HBO’s “Industry” is a show about being young and hungry: for money, sex, love, power and control. But in the ensemble of twentysomethings attempting to find themselves professionally and personally in the cutthroat world of British investment bank Pierpoint, creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s drama’s most memorable character — and most commanding performance — is their much older boss. Eric Tao (Ken Leung), the managing director of the Cross Product Sales desk that houses half of the show’s main quartet, isn’t the typical mentor figure, even as he develops a compelling camaraderie with the highly driven Harper (Myha’la Herrold). He’s single-minded in his pursuit of profit, and his preferred method of management is to bully and intimidate his subordinates into submission. Leung is a force as the volatile director, imbuing him with just enough humanity to be likable, but providing a gravitas that makes him feel invincible.
But in Season 2, Eric’s position at the firm starts to feel increasingly shaky, as his professional relationship with Harper falls apart and his competency is doubted by Danny Van Deventer (Alex Alomar Akpobome), a transfer to his desk from Pierpoint’s New York branch. After his protege goes behind his back and convinces her client (Jay Duplass) not to sell his shares to Eric’s, the director goes to America on a two-week leave with his family. In something of a crisis, he mulls slowing down to focus on raising his daughters, and reconnects with Holly (Anna Wilson-Jones) the widow of his late friend and mentor Newman — a fellow Pierpoint employee with whom Eric developed a strong bond with before the events of the show began. Then, in a last-minute twist, he’s ambushed by Danny and his boss, and forced into accepting a “promotion” to the client relationship management services department — the exact type of cushy desk job that someone who thrives on stress like he does despises.
“I needed to understand where what that position means in the culture of this world,” Leung said about playing the final scenes of the episode, which sees Eric moving into his new office. “Mickey and Konrad were telling me that it’s a bullshit role. I think, playing it and looking around and being with the picture and stuff, he is looking to get out of there in some way, as fast as possible. It’s not like ‘This is my new place. Let me get used to being here.’ I don’t think he plans to be there long.
Over Zoom, Leung talked to Variety about showing a more vulnerable side to Eric in Season 2, working with Herrold and how he wraps his brain around the show’s dense finance-speak.
So, I’ll be honest with you: 90% of the time when I’m watching “Industry,” I do not understand a word that’s coming out of the characters’ mouths on the trading floor. When you get the scripts, how much do you understand?
A piece at a time — Mickey and Conrad are very accessible. I go through every script. And I flag every question, no matter how seemingly inane it is, and they answer them until I understand the essence of whatever the exchange is. I don’t feel that I need to understand the ins and outs of the finance part of it. It’s really “Am I trying to convince this person to buy this or sell this?” On the level to which I can possibly understand, they provide that, and the rest comes from playing it.
Eric has always felt so all powerful in this world, but in Season 2 we see him in a slightly more vulnerable light. What did you make of that, and why he’s now being doubted at Pierpoint?
He’s not making money the way he used to be. Anybody in that position would be more fragile. Playing somebody powerful is only fun if you get to lose it, so I welcome that. Eric is also the kind of character who those challenges are kind of what he’s all about. How to get it again, how to find it again. Especially for Season 2, where part of it he does in tribute to his deceased mentor, and and in some ways, best friend.
How do you think that Newman’s death affected Eric and his performance at Pierpoint?
In ways that surprise him. It’s not like I go in and analyze at all, and I’m like, “OK, this is how I see this: This is how I register this loss.” That would take away the fun of it. I try to go in knowing what the pieces are, and I just kind of let it fly. And anything that involves a deep relationship, you can channel any number of people in your actual life you love, because then it can be kind of a real-life tribute to real-life friends.
On the subject of deep relationships, the core of the show is Harper and Eric’s dynamic. How do you build that with Herrold?
She’s so easy to act with. She’s very present. She knows what works for her, and what doesn’t work for her. I’m not afraid to improvise with her — any kind of any acting situation is made easier when you have somebody who’s just with you. Chemistry cannot be manufactured or planned. But when we met, we we had something. It was like we knew each other before.
There’s a line of dialogue in Season 2 where Harper tells Danny not to listen to what people say about her relationship with Eric, and the insinuation is that people at the firm are gossiping that they’re sleeping together. What is it that draws them together?
I don’t think Eric 100% knows, either. I think he sees a lot of himself in her, and he kind of welcomes that position of he is to her what Newman was to him. I think a lot of Season 2 is Eric trying to keep Newman alive. Like, when he walks into that office — the one that was made to exactly replicate Newman’s office — it hits him in a way that he didn’t expect. He didn’t expect to see that office kind of staged for him, and I don’t think he expects to feel how he felt, seeing the MAGA cap and everything.
We try to set up a playground, and then when you’re on it you don’t really know how you’re going to feel about it. That’s what makes scenes fun to play: When you’re not just entering them to execute something you’ve already pre-planned. He has mixed feelings, about grief, about how to keep Newman’s memory alive. I think it’s a fluid thing, where that grief sits in him will change. I couldn’t tell you how that will change any more than I could tell you how my real-life grief about real-life losses evolve over time.
On the subject of Newman, it was really fascinating hearing him talk in the restaurant with Newman’s widow Holly about the racism he experienced from Newman. Can you tell me about playing that scene?
It’s not 100% clear where Eric is in terms of political leanings; we can make guesses based on what we’ve been given so far. I don’t know how to articulate how I unpack it. In that moment, Holly was surprised to hear Newman had ever been that way, so that was a matter of making her understand that there was a side to him that she didn’t know. There’s no easy way to unpack these things, I think it’s like all our relationships in life. How do you unpack your relationship with your dad? This element of “I don’t know” is important for acting. It’s important to not know. Knowing facts and backstory or having the answer to any question doesn’t help you play it, it just gives you the confidence that “Oh, I’ve been studious enough to find all the answers.” The playing it comes from interacting with another human being in front of you.
Can you tell me about shooting the scenes in the episode in which Eric spars with DVD over the phone? How’d you approach that antagonistic relationship, and working with Akpobome?
Alex came in very respectful. He was new to the show, whereas most of the cast had already done a whole season together. Once we had established that he was one of us, and that we like to play on the show, that phone call, when we shot his side of it, I would just do all kinds of things on the other end of the call. Like, not talk for minutes — anything that would give a rise or reaction. This show gives us the kind of space to play, to get a reaction from the other actor, that you could never get by sitting down to talk about it beforehand. “I’m gonna do this, and then you do that” — that would kill anything spontaneous, you know? Alex, he’s a really reactive actor. You try something that you didn’t do the take before, he’s right there with you. He’s a very sensitive actor, that way.
I love the two quick scenes in the episode where Eric plays with his outfit; he aggressively polishes his shoes, and in the elevator on the way to a meeting, takes off his tie at the last second. They’re small moments, but they say so much about who he is.
You don’t expect to see him that way. You almost never see him uncertain — you see him very composed, usually. So whenever you get a glimpse of him when he’s not that, it’s always fun to play.
During the scene with Holly, Eric says something about how he wants to feel that he earned his right to be there, that he earned his place at Pierpoint. How do you think that plays into how he navigates this world?
He feels he constantly needs to earn his place, which is why he’s the way he is, why he’s as tough as he is. He’s not a guy who relaxes — he relaxes in the midst of chaos. That’s his comfort zone. He feels like he’s always fighting something. Whether or not he actually is is another story.
This interview has been edited and condensed.