Interview: Jeremy Strong talks ‘The Big Short’

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

We got the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with Jeremy Strong who stars in Adam McKay’s latest feature, The Big Short. Based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, the film tells the true story of four outsiders who saw what the big banks, the media and government regulators refused to see—the looming collapse of the global economy. It’s a serious topic, but comedy expert Adam McKay infuses a dash of comedic relief throughout the picture for the perfect dramedy blend.

Jeremy Strong is only one part of this star-studded cast, which includes Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Before this role, Strong starred in other pieces inspired by true events, including Selma, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. Now, you can see him as financial research specialist, Vinny Daniel. Below he talks about his draw to socially-minded films, his knowledge of the financial crisis and more. After you’re done getting a dose of Jeremy Strong, check out our review of the film here.

So how did you get involved with the project?

I had worked with the producers from Plan B on Selma, so I got to know them during that, and they told me they were going to make this into a movie. I read the script and I felt really passionate about it. I’ve been lucky to work on a lot of films that are socially-minded or about moments in history, and this one was something that I wanted to be a part of. I actually auditioned for four different parts in this movie. So yeah, from the moment I knew about it, it was something I knew I wanted to be a part of.

This film is a bit different than your other socially-conscious films in that it juggles humor with sobering drama. So how was that like on set? Did Adam ever say ‘It’s too funny. Reign it in a little’ or ‘Make it funnier?’

You know, he kind of stayed out of it. I was really curious. I didn’t know what the movie was going to be like when I saw it, in terms of the tone. I think it’s hard to pin down. I don’t know if you can call it a comedy. I don’t know if you can call it a drama. It’s a combination. I know Adam thought a lot about movies like All the President’s Men and Network, but he also thought about Monty Python and Airplane! and even Ocean’s Eleven. He’s a really funny guy, so the set was very upbeat and a lively environment to be in. He also keeps things light and he brought some levity to heavy material. But I think that in this case, he just really wanted to tell the story. As a director, I think one of his real virtues is allowing his actors to just take chances, take risks, play, be free. So there was a lot of improvisation, which was a high wire act because we were improvising in the idiom and the grammar of finance. So we all had to do our homework to be able to do that because I knew he was just going to throw stuff at us. He would say, “Okay, just talk about the floating interest rates, go!” [Laughs]. So you have to have all that stuff locked and loaded and ready to go. And he knows this stuff really well. I mean, as much as he’s the guy who directed Anchorman, this is a subject that he feels really passionate about and understands and a topic he feels really outraged by. So the movie is really personal for him.

You mentioned how Adam let you guys basically improvise, which is great because it lets your creativity come out. When you have someone telling you everything step by step, on the other hand, you might feel frustrated sometimes as an actor.

 Yeah, you can feel very straightjacketed. You know, its all about trust. He gives a lot of trust to his actors and that just makes all of us want to give our best.

Since you guys did improvise a lot, how true is the movie to the book?

I mean the book doesn’t have Margot Robbie. [Laughs]. But I think it’s true to the book in the sense that it distills the essence of it. The story is about how Wall Street took toxic waste, turned it into artisanal spring water, and then made everyone drink, which made everybody get sick. But yeah, its true to the basic kind of structure to the book and the characters in the book. Adam then brought in his own personal sensibility, sense of humor and all these different layers that weren’t in the book that I think make it a much more audience friendly and entertaining piece of art.

Did you know anything about the financial crisis going into the film?

Going into it? No. You know, I had read the book, and I had read a lot of other books on the subject, but Michael Lewis wrote a really compelling account, and it’s easy to understand. It reads like a Jason Bourne, a Robert Ludlum thriller. It’s really fun to read, and I think Adam McKay said he read it in one sitting, staying up all night. It’s kind of surprising. You wouldn’t think a movie about the subprime mortgage crisis and mortgage back securities would be this much fun.

Did Michael Lewis have any involvement with the film?

No, he wasn’t around at all. I mean, I guess he’s had so many of his books turned into movies that he’s over it. [Laughs]. I met him for the first time at the premiere in LA on Thursday night, and I know that we all really wanted to live up to his book. I read all of his books after I read this one, and I think he’s an incredible writer. So I think Adam and his co-screenwriter, Charles Randolph, really wanted to do right by it, and serve the book. And I think in this case, it’s one of those rare times when a movie almost surpasses the book because it’s just bigger than the book in some ways. The movie is not just about the financial crisis, but also about the way we live. I think it’s a snapshot of our whole country.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Did you get to meet the real Vinny Daniel before filming?

