Follow us wherever you get your podcasts:
“Succession” actor Kieran Culkin helps us dissect the moments from the Season 3 finale that we still can’t stop thinking about. The star sounds off on the surprising Roy sibling alliance, Roman’s relationship with Gerri, and THAT Jeremy Strong article. Fair warning: This conversation contains profanity.
Yvonne Villarreal: Hi, I’m Yvonne Villarreal.
Mark Olsen: and I’m Mark Olsen. You’re listening to “The Envelope,” the L.A. Times podcast where we go behind the scenes with your favorite stars from TV and film.
Villarreal: Today’s guest stars in a show that has, in a way, become part of my morning routine. And that’s because this is what my alarm sounds like:
[“Succession” theme song plays]
Olsen: You listen to this every morning?
Villarreal: I don’t know why you sound so shocked, Mark. I mean, the way those piano chords can energize my spirit, it’s unmatched. And the “Succession” actor I spoke to for this episode agrees with me.
Kieran Culkin: This sounds maybe lame because I’m in the show, but I watch the shows as they air, and when that song starts, I do get pumped for the episode.
Villarreal: In case the voice wasn’t enough of a clue, I got to chat with Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman Roy on “Succession.” He starts off the show as this sort of foul-mouthed wisecracking character.
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: Hey, hey, mother—.]
Villarreal: But as “Succession” progresses, Roman becomes more influential at his family’s media company. He has this loyalty and savviness that earns him the coveted position as his father’s “number one boy.”
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: Everything for everyone. And Mattson knows how to get there. GERRI: Logan? LOGAN: We can’t afford to walk away right now. Must be worth a conversation, son. ROMAN: Uh-huh. LOGAN: Bring them in.]
Villarreal: So after hiding in the shadows of his other siblings, Roman is finally in competition for the top seat at Waystar Royco. But then in Season 3’s finale, the unexpected happens. The Roy siblings banded together. It all starts in a scene where Roman and Shiv try to comfort Kendall as he confesses to being involved in the death of a waiter.
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: No, seriously. I mean, you crashed and then what? You ran? KENDALL: No, no. I mean, I tried to get him. ROMAN: You did? OK. See? KENDALL: I dived a few times. ROMAN: This sounds like the story of a hero to me. I would have been straight out of there. Serious. I would have been out of that water like a tabby cat out of a bath.]
Villarreal: So it’s a surprisingly tender moment. Well, I thought it was tender anyway.
Culkin: It’s going to sound bizarre because I don’t think Roman was actually trying to make Kendall feel better. I think that that was actually his point of view. I think it was “it really doesn’t sound like you’re responsible for this guy’s death at all.”
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: If it pleases the court, it sounds like you didn’t kill him. It sounds to me like he killed him. KENDALL: Rom, I’m a piece of s—, man. ROMAN: But the road and the water killed him. That’s what it sounds like. KENDALL: No, man. Don’t. ROMAN: No. Seriously.]
Culkin: I liked it because it’s as close as they can get to feeling anything for each other. Roman sort of puts his hands on Kendall’s shoulders, and I think that that’s like, I can do this because I know this is something that people do. I’m not even sure how much comfort he wants to give Kendall. Maybe he does. So, no, I wouldn’t say that that necessarily opened up anything new for Roman. I think it was, “Oh, you’re a tortured soul about this? This isn’t anything. Yeah, I mean, sad. Somebody died. People die all the time. You didn’t even know him. You even tried to save him, which I would not have done. So good on you. You’re fine. Shut up. Get up now. We’ve got work to do.”
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: Who hasn’t clipped the odd kid with a Porsche, right? I mean, it’s like a rite of passage. I’ve killed a kid too. Big deal. Shiv, you’ve killed the kid, right? SHIV: Uh, yeah.]
Villarreal: A moment that I think everyone was talking about was the final scene where the Roy siblings unite and go confront their dad for making a big decision about the company without them.
