Jeremy Strong: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Hosted by

Actor, Jeremy Strong. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Strong.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis Mitchell speaks with Emmy-winning actor Jeremy Strong about playing social activist Jerry Rubin in Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Strong won an Emmy this year as lead actor in a drama for his role as Kendall Roy in HBO’s “Succession.” Strong discusses the differences between playing the theatrical activist Rubin and the tightly wound Roy as well as the contrast in storytelling styles between Aaron Sorkin, who wrote “Chicago 7” and Jesse Armstrong, creator of “Succession.”

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the Home Edition. My guest in the last 10 years or so, has probably starred in more based on real life films than anybody else I can think of. We go to "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Selma," "Black Mass," "The Big Short," "Detroit," "Molly's Game," and his newest film is "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Many of us know him best for his Emmy-winning role as Kendall Roy on "Succession." I am talking about my guest today, Mr. Jeremy Strong.  And I guess I should start off by asking you about your first meeting with Aaron Sorkin, which would have been on "Molly's Game," right?

Jeremy Strong: That's right. I had done "The Big Short" with Adam McKay, and the casting director for that movie, Francine Masler, was casting "Molly's Game" and sent the script to me. And at the time, the character's name was Reardon Green, and he was the epitome of a certain kind of LA hustler, you know, Ed Hardy wearing, kind of guy. So I was staying at a friend's house, and I read "Molly's Game," the book, and it talked about how Reardon drove like an a--hole. He just drove extremely fast and recklessly and as an expression of his volatile temperament, so I borrowed a really fast sports car from a friend I was staying with in Malibu, and I was supposed to meet Aaron outside of the Four Seasons on Doheny, at a certain time. He was going to meet me in the parking lot. 

So I got there ready to go. And I revved up and peeled into the Four Seasons as fast as I possibly could, kind of burned rubber, and then tossed my keys very carelessly, at a valet without looking. Then I waited for Aaron having seen that moment, and of course, he had gone inside to use the bathroom. So the moment was missed.Then he offered me the part, and I got to do that with him and had a great time. He's someone I've obviously revered as a writer, and that led to "Chicago 7." 

KCRW: I think I'm so struck by the characters you play in the way that they listen and the way they offer up information because everybody does it in a very different way. When you look at the differences between Dean from "Molly's Game," for example, and Jerry Rubin from "Chicago 7," Jerry's kind of a sponge and open to everything. And Dean was really kind of guarded and trying to create his own narrative in real time.

Strong: I've been watching this French spy drama; the show "The Bureau." Really wonderful show with Eric Roshant French writer, showrunner. And, when you're a spy, you take on a new identity, that's called your legend. And you sort of have to master your legend. You learn it; you internalize it; you know everything about it. It's both the logic of it, but it's also the emotional logic of it. And I think you have to internalize it so that it's in your bloodstream, so that you become it. 

It might just be my own capacity for self delusion, but I need to get to a place where I really believe that I am this person, whoever that is. So I'm so interested by that observation. It would make sense to me that they take in information and release information differently, because of course, their essences and their metabolism are different and their apertures are more or less open to the world in different ways. And I guess that's your task as the actor, I think. It's different every time, and I don't have a set way of doing any of this. 

For example, with "Molly's Game," there's a wealth of material about the character in Molly Bloom's book, and I got a lot of clues from that and a sense of this certain kind of guy. And then I ended up watching some Los Angeles realtors who give these web videos and certain people in Las Vegas. Then I went and spent a lot of time in Las Vegas, so I could work on poker and really the behavior, handling chips and everything. From the moment you engage with it, you're kind of absorbing from everything. And for me, I find that certain things just kind of click, and then that becomes part of what you do. 

But what I love about it is that you know nothing at all going into it, and it all kind of reveals itself to you, as you go further into it. And then at a certain point, you're sort of inside of it, which I can never imagine happening.  I'm about to start working again, and I'm working on a film later this year that I'm glancingly preparing for, and I feel very far from being inside of it. But I know at a certain point, you sort of cross that rubicon, and it's not something I really understand. But it's sure something that I love.

KCRW: One of the things that I like about you is that you are really a very curious person. And talking about the way these characters take in information, sometimes, like in the case of Kendall, it is to dampen that curiosity, because that makes them too vulnerable. And we can say that Jerry Rubin as you play him is a very curious fellow.

Strong: Yeah, part of the experience of spending time with Jerry Rubin, for me, it was just incredibly freeing. It was very liberating. And that was what he and Abbie Hoffman and the yippies, were all about. It was about liberation from the middle class norms that they felt straitjacketed by. And so they wanted to free themselves through their activism, but also through a certain kind of performance and through histrionics and through guerrilla theater and through dissent, and through merrymaking. They were these kind of Ken Kesey' merry pranksters.

