Armageddon Time: Cast and Characters of James Gray’s Personal Film–Anne Hathway as Mother, Jeremy Strong as Father, Anthoiny Hopkins as Grandfather

Having written the film with his actual relatives in mind, Gray didn’t necessarily have preconceived ideas about casting. He recalls early discussions about the role of Esther Graff. “The first name that came up was Anne Hathaway.

I thought that was a great idea – I love her work and she’s given incredibly bold performances in films like Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. And then we were lucky enough to get her.”

Anne Hathaway as the Mother

Hathaway became attached to the project after reading the screenplay in the spring of 2020. “I remember my first reaction was one of great tenderness,” she remarks. “Knowing James’s strength as an emotional and visual storyteller, I could see how he could turn this deeply personal script into a touching and challenging film. It was a personal narrative set within an historically significant moment in New York and America, and I very much wanted to be a part of it.”

Hathaway talked to Gray in great detail about his mother, and she researched other areas that would have bearing on the woman she was playing, including the politics of the period, family history, religion and economic status.

“I wanted to be familiar with the world Esther would have grown up in, as well as the world in which her parents grew up,” she explains.

Esther is a person who rarely stops to rest; as well being a home economics teacher and president of the PTA, she’s decided to run for a seat on the district school board. Hathaway describes her as “a matriarch with upwardly mobile ambitions, despite her humble surroundings. She sees a path for her family’s rise, but it’s precarious. We meet her at a moment in her life when her idealism, that has sustained her through some hard times, meets a reality that will not accommodate her hopes. I saw in her a woman of tremendous passion, focus, determination, vulnerability, sadness, and love.”

Hathaway sees Esther and her younger son as having a particular affinity, which complicates her life as a mother.  As she puts it, “Esther and Paul ‘get’ each other. Of everyone in the family, outside of her father, Paul is the one she gets on with the best — he makes her laugh the hardest, but he also knows how to get under her skin. She’s scared he won’t find his place in this world, and him being safe and protected is her number one concern.”

Jeremy Strong as the Father

When they were casting the film in 2021, Gray had yet to see the HBO series “Succession” and wasn’t familiar with its star, Jeremy Strong. “A friend of mine kept saying, you have to see this show, it’s really good and this guy on it, Jeremy Strong, is brilliant. So I got hooked and was like, this guy’s great. Jeremy and I had a Zoom call and we decided to do it.”

Strong hadn’t yet read the script when they had their first Zoom session but was very familiar with Gray’s films. “I think James is brilliant and really regard him as one of the great contemporary filmmakers.  There are a handful of directors I’ve always wanted to work with and he’s one of them,” he affirms. “Then I read the script and was floored by it. It’s rare to read something that has a doubling effect, of being at once intimate and historical. It’s about this boy and his parents and this moment in time, in this particular neighborhood, in this particular house in Queens – but it’s the origin story of an artist and it’s the origin story of this historical epoch that we’re living in now. And Irving was one of those roles that sort of sang off the page.”

Strong came to New York and went about learning everything there was to know about Gray’s father as well as the filmmaker’s life and times as a boy. “There was a lot to absorb – who he was and what he liked; what music he listened to and what his interests were. James and I went around Queens and I got to sort of take a tour of James’s world. And I just plied him with a million questions, trying to get a composite picture of his father in order to internalize some of it and then throw it away. And not do an impersonation of James’s father, but try to understand the essence of the man.”

Irving doesn’t have an easy relationship with either of his children, but there’s no doubt that he takes his responsibilities as a father seriously. Says Strong, “He’s a product of a different generation and had a very difficult upbringing. He’s got a temper; there’s a sort of pressure cooker inside of him. He’s trying to support the family. He wants his kids to have a shot at an easier and bigger life than he’s had. I think it’s hard for him to be close to people. But he has very warm moments and I think he’s trying. And we discover wellsprings of love and generosity in a character that seems very limited in those areas.”

Anthony Hopkins as the Grandfather

The project appealed to Anthony Hopkins for a number of reasons. “I’d seen quite a number of James Gray’s films, and I think there are so many layers about family relationships within his films. He’s a very clever director; a very precise director,” he remarks. “To do a film about a family in this part of America was intriguing to me.”