[Clip from “Succession”: SHIV: We can stop you and we will stop you. Blow this up. ROMAN: You need our vote for a change of control. SHIV: Yeah, you need all of us. You need a supermajority, and we can kill it, and we will. LOGAN: You’re playing toy f— soldiers.]
Villarreal: What was your reaction when you first read that scene?
Culkin: This is really kind of odd to say, because in any other job I’ve worked on, I want to know the full scope of the story. I want to know exactly where everything is going to go. On this show, I found myself saying to Jesse [Armstrong], “No spoilers, please. I only want to know as much as Roman knows, and I don’t want to know where it’s going.” But about halfway through shooting the season, because of how far away we felt from Kendall, I could have visualized the way where things could get sort of friendly, but I thought from a business point of view, there’s just no way we would get together. But I asked Jesse, I said “Careful not to spoil anything, but is there ever a point when we sort of side with Kendall again?” He goes, “Yeah, that’s how the season ends.” He just blurted it out and told us, and I went “You son of a bitch. I didn’t want to know that!”
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: I do think that — even though this literally makes me want to vomit and I want to kill you both every day and it’s all going to end horribly — I do think that we — puke — could make a pretty good team.]
CULKIN: As we were getting there, reading the script for Episode 8, I was like, “I still don’t see how. I just don’t see how this can happen.” And I was like, “Well, I’m sure he’s going to pull some sort of clever trick because he’s so freaking smart, and he always figures it out.” And he did. And I remember reading it and thinking, “You son of a bitch, you figured it out.”
[Clip from “Succession”: SHIV: He’s toast. We push him out. KENDALL: Full coup. SHIV: Yeah. Slide him out. Say, Ken, chair? You or me, Rom, CEO? And the other one takes whatever they want, like studio movies, TV, the streamer, but, you know, equal. ROMAN: OK, but really equal.]
Villarreal: A lot of people know by now that you originally were asked to audition for Cousin Greg, but you were drawn to Roman. Tell me more about what fascinated you about this guy who walks into a corporate office saying, “Hey, hey, mother—.” Why did you feel like you had to be him?
Culkin: That’s my tummy. I really don’t know what that is, but I know I started reading Cousin Greg and just immediately was like, “I get it. I know who this guy is, but it’s not me. I can’t do that.” And then with Roman, I just knew I could. I liked his voice, and I really clicked with it. Pretty much every syllable was like, I completely understand who this guy is, and that almost never happens. But I cannot tell you exactly what that is. I wouldn’t be able to. I mean, I’d have to try to analyze it. I don’t how much time you got. I’m still trying to find a therapist. So if you have any good recommendations we can try to figure these things out together.
Villarreal: I have recommendations. Yes, we can work through this.
Culkin: OK, good.
Villarreal: I know that you are wary of having him be a sort of Chandler Bing type of character. Can you explain that yet?
Culkin: Did I say that in an interview? Did somebody else say that?
Villarreal: It was you.
Culkin: It was me. S—. I remember saying that to Jesse. But I wasn’t trying to be confrontational. I was just like throwing away, “You know, I’m worried that in the scene, there’s just a couple of jokes here and I’m just worried that I’m like becoming the Chandler Bing of ‘Succession.’” He was like, “Oh, Chandler Bing? You think you’re —” And I realized I completely offended the writer by telling him that, like, “you’re Chandler Binging me.” And I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant like, you know, a lot of times he’s the disruptor, and sometimes we finish a scene and I go, “Why do people keep inviting Roman into these meetings when all he does is just disrupt, make fun of people, and then he gets invited to the next one?” But if you go back to the first season when he walks in his office and is overwhelmed by those emails, I actually feel like at least the choice that I made was that Roman didn’t really understand what his job was. He was just going to blag it until he could figure out what it is.