Coming from trying to have inhabited a character that is very controlled and has a great deal of tension and tensile strength that is wound very tightly with the character on “Succession.” And then Jerry, who's sort of the diametric opposite, who was very loose and open, as you say, and had a wonderful sense of humor. He went in front of the House American Un-Activities Committee, dressed as Santa Claus, and he handed out jelly beans in the chamber. He went and found a pig on a farm outside of Chicago, and he brought the pig down to City Hall, and he tried to enter the pig who he named Pegasus, into the presidential race, because he felt that neither of the candidates in 1968 would do a better job than Pegasus. Then he went to jail for it and got out again, and kept hammering away at the establishment.

But what I love about Jerry Rubin, is that underneath his colorfulness, especially the way that Aaron has written him and rendered him in the film, Jerry was the real deal. He was the one in his early days laying down on the train tracks to stop the troop trains going from Oakland. What he really cared about was what he felt was this genocidal war going on in Vietnam, in our government's foreign policies of aggression and oppression at home, and oppression abroad and racist aggression. So what he really sought, and I love this term, was what he called an interracial humanhood. And so I loved how much he cared and how much he was willing to put himself on the line for his convictions. 

Like a lot of the characters in that film, like Tom Hayden, like Abbie Hoffman, like Bobby Seale, and Dave Dellinger, he just had a different way of expressing it, but I guess just to bring that around full circle, the great and liberating thing for me was how expressive Jerry Rubin was. And that allowed me to live in a different place really for the few months that we were filming it, where I felt free, I was able to be more expressive, and my instincts were able to fire in a different way. And I enjoyed the experience much more than I'm able to enjoy some other things.

KCRW: I was thinking about meeting you on "The Judge," and just how he was so free with his hands. And when you're talking about Kendall, I'm aware of his wrists and how he's almost fighting the urge to make a fist all the time because he can't express himself and he can't open up his arms, and with Jerry, he's so outstretched basically, he seems almost barrel chested, even though he's not because he leads with his chest, physically he's leading with this heart.

Strong: Yeah, I think that's right, he absolutely is leading with his heart. I had a lot of audio recordings of Jerry, and there's a lot of videos and Jerry wrote two books. He wrote a book called "Do It,” and he wrote a book called "We are Everywhere." And the thing that you get from reading those books, and books that are about Jerry and the time, is that, really, the secret ingredient was love. And, he believed that with love, you could change the world. And that, you know, that's something that always seemed a bit, I hate to say, Pollyanna-ish to me about the 60s, not having grown up in them. But thinking back, people had these utopian hopes and in a haze and fog of dope smoke and then, of course, went on to maybe repudiate those same convictions, but it was certainly real at the time. 

And what's been so powerful for me, is the way in which that energy existed in 1968. We filmed last October, and we were marching down Michigan Avenue at Balbo Street, where the riots took place across from the Hilton Hotel, Grant Park in Chicago. And we were filming scenes where we were marching down the street, and the police extras and the activist extras, but the police were played by mostly real Chicago policemen and women. And we were chanting "no justice, no peace," and "the people united will never be defeated." Even then, having watched the videos of the carnage that happened in August 1968, it was quite harrowing to be in that actual place and recreate those events. And then of course, the way things have unfolded in our country in these last months and hearing people chant those same chants in cities everywhere. It made this of course resonate in a different way but amplified and doubled and tripled the power of having had that experience for myself.

KCRW: One of the things that's really interesting about "Chicago 7" to me is that it's said in the movie, "the whole world is watching," which speaks to your point about Jerry treating this as theater because, again, to me that speaks to that curiosity of his and that willingness to sample everything. After I saw the movie I thought of you and Sacha Baron Cohen as kind of a pair from "Midsummer Night's Dream" which makes him Puck and you kind of a marshal Lysander.

Strong: The marshal Lysander was the best description I've heard from anyone. You know, I shouldn't take credit for being a curious person. The truth is, I'm almost a pathologically incurious person, except when it comes to work, and when I'm working on something, I have an insatiable and inexhaustible curiosity for the duration of the work. It would be false of me to claim that I am that way generally. I really wish I were, but I sort of tend to have a real tunnel vision each time I work and try to gather as much as I can with the hope that by osmosis, it will enter into me and be there in the moment and inform the moment.

Certainly, Jerry was a curious man and a passionate and robust and expressive and courageous man, and then I try and just be worthy of walking in his shoes, really. My heroes have always been character actors who are chameleons, and who transform and kind of disappear into a role so that you don't see the actor, hopefully, you just see the character, and Jerry Rubin felt like a real chance to attempt something like that, physically, vocally, behaviorally. It also took me to a playful place, almost a childlike place. 

Early on, when I was reading and preparing and thinking about the courtroom and reading about the ways they amused themselves in the courtroom, but also the ways that they try to antagonize the marshals and antagonize Judge Hoffman, who they really saw as the embodiment of everything that was bigoted, authoritarian, despotic and odious in American government. Judge Hoffman and Mayor Daley really are not a far cry from the leadership of our country now. So anyway, I came loaded up with a lot of noisemakers and kazoos, and a fart machine with me. I had a remote control one that I set in the judge’s dais, where he couldn't find it. Then I had one that I kept on me, and so if ever the judge addressed me, and I wouldn't prescribe this or know when I was going to do something, but every once in a while, I would set one of these things off, just to inflame and really get under his skin. And it was good; it created some tension in the room, and it felt true to the people in the circumstances. 

