The Particular Power of the Lancing Celebrity Profile
Yes we are talking about Jeremy Strong
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Last Sunday, hours before the premiere of the penultimate episode of Succession Season Three, The New Yorker released a profile of Jeremy Strong, the actor best known for playing Kendall Roy.
I looked forward to the profile as I look forward to profiles of any of the actors on this show — some of whom (Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv) would’ve been major Hollywood stars in a different moment in history (look at this photo shoot). Others are classic character actors, or come from Hollywood acting families, or have convinced me that they’re just playing the fast-forwarded version of their original iconic roll (Alan Ruck just playing a middle-aged Cameron from Ferris Bueller).
Still, none of these actors really have images as celebrities outside the bounds of their characters. Some people might know that Logan (Bryan Cox) is one of the most accomplished actors alive, but most have never seen him in anything other than this show. There are also thousands of people who don’t realize that Connor Roy (Ruck) is even from Ferris Bueller, and these are people who have seen Ferris Bueller!
This is, of course, purposeful: unlike, say, The Morning Show, which is primarily a show about actual star images’ alchemy with fictional star images — and, as such, wholly dependent on an understanding of what Jennifer Aniston and/or Reese Witherspoon means — Succession is a show about power, and each actor’s ability, as Brandon Taylor so wonderfully put it earlier this week, to embody “what extent these people will degrade themselves in pursuit of the love of someone who is abject.” I watch The Morning Show first and foremost to think about stardom; I watch Succession for the narrative and the performances that fuel it. The casting directors could’ve cast known stars, with known images. They did not.
So how do you begin to profile an actor without an image? For women, profilers often resort to talking about relationships, about whether or not they will have children, about beauty regimes and, at least for a brief period in the late 2000s, whether or not they described themselves as feminists. In profiles in men’s magazines, it usually also means talking about how hot they are, and describing what they’re eating, and how they’re eating it. (The nadir of the genre, right here)
For men, it usually means talking about craft and process. Yet for the vast majority of people, talking about that process is almost guaranteed to make you sound like an asshole. Either you can’t describe it (aka, you are just being you onscreen; your only talent is your charisma) or you try, and, well, here’s one of the first things you learn about Jeremy Strong:
Actors try to find the real in the make-believe, but anyone who has worked with Strong will tell you that he goes to unusual lengths. Last year, he played the Yippie activist Jerry Rubin in Aaron Sorkin’s film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” While shooting the 1968 protest scenes, Strong asked a stunt coördinator to rough him up; he also requested to be sprayed with real tear gas. “I don’t like saying no to Jeremy,” Sorkin told me. “But there were two hundred people in that scene and another seventy on the crew, so I declined to spray them with poison gas.” Between takes of the trial scenes, in which the Yippies mock Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, Strong would read aloud from Langella’s memoir in silly voices, and he put a remote-controlled fart machine below the judge’s chair. “Every once in a while, I’d say, ‘Great. Let’s do it again, and this time, Jeremy, maybe don’t play the kazoo in the middle of Frank Langella’s monologue,’ ” Sorkin said.
He tore through books about corporate gamesmanship, including Michael Wolff’s biography of Rupert Murdoch, and cherry-picked details he liked; apparently, Murdoch’s son James ties his shoes extremely tightly, which told Strong something about his “inner tensile strength.”
At the audition, Strong, his shoes tied tight, read a scene between Kendall and the C.E.O. of a startup that he’s trying to acquire. Armstrong was skeptical. He asked Strong to “loosen the language,” and the scene transformed. “It was about, like, Beastie Boys-ing it up,” Strong recalled. “I was missing the patois of bro-speak.” By the end of the day, he had the part.
And, WELL AGAIN:
Talking about his process, he quoted the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett: “I connect every music-making experience I have, including every day here in the studio, with a great power, and if I do not surrender to it nothing happens.” During our conversations, Strong cited bits of wisdom from Carl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Karl Ove Knausgaard (he is a “My Struggle” superfan), Robert Duvall, Meryl Streep, Harold Pinter (“The more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression”), the Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, T. S. Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, and old proverbs (“When fishermen cannot go to sea, they mend their nets”). When I noted that he was a sponge for quotations, he turned grave and said, “I’m not a religious person, but I think I’ve concocted my own book of hymns.”