[Clip from “Succession”: KENDALL: A bit of content and a brand name is kind of the whole game isn’t it? ROMAN: Mh-mm. KENDALL: What are you laughing at? ROMAN: I don’t know what I’m talking about. Look, you’re going to be captain of the ship soon enough. KENDALL: Shh.]
Culkin: And from personal experience, whenever I try to do that, there’s never a moment when you realize that you actually know what you’re doing, it just happens quite gradually. And I think that’s what’s been happening for Roman, particularly in this last season. So, his disruptions and his jokes actually have some meaning and purpose behind them, they’re not just to try to make people laugh or whatever. I saw that he’s not exactly Chandler Bing.
Villarreal: There’s worse things. We love Chandler Bing, but that is not the path that —
Culkin: I freaking love Chandler Bing. Are you kidding? Like I should be so lucky. “Could I be…?” Nevermind. I’m not going to do it.
Villarreal: When you talk about playing Roman, you’ve often said things like, “I don’t really know why he does that.” Almost as if you’re letting Roman sort of take over your body or something. Would you describe it like that?
Culkin: No, I’m sorry. I don’t know. I have no idea how I move. I didn’t even realize that apparently I sit weird. My wife was showing me that there’s people that put together videos. I’m sure there’s some sort of cool little millennial word for whatever it is I’m trying to say. It’s not necessarily a choice, it’s just something that happens. I guess that’s how Roman said. I don’t think I do. I don’t pay attention. I learned this when I was about 18. It’s like the moment you put words to it, you’re going to become too aware of trying to make that thing land and you’ve got to do it. And that would almost be fine if you were doing a scene by yourself. Stand-up comedians listen to their material, a lot of times they watch back, because that makes sense. You’re trying to find the rhythm, you’re trying to work with it yourself. But when you’re working with a partner, you’re trying to get something to land and you’re both aware that this person is trying to land a specific moment and they are trying to receive it. And now we’re suddenly doing a performance instead of something being alive. That’s the approach I take with “Succession” and thankfully, it’s been sort of a perfect mixture of different actors and writers and everybody that — for the most part — have that same sort of approach where we go, “Let’s just see what happens, and we’ll find it.”
Villarreal: But even that is quite different from the sort of technique that Jeremy Strong takes, right? I mean, I was really fascinated by the discourse about Jeremy Strong’s process that was sort of detailed in that New Yorker piece. It was fascinating to see how people read that piece, and one of the things was the exchange the two of you had, discussing “Succession” and whether it’s a comedy. Can you tell me more about that conversation?
Culkin: I mean, it’s in there. He just said he was worried that people were going to think it’s a comedy, and I said I think it is. When I say that, it’s always, to me, been kind of silly to just categorize things as comedy or drama. Our show is really hard to put in a specific category, but because people do, I think it’s like, “Oh, it’s a one-hour show with serious themes, so therefore drama.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t be without humor. To me, the whole show has humor to it. Everything. And anything that is dark or sort of hurtful can’t be impactful without it being somewhat funny to me. Some of the hardest stuff to watch in the show is Tom and Shiv’s relationship, and I find myself laughing because it is kind of painful. That wonderful scene they had on the beach where Tom says to her, like, “I think the unhappy of being, of not being with you…” I’m butchering it.
[Clip from “Succession”: TOM: I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.]
Culkin: And that hit me right in the gut, and I laughed because it is kind of funny and not like a sort of quippy joke-joke kind of way. But I think everything in that show that is kind of heavy, there is something sort of darkly humorous to it. And I guess he may have a different opinion than I do.
Villarreal: Were you surprised by the response to that article? I mean, it was interesting, all the different reads on it.
