‘Armageddon Time’ Director James Gray And Star Jeremy Strong Interview – Deadline

Based on the director’s childhood, James Gray’s Armageddon Time tells the story of 12-year-old Paul (newcomer Banks Repeta), and how his Jewish family reacts to his friendship with a Black student, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), in early ’80s New York. Both boys share a love of space flight, and their pre-teen dreams take their imaginations light years away from their mundane lives. But the backdrop is a moment of tension, as Ronald Reagan, seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for president, stirs up civil unrest in the country. Paul’s father, Irving, played by Succession’s Jeremy Strong, despises Reagan’s dog-whistle provocations and screams at his image when he appears on television. But, he wonders, being from a vulnerable minority himself, is it wise for him to allow his son’s friendship to continue?

Gray was looking for an actor who could imprint his father with an almost Willy Loman-like stamp, though the role has also been likened to a Jewish Stanley Kowalski with a PhD, definitely not hagiography.

Strong knew that Gray had met with other actors. He desperately wanted to work with the man who’d made seven pictures, four of them with Joaquin Phoenix. There was also Gray’s screenplay which Strong likens to a “musical score in terms of its level of precision. “But Strong says he experienced a “profound doubt” as to whether he was capable “of what the role required.” “And at the same time, there was just a counter force that feels a need to move toward that feeling,” Strong says.

Gray says he picked Strong because he could see the actor’s commitment to digging deep to play Irving. “But I couldn’t help him. He had to find Irving himself,” he says. That was not helpful, says Strong. The actor says that there was an instance where Gray refused to assist him in his desire to find out relevant information about the director’s father. Eventually Gray acquiesced without a fight. Rare because “I fight a lot,” Gray admits.

He and Strong didn’t grapple or argue “because Jeremy is very communicative with what he’s going through. When the actor’s communicative you then say, to yourself anyway, “I’d like to help. And how directly can I get to the bottom of what’s troubling this person.” Joaquin is obviously fantastic as well, but he’s different,” says Gray.

Having followed the pair from Cannes to Telluride and now awards season, Baz Bamigboye pins Gray and Strong down to discuss the film’s very topical themes.

Armageddon Time

From left, Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta.

Focus Features/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: James, when did you first notice Jeremy, and when did you know you wanted him to play Irving?

JAMES GRAY: Well, after I Zoomed with him. I didn’t know who he was, and then my wife was telling me how great he was, so I wanted to catch up.

JEREMY STRONG: James doesn’t watch anything from the last, like, three or four decades…

DEADLINE: You don’t watch TV?

GRAY: That’s not true! I watch movies. I just don’t watch a ton of television. Not out of snob-bery. I want to be clear about that because on TV, there’s some great stuff. But, as I’ve said before, I’m trying to be an expert in at least one thing in my life. So I watch a lot of old movies because I think that’s the basics, the rudiments of the history of it. And so I don’t really want to dedicate 60 hours of my life to The Wire, which I hear is a masterpiece. I’ve never done it. It’s overwhelming to me to watch a billion hours of television, you know? I feel that a movie is one hour and 48 minutes. It’s really that.

STRONG: The truth is for me, you know, James is such a heavyweight filmmaker who I’ve revered for my whole adult life. And of course the actors that he’s worked with and the performances that he’s gotten from those actors, I mean, the work that Joaquin [Phoenix] did in all of those films, the work, I think Ad Astra is my favorite performance of [Brad] Pitt’s.

I think he’s a director that as an actor you would swim across the ocean to work with. And it was apparent to me in our Zoom — I could just feel, as one can — that he wasn’t really familiar with my work.

DEADLINE: How did that lack of familiarity express itself?

STRONG: It didn’t express itself in any sort of explicit way. It was more a sense that one gets. So I had to figure out a way [to impress him], because I really wanted to do this with him. And he was looking at other actors — some great, great actors who are friends of mine — to do this. And I wrote to him, saying I felt I had this character in me. His capacity for love, his incomprehension, his feelings of inadequacy, his goofiness, his rage, all those things I felt I had within me, and I recognized them from experiences in my own life.