I remember Mark Rylance turning to me after one of these little gags and feeling like, "now we're in it. Now we're really here." And then I get a dressing down from Aaron. My favorite direction that I've ever been given by anyone was a contained but somewhat irate Aaron Sorkin, who I love, by the way, who said to me over a bullhorn, "Can we have one more without the cowbell, please, Jeremy?"

KCRW: If we look at three of the last things you've done between "Molly's Game and "Chicago 7" and then "Succession," the things that interest me is, first of all, this is very much about people's relationship to capitalism. Jerry couldn't be less interested in having the system stand in the way that it did, and we can say that Dean desperately wanted to be not only a part of it, but the king of it. In Kendall, we got somebody who was in effect, Hamlet -slash-Hotspur, who is mired in this thing that people probably want more than anything, and look at him from behind frosted glasses or darken limousines, and he's miserable in it. And this has gotta be fascinating, because there is this interesting access between people getting what they want and that old song about beware the things you want for you shall have them.

Strong: I think, of course, what you say about capitalism and the relationship to capitalism is fascinating and true. Jerry was completely opposed to the establishment and to this military industrial complex and felt like it was the deadening of the American soul whereas Kendall is at the nucleus of the media industrial complex and is strapped to that rocket.

You talk about "Hamlet," and Aaron writes very clear vectors of a character. Aaron says that he, as a writer, worships at the altar of intention and obstacle. So, the intention is very clear, and the obstacle is very clear. The music that you are playing or that you are the instrument for is very clear, and you marry that with character, whereas Jesse Armstrong's writing, I think, exists in a much more opaque and ambivalent gray place. And the "Hamlet" reference is really apt for me, because I think about Hamlet and his puzzled will. Kendall really is standing baffled at the center of this thing. That thing that Hamlet says, "I do not know why; yet I live to say this thing’s to do, sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do it" is a bit like Kendall's predicament. He has ostensibly everything you would need and yet he's locked up inside. His will is puzzled, and he feels, I think, both thrust into this position of responsibility and power that he's unequipped to exercise and to handle. What I love about that is the size of that struggle and the amount of peril that the character is in is a very, very rich and difficult place to be as an actor, but it's very rich. 

Working on Aaron Sorkin's material is quite different. It's more like a perfect classical symphony, that your job is to try to shoehorn in some dynamics, and some embroidery and some jazz into the extreme precision of what Aaron has written. Whereas the work on "Succession" is much messier, and in a way, truer to my experience of life, in the sense that it's very much a going forward into the unknown, and the characters are always caught between a rock and a hard place. And, Jerry vanquishes that rock and just doesn't accept it; Jerry frees himself.

I'm a pretty cerebral person, as you probably know, and that is the last thing I need when I go onto a set or onto a stage. And so, any part of your understanding on an intellectual level, I find doesn't serve me. So I'm not engaging with things conceptually or thematically. I'm trying really just to engage empathically and really put my mind on airplane mode, so that I can be present and see feelingly through the eyes of the character.

KCRW: Well, my mind is kind of always on airplane mode, but the thing about working with Aaron is that he talks about writing these romantic movies, and I feel like "Trial of the Chicago 7" is really romantic in that way that everybody has a romantic ideal about what America should be. And what's fascinating is that the Chicago 7, Chicago 8 if we want to add Bobby Seale, each of them has an idea about what this country should be. They're only degrees apart, but because there is that separation, that's what creates that intention and obstacle that you're talking about.

Strong: I also think, and I don't say this in a disparaging way to Jerry. But I think that part of the romance for Jerry and perhaps for Abbie was as much about the sort of liminal experience in the guerrilla theater experience and the happening of it, than it was for their ultimate beliefs. Yes, Jerry believed that the yippie liberation struggle was the North Vietnamese liberation struggle, was the women's liberation struggle, was the South American liberation struggle, the South African liberation struggle, the Black liberation struggle, and at his core, that's what he stood for. But at the same time, in his book, when asked to really distill what he believes in, the phrase he used, and it's a sort of Dada phrase, is “to rise up and abandon the creeping meatball.” Whatever the hell that means. 

So, I just took that and ran with it, and I would walk around on set, yelling that out. I remember our first day of filming, we were in Chicago. Jerry had often said that he would walk around and go up to people saying, “excuse me, excuse me, did you know the sun is shining?” So I remember on that first day, chanting “the sun is shining, the sun is shining” and getting the whole crowd to chant, “the sun is shining.” And so he's a different person than I am. You're trying to find where he lives. And, to me, it seemed like he really relished in the event of protests and in the act of patriotism, and was less concerned on a certain level with the end game. And that's kind of what Tom Hayden's criticism of them was really.



Rebecca Mooney