New York-born actor Kieran Culkin, 39, made his film debut at the age of eight, alongside his elder brother Macaulay in Home Alone. While still a child he also had roles in Father of the Bride, The Mighty and The Cider House Rules. He later appeared in Music of the Heart, Igby Goes Down and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World. He now stars as Roman Roy in HBO drama Succession, which returned to Sky Atlantic last week, a role for which he’s been Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated.
One of the many reasons I love Succession is that I always think I’m watching “Evil Kieran”…
[Laughs] That’s good to know. Roman might be the most acerbic of the Roy siblings but I still root for him and am willing him to step up. That’s true for a lot of the characters. I really feel it with Tom [Wambsgans, played by Matthew Macfadyen]. I desperately want him to tell Shiv to go fuck herself and show the family his true self but Tom never does, he just rolls over. It’s so deliciously dissatisfying.
I learned recently that you originally read for the part of cousin Greg [ultimately played by Nicholas Braun]. I can’t imagine that. How did the switch of roles come about?
I can’t imagine it now either. It even said “Greg, 26” on the script and I was 35 at the time. I was too old and could tell in my belly straight away that I wasn’t right for that part. But I liked the script enough to read on and when Roman walked in, his first line was “Hey, hey, motherfuckers”. The way he spoke just looked like fun. They weren’t auditioning for Roman yet but I picked three scenes, put myself on tape and sent it in anyway. [Series creator] Jesse Armstrong saw it and cast me.
It’s pure pleasure to see people being so horrible to one another. Do you feel that too?
Totally. And it’s true to the characters. Those siblings have spoken to each other like that their entire lives. They’ve developed their own language, this almost sing-song exchange of insults.
Is it true that the psychosexual relationship between Roman and his colleague Gerri was inspired by you and actor J Smith-Cameron messing about on set?
Yeah. We’ve been friends for years, so we have a built-in comfort where we can just fuck around with each other. So I thought: “I’m going to make Roman flirt with general counsel and see how she takes it.” She just deflected, so it never made it into the early episodes. But towards the end of season one, they left the camera rolling after we’d run out of dialogue and I made a joke about Gerri’s pet tortoise. I said: “Can I borrow your tortoise for the weekend?” She said: “Sure, why?” And I said: “Oh, I’m gonna fuck the shit out of it.” She rolled her eyes and as we both walked away, we turned to check out each other’s asses. The director saw that in the editing room and thought it was funny, so Jesse and the writers started to explore it. What’s cool about this show is they’re willing to experiment. If it works, they’ll run with it.
It always seemed to me that you’re all about the work but can take or leave the fame part of acting. Is that fair?
Yeah. I’d rather leave it please, not take it. What scared me about doing Scott Pilgrim was that people might actually see it. I wanted to fly under the radar as much as possible.
We cast you in Scott Pilgrim vs the World but just before it started shooting, your sister Dakota very sadly died [after being hit by a car]. We expected you to drop out and would have totally understood…
It was so soon after. I was 26 and remember not being able to wrap my head around the idea of working. Then I was lying in bed one night, suddenly panicked and went: “Fuck, I’ve got to do Scott Pilgrim.” I was worried you had recast or even started shooting and it would be too late.
We spoke on the phone in the nick of time. I vividly remember you saying: “I just have to tell you that I’ve been drinking a lot, so I’ve put on weight. Also my hair is really long and I’ve dyed it green.”
Oh man, I remember that. I thought you’d say something reassuring like: “That’s fine, I’m sure you’re not overweight.” Instead you said: “Don’t worry, the stunt team will get you into shape.” I got on a plane the next day with long dark green hair and this big-assed double chin. Me and Brie Larson trained with the stunt team every day, even though we had no fight scenes.
I’m glad you changed your mind.
Me too. I’m so proud of that film. It’s not only one of my favourite projects I’ve ever worked on but it also led to lasting friendships, like with you and [cast mate] Michael Cera. I’m thankful I had the nuts to get back to work. I’ve tried to learn from that, to have a little bit of courage and just say yes sometimes when it’s scary.
Some actors try too hard to be liked and it comes off as false, whereas I always thought you had this innate confidence. Does that come from not giving a fuck? You grew up in showbiz and saw how your brother Macaulay was treated, so approach work with a healthy level of cynicism…
Maybe. I hope it’s healthy. I cringe so hard if I’m on-set, the camera rolls and I see an actor’s face change because they just really want people to like them. It’s so itchy and irritating. You just want mommy to like you? Some characters are supposed to be a piece of shit. Just be unlikable, it’s fun. As for fame, I think most people, if they really saw it close up, would go: “This is awful.” Well-adjusted people wouldn’t pursue the celebrity aspect. It changes your life and not usually in a positive way. I’m getting recognised more now and trying not to let it bother me. It bugs me if people surreptitiously take pictures of my wife or kids. Otherwise, I just try to live my normal life.
You’re a reluctant star and Succession’s Roman Roy has that quality as well. Is it accurate to say that he doesn’t really want to do the CEO job but he doesn’t want to not get the gig either?
Spot on. Roman feels as if he’s capable of doing the job because he’s seen his dad do it. Most of what Logan does is make fast decisions, then yell at people to do stuff. Roman wants to make the shit-fuckers do the work, rather than figure out how to do it himself. If he got the job, his reaction would be more panic and terror than excitement. That’s probably why he ends up shooting himself in the foot.
Succession has a big British contingent among its cast and crew. Your wife, Jazz, is British too. Would you consider relocating here?
I want to. I try to talk Jazz into it all the time but she has a love-hate relationship with London. It’s the same relationship she has with her mother. She can talk shit about it all the live long day but if I say one bad word about it, she defends it. But I love it [in Britain]. My goal is to land a job in the West End for six months or something, just to get her here temporarily at first.
Do you have any dream parts you’d love to play?
I’ll never get to play it but there is one: Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. We sing those songs all the time and for whatever reason, I always sing Mrs Lovett’s parts. I’d love to take a crack at being Angela Lansbury.
What’s in the pipeline for you?
I’m not allowed to say yet. But I’ll tell you this – it’s by far the most terrifying thing I’ve ever said yes to. I’m shaking with nerves just thinking about it. I think I need to go and shit my brains out right now.
So you’re the new James Bond?
Yes. There it is [laughs].
If you’re the next Bond, I want to direct.
Succession is great anyway but it makes me so happy to see my friend seemingly having the time of his life. Is that the case?
It really is. It’s a dream job and such fun, I’m scared what comes next might not live up to this. But it goes back to when I almost didn’t do Scott Pilgrim. I remember Michael [Cera] telling me: “When you say no to things, that’s fine, life carries on. But if you say yes, all this extra stuff happens.” I was like: “That’s really good advice.” Michael said: “But you told me that a year ago.” I was like: “Really? Fuck, I should learn to take my own advice.” I truly believe I’m here today because I said yes to Scott Pilgrim all those years ago and it led me down this wonderful path.
Succession airs at 2am and 9pm Mondays on Sky Atlantic and Now TV