“It’s kind of just the dream job in a way,” the 37-year-old actor, who plays the vulgar Roman Roy on the HBO dramedy, tells EW. “What I love doing is just going into a scene. I don’t even really prepare anymore. My wife always offers to like give me the apartment so I can work on my stuff, and I’m like, ‘No, I don’t need to.’ I glance at the stuff before I go to work, I learn the lines in the morning really fast, and I don’t prepare anything because I’m going to walk in and an actor is going to do something else. You just walk in a room and we just play.'”
While Culkin feels at home on the water-cooler show, the same can’t be said of his character Roman, who has had a rough season so far. At the beginning of season 2, Roman became concerned about his place in the company when his father Logan (Brian Cox) named both him and Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the son who helped launch a hostile takeover of the family’s company, co-CEOs of Waystar Royco. From there, Roman had to suffer through management training at the theme parks, and the last time we checked in with him, he was stuck in an uncomfortable quasi-hostage situation in Turkey. But season 2 hasn’t been all bad news for Roman. He also struck up a weird and twisted not-romance with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Waystar’s general counsel.
Ahead of Sunday’s season 2 finale, EW hopped on the phone with Culkin to discuss Roman and Gerri’s dynamic, how Succession reignited his passion for acting, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you react when you first found out where things were going for Roman and Gerri?
KIERAN CULKIN: Well, J. and I have known each other for a very long time. When she joined the show, which was just episode 2 right after we got picked up from the pilot, I was very excited about that in the first place. Actually, my first scene that I shot for season 1 was with her. We kind of just have a really fun rapport. I would, in character as Roman all throughout the first season, flirt with her, and she would just sort of flick me away, bat me like it was nothing. We just did that like the whole season until like the end, apparently. [Director/executive producer] Mark Mylod told me later that he saw in the edit room that I went up to her, I said something vile, and she just sort of dismissed me, and then as I walked away, I checked out her ass and then turned around without knowing that she turned around and checked out my ass. He said he thought that was really funny, and they talked about that dynamic and thought they should sort of try it.
What they do a lot of in the show, I think, is that they like to experiment [with] certain things. If something is working, they will explore it a little more, and if maybe it’s not working so much, they’ll pull back. So, I think they went in this year saying, “Let’s see what happens with Roman and Gerri,” and then it just started moving from there. But it was really good because that was something I was really hoping would happen when we started season 2.
What did you make of the now-infamous scene from “Tern Haven”? Were you surprised by the direction they took it in?
[Laughs] It was kind of what I was hoping. Nothing in this show is sort of this or that, which is what I like; it’s never wholly one thing. So, it couldn’t just be a romance or something like that. It has to be something a little off. Roman certainly, I think we even learn in the first season, is a bit dysfunctional in a lot of ways, including sexually. I liked that it went in that direction.
Before we started, I sat down with Mark Mylod and he basically gave me a brief rundown of the direction season 2 was going in, and he told me about that scene. He goes, “We’re hoping it’ll lead this to a moment where this happens.” I said just said, “Perfect.” That’s just where I was hoping it would go.
What was it like to actually shoot that moment?
It was great. It was fun. You should talk to J. about it because she had a little more difficulty, I think, understanding what exactly Gerri was doing. Was this more rolling your eyes at [him]? Does she like it? What’s so funny is that you would never be able to tell that. In the room, I just thought it was going perfectly well and I thought she was great. To me, I understand fully what Roman does. Later on, he asks to marry her, or abduct her, because to him they’re kind of the same thing. He’s very dysfunction but nothing is wholly anything. So, it gives me a lot of freedom when I work on the show. When I have any kind of dialogue, nothing has to be on the nose, nothing has to mean any specific one thing. I think he actually means, “Let’s get married,” but also, “Let’s just totally not. I’m using it as a euphemism…or we can actually get married and have sex, or maybe not sex or whatever.” That’s just the way he thinks.
I read an interview with Jeremy Strong where he said that he felt it was necessary to stay trenched in Kendall’s depressed state of mind. Did you try to do something similar to play Roman this year, too?
I would definitely not consider myself to be any version of a method actor at all. No, I can easily float in and out, particularly with this guy because it feels like it’s a little bit like an over the top, heightened, dysfunctional version of a possible self, like a possible road I could’ve gone down to be this guy. So, it’s fun to pop in, explore that, play with it, and turn it off. The one thing with him that was proving to be a little difficult was Roman has absolutely no filter. They write these things for him to say, these sometimes horrible things, and then sometimes they have alternate lines that they’ll throw my way that are sometimes worse. Then basically, I’ll play with it and then I have no filter at work, and I just say what I want. The hard part is that sometimes at the end of the day going home and turning that thing back on, that little filter, so that I don’t say something really insulting or really horrible to someone in my personal life.
