‘Go and hide’: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and the lie that fuels America

By Stephanie Bunbury

Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong in James Gray’s Armageddon Time.Credit:Focus Features

Armageddon wasn’t really around the corner in 1980, but US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was all for talking it up. Out there in space, the Soviet Union might make a push for world domination at any moment. At home, there were threats that were less explicit, but you could hear the hum of racism in the motor of the arguments.

“Reagan used barely coded language to use race to help him win,” remembers film director James Gray. “I wasn’t aware of it as an 11-year-old. I wasn’t, but I was. Like, you somehow absorb the drippings of it, you somehow got the sense that something wasn’t right.”

For his latest film Armageddon Time, Gray – whose more recent films, such as The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, have leaned towards adventure – has returned to his childhood stamping ground in Queens, New York. While he has dealt with his family history more obliquely in The Yards and The Immigrant, this is all about him: specifically, about his friendship with a black kid in his last year of primary school. Gray was Jewish and growing up in what he describes as “Archie Bunker territory”; he heard his share of anti-Semitic jibes. In his last year of primary school, however, he would be confronted by the racism marbled into the social system.

Much of Armageddon Time is actually pleasurable viewing, because Gray remembers so much with such honesty. Details were important to the film: they even used his family’s old dinner plates. The Gray family is renamed Graf, both being abbreviations of their real name; it was important to fit in. James becomes Paul, played by Banks Repeta. Gray’s mother, called Esther in the film and portrayed by Anne Hathaway, had been a home economics teacher and is, as the story begins, a big wheel in the school’s parent teacher association. His father, called Irving and played by Jeremy Strong, is a plumber.

“Jeremy and Annie are exactly what my parents were,” says Armageddon Time director James Gray.Credit:Corina Marie/Focus Features

Paul is something of a mystery to them – artistic, flighty and sometimes unaccountably, uncontrollably brattish, sending his father into rages in which he beats the boy – but he has an instinctively close relationship with his maternal grandfather, a wise old owl played by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins isn’t Jewish, of course, but Gray says he finds the stock figure of the immigrant codger with a Yiddish accent dense as a bagel “quite offensive”. His grandfather wasn’t like that.

“He was a very proper person, he came through Southampton and he always wore a tie. We gave Tony Hopkins my grandfather’s tie and hat. He’s doing my grandfather uncannily. Jeremy and Annie are exactly what my parents were.” Details like the tie were important; the carpet, chandelier and the plates on the table were the same. So was “the mood of the house, the whole passage of history”, a heaviness carried forward from the Russian pogroms that drove his grandparents out of Europe. Never forget, his grandfather would tell him. People are capable of this.

Interestingly, the actors say they avoided imitating Gray’s parents. “The character that I wanted to create was not necessarily what James wanted me to do with the role,” says Jeremy Strong, whose own grandfather was also a plumber. “But as an actor you only have your own instincts; at a certain point you can’t think about that character as the father of the filmmaker.”

Anne Hathaway agrees, saying she worked on Esther the way she would on any character. They met Gray’s memories somewhere in the middle, where “it always felt truthful”, she says. Grandpa’s influence bore fruit. Armageddon Time is a great act of remembering, with the canker of racism as its centrepiece.

In the United States, the myth is that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps, that you too can make it if you work hard.

Irving and Esther Graf would certainly not think of themselves as racists. On the contrary, Irving sneers at Reagan, just as Gray’s father did. Gray’s parents even gave him the middle name Marshall after their hero Thurgood Marshall, the first black judge on the Supreme Court. “But they had their issues,” says Gray.

Paul’s friend Johnny is played by instantly likeable Jaylin Webb. The real Johnny would play up in class – Gray thinks now he had ADHD, but nobody thought about that then – and lived in poverty with a grandmother rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. In the film, Paul’s parents discuss school crowding; they tut about children being bussed in from further north; they murmur about bad influences when Paul is hauled before the headmaster; they worry about drugs. Like Reagan, they use codes for their anxieties that would be awkward if deciphered.

The decision is made, as it was for Gray, to send Paul to a private school, Kew-Forest, where they have small classes, uniforms, computers and conflicts of a different kind. The boys are entitled, bullying and racist. Controversially, Gray has one use of the forbidden N-word. “I refused to get rid of it because I didn’t want to erase history,” he told Deadline. “I can’t rewrite a more pleasant, nicer version of what those kids were.” The school’s most famous alumnus, who comes to lecture the children on their bright futures as the city’s future CEOs and political leaders, is Fred Trump, Donald’s father.

Gray’s enduring focus through his films, unusually for American filmmakers, has been class under capitalism, specifically the unwritten ways in which people are kept in their place. “Every successful civilisation requires a myth – we can call it a lie – that it tells itself in order to thrive,” he says. “In the United States, the myth is that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps, that you too can make it if you work hard, but then there are times when you see behind the curtain. They know that they’re the ruling class. ‘You are the future leaders!’ They would say that to us.”

Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as his friend Johnny in Armageddon Time.Credit:AP

The system requires its collaborators; like most people, the Gray/Graf family had signed up. Even his grandfather would urge him to take advantage of the opportunity to integrate. “He says, ‘Your name is Graf, you’re gonna fit in, make new friends’. Basically, ‘Go and hide’. Go and hide as someone who will fit into the system. And then he says, ‘Be a mensch [someone of integrity]’.”

It is Paul’s failure to be a mensch that brings Armageddon Time to its crisis point. Paul lets Johnny down, betraying him with his silence when the white boys at his fancy new school snigger at the idea of having anyone black in your actual house; trying but failing to shelter him when he becomes homeless; and, finally, abandoning him when they get into a scrape with the police. Johnny tells Paul to leave and let him take the blame. That’s what was going to happen anyway. Paul’s dad is able to pull some strings. And so Johnny fades from his life.

I think a lot of the movies that are made now are about enormous events that are about nothing, you know? This is the inverse of that.

After the film was first shown in Cannes, there was considerable discussion in the US press about whether Armageddon Time was a so-called “white guilt” movie, in which Gray points the finger at himself, sets out his mea culpa and seeks absolution. Not at all, Gray retorts; he doesn’t feel guilty.

“When you’re 11 or 12, you do not have the moral or ethical foundation to grapple with a world that is unendingly complex,” he told Indiewire at the time. “I think my behaviour at times was utterly disgraceful and gutless, but at the same time I don’t know what the heck else I could have done at that age.” A white-guilt movie, he says now, would show his alter-ego moving towards the light. “But there is no solution, no moral at the end. It’s not like the kid learns a valuable lesson and then becomes a great guy. It doesn’t work out that way.” It doesn’t work out that way because it can’t. Instead, it becomes Paul’s personal Armageddon.

“I love the way that James takes what is a small, not insignificant, but certainly not a seismic, event – and we feel, as the audience, the enormity of it,” says Jeremy Strong. “I think a lot of the movies that are made now are about enormous events that are about nothing, you know? This is the inverse of that.”

James Gray, centre, with Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong at the Telluride Film Festival in September.Credit:Getty Images

He remembers how Gray talked to him about a passage in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way about the passing of places that we remember that no longer exist. “Houses and roads and avenues being as fleeting as the year,” Strong says. “James is also in search of lost time. He is trying to retrieve a moment, to bring this time capsule to us and show the kind of moral education that lead to a first crossroads, these first moments of adulthood in this boy.”

People are cruel; people are driven to demean others; slavery and the Holocaust do not, says Gray, exist independently of each other. That’s what adults know. “I don’t mean this as medicine,” says Gray. “The movie is not medicine in that way. But it is my job as a creative person to talk about one of the major threads in our lives, what it means to be a person. So much of it is connected to this idea of ‘I make more money than you, down the block they have a nicer car than I do’, and that’s part of my identity, like skin colour and what religion I follow: what we now generically call privilege.”

The film may not be medicine, but Anne Hathaway took a message from it. “The first thing that I would hope everyone is doing is to become educated about what privilege is,” she says. “And when you do make a mistake – and you will, because you’re a human being – make the mistake gracefully, listen and apologise; be aware of the way bias looks in the world and how others might be expecting you to participate in it, then do the opposite. But it’s not a prescriptive thing. It’s an ongoing situation. The conclusion that James offers is that it may not make a difference, but it’s in the doing of it that your character is formed.”

Banks Repeta and Anne Hathaway in Armageddon Time.Credit:AP

When we talk via Zoom, Gray is in his “guesthouse” – what we would call a granny flat – because the sink in his kitchen is spouting boiling water everywhere, the plumber is trying to fix it and the dog is going berserk. I am impressed he managed to get a plumber immediately. “He only lives three blocks away,” says Gray. “He’s a very nice guy.” I ask if he told him his own father – and his father before him – were plumbers in New York. “I think I did tell him,” he says. “But I don’t know if he would remember.”

The awful fact of the matter is that for James Gray, the system worked. “In complete candour, I benefited completely. That’s one of the most upsetting aspects to all this,” he says. “Not just that I don’t learn a lesson and have all the answers at the end of the film. It’s that I’m going to be benefiting from playing a role.

“And for all of my own weaknesses, I did get the drippings of a better education. I was forced to learn Latin. The classes were 15 kids as opposed to 45, so the teachers could pay more attention. I had two teachers I thought were great. They nurtured my love of cinema. And then I got a scholarship to university, so it was all a huge deal for me.” After which he became a filmmaker of considerable note. While the boy who was Johnny, he revealed with considerable distress in his Deadline interview, was shot during a drug deal, just six years after the events in this film. The system worked just as expected for him, too.

Armageddon Time opens on November 3.

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