Yeah, I’ll show you a picture [Laughs]. So I went to New York, and I spent some time there. I went to the trading floors on Wall Street and read a lot of books, and then spent time with Vinny and his hedge fund. He still runs a hedge fund with Danny and Porter. When you’re playing a real person, you feel a huge responsibility because you’re portraying this person for millions of people. He’s got family, he’s got co-workers, he’s got kids, so you want to really do right by them. I was very lucky because Vinny is somebody that I have a lot of affection for and respect for him. He’s a really strong guy. He’s got really strong ethics. He’s dark, but he loves the Mets. [Laughs]. He’s a guy from Queens who works on Wall Street, but he’s kind of a blue collared guy with a white collared job. I think that point of view and that attitude was really important for me to try and capture. You never know if you will or not, but sometimes if you’re playing real people or people based on real people, you get to know their behaviors. He has certain characteristics and a way of talking and carrying his body, and all those things end up being incorporated into the work.

So Vinny isn’t exactly someone you’d call “warm.” [Laughs].

 He actually is. He’s tough, but you walk into a room and you know that you don’t mess with that guy. [Laughs].

Yeah, it seems like he has a big chip on his shoulder. Was there a concern about the unlikeable factor in his character?

I guess that’s not something that I’m really thinking about. My responsibility is to the character, so I’m just trying to connect to how Vinny sees things and try to inhabit that. Then you’re just trusting the filmmaker to do what he wants with that. Whether that’s making them sympathetic or not. I found I have a ton of respect for him because Vinny always wanted to do the right thing. I don’t see him lumped in with a lot of the other kind of people on Wall Street, but yeah, its complicated. McKay last week was saying basically there are no heroes in this movie. This movie takes place in a morally compromised universe, so our heroes are people who are working on Wall Street, making a lot of money on the backs of the financial crisis. But you still, I hope, care about them because they’re all sort of going through their own struggle and I think they’re all making this trip for reasons that are very personal to them.

You mentioned before that you auditioned for four different roles for this movie. What is the scariest part for you in auditioning for any role?

Well, there’s always fear. For me, its just part of it. So you just kind of have to accept it. There’s always nerves especially when you want to do something that you care about. Auditioning is terrible. I mean, its much better to just be offered things [Laughs]. But that being said, auditioning for different directors is very different and Adam in the room was just fantastic because he is right there with you, he’s throwing out ideas at you, and he’s very creative. His process is a very creative one, which you think would be true about all filmmakers, but its not.

We were talking earlier about how this movie is a “Dramedy” in a sense. Do you see yourself as a dramatic actor dabbling in more comedy films in the future?

No, not really. I mean, I love comedy, but I think I always wanted to work on serious films. Not that comedies aren’t serious on some level, but I came up in the theater working on mostly dramatic stuff. I guess I did comedies, but you know, I think…What do I think? [Laughs]. Yeah, you know I worked on another film last year, a similar situation where people called it a dramedy. It was this movie called The Judge. David Dobkin who had made Wedding Crashers and all these similar comedies similar to McKay, made a more serious film. And I think it’s a very similar process. Same muscles, same everything. You just bring a different part of yourself to it. So I guess I would say the same thing about acting. You bring a different part of yourself to each role, and they all demand something different from you whether it ends up being a comedy or not. I love doing this work, but I guess I would say I prefer to work on things that feel meaningful and substantial, so if that’s a comedy, then great. There’s actually a comedy that I really want to do right now with Alexander Payne. The script is really fantastic. That’s something I’m chasing, but you know, I guess I see myself doing more dramatic stuff, ultimately.

So you did a lot of studying and research for this movie, and you’ve done a lot of other movies that were based on real events as well. Is that something that you’ve also done for your previous movies? Does it ever get to a point when you’re like, “I don’t want to do this anymore”? [Laughs].