Culkin: Well, the one thing I’ll say, I mean, he is definitely defec — dedicated. “Defecated.” Wow. He has definitely defecated. [laughs] He’s definitely dedicated, but so is every single other actor in the cast. I think everyone is completely committed to this and works extremely hard. You can’t just show up on a show like this and sort of blah blah blah your lines and deliver a great performance and go home. You have to put in the work. So his is just, to the outsider, I guess it seems unusual. But you know, there are other actors who work this way. I’ve watched the way Matthew MacFadyen works. I’ve watched the way Brian [Cox] works. Brian sometimes has long speeches that he’s only been given the day before, and he works on them all night. He works really, really hard. And that’s after like a 12-hour-long shoot. He’s got to now memorize a new speech that came in the day before, and he stays up late and has to get up at 5 a.m. to go do another 12-hour day where he has a big speech that he has to nail in one take, because we don’t really do like pickups and stuff. We run the whole thing like a performance. He’s a professional who’s been doing it a long time, but it’s not something that is just second nature. He works really hard.
Villarreal: Well, while we’re talking about cast members, I need to ask about Roman and Gerri. German? Rorri? Do you have a preference for their couple name? I want to respect your preference.
Culkin: What was that? German? What was the other one?
Culkn: Oh, like my brother, Rory? Yeah, that one is the weirdest one for me. So let’s go with Rorri.
Villarreal: Yeah. You and J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri, are friends in real life. You’ve worked with her husband, Kenneth Lonergan, plenty of times. You both shared how this started off as improv that sort of became a storyline after the editors saw it. Where did you think it would end up or how far did you think they would take it?
Culkin: That’s something that sort of happened naturally. It just, for some reason, felt right and safe to be inappropriately flirty with general counsel. She’s been a part of the family for a long time and it’d be like, here’s a safe space. I’ll say something kind of gross and flirty and see where it lands. And it always landed well. She always kind of rolled her eyes and was like, ”Oh yeah, I’m so shocked.” And it’s just fun to play. So we did it most that season without them really like catching it because a lot of times it was in the background or after the scene had finished. So the fact that they caught it and wanted to explore it a bit was just exciting. I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but it seemed to be working for us, so I’m glad that they liked it and kept wanting to go forward with it.
Villarreal: Well, they had an alliance going, but Gerri and Roman sort of end up on opposite sides at the end of Season 3.
[Clip from “Succession”: ROMAN: Gerri, Gerri, Gerri, Gerri. He’s not well. You can help us, right? You can help us stop him? GERRI: Well, I’m focused on whatever outcome best serves the financial interests of the shareholders of the company. But it doesn’t serve my interests. How does it serve my interests?]
Villarreal: Do you think this work marriage can be saved?
Culkin: I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. I’m not trying to be that guy, but I actually try not to think too far ahead about that stuff. I’m a fan of the show first, and then I’m a guy who works on it. So I’m really curious to see where that goes. It’s always the right choice, even if it feels like it’s wrong. Like I talked about earlier, “How could he possibly align with Kendall?” And then, wow, they just figure it out. So even that moment, on page, I thought like, “Oh, that’s kind of brutal,” and I don’t know how Gerri feels in that moment. Is it strictly business? Is it like, “Thank God. I hated this guy. He annoys me?” Or is there something else there? And I think with another actor that might have just been sort of one layer there or there could have been something else. With J., there was definitely something she was withholding, and it’s hard for me to even read it as I watched the show. And even in that moment, I remember looking at her sort of pleadingly like, “Say more. There’s something else you want to say, Gerri, and you’re just saying, ‘How does it serve my interest?’” I think in a way she was actually asking, show me how, like if you can give me something convincing, I can maybe be on your side.
Villarreal: For the people that don’t know, you famously come from a family of actors. Your father, Kit, who was also an actor himself, led you and your siblings into acting as children. I want to know, what parts of it did you like, and what parts of it you didn’t like when you were younger?
Culkin: As a kid, I actually really enjoyed it. It was fun for me. The only thing that I can recall being tough was just being away from home because, you know, it’s me and my six siblings. It’s seven of us. So it always felt like I was away from the pack. My mom tells me that when I was little, when we would come home she would open the door and I would always have to go in last. I would refuse to go in because I needed to make sure that everybody got in. And I remember I was always the last one to fall asleep. I couldn’t fall asleep until everyone else had. So I had this sort of wolf-pack mentality when it came to us as a family. So I remember that being hard. Being on set was great. The three hours of tutoring you have to do on set was a pain in the ass. It’s so funny. I’m 39 years old, and I still shudder at the idea of an AD coming to me and saying, “You’ve got to go back to school.” You have a nine-hour day of shooting, and one of those hours is lunch, and the other three are school. So you only get five hours to do the actual shoot. And that’s all I wanted to do. And sometimes they would ask and say “We’d have to cut into your school time.” And I would say, “Yes, yes. Let’s do that.”
Villarreal: Is there a thing where, like, you learn to ride a bike later than you would if you weren’t doing this stuff? Or like I can’t imagine not experiencing — and don’t barf — but not experiencing the Scholastic Book Fair. Those things seem pivotal for me, but I wasn’t sharing a scene with Steve Martin either.
Culkin: Oh, I didn’t miss out on stuff, if that’s what you mean. It wasn’t like I was on the road all the time with my pappy. For the most part, I would be gone for a month or something like that, or two months maybe, usually getting to go home, and that could be kind of tough. But then I’d go home and it would pick right back up where it left off. Like, I kind of missed school, but sometimes it was actually OK to leave school and come back. I think when you’re 12, you look really cool doing that. You know, “I was away. I was in Montana, but I’m here now, so it’s cool.”
Villarreal: For anyone who doesn’t know, your brother is Macaulay Culkin from “Home Alone” fame. What did you learn from Macaulay’s experience with fame as a child? Because that seemed intense. So as someone observing it happening, what did you sort of take away?
Culkin: I think if anyone had the sort of overnight fame that he had, and they were middle-aged and otherwise well-adjusted, it’s a big punch in the face. I think that’s a very hard adjustment that I have adult friends that have had that, are still struggling with it, and still haven’t quite figured out certain aspects of it. So take that, except now you’re 9 years old, and your brain is still developing, and you’re still trying to figure out how to be a person. And now this is sort of thrust upon you. It’s a one-of-a kind of experience that I can’t really speak to. You have to talk to him about it. But just observing it was like, “Oh, I get it. Fame is awful. One mustn’t pursue this.” It’s not that nice. Which isn’t to say that if people have found a comfort in it or figured out how to do it or really enjoy it, that’s anything wrong with them. That’s good on you. There are people that are professional celebrities and some of them that probably love it. But I feel like if you’re an actor, you want to act or whatever kind of performer you are, that’s something you really want to do. I think a lot of times that thing is just the sort of burden that comes with success. You want to be successful because you want to keep doing, but then because of the field you chose, that means you’ll have to deal with that.
Villarreal: Well, how do you handle it now that you’re recognizable to people improbably more than you were in the past?
Culkin: I live in New York, which is probably very helpful because people here don’t really give a s—. There’s a lot of like, “Oh, you’re on that show. Right on.” Yeah, it’s a lot of things like that. People really won’t bug you. There was a woman today — I took my daughter to an indoor playground today — and she said something like, “People who do this are so annoying, and I’m sorry to be one of those people. I just think you’re great.” I was like, “Oh, thanks.” And she goes, “Have a nice day” and left it. Like you could tell she felt shame that she said it too. So it was like a nice version of it.
Villarreal: I know you weren’t really into the whole press thing either. How are you doing with that now? Are you hating this interview?
Culkin: No, no, no. This is fun, because this is just a conversation about stuff. I like to talk about myself. No, because that was an adjustment to that was something I hated doing as a kid. I remember doing “Igby [Goes Down]” and then having to do press and I was like, “I don’t want to talk about this. I did it and it’s over and I don’t want to analyze it. Leave me alone.” You know, sort of disgruntled teenager. But I’ve adjusted to it. I think it would be very difficult if I was working on something that was maybe not the best thing or I didn’t feel that confident about or I didn’t really know how to talk about it. No, but I actually really like talking about “Succession.”
Villarreal: I think what’s interesting, too, is we’re in a time where there is a lot of analyzing of things, both in performances and TV. I mean, I know there’s been articles with therapists, like, breaking down your character. I know that you have a pretty fractured relationship with your father, Kit. I’m curious, as the actor, are you sort of channeling any of that father-son dynamic when you’re playing Roman?
Culkin: Nope. Nah. I mean, at least not that I’m aware of, but I have enough awareness to say nah. To be honest, people carry that sort of stuff with them, whether they’re aware of it or not, but that one doesn’t have as much weight as it seems to an outsider. I mean, you use the word “fractured.” “Fractured” doesn’t necessarily mean — I wish I could find a better word for “heavy.” It isn’t that. There’s no real weight there. He stopped living in our house when I was like 12 and I have seen him like once since. So I know that that sounds really awful and sad or whatever to someone on the outside, somebody who may have had a bond with their father or something. But to me, my experience, it was the most natural progression of life. Like, “Good, he’s gone.” But no, there’s nothing. There’s no that. At least I don’t look at Logan and go, “Oh, Kit” or something. They’re actually quite different people, too, so it doesn’t really help me. We have amazing material to work with, and look at Brian, I’ve got a great scene partner. You know?
Villarreal: Well, you’ve been acting for a long time, but I know that “Succession” specifically ignited a new passion for you in regard to seeing acting as your profession. Yeah. What satisfaction does acting give you now that it didn’t before?
Culkin: Yikes. “Satisfaction.” Shut up. Gross. “I’m so satisfied with my performance.” Shut up. Oh, satisfaction! No, it’s probably a perfectly reasonable word to use.
Villarreal: Well, what word would you use? Enjoyment?
Culkin: Stop it. I don’t know. It’s a job. “Enjoyment.” “Fulfillment.” I don’t know. Remember what I talked about earlier, that moment of like fake it until — you know, blag your job until you know what it is you’re doing? I think it was actually a movie I did just before “Succession.” It’s called “Infinity Baby,” and it was like three weeks, a really low-budget independent movie. Fun, really fun time. For the most part, I was the oldest person in the crew, and I remember thinking like, “Oh, this is that moment where I realize I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m not a youngster to this anymore.” I remember having that moment on that film. But then working on “Succession” I remember telling my wife, “I think I want to do this for a living.” And it was working on the show. I mean, this is like an exceptional job. I think this is something very unique and it’s sort of my first venture really into TV. From everything I’ve heard, from people that have done a lot of television, this kind of situation is very unusual, and I know I’m very lucky. So to say, “Yeah, I know what I’m doing,” I think when I go to the next thing, I might feel like I’m an impostor again, which is completely normal. If there are any actors listening, that feeling of like, “I’m an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing. These people know what they’re doing.” No no no no. That’s a very, very normal feeling. Sorry, I went off with a little rant there about impostor syndrome.
Villarreal: Do you know if the writers have opened the room yet?
Culkin: I heard they have about a week ago. I think they just started, so I have no updates. I know nothing, and I never will.
Villarreal: And you don’t want to know.
Culkin: I don’t want to. When I get the table read script, that’s when I’ll have an idea.
Villarreal: Well, I appreciate you taking this time. It was really lovely speaking with you.
Culkin: Yeah, lovely speaking with you too.
Villarreal: I hope it was satisfying.
Culkin: So gross.
Villarreal: That’s the last one I’ll do.
This episode was produced by Heba Elorbany and edited by Jazmín Aguilera. Our engineer and composer is Mike Heflin. Special thanks to Asal Ehsanipour, Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Tova Weinstock, Amy Wong, Chris Price, Ross May, Patricia Gardner, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe and Matt Brennan.