Kieran Culkin (‘Succession’) on how Roman Roy is ‘most like his father’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kieran Culkin earned his first Emmy nomination this year for playing Roman Roy on the HBO drama “Succession.” He has also amassed two consecutive Golden Globe nominations for his performance.

Culkin spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria before the nominations about Roman’s confidence and vulnerability, his strange relationship with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and his take on how popular “Succession” has become.

Gold Derby: Kieran, is it particularly challenging to maintain Roman’s confident facade while giving us glimpses of his surprisingly endearing vulnerability?

Kieran Culkin: Is it difficult? This might sound shitty, I haven’t been having a very hard time on the show. I don’t really struggle. There’s going to be a lot of ass-kissing. I’ve seen a couple of these interviews from people, from the other actors on the show, and it sounds like ass-kissing but these writers are just brilliant and on top of how good they are, they write great scripts, they tell great stories, but they also know how to write for each actor and also, they all have, and Jesse [Armstrong] in particular, has an amazing bullshit-ometer. He knows if something is a little too far or something is a little too on the nose or this or that. So I’m in completely safe hands. Most of how I approach Roman is not at all this. It’s all just gut. I read the page, it feels right and if it doesn’t, I mean, I will sort of express myself, but then it feels like I’m heard, it feels like a real collaboration. It’s not a struggle. I’m never fighting to make sure I have a voice or I’m fighting to try to understand what the guy is. We all seem to have a really good understanding of what it is and a lot of trust. If something doesn’t feel right, but it’s explained to me, I just sort of let it go and the writers let me go to something feels right for me. I’ve never got a TV show before. So I remember feeling like, “This is gonna be scary. I’m going to feel like I’m locked in a cage here.” And it just hasn’t been that way. So that vulnerability thing or whatever, I don’t know. I’ve been doing this forever. It just feels like, “Just go.”

GD: That’s actually a really cool thing to do. Not a lot of people get to say that. I was wondering why you decided to do TV and then I was thinking you’re probably quite thankful because it’s a really good, well-made show, well-written and you get play to Roman as the wisecracking, charismatic guy and also, he’s super vulnerable and we can totally see that underneath the surface. Is that a dream to be playing a guy like that? 

KC: It is a dream and I think there was a couple descriptors that you used to define Roman and what’s great about the show that I just said earlier is it’s never wholly one thing or another. Roman, he seems a lot like that on the surface, but there’s obviously more to him. I understand that just internally and then the writers understand that and they write towards that and we get to see that there’s a lot more to this guy and to all these characters. I just remembered I had my vitamins so I’m just gonna take them, sorry. 

GD: No, absolutely. That’s very important, please. We wanna keep you satiated. 

KC: Got my water, my vitamins and my wine. 

GD: Health, it’s all about health. You know what, I think we should cut to the chase and talk about the thing that everyone wants to talk about between what was going on between your character and J. Smith-Cameron’s character, because that was crazy and really entertaining. So for anyone who doesn’t know, over the course of the second season, Roman becomes entangled in this weird fetishized flirtation with Gerri and I loved every single moment of it. What were your thoughts when you first understood that this was going to happen over Season 2? 

KC: I went (pumps fist). Because, not directly, we kind of tried to make that happen in the first season. She wasn’t in the pilot and I remember reading the script for Episodes 2 and 3 and seeing the character Gerri, which actually was written to be a man. Even by the time J. was cast, they still hadn’t changed all pronouns of it. But I’d known her for years and I was really excited to be doing the show with her. My first scene was with her and immediately started doing some weird sort of flirty thing with her and every time we start doing it throughout the first season, I would do a little bit of a flirt with her and she would kind of just swat me away like an annoying fly. Since we have known each other for a long time, it was a safe environment to throw things at each other. So I would do these sometimes really wildly over the top, inappropriate flirts, and she would just make me feel really stupid and walk away. And I remember thinking, “Man, that would be so cool if they did something with this, but if they don’t, then it’s because it’s the right thing,” again, to come back to trusting Jesse. It was one of two things that I was really hoping would happen with Roman in the second season. But I didn’t bring it up. I didn’t say anything.

I was told at the start before we started shooting Season 2 that they were going to sort of see where that goes. There wasn’t a whole storyline. They were like, “We’re gonna see if there’s something odd, sexual or maybe bordering on inappropriate happening with Roman and Gerri,” and I got really excited about that. And something I want to say, too, going back to praising the writers and the showrunner and everything, every time I have either an issue with something or an idea that I think would be really cool, I notice if don’t just say anything, eventually it’s kind of just going to happen (laughs). I learned that early on, like if there was something at the table read that didn’t feel right, I used to try to bring it up. Now we don’t bring it up because it resolves itself, because they always know what they’re doing. It was really cool to be like, “I hope that happens,” and I remember talking to my wife and being like, “You know what? I would really love if Gerri and I got to explore some sort of weird, explore some sort of sexual or flirtation or something, because they didn’t use it the first season, and they did and it’s a lot of fun.