My girlfriend is always saying, “If you want Jeremy to ever care or learn about anything, you just have to put him in a movie where the part calls for someone who knows how to cook or something.’” [Laughs]. I think a lot of actors share this. You suddenly have an insatiable appetite to learn and absorb as much as you possibly can about a subject. It’s one of my favorite parts about the work, and I think I’m a real junkie for it. It’s really fun to spend a year learning about the Civil War, believe it or not. When you’re working on a film, part of your job is to understand the world of it and sort of just be in that world, not just the lines on the page. You’re trying to fill it all out. You’re trying to absorb as much as you possibly can so that it’s like the air you’re breathing. So learning about the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy assassination or the capture of Osama Bin Laden, all these things have been really fascinating to learn about. Wall Street particularly has been interesting because it’s such a high stakes world. It’s a fascinating world and it attracts a lot of real characters, but I think it’s very important to do that part of the work. I think it informs the performance when you finally get to the set that day and you have this reservoir of understanding.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

You’re working with big names in this movie. Do you ever get star struck? 

No. I mean, I probably used to. I admire the guys in this movie as actors and have for a long time. I think they’re great actors and they’ve done really courageous work and yeah, when you meet Brad Pitt you’re like, “This is Brad Pitt.” [Laughs]. But I guess the thing you learn is that at the end of the day, they’re all just actors. Part of the reason we made this movie is because of Brad Pitt. He’s one of the producers, and Plan B makes these really incredible socially minded, important and necessary movies. And he’s putting himself on the line for this film to be made. They’re all wonderful people. I guess what I would say is that when you’re working, you’re not really working with the actor. You’re working with the guy they’re playing. I had all my stuff with Steve Carell, but I never felt like I was working, that I was meeting Steve Carell. I felt like I was in a scene with Mark Baum. You sort of meet them when you’re doing press or when you see the movie. Sometimes you have a moment. I remember having this moment on Lincoln and on some other things where when you’re doing it, your job really is to kind of forget all that stuff and just be in the world that you’re in and commit and believe in that. However, I would say I was star struck by meeting Michael Lewis.

Working on the film, did you ever think back to math class? [Laughs].

No. [Laughs]. I mean, I was terrible at math and I’m much worse now than I was probably in school [Laughs]. No, the writers have done that work for you. I think your job is to understand it on a core, emotional level, and then they give you the words to say.

What do you want viewers to take from the film?

Well, I think Adam McKay made the movie so that we could all go on this journey together and ask, “What the hell happened? How did this happen? How did we end up here? How do we become aware so that history doesn’t repeat itself?” And I think the takeaway should be to have a really good time, but also gain a new awareness, a new vigilance, so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. I mean particularly here in Florida. Florida was really affected, as you know, by the economic crisis and by the housing bubble and I don’t think most people, myself included, really understand how it happened. So its not a history lesson. It’s a really fun movie, but I do think that we’ll all come out better equipped to understand the kind of world we’re in and what we’re up against if we don’t want to let this happen again.

Finally, everyone in this film was really fantastic. Was there one moment on set that really stood out to you, or that you’ll take with you for the rest of your career?

There’s a moment in the film when Brad Pitt turns to Jamie and Charlie’s characters, and he says, “Don’t dance.” And I think for me, that’s one of the most striking and important moments in the movie because it kind of encapsulates what the movie is about. It’s like, “yeah, we’re all having a lot of fun. These guys are making a lot of money, but don’t dance.” It’s not something to celebrate because what’s happening is this really serious and tragic thing. So the movie is dancing, but it’s also reminding us in a really sobering way that this impacted millions of people seriously and severely.

IN THEATERS TODAY

Alejandra Torres is a 21 year old from Miami, Florida. She graduated from Florida International University with a degree in English Literature. She loves books, television, and movies. Some of her other favorite things include: leftovers (food—not the show), cookie dough, and her pet poodles, Benji and Bella. She hates Miami traffic but loves XM radio, so basically, it’s complicated. In a battle between contacts or trendy, oversized glasses, the latter wins because lets face it, contacts are a lot more dangerous than some people might think. Her latest binge victim was Parks & Recreation. She “literally” got through six seasons faster than the Millennium Falcon kicks into warp speed. Her favorite shows include: Game of Thrones and Pretty Little Liars—because it doesn’t matter whether a girl is from Dragonstone or Rosewood, fashion is key.