Kieran Culkin On Playing The No Filter Roman Roy in HBO’s Summer Hit Succession.
Succession was the show of the summer and, as 2018 comes to an end, the HBO smash-series is winding up on a lot of Top Ten TV shows of the year, including mine. The show about the Roy family is directed by Adam Mackay and packs wealth, drama, comedy and brilliance into the first season. If you haven’t binged it yet, what are you waiting for?
Kieran Culkin plays Roman Roy, the younger of the Roy siblings. He’s nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the spoiled, lovable jerk. Roman does awful things, but he doesn’t know any better. His lines are pure satire and delivered with such humor, that you can’t help but like Roman. He wants to own the company because he’s entitled to it. Culkin dissects Roman in our chat. He talks about how he was originally sent to read for Cousin Greg, but while reading the script, it was Roman who stood out for him.
I caught up with Golden Globe nominee Culkin to chat about his audition, working with Adam Mackay and what he’d like to see in season two.
Succession is a hell of a wild ride. What was it like reading the pilot and reading about Roman?
I was sent it to read for Cousin Greg. I knew immediately that I wasn’t suited for this part. There wasn’t a part of me that thought maybe I could read for this. I enjoyed reading it and read on, but then Roman walks in the room and says, “Hey, hey motherfuckers.” I thought that he was cool. I’d never been good about why I pick a part or why I connect with it. It’s just that something clicks. I was loving his language and it just made sense to me. I really wanted to do it. I kept on reading and I get to the scene where he offers the kid a million dollars to hit a home run and tears the check up in front of him and that just got me really excited at the idea of working with the kid and being able to shatter his dreams and hopefully make him cry. That sounded like a fun day at work for me.
They weren’t actually reading for Roman either and they said they weren’t doing it yet, but I still put myself on tape and I did three scenes and sent it in and Bob’s your fucking uncle.
Here we are.
And here we are. I just wanted that part. I had so much fun putting myself on tape that I almost didn’t care in the end. I had such a great day and if I never hear from them again or don’t get the part, I had so much fun being able to say those words and be this fucking asshole for a whole day.
You talk about the check scene at the game and how Roman is just the biggest jerk, but no matter what, you just can’t hate him. How did you tap into that?
[laughs] I’ve met a few people who don’t share your “But you like him anyway” opinion. I’ve had people on the street tell me I’m a fucking asshole. I had a guy as I was passing, we did not stop in our strides and he yells, “Hey man, you’re a real son of a bitch. Keep it up.” I always get things, people who watch the show and say, “You were just awful. I hope you’re not like that in real life.” I simply say, “Thank you.”
It’s a new experience because I’ve never done TV before. With a movie, I do the thing and I don’t know why things aren’t clicking in a certain way, and after I can have objectivity and talk about it.
Now, that I’m talking about it and being more self-aware about him. I would say, what’s interesting about him is that growing up insanely rich, and what should motivate people, he doesn’t live in that world. He’s also the kind of guy who never had to suffer any consequence because he could always pay his way out or his dad would save him. I feel he’s always felt like he needs to have a loud personality to stand out. People like this get handed shit but no one wants to be handed shit. They want to feel like they earned it. Whether it’s having a partner or anything else.
Roman can be whoever he wants to be. He’s really gunning for COO and maybe CEO and he really wants it. He feels it’s rightfully his, but I don’t think he has a single fucking clue what that job entails or how to do it, but that doesn’t matter to him. I think he can jump into any situation, not knowing, but he thinks he can figure it out or buy his way in or out. That’s Roman.
I think that’s exactly who he is. He just wants it all.
To a certain extent, that’s what he thinks everyone else does. Everyone just bullshits and kisses ass. Some people work really hard, but he’s never had to work really hard.
Roman had the best lines. Did you collaborate with the writers to craft him, but also what was it like working with Adam and his process of improvising?