Gray’s grandfather had spent his early years in England, where his mother had sought refuge after her parents were murdered by Cossacks. Says the director, “He always had that very kind of urbane manner, which I feel he took from England and never relinquished. He was just like Tony in the movie, with the white shirt buttoned to the top, the tie – there was something very formal about him all the time.”

In playing Aaron, Hopkins drew on memories of his own grandfather, with whom he was very close. And he specifically drew on memories of his own grandfather during a key scene towards the end of the film, when Aaron and Paul launch a model rocket at the 1964 World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows. “I remember that last look in my own grandfather’s face, like they’re already leaving,” says Hopkins. Understanding that Paul is grappling with how to respond to the unabashed racism he’s encountered at his new school, Aaron is very blunt in making the stakes clear, using profanity to make his point. As Hopkins sees it, “It’s Aaron’s farewell to Paul: think big; be kind, and be compassionate, and remember, you’re human. Don’t try to be perfect. Do the best you can, but do not put up with bigotry and racism. Speak up.”

While casting the adult leads was relatively straightforward, finding young actors to play Paul and Johnny was a more challenging and time-consuming endeavor.

Explains Butan, “You don’t have a body of work to look at when you’re casting kids of that age. You’re looking at much smaller performances and a lot of readings. James and Doug Aibel, the casting director, did a very extensive search.”

The process led Gray to cast Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as Johnny. “Looking at their audition tapes, Banks and Jaylin seemed to have so much soul and inner life. At that age especially, when you’re after good work from a young actor, you look for an intelligence; a sensitivity; perceptiveness; awareness; emotional intelligence. Banks and Jaylin had all of that, in huge amounts. It was such a pleasure working with them.”

Repeta was able to gain insight into his character through his many conversations with Gray.  “Paul is a dreamer, an artist and a rebel,” he says. “James would tell me about how he was always daydreaming, especially at school. How he used to draw funny pictures of the teachers and used his art to be the class clown. He told me how he did whatever he wanted, like when his mom made these elaborate meals but he wanted dumplings so he got them.”

As Repeta describes it, Paul begins the sixth grade in a state of happy unawareness. “As far as Paul is concerned, nothing could possibly go wrong,” he comments. He owns everything, he’s on top of the world. Especially with meeting Johnny on the first day of school.”

But things do go wrong and learning how to deal with that is part of growing up. And it makes Paul’s relationship with Grandpa Aaron all the more precious. “Paul lives in a world where the teacher is obviously mean to Johnny, but his Grandpa teaches him how to be a mensch,” says Repeta. “James said his grandpa was his favorite person in the world and made him feel like he could do anything he wanted to, even with his art. His grandpa taught him to stand up for those who have less than him.”

Webb, too, found Gray to be generously forthcoming in describing the real Johnny and friendship that was so important to him. Remembers Webb, “Even at the callbacks, when I wasn’t sure if I got the role, James interpreted Johnny fully. So I was able to know every single detail about Johnny. And that really helped me go into character.”

Johnny is coping with stressors that he doesn’t talk about. The evidence of those stressors is plain to see in Johnny’s constantly re-worn clothes and shoes, but the adults at school don’t notice. When he gets in trouble, no effort is made to see if anything is wrong at home or if he needs help.  “Things are very tough for Johnny,” says Webb. “He doesn’t have any parents. He’s in the custody of his grandmother, but she has dementia and doesn’t remember anything. So it’s like he’s on his own. He’s bullied by his teachers. He has a lot of anger inside of him. He’s not as privileged as most of the other kids are.”

Webb sees a kind of solitariness in Johnny; the friendship with Paul introducing something hopeful into his character’s life. “Johnny’s like the class clown,” Webb reflects. “But people don’t know about his personal life. He’s got friends but a lot of the time he goes into his own head. It’s hard for him to find people to relate to. He and Paul bond because they’re both into space and they both like music. They both have a rebellious side to them, they like to have fun. Paul is like a light that brings Johnny back to life. And they become really close.”