The character is described as “a Jewish Stanley Kowalski with a Ph.D.” which is really an incredible and vivid description, but also a gauntlet to throw down. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and at the same time, ‘I have to do this.’

DEADLINE: So, James, what were you seeing from your end?

GRAY: My wife said he was great, and my wife has fantastic taste. When she says to me, “This actor’s great,” it’s 99.9 percent certain that the person’s excellent. and that’s why I thought, ‘Well, I should do this Zoom.’ What I saw was that he liked me a lot, so immediately, I thought he was intelligent. [Laughs] Joking aside, I thought he was great. I mean, he was so smart. He had such a fantastic ability to understand human beings, you know? And he quoted something. I don’t even remember what, but it sounded all fancy and way smarter than I am, which is great. You always want to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more interesting than you.

He had passion for the part, and he understood it. I feel that when you work with an actor, if they get it, what you’re trying to do, and they’re not asking for more scenes, usually, it’s a pretty good indicator that they’re going to do a great job. So that night, I went and watched the first three episodes of Succession, if memory serves me correctly. I then wound up watching a huge lot more, although I’m now behind again. And then I saw Aaron Sorkin’s movie [The Trial of the Chicago 7]. I saw a bunch of other things and it was basically, the IMDB search on Jeremy, and I tried to become an expert on him.

STRONG: I don’t know if you remember this, James, but I was in Denmark at the time. I have a house about an hour outside of Copenhagen, in this fishing village on the ocean, but I don’t have Wi-Fi there, so I had taken the train into Copenhagen to Zoom with you. I told you that, and you were like, “Why on earth would you take the train to Zoom with me?” [Laughs] I’m glad I took that train.

Armageddon Time

Jeremy Strong

Focus Features/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: So James, what’s going through your head as you are watching him in Succession? Are you thinking, “OK, is this the right thespian to portray a character based on my father?”

GRAY: When I look at actors, I never, ever think, ‘Hmm, is the actor right for the part that I have in my head?’ I think that’s a very dangerous approach. What I look for is their total commitment to whatever they’re doing in the work. To me, the process is that the actor is completely dedicated, and that’s how you get an organic surprise. In other words, the actor is doing things you committed to and are consistent with the character that you and he or she or they have talked about. But it’s about moving past that, you know? The actor shouldn’t be doing exactly what I predicted they should do two years before. That’s not interesting. That’s crap. So what I look for is the dedication of the actor to the work.

DEADLINE: Jeremy, from your standpoint: was there anything else that you did to prepare for that first Zoom?

STRONG: If anything, I experienced a profound doubt that I was capable of what this role required, and at the same time, there was just a counter force in me that felt a need to move toward that feeling, if that makes sense. And it’s the intersection of those two things that’s the most fertile creative ground I’ve always sought for the kind of relationships in which an actor and a director have parity in terms of process and the way they feel toward the work. And James is a director that I hope I get to work with for the rest of my life, because I know what we could make together.

I feel more and more that a script, even a great script, is essentially a blueprint and that you are embarking on a voyage of discovery together. And the thing is only as good as the discoveries you make in the process. So that requires both being intrepid about it but also being open. And one of the incredible things I discovered about James, for someone who’d written a very, very precise script, is how open he was. One of the first things he said to me was, “Whatever you do, don’t nail it.” I can count on one hand the great directions that I’ve gotten from theater directors and film directors that have stayed with me my whole life, and that’s certainly one of them. James is in the tradition of those great filmmakers who are looking for moments that catch fire and moments of unexpected truth. You know, there’s a great documentary about Picasso where you watch him painting and the cameras behind the canvas, and it’s called the Mystery of Picasso and…

GRAY: He’s painting on glass.

STRONG: Yeah, painting on the glass. And he says what he’s looking for is the unexpectedness of the naked truth. And James is going after the same statement. This unvarnished truth, which you have to prepare the ground in a certain way for that to even be possible. But that commitment to the truth and a passionate commitment to veracity is a wonderful thing to find in a fellow traveler.

DEADLINE: So James, when did you say, “OK, I want this actor to be in my film?”

GRAY: Right after the Zoom.

STRONG: Really?

