Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong channel the soulfulness in ‘Armageddon Time’

Anne Hathaway in a flowery dress poses for a portrait with her arms around Jeremy Strong.
“One of the first things he said to us both was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t nail it. I’m not interested in you nailing it,’” Jeremy Strong says “Armageddon Time” director James Gray told him and Anne Hathaway.
(Corina Marie / For The Times)

Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway acknowledge how daunting it was to play versions of James Gray’s working-class Jewish father and mother for the filmmaker’s memory piece about his childhood in Queens, “Armageddon Time.” They wanted to absorb real-life details, but they also took to heart Gray’s belief that they should prioritize soulfulness over impersonation. Says Strong, who plays exacting plumber dad Irving Graff, “One of the first things he said to us both was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t nail it. I’m not interested in you nailing it.’”

Hathaway, who plays Irving’s wife Esther, a PTA mom concentrated on her sons’ prospects in life, says Gray’s direction recalled the lessons she was trained in as an actor. “It’s the idea that acting is a conversation, that in real life, people don’t plant their feet and orate. That was what James wanted from us.”

Gray’s supportive direction aside, it still had to have been nerve-racking to bring his parents to life.


Hathaway: I’m playing a nervous character. That helps. I had to find my way through it. It took a couple of weeks. I had to stop and catch my breath a couple times. It was an ongoing negotiation between myself, the experience, expectation, all those things.

Strong: I feel terror when I start something. [Irving] was written as “a Jewish Stanley Kowalski with a PhD.” I don’t know how to rearrange myself into that. I had no map other than the text. You depend on some things to click. And once they do, you … I was going to say you seize hold of them, but really, they seize hold of you. Shakespeare writes in “Hamlet,” “For use can almost change the stamp of nature.” So all the work you do, through use, through habit, very practical things, can change the stamp of your nature. Then you can walk on set and just be present.

Hathaway: Something I always tell myself is whenever I’m feeling nervous on set is, this is going to happen, however you feel about it, so you might as well enjoy it. And if enjoyment is not available, just surrender to the reality that it’s happening. That way you’re really listening to the voice of your character. And when I start spontaneously having instincts, as my character, I’m like, “OK, we’re cooking.”

Irving and Esther seem as if they’re in short stories of their own. What are Irving’s and Esther’s individual narratives as you saw them?

Strong: I read an interview with James where he talked about his father, how he would get off the subway and walk around the neighborhood, because he didn’t want to come home. It’s like something out of an Irwin Shaw story. You see someone baffled in their life, feeling the straitjacket of circumstances. Home is not nourishing.

Hathaway: As I understand it, Esther Graff had a choice. She could have a life that went as far as the end of the block, and walk in the most beautiful shoes that never pinched. Or she could risk going beyond the block with a pebble in a shoe that would never come out of the hole in the bottom of it.


Neither Irving nor Esther see who their son Paul (Banks Repeta) is. They can only see the future they want for him, and it’s stressful.

Hathaway: I think every parent feels that way. And in our characters’ case, the future is not guaranteed.

Strong: This father wants his kids to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, and wants to toughen him up for that world. That is a form of love, but it’s also a form of violence.

Hathaway: And I think Esther wants her kids to get into the land of milk and honey, where they’re not required to have those skills.

How did you two get into married-couple shape with COVID restrictions curtailing rehearsal time?

Hathaway: We were making it up as we went. Jeremy and I took it upon ourselves to meet and hash it out. Just spend time and play.

Strong: This one was really challenging. It was like building an instrument [by yourself] that hasn’t existed before, learning how to play it well enough …

Hathaway: … and say to other people, “The way I play this is worth your time and money.”

Strong: There was a lot to be done before I was ready to walk around Central Park with Annie.

You walked together? In character?

Hathaway: I wanted to walk with Banks, so we could connect. He needed none of that. [Laughs] He was so locked in and assured. So Banks and I walked around, and we decided to surprise him by having Jeremy join us as Irving at the end. Then we went for a walk as a family.

The family meal scenes are great at establishing the dynamics. Are eating scenes tricky to pull off?

Strong: I’m bad at film continuity. Honestly. Taking small bites, the stuff you’re told. I feel it’s more important to allow a scene to unfold where a lightning strike might happen. James was like, “Cut, your mouth is full of chopped liver. I can’t hear the words.” The video I have of his father, at a brunch, he was talking with his mouth full the whole time. The eating scenes were messy, and that was what was so ecstatic about the making of them. They were just chaos.

Hathaway: Eating made me realize something about [Esther]. When [her] mother Mickey, played by the incomparable Tovah Feldshuh, was just laying in on me, I found myself taking very tiny bites very quickly. I was like, “God, I’m anxiety eating!” All of a sudden, a history of this maternal energy, which James had told me was not positive for my character, just opened up for me in a way. The criticism and guilt and food, it just happened, you know? I was discovering things about Esther up to the last minute.