In May, Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway dazzled the Croisette as they appeared on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival to promote their roles in James Gray’s critically hailed new film “Armageddon Time.” Two weeks prior, though, they are together in New York discussing their small-screen work. Strong has reached new heights of acting as Kendall Roy, the abandoned and confused scion of a media dynasty, on the third season of HBO’s “Succession.” (He already has an Emmy on the shelf for his work on the series.) Elsewhere in the universe of broken-spirited corporate animals, Hathaway played Rebekah Neumann, first lady of a doomed co-working company, on Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed.” The pair, who first met on the set of the 2019 film “Serenity,” launch right into conversation about shared memories and their mutual passion for the craft, on Variety’s “Actors on Actors” presented by Apple TV+.
JEREMY STRONG: We’ve never sat down and talked about acting. Doing creative work and talking about creative work are separate universes.
ANNE HATHAWAY: I find talking about creative work to be something that 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 the time to sit down and talk about the process, it feels intimate in a way that I’m still figuring out if I’m even comfortable doing.
STRONG: Me too.
HATHAWAY: So let’s figure it out together here.
STRONG: Preparing for this, I went back and watched a lot of your body of work.
HATHAWAY: I’m just trying to imagine you watching “The Princess Diaries.”
STRONG: I didn’t rewatch “The Princess Diaries.”
HATHAWAY: “Rewatch.” You’re good.
STRONG: I think we both feel that the virtues of commitment and courage are ones to be aspired to. And I see your work and I’m blown away by the versatility of it, but also the courageousness and the investment.
HATHAWAY: The thing that I’ve noticed as our friendship has deepened, and one of the reasons why I’m so grateful that it turned out that we’re pals, is it’s so wonderful to know that you do it with your whole soul. That you do it with everything that you have. I know how extraordinary your brain is and the way that you are able to recall quotes and verse seemingly effortlessly. It feels so much more exciting to know that right now, in this particular moment where there’s a lot of chaos going on, there’s somebody out there who just wants to be an actor and who takes it really seriously, and who has built their life in the exploration of what that means. And it’s really happening for you. You’re being revealed as one of our great actors. My first question is, what did you tell yourself during those years when you were building it, before you had this really beautiful cosmic explosion?
STRONG: It’s the central question. What keeps us going, despite any lack of evidence that we’ll have the chances to do the work that we want to do? I don’t know the answer. I think it was just the need to do this and the feeling that it’s something worth devoting one’s 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 is the case, I find that it’s a great engine. I remember you saying something once about Vivien Leigh and how she would crawl across broken glass if she thought it would serve the scene. This character, this show is such a gift. It’s the mountain I’ve always wanted to climb.
HATHAWAY: We were shooting together when you found out that you’d gotten cast?
STRONG: Right, on “Serenity.” I think I had done the pilot and I found out that we were going to make 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 so deep in character. And I remember one time sidling up to you and saying, “Listen, I completely respect what you’re doing, but I also want to be a human. So I’m going to just be wide open, if you ever want to talk.” And you just nodded, because you were so deep in your character. A few weeks later, I remember you just appearing next to me, and you said, “I think I need to come up for air.” And you came over for dinner and it was so fun. We talked about life. 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 is so much to carry, especially on a multiple-season series. How do you chart a character over multiple seasons when you don’t exactly know what’s coming? Do you crawl across broken glass? Now that you’ve done it three times, how does it work?
STRONG: Honestly, I don’t want to ascribe too much ownership over that. I think a performance is not a monolith. It’s a thousand imperfect attempts at a moment. I find personally that I feel always on the frontier of uncertainty and confusion and from that place making attempts based on intuition. In terms of charting it, I feel very fortunate to be working 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 just pulls out of you what it needs to. And this is the hardest part — you have to make yourself available to that and be a vessel for it. I feel like I’ve been sort of coerced through these whitewater rapids for a few seasons and I love it. The weight of it is heavy. There’s many moments in “WeCrashed” that I found completely heartbreaking. These are both people who try very hard. Rebekah feels sidelined and invisible. This thing of trying to push down negative emotions and imagine a golden light. There’s a moment where you blot your eyes — I don’t know many actors who can do those two things: that level of precision and that level of pathos and soul.
