In August 2019, Jeremy Strong lay in a New York City emergency room with a virus (not the coronavirus!), but his main concern was something much hairier.
"I was very sick when I got the offer," he reveals of being cast as activist Jerry Rubin in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now streaming on Netflix). "They kept me overnight in the ER, and I was literally in bed in a hospital gown emailing English wigmaker Peter Owen trying to confirm that he would be able to make the wig for me, because he’s the only one I wanted. It was a bit of a pre-condition for me to do the movie that they would have Peter make my wig. So right away I was working on the physical element."
The Succession star had six weeks to prepare for his physical and mental transformation to Rubin, a "peace activist and merry prankster" — a far cry from business titan Kendall Roy, for which he recently won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series. "As you read it, it gives you this sort of inner jolt, and I felt electrified by the role on the page and at the same time I had absolutely no idea how to get there," admits Strong. "It's my favorite kind of problem."
When it came to the look of Rubin, which Strong describes as "a rejection of established morals," the actor was hands on, from the aforementioned wig (Owen did make it for him — but Strong's request to sleep and shower in it was rejected) to the accessories. He was determined to replicate the real-life Rubin’s affinity for bracelets, buttons, and headbands. “I did a deep dive on eBay and Etsy,” says Strong. “This floral headband became my sort of talisman I wore everywhere.” Recalls costume designer Susan Lyall: “Jeremy arrived at the first fitting wearing a headband and saying, ‘Right on.’ ”
In putting together Chicago 7's fashion, Lyall says director Aaron Sorkin was “concerned about too much tie-dye," with Sorkin previously telling EW that he wanted to avoid "'60s iconography," because his film was "not intended to be an exercise in nostalgia, and not intended to be about 1968 — it’s about today." Yet, he did make a few exceptions for Rubin. “Part of the style of the ’60s counterculture movement was an act of defiance,” Strong says. “Colorful clothing and [to] grow your hair long is a protest against what they saw as an oppressive society.”
But the work for Strong only began with the appearance. The actor is known for his immersive acting, perhaps something he picked up from his former boss, Daniel Day-Lewis. "Jerry was a hippie, Jerry embraced the counterculture, Jerry was a lover, Jerry liked to get stoned, Jerry believed in the politics of ecstasy," shares Strong, "so part of that character and that journey was trying to discover Jerry’s ecstasy."
His search would make headlines, whether for asking Sorkin to teargas him during filming of a riot (the director declined to) or pranking costar Frank Langella with a "remote control fart machine" as the Oscar-nominated actor sat down in the judge's stand for a courtroom scene.
"[Rubin] was a radical but he also had a great sense of humor and he was a clown," says Strong. "I was very closely in touch with the prop master, Michael Jortner. I had him get all kinds of period noisemakers and just s--- I could play with on set: kazoos, whoopee cushions. I had a whole bag of tricks that I tried to use to disrupt the courtroom, which I effectively did. And disrupted the movie filming as well, to the chagrin of Aaron and the producers, but it set the scene, so I was pleased."
As someone who becomes so emotionally attached to the mindset of the character he's playing, Strong felt liberated by the more jovial nature of Rubin. This was partly because of the "really hard time" he had on Succession season 2, due to putting himself through the wringer to tap into "where I felt like Kendall needed to be."
"Kendall is standing on the ledge of the 72nd floor of a building, and with Jerry I took some edibles and went to the zoo," Strong says with a laugh. "It was great. To see through his eyes, the sun was always shining. He wanted to affirm life, he wanted to make merry, and he wanted to be free. That was really his spiritual goal. I think the challenge always with playing a real person is to not do an impersonation, but to try and find the key that they are in and the essence of them and then try to make it your own. And with a character like this, he’s quite far from me and very far from Kendall, you kind of feel like you’re just way far out on a limb, but that’s where I think I like to be most of all."
Speaking of places he likes to be, Strong is feeling a "sense of wonder and gratitude" at the position he's found himself in, with his last few months including an Emmy win, starring role in an Oscar contender, and the achievement of a career goal.
"It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do: to work at this level, be part of projects that reflect our culture, and play roles that have inherent in them the possibility of transformation," he says. "My heroes have been chameleonic actors who disappear into their roles, and that’s always what I’ve wanted to do."