GD: Yeah, it looks like fun. And then that storyline, it really ramps up because there’s that scene behind the bathroom door and J. was telling me that that scene changed on a dime and it was like this obstacle course that you both were playing because the tones changed quite a bit and it’s delightful and kind of horrifying to watch at the same time. But I thought you both really knocked it out of the park. What did you think? 

KC: Oh, that was one of the most fun nights of shooting, and what’s fun with working with J. is I had worked with her in the past. She’s really good. She’s really talented, but she doubts herself sometimes and it’s funny because she wants to talk about something that she already fully understands and she’ll talk about it a lot and then come to a place of, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s like, “No, but you’re already doing it,” and every time we did that scene, it was working so well and after each take, she was doubting herself and still didn’t quite understand, “Does Gerri like this?” Because for me, the show is not really about this or that. It’s not really any one thing. So that’s why her trying to understand why Gerri goes along with it, I don’t think there is a particular answer for it, and her being a very professional actor and theater actor, she obviously wants to talk and understand. And in this case, I was like, “Let’s just do it.” And she’s brilliant. She always is. But I have fun watching her sort of squirm on set when she’s doubting herself because I know she’s doing a great job and I know she’s going to get there eventually, but it’s sort of fun to watch her doubt.

GD: Yeah, I get that. The other thing that I’ve always wanted to ask you is what the hell is going on with him, if you don’t mind me asking, sexually? Because the relationship he has with Tabitha, for example, seems dysfunctional. He plays dead in the “Tern Haven” episode and she snaps, “The morgue is closed.” But at the same time, he really gets off on these unusual, masochistic, Oedipal connection with Gerri. So what are your thoughts on what’s going on with him internally in his sex life? Because I’m a bit confused about it.

KC: Bingo. I think that’s it. I don’t think he has any understanding of it either and the way I try to approach Roman is I only want to understand as much as he does and there’s something that he says in the first season about being very well-adjusted because he doesn’t see a therapist. I actually do think he has a pretty good understanding of who he is and I think he, in a very backwards way, is kind of well-adjusted because he does understand himself. But there are certain areas like that I don’t think he’s really properly explored. I don’t think he knows why he doesn’t seem to be able to have sex with Tabitha and why his first idea that pops in his mind after months of being together is, “Can you just be a dead person and maybe we can have sex and I can maybe fuck a corpse?” I don’t think he’s actually explored that. I don’t think he’s even necessarily into that either. I don’t think he knows. Before we shot the pilot, after I got the part and we did the table read, Adam McKay and Jesse talked to me briefly about his sexuality and they said, “We don’t know yet, but we have this idea that he might be bisexual.” And I was like, “OK,” and in the first season, we sort of started to explore that and then we kind of just stopped exploring that but that little seed was sort of in there. So it’s not that. It’s that there is something about his sexuality, he’s in his late 30s and he just doesn’t have an understanding of it. And for me, that is a lot of fun to play. I mean, he has his sexuality. Who doesn’t? He just doesn’t know where the direction is and I do not think there’s a simple answer to it. 

GD: It’s better that way. It’s actually better because you can just explore it like he will.

KC: He doesn’t understand it and that would mean I would be learning at the same time he does. I’m interested to find out what that is too. He doesn’t seem to be good with affection either and I don’t know what that is and where that comes from. Probably his very, very cold parents. 

GD: I think that’s a huge factor. In fact, it brings me to this next point, because he does have some dysfunction with affection or with connection. In Episode 6, “Argestes,” an enraged and anxious Logan resorts to violence and slaps Roman and it’s just really confronting because he’s always put Roman down in the past but the way you played it was he underplays it as no big deal, implying it’s not the first time it’s happened. And also implying he’s such a masochist that he almost deserves that kind of treatment. That’s how I took it. What were your thoughts on this particular scene? 

KC: I never really considered the masochism thing. I also don’t know if it’s something that he really does. Logan says an episode or so later, “That’s not something I do.” “Yeah, I know,” meaning, it’s not really something he does, but he probably has, and maybe it’s been 20 years, like maybe he did jerk Roman’s arm really hard once when they were kids or something, he lost his temper because he does have a short fuse. But I think more what it was was the humiliation of it. What made me think that it wasn’t something like a trigger from his childhood is I think he was just embarrassed, not traumatized, not, “Daddy hit me, but, you know, “I got smacked in the mouth for being a wise-ass.” And then it became a commotion, like, my brother comes to rescue me. It’s like, “I can handle myself. I’m a grown-up.” What the hell else was I gonna say about that? Smacked in the mouth, embarrassed. Well, shit, I had some really brilliant point to make about it and it’s gone now.

GD: OK, just email us later. Actually, that brings me to this. I think a lot of Roman’s issues, this is, again, my personal view, stem from him being underestimated, and by the end of Season 2, he’s trying to break from that default, by being assertive and useful to his dad and Logan sees that in him a bit. And Brian [Cox] was telling me that that’s how he was playing it. He could see that Logan was starting to see Roman might actually be a successor, a credible one, emerging as a credible one. What are your thoughts on that dynamic? 

