Jeremy Strong refers to the old adage that the most personal stories are also the most universal. That certainly rings true with Armageddon Time, writer-director James Gray’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama about privilege, religion, race and growing up (and getting into a lot of trouble) in a Jewish-American family in early 1980s Queens, N.Y.
“I think the truth is, for all of our differences, there is something that speaks across those differences and speaks across those divisions,” the Succession star says in an interview alongside co-star Anne Hathaway. The actors play Irving and Esther Graff, whose son Paul (Banks Repeta) acts out against them and his teachers, and lands in especially hot water when he’s caught smoking weed at school with a classmate (Jaylin Webb).
“So James, having the willingness and courage to go deeply and take real moral inventory of his own life and his own failings, and the things that he wrestled with in his family, I found many things to relate to in what he had written.”
Hathaway witnessed the film’s universality when Armageddon Time premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“This is a film about a family in hyper-specific location in a hyper-specific time, [so I was curious] how it could possibly speak to a French audience with international leanings? And the shock was realizing the audience completely got it. There are themes in this very specific film that are so universal. … This is a home in which love and violence are threaded together. It’s very rare to find a piece of art that wants to explore that, and very rare to find a filmmaker that wants to explore that part of himself.”
The violence Hathaway refers to comes during a brutal sequence in which Paul is beaten by his father with belt in a bathtub. And though “belting” was fairly common at that time, it didn’t make the scene any easier to capture for Strong or Hathaway, who are both parents themselves.
“As you would imagine, that was a really difficult day,” Strong says. “Aware of working with a child actor, who by the way, was very game and committed to what we were doing, to telling that story. But also the added sensitivity to the fact that we were in way reenacting trauma that had been inflicted on our director, and he’s there watching it in a monitor. So it was a very personal experience making a personal film. … There’s a level of honesty to what James is doing with this movie that I find very impactful the few times I’ve seen the movie.”
Hathaway became visibly emotional and teary as Strong discussed the film’s sensitive nature and depiction of child abuse.
“I don’t know why we’re not a world yet where it’s safe to be a child,” the actress says. “And I don’t think Esther or Irving weren’t trying to be bad parents. In fact I think they were doing what was prescribed at the time as god parenting. They were trying to prepare their child for the world. But what kind of world are we preparing kids for when we have to beat them to fit into it?
“So I was just thinking about a world where it was safe enough to be a child in a tender way, and just remembering the day that we shot it. I’ve never done anything like that.”