Adam told me his process, he’d do the script version a few times, but then he said, “We give you one version where you get to improvise or I’ll shout a few lines.” When he said that, I felt petrified because I’d never done anything like that before. I do theater and the playwright would say, “You missed a comma there. The comma is important.” And so, that was terrifying. We’d do the scene and there’s one moment right before dad shows up for the surprise party in the pilot. Everyone is standing around and when the scene finished. Adam would yell, “Go to Alan.” The camera would pan to Alan and then Adam would say, “Talk about home.” He creates this random ranch and he’s so brilliant at it.
Adam yells, “Go to Sarah” and he’s working around the room to all the people paired off and everyone knows how to do it and I’m shaking in my fucking boots. He shouts, “Kieran go.” I just said, “You look nice.” I had nothing and I say, “Thank you for wearing this dress.” Molly replies, “You’re welcome.” [laughs]. I say to her, “Sorry about the other dress” and she gives me this dirty look. I backed myself into a corner with that and so I had to come back with a punchline so I just came up with, “I thought it would fit me.” It made her and Adam giggle. I didn’t think he was going to use it. It took a lot of weight off of me but it took me ages to be cool with that moment.
We shot that pilot in ten days. I didn’t know who he was at that point in the game. I didn’t understand the background, nor understand who he really was, and it seemed really daunting because everyone in the cast jumped right onto theirs, but it took me a few episodes.
The writers are so damned good and the reason I clicked with that pilot was that their wording was so fantastic. All credit is theirs. They are solid fantastic writers. They’re also comedy writers and on the day of shooting, they kind of can’t help themselves and they tag on a joke to a line of mine. They’ll hand me a page, and they had pages of alt lines. Some had notes, and there is this competitiveness where they try to one-up each other with their jokes. After a while, I get involved and want to get in on it and come up with a dirty joke, dirtier than theirs. So, it’s all good, friendly competition.
They let us improvise a lot which I got comfortable with. I used to think it was a tool to help make us more relaxed. Sometimes we’ll throw stuff in the middle and we’d go back to the dialogue, but they actually ended up using a lot of the stuff. None of the writers are insecure and this was truly a collaborative effort. At some level, they must know they’re good because they had the confidence to let us do that.
You come from a family with six siblings. How did that help with Roman who just pushes all the buttons?
It helped tremendously. I could picture all of Logan’s kids as kids. I see the dynamic right away. What’s funny is Jeremy and I talked about it at one time, and this is something the writers are really good at. They come with this whole arc and they make adjustments as they saw what we were bringing to it and what the show was becoming.
I think early on they had this idea that Kendall used to bully Roman as a kid. They were telling us that, and both of us had voiced that we didn’t really feel that, but they still ended up using it with the dog pound thing and they explained it. I said to Jeremy. I knew that as a younger brother, I always knew I could get away with more and I used to get you into trouble more and pick on you. I was probably the kid at the table, throwing the fork around, and they were trying to keep his hands still and trying to get him back in his damned chair and he wouldn’t. Whereas Kendall would always have to be the good boy. I told Jeremy, that’s what I thought too, that my younger brother used to pick on me and get me into trouble. It was a dynamic that we found.
Now, it’s hard to separate those dynamics on set because now I’ve found this dynamic thing with Sarah Snook and Jeremy.
With my younger siblings and my mom, I’m in the middle of seven. I always knew when I was younger, if ever there was an argument with my older brothers, my mom would always come and take my side. When I’d fight with the younger brothers, she would always take their side. She always took the side of the youngest one and I played that here.
The youngest here in this show could get away with murder. I’d be very loud and fight for attention and that poured into adult life. [laughs].
Do you have any desires for Roman in the second season?
I would say when we started shooting episode two I did a scene with J. Smith-Cameron who plays Gerri. For whatever reason, she’s fantastically talented, but there is something about those two that I want to see more of. I’m always making inappropriate advances towards her but she always takes them and throws them back at me. I would love to see what would happen if Gerri and Roman took that a bit further.
You could see that happening. She’d put him in his place.
You could. There’s a scene in the diner and she doesn’t buy into his whole, “I can be charming and make a joke and bully people.” She reprimands him like a dog and he doesn’t know how to respond to that.