KC: Yeah, actually sort of connected to, I remembered what I was going to say about this, that Roman is absolutely insanely resilient. I can’t remember if it was the first or second season, but Logan calls him a very bendy fuck or whatever. Probably just something about how I move in a weird, bendy way. But I saw it more as he is a rubbery guy. You can say whatever you want. He’s going to fire it back. You can whack him in the mouth. That’s fine. Then he comes back and everything’s normal. I think he actually is resilient and strong, even though he may come across as a dumbass. He’s well aware of that but he takes that in stride and wants to take himself seriously and is willing to take certain abuses. But in that moment, I think he can be a serious guy. He just has a bit of a hard time with it and I think the circumstances that led up to him deciding that the deal was kind of bullshit and that he didn’t want to do it, he was put in a position where he might die or be kidnapped, so I think maybe he was reflecting on a lot of his life or his position or where everything’s gone in the series. But for whatever reason, he does make the smart move. And I think he always knows how to make a smart move. What he says in the first season, “I’m smart, but I’m dumb,” or something like that, “I’m dumb, but I’m smart,” same thing. I think he is capable. I think he is actually the most like his father of any of Logan’s kids in that, “Yeah, I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out and I’ll just make a decision and it’s this.” And I think doing that and making the correct decision, making the smart one here to Dad, when I easily could have just been a hero and been like, “Hey, Dad. Look, I saved the day, I got all this money for us,” he makes the smart decision. I kind of rambled on. These things all kind of connect. This is why I’m a shitty person to interview. I’m just gonna say a bunch of stuff. I’m telling you, they all connect. It’s like a Pollock painting. I don’t know why I pointed at “The Goonies” poster, but you know.

GD: It’s all connected, and I beg to differ because I like that rambling conversation. I think we’re gonna get to some truth here. 

KC: You have to read into it and be like, “He said this.” 

GD: Let’s go a little bit more superficial just to give you a break before we finish up. 

KC: You see me struggling with, like, “What does it mean?”

GD: It’s too existential and you haven’t had enough wine. What wine are you drinking by the way, just out of interest? 

KC: I think it’s like a pinot grigio or something. I don’t know. I’m gonna have some seafood in a bit. Is white wine good for that? I don’t really drink white wine. 

GD: Well, neither do I, but they marry well. That’s another story. There was a palpable love for “Succession” at the Emmys last year and you were nominated two years in a row at the Globes, which is very rare, to be honest. Is there a sense amongst the cast and crew that this show is really beloved by the industry and the media? Like, it really is. They put it on a pedestal. 

KC: Oh. I don’t know. I’m also kind of shit at that stuff too. This is the first time being in a TV show so what I have done is I’ll work on a movie and then when it’s done, how it’s received is just none of my business. I’ve never cared about it does well or people hate it. I don’t care and sort of the same when I do theater. I’m trying to make it the best. I don’t really need to read reviews. I don’t really care what the response is. So it’s sort of strange because the response does matter because I want to keep doing this job. But I don’t really get it. I would say like the Globes, [Sarah] Snook is having a really fun time. I think, with the amount of people that have enjoyed it, so right after we won at the Globes, we were walking off and Elton John grabbed one of us, I can’t remember who, and was talking about how great it was, but Snook had already walked off and I was like, “You need to come here. Elton John loves our show.” (Laughs.) I was like, “You might want to see this.” And she was like, “Oh my gosh!” I only get little glimpses like that when I’m like, “Oh, people like it.” But I don’t really have a sense of how people respond to it. I don’t know that it would really help me with a job. 

GD: It’s probably healthier. OK, final question before we let you go, and it’s not “Succession” related. I’m going to slip this one in. So, some of my favorite movies of all time, including my kids are “Home Alone” and the two “Father of the Brides.” So this is just going to be a very general question but what’s your fondest memory of back in the day when you were just starting out as an actor and you were working on those classics? 

KC: Oh, man. You know me, I’m just going to ramble on and talk about a bunch of crap and then you’re gonna have to piece it together later. You sure you don’t want to edit this? I don’t know, for me, it was always just kind of fun. Some former child actors look back at it and see it as it was work, it was a struggle or it was sad. I had a good time. It was playtime. I remember in the first “Home Alone” when they had to mush the chair up against my face over and over again and I think eventually they ended up shooting it in reverse. They mushed a chair up against my face and then pulled it away and I had to react in reverse. I was seven. I was like, “That’s so cool.” 

I just had a lot of fun as a kid doing that stuff and the only thing, ‘cause I’ve been working consistently since then, it’s funny because what I did then has almost nothing at all with what I do now. But a couple of good takeaways of that is I can memorize lines really fast because I’ve been doing that since I was six years old. I can hit a mark without ever seeing where the mark is. There’s these weird little skill things that I feel like people that approach acting later on in life, they don’t really think about. They don’t really teach you that. So it’s like you learn all about the stuff. You can be really ready. Then you get there and then you’ve got to know which way to walk off camera. You can’t walk this way. You have to walk that way, things like that are just like ingrained back here, because I’ve been doing it since… I told you I was going to ramble on about a bunch of shit. 

GD: I’ve never heard that. That’s actually really interesting and it’s so obvious. 

KC: (Laughs.) It’s so obvious!

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