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Jeremy Strong, left, as Irving Graff and Anne Hathaway as Esther Graff in director James Gray's Armageddon Time.Courtesy of Focus Features/Focus Features

For Jeremy Strong, his journey with the new film Armageddon Time started with the voice. Or “The Voice,” as we’ll call it from here on in.

Strong had been cast to star in the 1980s-set drama by James Gray, the acclaimed New York-based writer-director behind We Own the Night, Two Lovers, The Lost City of Z and many other contemporary classics that increasingly feel like rarities in today’s Hollywood: decently budgeted films starring marquee names, which are deeply personal and rich with themes existing outside questions of franchise-ability. For Armageddon Time, a highly autobiographical look at a pivotal moment in Gray’s own youth growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Flushing, Strong was asked to play, or essentially recreate, the director’s father Irwin Gray, here given the name Irving Graff.

A stern, hardworking water-boiler repairman who wants the best for his children even if it means beating that concept into them on a regular basis, Irving arrived on the pages of Gray’s screenplay from an equal mix of history, memory and dramatic invention. But in order to bring Irwin/Irving to life on-screen, Strong – fresh off shooting the third season of HBO’s Succession but not yet inside the PR maelstrom that followed the publication of a December, 2021, New Yorker profile, which we’ll circle back to shortly – felt a responsibility to scrape up every off-screen detail that he could manage.

Strong started off small. His first meeting with Gray involved asking the director the famed Proust questionnaire (“What is your idea of perfect happiness?” “What is your greatest fear?”), but with the twist that Gray had to answer from the perspective of his father. Then Strong asked Gray to pass the questionnaire along to Irwin, to see how well the answers lined up – lest Gray didn’t know his father as well as he thought he did, and thus might be somehow deficient in giving Strong any notes on his performance. (“Apparently our answers were very close,” Gray recalls.)

Strong then plied his director with even more questions about his father – an “ongoing process of excavation,” as Strong recalls it. Finally, Strong got hold of a digital recording that captured Irwin’s voice. (Gray’s father did not come to the set and died of COVID-19 two months into the editing process.)

Which is how Strong developed The Voice – a note-perfect recreation of the tenor and modulation of Irwin.

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”It is crazily accurate. People think that he’s imitating me, but I guess that just means that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Gray says. “He sounds precisely like my father. I don’t know how he did it. It’s creepy, actually. Quite creepy.”

The Voice is just one of the tools that the actor uses in the course of being, in his words, a “heat-seeking missile” of a performer. There is also The Watch (an item belonging to Strong’s grandfather, himself a Jewish tradesman, that the actor wore throughout production) and The Text (a missive that Strong sent to Gray the night before shooting began that repeated verbatim a Yiddish camp song that Irwin grew up singing in the 1940s: “Give a yell, give a yell, give a good substantial yell! And when we yell, we yell like hell and this is what we yell! Ala meme, ala meme, ala memeshetalizabekt boom boom rah rah rah”).

”I don’t know if I have a set way of doing anything. As Stanislavski said, you’re following the line of your intuition. I am always interested in a level of detail, with the technical and external aspects of a character: wardrobe and props and hair. But it’s the inwardness that matters most,” Strong says during an interview a few weeks ahead of Armageddon Time’s release. “It’s nothing without an understanding of the internal dilemma that a character is struggling with, and your attempt to live through that on film.”

And The Voice? Why not simply invent something to fit the imaginary concept of a character?

Jeremy Strong arrives at the HBO and HBO Max Post-Emmys Reception on Sept. 12, at San Vicente Bungalows in West Hollywood, Calif.Richard Shotwell/The Associated Press

”I don’t think I’d be able to invent that or have the confidence to commit to it if it had been an invention. It is his voice, so I had to make it my voice, and that took a lot of time,” Strong says. “Shakespeare said, ‘For use almost can change the stamp of nature,’ and I think what an actor does in a sense is to inhabit. And the practical application of that is you change the stamp of your nature and you rearrange yourself, your voice, or whatever you have to do to become this person from the moment you walk on set.”

This intense, perhaps intimidating commitment is what has enabled the 43-year-old Strong to become, in relatively short order, one of the most captivating actors working today. A theatre veteran with the kind of serious credentials (Yale School of Drama, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago) that come with dropping Stanislavski and Shakespeare into movie-junket conversations, Strong has made big impressions in small roles helmed by top directors (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, Adam McKay’s The Big Short) before truly breaking out on Succession.

Playing that HBO juggernaut’s Kendall Roy, the perpetually tremulous son of a Murdoch-y media baron, Strong delivers an indelible performance that generates equal parts sympathy and detestability. It is deliciously captivating work that feels almost supernatural. But, like The Voice in Armageddon Time, Kendall is just what arrives at the other end of Strong’s process – a method that is as vigorous and exhaustive as it has been dissected and critiqued, praised and poked.

Even before that viral New Yorker article, which came with the online headline “On Succession, Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke,” and featured Succession co-star Brian Cox saying that the actor had “to be kinder to himself, and therefore has to be a bit kinder to everybody else,” there was a lesser shared October, 2021, Guardian profile that went just as deep into the actor’s philosophy. Including a moment where Strong proclaimed that “I don’t really feel like an actor much anymore; I feel as if I’m me for half the year and I’m Kendall for half the year.”

However Strong gets to where he needs to be, the results speak for themselves. Especially in Armageddon Time, a deeply affecting and unsettling memory play that feels like both the capstone to Gray’s for-my-father canon (it makes a perfect earthbound follow-up to 2019′s Ad Astra) and the revelation of another unknown depth-marker to Strong’s potentially bottomless well of talent.

There is one scene in particular, a raucous Friday night dinner in which Irving is busy fussing with the family’s fridge while his wife (played by Anne Hathaway, who co-starred with Strong in the unfairly dismissed 2019 high-concept thriller Serenity) tries to get dinner ready for their very loud clan, that is laced with tiny details in the performances and set design that push the moment from a piece of cinematic recreation to home-movie exhumation. It is the perfect example of Strong, and Hathaway, playing what Gray describes as “not the result of the scene, but the moment.”

Quoting the American painter and sculptor Frank Stella, Strong once said that he is only interested in “what I can’t do.” So: Has he yet come up against a role only to realize that he actually could not do it? That no amount of preparation and study and intensity could prepare him for his performing responsibilities?

“You know, out of that feeling of despair, usually discoveries happen,” he says today. “I’ve certainly got to the point where I feel that I’ve taken on something that I can’t do, and don’t know how to do. But you go further into it and get to the other side, and you discover something. I haven’t yet not been able to make it to the other side.”

Armageddon Time opens in theatres Nov. 4