Armageddon Time director on making a movie memoir with Anthony Hopkins
James Gray discusses casting Sir Anthony Hopkins as his grandfather, working with Jeremy Strong – and why he’s putting his youth on screen.
Are filmmakers getting more personal? The new film Armageddon Time – based on director James Gray’s youth and boasting a triple threat of stars in Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Strong, and Anne Hathaway – reinforces that it certainly looks that way.
From Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza last year to Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming The Fabelmans, it seems more directors are finding subject matter in their own childhood photo albums. So why now?
“Well, Paul [Thomas Anderson] says it’s just because we’re getting old,” James Gray says during an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com.
Coming in the wake of Ad Astra with Brad Pitt, the heavily autobiographical Armageddon Time is the eighth film of Gray’s career and follows a 12-year-old Jewish-American boy named Paul, played by newcomer Banks Repeta.
As he gets into trouble at school with his Black classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb), Paul learns hard truths about '80s America and clashes with his parents (Hathaway and Strong), while also growing close with his grandfather (Hopkins).
However, a movie memoir was not a long-gestating passion project for Gray, who turned 53 this year. “After the last two pictures, The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, I was so damn tired. Physically and mentally,” the writer/director says.
First conceived before the pandemic, Armageddon Time was originally set to star Robert De Niro and Cate Blanchett, before Gray considerably reworked the script and turned to Hopkins, Hathaway and Strong.
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“I quite love Tony,” Gray says of 84-year-old Hopkins. “I'm happy to call him my friend now, which is beautiful. He's a brilliant man. And capable of anything.”
Despite critical praise for Hopkins’s performance in the film, some have pointed to the fact that the actor does not share the Jewish heritage of his character.
On this topic, Gray is unequivocal: “I think it’s absolute nonsense. In some ways, it’s based on a kind of antisemitic idea of what a New York Jewish person should be like. As if their name should be Moishe and they should sell pickles and eat pastrami.
"That was not the way my grandfather was. He was quite an urban fellow and extremely erudite and elegant. He was not your cliched movie Jewish guy.”
To illustrate the physical resemblance with Anthony Hopkins, Gray then charmingly shares a photo from 1973 of himself as a two-year-old with his grandfather
At this point, conversation moves onto Jeremy Strong, who plays a version of Gray’s father in the film. Last year, it was well publicised that the Succession actor has consistently taken an intense approach to his roles, perhaps at times to the exasperation of his collaborators.
However, Gray wishes to debunk such talk. “Jeremy is not difficult at all. To me, difficult is when you don't show up on time, don't know your lines or argue with me. That's not what Jeremy is.
"He is a deeply committed person – you stop seeing Jeremy on set and start seeing the character and talk to him as that character. Some people don't like that, but I love that. That's the actor showing dedication to the craft.
"Acting well is not easy to do, and everybody has a different process. Tony [Hopkins] has a different process than Jeremy but neither is wrong. Both are beautiful and you have to embrace and respect it as long as the result is there. So I loved working with Jeremy. I just talked to him like he was my father!”
After heaping similar praise on his “terrific” teenage lead actors Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb, Gray is then as plain-speaking about his intentions with the film as he is about casting.
Much of Armageddon Time’s dramatic heft stems from a storyline of racial injustice – and Gray is clear that his film is not an apologia or an attempt to absolve himself of guilt.
“There is no catharsis. None. There was none intended,” he says. “I never felt that somehow by telling this story the burden would be lifted. In some ways, that passage of my life is more troubling to me now than it was even six months ago, a year ago, five years ago.”
Gray is similarly forthcoming about the effect he wants his film to have on his audience: “There are no answers given. There's no redemption or packaged little moral. What I was trying to say, with this film, is here's this little boy who is becoming more aware of a world in which there are no easy solutions or answers.”
After nearly 30 years as a director and numerous struggles to have his films released, Gray is battle hardened but remains self-effacing. “You know, as I get older, I just get dumber and dumber. I understand the universe less and less,” he says while contextualising Armageddon Time with his past projects.
However, the director is sanguine about the dangers facing cinemas due to the decline in popularity of film as a medium.
Returning to why the cine-memoir seems to be the genre du jour, he says: “Not to sound too much like a Debbie Downer, but I think the state of cinema is quite parlous. So, in my own way, and with others that I know who make films, we want to get it out before it ends.
"I hope we're wrong. We may well be wrong, because cinema’s death has been predicted many, many times in the past, only to be resuscitated.”
He pauses, before adding: “So it's possible it makes a big comeback, but it's got to come from the studios. They've got to help.”
Armageddon Time is playing now in UK cinemas. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or Streaming Guide, or visit our Film hub for more news and features.
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