When Jeremy Strong jumped on a zoom call two months ago it was primarily an interview centered on his Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy nod for “Succession.” A nomination that turned into his first Emmy win a little over a month alter. But he also got a gleam in his eye when asked about his role in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
“I’ve been very lucky. I was in ‘Lincoln.’ I was in ‘Selma.’ I was in ‘Detroit,’ Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the 1967 Detroit riots and this,” Strong says. “It’s a period I’ve spent a lot of time with and tried to enter imaginatively in a lot of different ways. And this one particularly felt like a story about what’s hanging in the balance in our country in terms of democracy and authoritarianism and civil liberties.”
The Netflix release centers on a historic miscarriage of justice that began in 1969 when Federal prosecutors charged eight men with the intention of inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention which was held in Chicago, Illinois the year before. One of those men was Jerry Rubin (Strong), a social activist who became one of the national faces of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Sorkin’s script chronicles the shocking moments of a trial that at first saw eight and then seven men accused of conspiracy even though there were mountains of evidence to the contrary.
As you’d expect with the source material, the film features scenes of peaceful protest, violent protest, police brutality, and corruption at a time when America was at a cultural tipping point. Strong knew the film would be timely in some regards during production, but he never foresaw the social justice movement that sprung up in June following the brutal murder of George Floyd.
Strong recalls, “We were marching on Michigan Avenue next to Grant Park, marching along to chants of, ‘The people united can never be defeated,’ and, ‘No justice, no peace.’ This was back in October when we were shooting [at the] end of last year, and then I heard these same chants on the streets of Los Angeles a month and a half ago. So, it’s a very, I think, powerful story and it also kind of sadly reminds us of how far we have not come.”
Having portrayed numerous historical figures over his career, Strong says you have to remember that you have a responsibility to the facts. You have a responsibility for a certain amount of veracity and accuracy. And while there’s always that source material you can draw from and analyze, at some point you also have let it go.
“I remember having a conversation with Phil Hoffman when he was getting ready to do ‘The Master.’ And I started going on and on about L. Ron Hubbard,” Strong says. “And eventually [he] was like, ‘No. You’re doing work as an actor to find an essence in yourself. You’re not trying to play, you’re not doing an impersonation.'”
In that respect, it helped that Sorkin had a very specific vision of how he wanted Strong to portray Rubin.
“Aaron’s conception of Jerry is a very fiery radical who also co-founded the Yippie Party with Abbie Hoffman,” Strong says. “And the Yippies were essentially a very kind of exuberant group of pranksters and merrymakers, and who believed in guerrilla theater and in using kind of theatrical tactics to capture the attention of the media and of the world stage.”
Strong continues, “Jerry went in front of the House American Un-Activities Committee dressed as Santa Claus. He also went dressed as an American Revolutionary War soldier. He was audacious. I would say, a fearless activist who, like the rest of these guys, we’re ready to put their lives on the line and put themselves in between the daily dozers and the National Guard in order to stand up for their convictions, which were ‘send the troops home’ which was to stop what they saw as the genocidal war happening in Vietnam.”
Sorkin’s version of “Trial of the Chicago 7” has been in development since at least 2006 and Strong says it was always something he wanted to be a part of. Plus, the opportunity to play Rubin also fits perfectly into how he views himself primarily as a character actor.
“The ability to sort of take on Jerry and try and create that character and create something really lived in and give voice to him, I find that really, really exciting. That sort of chance to get to [be a] chameleon,” Strong admits. Unlike his acclaimed role as Kendall Roy on “Succession”, he says, “This is the kind of mask work which I’ve always really loved and admired in the actors that I look up to the most. I always wanted to be an actor in the way Cindy Sherman transforms herself in her photographs. So, Kendall is a great challenge without any of those props. But Jerry, it’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do.”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is available on Netflix worldwide on Friday, Oct. 16.