Profile writing is not, and has never been, neutral. It’s like the rest of journalism in that way: the journalist has conversations with the subject, and in addition to choosing the questions for which they want answers, they also choose how to interweave their conversations with “secondaries” (interviews with people who know or have analyzed the subject) and “scenes” (descriptions of interactions or moments with the subject of the profile, all of which have been chosen by the subject (and their publicist) and/or the author (and their editor). The questions, answers, secondaries, and scenes — alongside general authorial observations, transitions between sections, etc. etc. — shape the narrative of the piece, the feel of the profile.
Profile writing is also a real craft. There are plenty of people (myself included) who have tried it and are fine. Their fine-ness is a combination of their own interviewing ability, what they’re able to get from the subject, their own analysis, their own writing ability, and how all of that weaves together with the help of an editor, and photos, and the amount of access a star has or has not given the publication.
When I profiled Scarlett Johansson, for example, my piece was fine (maybe not even fine) because there were incredible limitations on what we could talk about, significant limitations on how and for how long we spoke (30 minutes, in a dressing room) and additional limitations on what the publication felt comfortable publishing (in this case, they axed even a mention of Ivanka, who she had played the week before on Saturday Night Live). (No, this was not when I was at BuzzFeed). But I’m also just not very good at it! The greats, you just know them when you read them: Caity Weaver, Scaachi Koul, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Anna Peele, they write pieces that blend access with insight, and usually less by telling and more by showing.
Part of what makes for a really good profile — and this is certainly true of the Strong profile — is the permission to draw blood. I’m not talking about a take-down. It’s something far more skillful, far more surgical. The New Yorker is historically excellent at this particular approach, sometimes described as letting the subject hang themselves with their own words: all you have to do is let those words lie there on the page (accompanied, of course, by writing and secondaries and scenes that elegantly accentuate them) and allow them to do their worst. I’ve seen New Yorker profiles achieve this effect with esteemed academics, with philanthropists, with tech bros, with politicians, and, in one of my most favorite recent examples, with Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens. The key is the profile subject never quite really knowing if the profile is insulting or not.
The New Yorker can afford this posture because semi- and actually famous people — even very powerful and wary people — will always want to be profiled by The New Yorker. The prestige of the publication is so solid, but also semi-famous and generally famous people are generally good at convincing themselves that their profile will be different — they will come off well, even if others like them have not. Like, can’t you just see Jeremy Strong convinced that he was going to look awesome? Or if not entirely awesome, then at least he comes away with the knowledge that he was profiled in The New Yorker? The publication can be fawning or lukewarm or even harsh, but its gravity overrides publicist wariness.
Some version of this rationale happened when Truman Capote profiled Marlon Brando for The New Yorker back in 1957. Brando abhorred the feminized fan magazines and gossip columnists; his refusal, alongside so many stars of his generation, to participate in the traditional fan press accelerated its decline. (I write about this a bit in Scandals of Classic Hollywood, but the fan magazines tried desperately to “discipline” him into participating; as you can imagine, those attempts did not go over well.) Brando fancied himself a very serious man. The director of Sayonara, which Brando was filming in Japan, warned him to reject all overtures from Capote. But when Capote showed up at Brando’s hotel door with a bottle of vodka, he opened it and let him in. Capote left six hours later with the makings of the most famous celebrity profile of all time.
Did PR people (then called press agents or ‘flacks’) all over Hollywood react in horror — and pledge never to allow the publication to access their stars? Sure, maybe, I dunno, if there’s one thing PR people don’t do is speak honestly on the record about what they do and don’t believe. But The New Yorker didn’t need Hollywood stars. It had all sorts of other sources for content and prestige. Which meant that they also had the power.
Within the larger apparatus of celebrity, that power — to publish a lukewarm, let alone a lancing profile — has been draining from publications for decades. And that, ultimately, is why the Jeremy Strong profile felt so remarkable: not so much because it was a good profile (it was!) but because it felt so different from the vast majority of celebrity content we now consume.