HATHAWAY: That specific moment that you’re talking about, it’s got a history. My very first job was on a TV show called “Get Real.” It was my senior year of high school. I was away from home. I was shooting in Los Angeles. I was 16. There were just a lot of feelings that I had that I didn’t really understand. I would have to go to set and feel really nervous and I would start to cry, but I would know that I couldn’t cry my makeup off. So I would take a tissue and fold it in half and I would cry into the tissue. After doing this a certain number of times, I remember thinking to myself, “This would be great to see on camera.” And I have tried to get that moment into a film on several occasions, and everybody always looked at me like I had three heads when I would suggest it. She has to cry without crying off her makeup, which is something that I think a lot of women understand. I just had a feeling that it would look really strong on camera to watch the tears just saturate the tissue but not fall.
STRONG: When we were in Mauritius, I had just started working on the show and I had read something that really struck me and has become something that I think about all the time. I’ve tried to put it into the work on “Succession,” which was something that Jung said: “Only that which is really ourselves has the power to heal.” Maybe there’s something about the fact that moment came from the ground of your being.
HATHAWAY: I remember when I was younger, an actor saying, “You can only ever really play yourself.” And I thought, “I don’t know that I fully agree with that. I’m trying to play as many different characters as I can.” I don’t necessarily work this way anymore, but in the beginning part of my career, I did connect to my characters through trauma. I would kind of search out parts in myself where I was broken and parts where they were broken and I would try to find my way into them through that way.
STRONG: I think my only goal at this point is to be as free as possible. … Here I go. I’m going to not censor myself and quote something.
HATHAWAY: This is one of your gifts. This is why I brought it up because it’s amazing.
STRONG: There’s an amazing book about painting that I read last year about Edvard Munch. The writer says that painting must not merely reconstruct a moment; it must itself be a moment. It must not exist beforehand but come into being in the moment it is expressed.
HATHAWAY: That’s the aim.
STRONG: In a sense, every time somebody calls action — and I don’t like it when they call action; I like it when you just take your cue — but then you blindly follow a sense of truth and really rigorously do that. Then you discover what it is, and it reveals itself to you. But I don’t ever know where I’m going. If you prepare enough and have internalized enough, then you just know.
HATHAWAY: I’m so happy you brought up preparation because when we worked together in “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 children than I do, and you were coming off of this huge lift. Plumber is a trade. It’s something that you can go and learn. With Kendall was there something you really went deep on?
STRONG: I think each time, you’re starting from nothing. Right? It tells you how to work on it and you follow the line of your intuition. With Kendall, there’s nowhere to hide. It feels like it’s calling upon something else, which is a bone-marrow honesty, for lack of a better word. It should always ideally be honest in that way, but without any embroidery and without any spin. Of course, I read everything possible to read on the media-industrial complex. So there’s a lot of well water to draw from, but nothing for character. Very little for character.
HATHAWAY: But there’s such a sense of him trying so hard not to drown.
STRONG: Yeah. It’s so funny you say that. So there’s a Stevie Smith poem called “Not Waving but Drowning.” The idea is that it’s imperceptible which one 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 such care and respect to who she is and the way that 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 single day and check in like, “You are playing a real person.”
STRONG: She’s going to watch that. She might.
HATHAWAY: Be fair. Be honest. I think about negative space a lot. I think that it’s so important when you find the balance of someone. We’ve all grown up on fairy tales. But we all know that reality is so much more complicated and that villains are never convenient. We’re also living through an interesting time where we’re going back and we’re reconsidering what we think about villains, period. It seems like the best way forward is empathy. So one of the books that I read about something that she believed very deeply in, I came across this phrase, which said, “Judge all persons favorably.” What that means is don’t not see the thing that they’re doing. You see someone — maybe they come in and they’re acting in a ridiculous way. You can either supply a generous reason or you can go up to the person and ask them if they’re all right. I found that was the only approach I could take to this, to playing this part, was a new level of compassionate curiosity.
STRONG: One of the things I love about being an actor is your only job is to have compassionate curiosity and try and empathically understand what this person’s struggle is. And you can’t be outside of a character or above, certainly, a character or enter into it with any judgment.
HATHAWAY: It’s no fun for the audience to watch someone that’s been prejudged. That story can be told in a minute.