Armageddon Time director James Gray’s got a tip for aspiring filmmakers: If you want to look good as a director, work with gifted actors, like Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong.
“I’m a big fan of great actors because what they do is tend to make you look considerably more capable than you actually are,” Gray joked during a panel for his Focus Features film at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles awards-season event. “You write a line and you sit at home and you have the computer and the yellow legal pad and the thing and you go, ‘Uh, is that a good line? I don’t know if it’s a good line.’ And then you go on the set and all of a sudden you say, ‘He made it work.’ ”
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Armageddon Time is Gray’s autobiographical story of growing up in a multi-generational Jewish-American family in the Flushing, Queens neighborhood of New York City. The film confronts issues of race and class, with the backdrop the impending election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. One of the talented stars Gray hired is Succession’s Jeremy Strong, who plays Irving Graff, essentially Gray’s real-life father.
“We’ve seen this man be unequipped to handle the things that are happening in his life,” Strong observed of his character. “And we’ve seen him deal with his feelings by hitting his son with a belt and resorting to violence and sort of being unable to deal with his feelings … I remember when I read the script, I was very surprised by the sort of hard carapace of this man cracking open briefly.”
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Strong added, “This movie in a lot of ways is about the comingling of love and violence and how someone can be both the oppressor and the oppressed.”
Gray said he didn’t want to portray his parents as monsters.
“We’re in troubled times now, but we’re always in troubled times. The late 1970s, 1980, for my family in particular was very difficult,” Gray noted. “I don’t want to brutalize my parents because they had a struggle to just put food on the table. And when that is a basic struggle, I think parenting sort of takes like a second or third [priority] … I can’t point fingers and blame them.”
In the film, the Graffs take their son out of public school and send him to a private one supported by Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father (played by John Diehl; Jessica Chastain plays Maryanne Trump, Fred’s wife and Donald Trump’s mother). Strong drew from his own family background for his performance, including a sense of class divisions in New York.
“My grandfather was a plumber. He lived in Flushing, probably half a mile from where James grew up,” Strong said. “I remembered him and I wore his watch in the film and he had a temper… The first time I met James and his family, we went to the Queens Museum to see the panorama of New York, which is this incredible sort of miniature city, [that] in a way exemplifies the movie.”
Check back Monday for the panel video.