As I’ve written before, the history of celebrity is the history of power swinging back and forth between the stars and the press that buttress their stardom. Right now — thanks, in particular, to social media — the stars hold nearly all that power. They’ve largely become their own paparazzi, their own gossip industry, their own fan magazines. Social media and reality celebrities/influencers in particular have created fully integrated monopolies of self: they control (and can profit from) the production, distribution, and consumption of their own images.
There’s just so little need for outside press. Which means that when stars do venture outside of their own channels, they’re able to determine the parameters of the vast majority of interactions with the press: how long an interview will be, how much the publication will have to pay photographers and glam teams in order to have original photography that meets their standards, whether or not they have final image approval, what things an interviewer can and cannot ask about, and even, in some cases, final approval over the article, or the person chosen to write the piece. (In other points in history, when Hollywood stars were more desperate for coverage, many were willing to give the publication days of access, and relinquish any form of say over the final product).
Today, if a publication won’t agree to terms? The celebs and their agents say screw it. They can always just go live on Instagram, or make a TikTok, or just tweet. Publications realize as much, and thus — out of necessity, lest they all turn into People Magazine, stuck republishing the Instagram captions of the celebs who’ve stopped answering their calls — concede to most demands.
But the more control the stars have over their own press, the more boring that press will be. Hence: the extreme banality of the contemporary celebrity profile. Hence: Beyoncé effectively interviewing herself, again, to great banality. Hence: most profiles devolving into photoshoots with a very brief Q&A about nothing at all. After the actual work (the music, the movies) it’s the photos, after all, that keep building a social media following, that “break the internet,” that fuel fandoms. Or at least right now they are.
We consume this content because it’s all we have, but that doesn’t mean it’s satisfying. I wish some celebrities understood that more: that exercising complete control over one’s image also means erasing all the frisson and interest, the very heart of their charisma and charm. You might think that Jeremy Strong came off as a doof in that profile, but hey, now you probably know his name, and have an opinion about him, and future actions will be layered upon this current foundation of understanding. It’s not as simple as “all press is good press.” It’s that the profile transformed an actor into a celebrity. Some actors hate that. But I don’t think, judging from this profile, that Strong necessarily does.
Contemporary celebrity is boring because celebrities — and, more importantly, the platforms and franchises that control them — are too powerful. Even if a celebrity is boring, there’s always something to say about how they’re boring, why they’re boring, what their rise indicates about the larger structures of power. But we don’t read those profiles, because, again, the existing infrastructure is hostile to them. Their power, and the much larger that makes their stardom possible, remains largely unchecked and unquestioned.
How do we change that imbalance? If history is any lesson, it’s by figuring out new modes of critique and access that force those in power to cede control in order to participate. Paparazzi, scandal magazines, gossip blogs, early celebrity twitter users, even just the spread of #MeToo within Hollywood — for better and often for worse, they all managed to decenter established power for significant swaths of time. Or, at the very least, until those centers of power absorbed and (largely) neutralized them as well. To me, the popularity of this profile speaks to how inured we’ve become to the banality of Hollywood’s status quo— and how hungry we are for its re-rupture.
But ruptures are messy. They have collateral damage, and that damage, historically, has almost always been celebrities of color, and women, and queer people. So how can we conceive of a different sort of rupture, a different understanding of how to preserve and protect the most vulnerable within these larger systems of power, while also interrogating the systems at large? How, in other words, do you Save Britney — and Whitney, and Amy —without excusing and rebuilding the same deeply damaging systems as before?
My personal celebrity titillation is not worth any individual’s mental health, I know that. But I also know that the banality in place right now is meant to distract us from the way power — whether in Hollywood, or in tech, or in business — still pools around certain types of people, with certain fidelities to the status quo.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the banal celebrity profile suggests to the reader that there’s nothing to see here — at least nothing worth actually interrogating. But the lancing celebrity profile, it lingers. As it, or anything that makes you question the organization and accumulation of power, should.
Thanks for indulging this return to thinking about celebrity — if you have ideas for celebrities / celebrity content I should write about in the future, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Also, I’m writing a piece for next week about family estrangement, specifically from the perspective of children who’ve chosen estrangement from their parents or other members of their family. If you want to share your experience, I’ve put together a way to share your experience in your own words.
Things I Read/Consumed this Week and Loved: