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Is Jeremy Strong the bad art friend?

Eccentricity in artists used to be normal. Has the internet changed that?

Jeremy Strong holding the award for Best Actor in a Drama Series award for “Succession” during the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards on January 12, 2020, in Santa Monica, California.
Jeremy Strong accepting the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actor in a Drama on January 12, 2020, in Santa Monica, California.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Champagne Collet
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Is Jeremy Strong a bad art friend?

The actor, acclaimed for his Emmy-winning role as Kendall Roy, the tragic, brooding golden-boy-turned-black-sheep of the family in HBO’s drama Succession, has flown relatively under the radar as himself — until recently. Earlier this month, a well-timed New Yorker profile of the actor went viral. In it, writer Michael Schulman portrayed the actor as mirroring his character’s intensity and self-centered focus in real life. Highlights include the time he nearly bankrupted a Yale theatre club in order to fete Al Pacino, famous friends (like Matthew McConaughey) calling Schulman for character references at Strong’s request, his stint following Daniel Day-Lewis around like a puppy, his penchant for quoting philosophers, and the repeated implication that Strong is the only Succession actor who doesn’t get that the show is a dark comedy.

The profile garnered the kind of reaction you’d expect: Social media users boggled at Strong’s behavior, especially what Schulman depicts as his pretentious, pseudo-method-acting process, which includes everything from spontaneous script ad-libs to refusing to rehearse with his scene partners in advance. While some embraced Strong’s affectations, many online seemed to feel that Strong’s all-or-nothing personality would be insufferable to have to deal with on a regular basis, on-set or off, and that his behavior toward colleagues was particularly egregious. The conversation was especially fierce on Twitter — as in “Jeremy Strong” trended on the platform for a full week — which is somewhat fitting, given that Succession seems to be in a constant dialogue with the kind of overtly performative viewers who are, like Kendall, in New York media and on Twitter, and obsessed with both.

But if the worst thing that anyone can say about a guy is that he’s really intense, or maybe even annoying, perhaps that’s not worth the extended social media critique that Schulman’s profile generated. The backlash raises a question: Is “acting normal” something we really want from artists? Is there really no room for eccentricity?

Following the profile, several of Strong’s friends within the industry put up messages of support, including Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Aaron Sorkin. None are strangers to charges of pretension. Sorkin, who directed Strong in Trial of the Chicago 7, spoke on the record to Schulman for the profile, describing Strong’s desire to be authentically tear-gassed for the role. In an open letter posted by Chastain, however, Sorkin wrote that he regretted “help[ing] Mr. Schulman create what I believe is a distorted picture of Jeremy that asks us to roll our eyes at his acting process.” (He also clarified that Strong would never endanger anyone else on set.)

Actors and their processes have long been mocked, inside and outside of acting circles, and with various degrees of understanding. But getting into character is something that’s commonplace for every working actor, including Strong’s Succession co-stars. (See: Brian Cox’s empathy for the often-monstrous Logan Roy in this recent GQ interview.) Strong’s widely heralded performance in the final episode of season three may have ended the conversation when it comes to him, but it’s just one in a recent spate of public debates over the value of eccentric artists — and an increasing need to denigrate and even pathologize eccentricity itself.

A somewhat comical recent example of eccentric artistry comes from the culinary arts, via Floriano Pellegrino, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Bros in Lecce, Italy. Bros became briefly notorious earlier this month after travel blogger Geraldine DeRuiter made a post mocking the pretentious, overpriced, and frequently inedible 27-course meal she and her friends had there.

In response, Pellegrino issued a fascinating manifesto involving different artistic depictions of horses. “Contemporary art does not provide you with answers, but offers great questions,” he wrote to Today. “Contemporary cuisine should do the same. A chef should not offer easy answers, but challenge you with interesting questions.” While some of the questions Bros evoked were certainly interesting — how does one drink citrus foam from a plaster cast of the chef’s mouth? — others were pedestrian and annoying, like why the menu didn’t accommodate vegan dieters or those with food allergies. Still, Pellegrino’s point was clear: My right to be obnoxious in the name of Art supersedes your right to have a meal that’s tidy and unsurprising. It’s not an argument you could make at most restaurants, but it’s not without merit.

Questions of eccentricity and the rights of artists were even more complicated in the extended public debate surrounding Robert Kolker’s viral New York Times Magazine article, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” The article — the title of which is now the stuff of legend — details, in depth, the stunning quirks and lack of self-awareness demonstrated by a writer named Dawn Dorland, who donated her kidney to a stranger and then insisted on making sure everyone around her knew about it. (Which, it turns out, is what donation experts want you to do.) Dorland gradually realized that a woman she considered a friend, Sonya Larson, had not only plagiarized a locked Facebook post Dorland had made about the donation for a short story of Larson’s own, but had also spent years mocking Dorland with a group of Boston writers Dorland once considered friends and colleagues. Larson had been a far more successful writer than Dorland, but just as Larson’s short story was receiving major attention, Dorland’s plagiarism claims torpedoed her career. Not a great look for Dorland, given that Larson, who is Asian American, had used her version of Dorland’s kidney donation to critique race and class privilege.

Initially, the public reaction seemed to be overwhelmingly in Larson’s corner. Much like Schulman’s profile of Strong, the author gives Dorland just enough rope to hang herself. Kolker later explained that he had attempted to “present both Ms. Dorland’s and Ms. Larson’s side faithfully,” but Dorland comes across as cluelessly self-absorbed. Kolker chose his contexts very carefully and omitted many extenuating facts on Dorland’s side, and subsequent revelations complicated the narrative he presented.

Increasingly, Dorland seemed to many like the victim of a hate campaign — a woman who’d had a major life event stolen from her, weaponized against her, and used to make fun of her over the course of years, all for the sin of being a little over-earnest and socially awkward. Larson’s circle mocked her for everything from making heart signs with her hands to using smug hashtags. “She just can’t stop being ... herself,” Larson opined.

At worst, perhaps this was just an episode torn from Reddit’s Am I The Asshole that deserved the judgment “Everyone Sucks Here.” What it became, however, was a referendum on the limits and value of eccentricity, in art and in life. The titular question arises when Dorland says that Larson made her feel like a “bad art friend” for not wanting her own experience used. While many writers defended Larson’s right to steal from and transform any story she ran across, in the time-honored writerly tradition, many others felt that the malice involved — seemingly a result of intolerance of Dorland’s own complicated eccentricity — made the stakes much different from a simple case of artistic inspiration.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the people at the center of these viral profiles and blog posts is that all of them are artists. There’s a sacrosanct creative liberty that artists often demand and receive from the rest of us — the towering personality of the diva, for example. There’s an expectation that the actor who’s allowed to be histrionic and demanding, or the writer who’s allowed to be oversharing and impassioned, will ultimately create better art.

If artistic license is the idea that’s fueling this ongoing conversation, the bigger question is about people, not the things they create. “My plagiarist fiercely maintains her right to an artistic vision,” Dorland wrote at one point. “But don’t we bankrupt our art of its value if we don’t treat our human subjects with empathy?”

In an era where personality tests from Hogwarts houses to Myers-Briggs types are all the rage, personalities that can’t be easily labeled — that don’t fit neatly into well-understood, orderly boxes — may receive less grace than others who do. Ironically, even as society shifts toward much more nuanced understandings of neurodivergent brains, disordered personalities, and social anxieties, we sometimes fail to put that understanding into practice when confronted with the complex personalities of actual people.

Increasingly, particularly on the internet, one of the worst things you can be is “cringe” — to be so awkward, un-self-aware, over-earnest, passionate, or guileless that you inadvertently become a target of bullying for personality traits that in effect harm no one. Not only has “cringe culture” become de rigueur on many parts of the internet, but the group experience involved in bullying or mocking anyone who happens to get categorized as cringe becomes justification for the mocking and bullying to continue. That seems to be what happened in the case of Sonya Larson’s group chat: As one brave friend eventually confessed, “When you enter a groupthink mentality where you are willing to dehumanize someone, you stop seeing them as a person.”

The assumption the rest of us tend to make in order to justify attacking the eccentrics in our midst is that they don’t know how they come across. Certainly that’s how Schulman portrays Strong — unaware that there’s a joke and that he’s the brunt of it. Perhaps that’s not the case, though. Strong, Dorland, and Pellegrino each seem to have some idea of how they’re being perceived, and to choose, despite the risk of increased mockery and pain, to continue being themselves, at their most extra and obnoxious.

Making this choice is a rite of passage for many of us — for the theater kids hamming it up, the fangirls shrieking too loudly at concerts, the excited nerds geeking out about obscure subjects, and on and on. The choice to embrace effusive displays of sincere feeling will always bring the risk of vilification. Perhaps when the next viral profile drops, we might push past the knee-jerk mockery, recognize the capacity for eccentricity in ourselves, and extend a little kindness.

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