GRAY: Yeah, because when you see that level of commitment and passion in an actor, it almost never translates to mediocre work. I’ve never encountered that. Maybe that case can exist. Maybe there’s somebody like Eve Harrington, who wants the part so bad and pretends, but I’ve never had that. When I see an actor who’s that committed and that interested, it’s going to translate because the person is open and committed.

That’s everything in acting, you know? Is the actor willing, and is the director willing, to explore, talk, think, take risks, and not do the opposite of why we got into the business? Let me explain this to you because it’s actually, weirdly, one of the more tricky and more important concepts: 99.9 percent of all actors and directors got into the business because, in the high school play, they wanted all the ladies in the back row to love them. I understand that impulse. And yet, when we finally get to set, it’s the exact opposite of what we need to do. The exact opposite is to ignore the ladies in the back row and to focus on getting rid of the need for approbation or admiration — to be honest to yourself in the moment and to be willing to be disliked. That’s risk. That’s art.

STRONG: To be willing to be disliked and willing to make a fool of oneself.

GRAY: Yeah. You need that because the art that lasts is the stuff that really asks us to engage in some of our more embarrassing or unsafe qualities, because that’s what makes us human. You know what’s not human? You see an ad for, like, Victoria’s Secret. It’s very nice, but it’s not a work of art, really. It doesn’t engage me with what it means to be a human being.

I don’t feel it to be a comment on sincerity, it doesn’t mean anything to me. So the question is, are you going to do work that reaches out and takes that long arm of compassion and says, “Here’s what it means to be a member of the human race.” And then to do that, it means a willingness to not want to be loved. So that’s what I see. That’s what I like. 

STRONG: It’s true what James is saying about the reasons that many, many of us sort of start doing this, which is about a form of self-presentation that might get you some kind of validation from others. Or just simply to be liked or to belong. And ridding yourself of those needs is important so that you can be unfettered, free, and open. So, for me, when a director calls action, it’s in a sense about robbing yourself of skill and security and entering a place that’s quite perilous. And you have to do that through character. That’s where craft comes in. You have to take your cool kid suit off.

DEADLINE: But if you’re going to play someone who’s in pain, who’s fallible and who’s a real person struggling with what people struggle with, and in turmoil the way Irving Graff is in turmoil, you have to really go there.

STRONG: By the way, this is a tricky, tricky thing here guys. I’m sorry to interrupt. The tricky thing here is of course, what he’s talking about. It’s really pretty much anathema to a lot of things. It’s anathema to capitalism. It’s anathema to making people feel comfortable buying new products. It’s anathema to the way the world is built right now. That’s the struggle, and that’s why there’s risk. Now you can bury it in something that has great popular appeal. It doesn’t mean everything that’s popular is bad. That’s not what I mean. 

But what is evident is that this kind of risk does involve a battle against the system that doesn’t really want it all the time. And that’s a…

GRAY: Doesn’t want what? Authenticity?

Armageddon Time

Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong.

Anne Joyce/Focus Features/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: The thing I love about this movie is that almost every day, I see things that seem to relate to it. Even watching Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s documentary on Netflix talking about the unconscious bias of the royal family…

GRAY: Well, that’s a good thing, I think. I mean, it’s not really the job or the function of artists, if I may call us that, to offer you a positive view in the face of everything that is in the world. It’s our obligation to convey to you how we see the world, how we feel that it was or is and not what it should be. That’s a very important distinction. And we have a job to confront things with honesty. Class and race, all these things go into the soup of what it means to be a human being today. There are things that are really unpleasant that we have to confront. I don’t think it serves us well to avoid them at all or to give easy answers.

DEADLINE: Tell me about the kind of conversations that you had with Jeremy to place him in your story.

GRAY: Jeremy will confirm this. While we were shooting, I didn’t talk that much, with the exception of some adjustments to certain scenes. The job of the director, I think, is to help the actor realize their beauty and greatness and talent. It’s not my job to tell the actor, “This is what you have to do.” My job is to help them live and be beautiful. So I resist saying, “Here’s what I want.” That’s not what I’m after. Once I’ve cast the thing, my attitude is always, ‘How can I help the actor be their best?’ Because I’ve already made the decision to cast that person. Jeremy would probably be able to answer this better than I would. He asked me a lot of questions, and I don’t know how satisfactorily I answered them [laughs] but once the guy was in the picture, it was his job to get beautiful and find it.

