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Director James Gray and actor Jeremy Strong on 'Armageddon Time', their new coming-of-age film

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Armageddon Time" is a coming-of-age drama about two boys, Paul and Johnny - one Jewish, one Black - who bond over classroom mischief and music and who learn their lives are given different values in the place they're growing up - Queens, New York City, 1980. It was drawn from the director's own life. James Gray, director of "Little Odessa," "We Own The Night" and "Ad Astra," joins us now. Mr. Gray, thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES GRAY: Great to be here.

SIMON: And Paul's father, alongside Anne Hathaway as his mother, is played by Jeremy Strong, an actor, of course, best known from "Succession." And he joins us now. Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Strong.

JEREMY STRONG: Thank you, Scott. Great to be here.

SIMON: Mr. Gray, I've got to ask you, Paul, played by Banks Repeta, a character fashioned after you, doesn't look like he has an especially happy home life. Was that yours?

GRAY: It's pretty close. My parents, when they had the day-to-day struggles to put food on the table, I think parenting was almost secondary, you know, in importance. And children are not born and raised just in a vacuum. They need some kind of guidance, some kind of emotional support, and also some ethical and moral support. And it is true, my brother and I, I don't think we quite had that.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Strong, how does that figure into what you do as an actor? How do you show all of that?

STRONG: Well, I think the hope is you don't set out to show anything. I think you - what your task is and what you're trying to do is, in a sense, embody the struggle and experience of a given character. I had read something that James had said in an interview about his father - would get off the subway in Queens, in Flushing, and take some time before coming home and that he had imagined that maybe his father was going shopping and, I think, later realized that he was avoiding going home. There is something incredibly pressurized in the circumstances that this husband and wife are living in.

SIMON: I've got to ask you both about this extraordinary scene that is painful for me to recall even now. Paul and Johnny get into trouble for smoking something illegal in the bathroom. And Paul's mother tells his father, played by you, Jeremy Strong, we have to beat our son. What was that like to play?

STRONG: That was a difficult day, as you can imagine. And, you know, this is a household where love and violence coexist. And we don't often see that depicted in storytelling, but it is, in fact, true. And he is trying, I think, to toughen up his kids and teach them a lesson and prepare them to survive in a hostile and difficult world. Now, I don't think anyone is saying that this is OK, but I think it was important to illustrate that cruelty and brutality alongside with the love and warmth and tenderness and humor that also existed in the household.

GRAY: My father just died fairly recently. About two months after we finished shooting, he died of COVID, of all things. And we had a good relationship at the end. It was not contentious. And the thing is, I can't fully - look, I've never once even come close to hitting one of my own children. I think it's madness. But in that context, in the late 1970s, 1980, it was something people did, as crazy as it seems. And I view it now as an act of just stupidity on his part or a kind of ineptitude, that he didn't really know what to do. He didn't know how to be a parent. He didn't have the tools.

STRONG: You know, when you're a child, what you imagine is the sort of solidity of your parents' world. And then, you're a parent, and it's only an experience of precarity all the time.

SIMON: Yeah.

STRONG: You know, you're trying to figure it out and muddle through things the best you can.

SIMON: Mr. Gray, forgive me for bearing in on this question just a little bit more to ask, is there a point in filming that scene where the pro just takes over, where craft supersedes feeling?

GRAY: A hundred percent. I disliked shooting it, but not for the reasons that some might suspect. I disliked shooting it because I had trouble finding places for the camera in the bathroom, which was small. I had - I knew I would have to do some version - with, by the way, his mother and his permission. I would have to do some version of terrifying the young boy so that his reaction would make sense. But when I got to the editing room and I saw the footage, that was when I got affected.

SIMON: At the heart of the film, these two young men, Paul and Johnny, who's played by Jaylin Webb, both boys cut up and misbehave in class. But from the first, the school officials seem to regard them differently. And I wonder, Mr. Gray, is this something that actually you observed - but did the impact of it only hit you later in life and not at the moment?

GRAY: Sort of a combination of both. I - you know, part of it - as a 12-year-old, you rationalize things. You don't know the history. You don't understand the kind of broader context. Put it this way - I recognized that not everything was all equal. But at the same time, I had rationalized my way out of it.

SIMON: It's important to both of you that people see this film and understand that bigotry still leaps in our hearts today.

GRAY: I have been astonished by the reemergence of things like America first, the idea that I thought we had left Jim Crow in the past. And all of a sudden, you see voting laws being taken down all over the country. It's been an absolute source of heartbreak and yet totally unsurprising at the same time. I think it speaks to today just as much, if not more, as when it's supposed to be set. These are when the seeds were planted for what we are going through now.

STRONG: It embroils all of us in the same dilemma, and we're all implicated. You know, in a sense, the movie is about the blindness of white privilege. And it is about complicity as the engine that perpetuates racism and injustice and these events that are seemingly tiny events that take place in our lives, which actually are monumental events and can have catastrophic consequences on other people.

GRAY: It's very easy for us to put ourselves on the moral high ground and call other people fools and idiots and not agree with them. If you had said to my father in 1980, Dad, you are the beneficiary of privilege, he would have thought me insane. He would have actually probably gotten angry. Do you know what I've had to do with my life and what I've had to work for? And he would have been right. And yet he was the beneficiary of privilege. And the only way sometimes that we can understand the complexities and the layers in which these things exist is, frankly, through art. And so we need to experience it that way. If you just call someone up and you say, hey, you are the beneficiary of privilege, and they - you know, they are trying to make it on 41,000 bucks a year, you sound like a jerk. Life is hard. But if you contextualize it and you give it life through somebody else's soul, then it can maybe make some more sense to them.

SIMON: James Gray is the director. Jeremy Strong, one of the stars of the film "Armageddon Time." Thank you both so much for being with us.

GRAY: Thank you.

STRONG: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "SOUND AND COLOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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