke whores and they’re like, “Best answer wins,” so they’re not precious and are always flying in something that they think is funnier than what they wrote. So it’s very alive, and I think it feels like that. The show is malleable enough and playful and it’s a lot of fun.