STRONG: I’ll say I’ve played a lot of characters who were based on real people, many of them living people, so I’m used to the process of saturating yourself with everything you possibly can from the template of the real person and then making it your own. In this case, I never felt a greater challenge or responsibility in my life because this person was real and because it was the filmmaker’s father.

Finding a way in was imperative, and I was really in despair of it because, initially, I don’t think James wanted to share very much. I think he felt, like, “It’s on the page and I don’t want you to do some kind of portraiture or imitation of my parents.” I became like a detective, obsessed with finding clues. And so I got on a plane with a tape recorder, went and found James and started that process of just plying him with a million questions.

I asked James to answer the Proust questionnaire as his father, and then I gave the tape recorder to his wife and they were going to see his father the next day. And so they had him answer all of those questions and they videoed him doing that. And that gave me a sort of nodule of truth that became the basis of everything else. But really, we didn’t talk much during the making of it because preparation is 90, maybe 95 percent of the thing.

DEADLINE: James, why were you so resistant to participate in Jeremy’s desire to learn more about the character he was going to be playing? What was your hesitancy there?

GRAY: The answer always must come from the actor. The director is not giving answers. The answer is within the actor. The actor is conveying. The actor’s job is not to act. It’s one of the great wrong terms ever. The wall must come down between the actor and the character. If the answers are coming from me, it means the actor is not finding it within him or her or themselves. So I don’t give answers to the actor. The actor must find the answers. It’s my job to ask the questions if I think they need help to get to that answer themselves. If I’m giving them the answer, that means it’s a real problem. I mean, I guess I gave the answers to the kids. But they’re 12, you know? It’s a very different language.

STRONG: I agree with James. Every time you play a character, it’s like you’re building a new instrument that’s never existed before, and then you have to learn to play it. And only once that instrument has been built and learned can you answer your own questions.

Armageddon Time

Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time.

Focus Features/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: James, you went out for dinner, what were the discussions like, did you fight? I’m trying to get to the heart of this collaboration.

GRAY: I don’t think we fought at all. Not a single fight actually, which is a weird thing. I usually fight a lot. 

DEADLINE: I’ve heard this.

GRAY: With Joaquin [Phoenix] I fight a lot, but it’s a different sort of thing. Because lot of times, Jeremy is very communicative with what he’s going through. When the actor’s communicative you then say, to yourself anyway, “I’d like to help. And how directly can I get to the bottom of what’s troubling this person.” Joaquin is obviously fantastic as well, but he’s different.

You know, his process is different, so you don’t hear what’s troubling him. So then I kind of get frustrated. That’s where the fight comes. Although the last two pictures I made with him, I didn’t fight with him either. I mean, mostly what it is, is I like to let them do what they do. I almost never gave Jeremy direction before take one. I mean, I don’t think I ever did really, because you want to see what they bring. 

And then there was, I think maybe on day one or two or something, I think I said, “Well, you know, it’s a little bit verging on, you have to do a little bit less.” It’s a bad word because it doesn’t really mean a lot, but you have to do a little bit less of the florid version of Irving because the cinema is so intimate. It reads, the camera reads everything. So sometimes actors, even if they’re honest, they need to understand that you’re not playing to, even the space that you’re in, you’re playing something smaller than that space. 

DEADLINE: What do you think, both of you, the film says about America today? I know it’s set in the 1980s, but it does speak to so much that’s going on now. For example, when Donald Trump had dinner in Florida with a white supremacist, I thought of your movie and the scene at the school with Trump’s father, Fred Trump…

GRAY: Well, first of all, thank you. But what do I think it says about today? You know, nothing comes from nothing. It’s like history has very complex threads, and you can never get to the bottom of it. To try is folly, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try. You and I look at the world today and what we see is an unendingly complex situation that has been handled excessively poorly by our institutions. And it’s our job to point out how difficult it will be to unpack those things. It’s basically as simple as that.

Every time I buy a Nike shoe or a sneaker of any kind, I’m contributing to a brutal capitalist system in which the person who made my shoe is probably oppressed in the most vicious fashion. There is no action that we can take that is without a component of ethical and moral compromise of some kind. And it’s incumbent upon us, since we can’t live a clean existence, to know this and to work as hard as we can to make the world a better place. To contribute just a little bit to this mountain of endeavor that we call progress.

So there are two alternatives, right? The first is to make art, which expresses this in all of its complexity. And the other is to bury your head in the sand and think that the best version of this solution would be to simply focus on the life cycle of Captain Marvel. There isn’t really a third path, I don’t think, at least not that I’ve discovered. I prefer the one that engages with what is actually going on in the world and acknowledges its many layers. Not the one that tells me a whole bucket of bullsh*t. And this comes down to something really as simple as that. Knowing what is going on in the world, are you awake to it, or is your head buried in the sand? And are you doing a corporation’s bidding without knowing it, or aren’t you? We all have our ideological box. You can’t get out of it. But what you can do is say, ‘This is my box; this is where I am. What can I do to do better?’

STRONG: That’s so beautifully said. I guess one of the things that struck me so powerfully when I first read the script was the way in which this moment in 1980 was an inflection point in this country’s history, a moment where the social and political, and racial divisions that have now widened into unbridgeable gulfs were the fault lines of those things existing in that schoolyard. He found the locus of those things in that schoolyard in a moment where a kid chooses avoidance and social acceptance over integrity and moral courage. He’s a kid, but we’re all indicted by that moment. And I certainly feel indicted by that moment, all the ways in which in my life I have failed, in that moment, to act with courage or integrity or ways in which I’ve averted my gaze.

Complicity is really the insidious thing that perpetuates all of these systems, and the complicity here is not even malevolent on the part of the family; it’s just systemic. This is a Jewish family who has known persecution. And in this father has a very primal will to survive, to protect his children. There’s a kind of Darwinistic survival mechanism going on. And, at the same time, that has catastrophic costs for Johnny. His dream is completely expendable to the father but also to society.

GRAY: There’s one last thing I would add. Sometimes you hear people say, and not just about this movie, “Oh, is it about white guilt? Is this a white guilt movie?” And, really, what’s important to emphasize, it’s not about white guilt.

The whole idea behind it is that not only does the main character kid fail, but he benefits in some way. It works out really well for him. There’s something else going on when that happens. As Jeremy put it, the lack of acknowledgment of Johnny’s dream is not the movie throwing that character under the bus, so to speak. [Society is] throwing him under the bus, not the movie. Which is a very big distinction, because it’s incumbent upon people to see past the ideas that corporations don’t want us to see or know about. They want artists and people writing about art to fight each other, because that is the way that they can actually seize more control for themselves.

But you know what James Baldwin said? When he wrote The Fire Next Time [in 1963], he said that in this “water wheel”, as he called it, this big economy that was new in the post-war era, it was incumbent among reasonably conscious whites and reasonably conscious Blacks to join together like lovers, in his words, to forge an understanding and an awareness and a consciousness. I wanted to say this because it’s very important, given Johnny’s dream, that the movie’s point is that they throw him under the bus. It’s not just some random thing I threw in [as a writer] because it’s my attitude is that his dream doesn’t matter. This, to me, is the prevailing sadness of the story.

DEADLINE: That the dream mattered and it still matters. Well, look, we could talk for many hours about this in a way that we probably couldn’t about the Marvel movie…

GRAY: I didn’t mean to sh*t on that movie!

DEADLINE: No, I understand that. But what I’m going to say is that there’s something that’s happened in our popular culture that we seem to want everything to end happily. And life just is not like that. And it’s very rare for me; I see plays and movies every day of my life, and it’s very rare for me to see honesty. Painful honesty.

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GRAY: Well, that’s the idea. That was why I got to this thing about white guilt. There’s no lesson learned, so they don’t solve the problem at the end and become better people. No, this is not what our function is. And that doesn’t mean the movie is endorsing it. The movie is not endorsing unhappiness; it’s saying, “This is what we grapple with, and it’s our job to show this to you with as much honesty as we can muster.” That is our job.