In a recent Guardian profile, you said that you were worried about Roman verging into self-parody and someone being able to say, “Oh, that’s so Roman.” In your capacity as the actor playing him, what have you done to try to prevent that from happening?
It’s hard to put words to it. It’s something I just said out loud and then had to keep an eye on and not do something that’s very typically Roman, whatever that means, whatever that thing is. Thankfully, the writers, Jesse [Armstrong] in particular, will hear us out. If I have a concern, I talk to him about it. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to make a bunch of changes or anything, but he likes to hear that and he thankfully likes hearing what the actors think of their characters. When I brought that up to him, I think small adjustments here and there may have been made.
Do you have a specific instance in mind when you shared a concern about Roman with Jesse?
He usually gets on it way before I do. That’s what’s amazing. [Last season,] I would prepare a scene and I would have some notes and some questions, and stuff I wanted to go over like after a table read. But all I do is just wait and before I even say anything, they always find it and correct it themselves. I’ve never had to fight for anything, and I’ve hardly ever had to speak up and say something. I do remember one time last year I brought up the concern that the stuff I was doing was too funny. Then, he took a look at it, but we actually had a talk and it was like the jokes were coming from a place of he was kind of terrified; this was the hostage episode [in season 2]. Then, it made sense. I think I was a little wrong on that one, that he wasn’t being too funny. This was actually terror.
In the The Guardian piece, you also said Succession was the project that made you realize, “Hey, I think I want to be an actor” even though you’d already been acting for almost 30 years. What was it about the show that reignited your passion for acting?
It has everything I think I have been working toward in my life. I do have a good amount of creative freedom, but I also don’t even need that. I can stick with the guidelines of just the script and rely on the other actors and directors, too. I don’t know, there was something about being on set. At the time we were shooting the first season, I had been acting for 29, 30 years. So on one hand, it felt a little bit like old hat, like I really have been doing this for a long time so I know what I’m doing. On the other hand, it felt like a very fresh, brand new thing that I hadn’t done before because I hadn’t really worked like this in a way where I often don’t know where the cameras are.
We once shot a scene where I didn’t even see the set. They just said, “rolling!” and I was going walk into a room. I hadn’t met the actors I was about to do the scene with, and I didn’t even see the room we were in; I didn’t even know where the cameras were. They started rolling, said action, and I just walked in and we just did the scene, and it was f—ing awesome.
Which scene was that?
That was last season in New Mexico when I go to pick Kendall up. He’s doing drugs with all of those guys that he met in New Mexico.
And you just walked in knowing nothing?
Yeah, there were three other actors that I hadn’t met. Actually, it wasn’t until we wrapped that I went over them and I was like, “By the way, I’m Kieran.” We shot for like two hours, never met them, didn’t talk to them at all. I was about to walk in to rehearse it, [and the production team was] like, “Jeremy wants to know if you wanna just shoot it.” I said, “F—k yeah, let’s do it.” I had no idea where he was sitting. I feel like I might’ve looked in the camera once because I might’ve thought it was a person. But I just walked in, I threw out my first line, and they just started improvising, because I guess they’d been working all day together. So I just started saying s—t. Occasionally some of the scripted s—t would come out, and sometimes it wouldn’t. We did that like three times, then that was it.
One of the interesting theories about the show I’ve seen online is that some people think each season will focus on one of Logan’s children. Season 1 was very Kendall-focused. Season 2 has been all about Shiv, especially with the new opening credits. As far as you know, can we expect season 3 to be the year of Roman?
I have no idea. Did you hear this from Brian Cox?
No, a few journalists were talking about that on Twitter.
The reason I brought up Brian Cox — and I would love him to see this at some point — [is]: I told him toward the end of the season, we were shooting episode 7 or 8 or something like that, that was my theory. I said, “Well if you look in the first season, [it seemed] that Kendall was going to be his guy, and then he wasn’t. Then this year, it seems like Shiv is going to be the guy and now it’s starting to look like she’s not.” And this is before I knew where it was going. I said, “So, maybe next year is Roman’s turn.” He goes, “Oh, that’s very interesting, very interesting.” Then later on that day to a group a people he goes, “Well, I have this theory…” and he basically just said everything I said [Laughs]. I was like, “You son of a bitch.” And people were like, “That’s really interesting.” But now it turns out that other journalists have had that idea and it’s really not that original in the first place, so maybe Brian did come up with it himself as well.
How does the season 2 finale compare to the season 1 finale?
There’s some s—t. It’s gonna be cool. I had a feeling it was going to go in the direction it was going in, but I wasn’t quite sure what. At the table read for the last episode, my jaw definitely dropped, like, “Okay, I can’t wait to see how this looks.” What’s great about this show is there’s so much stuff I’m not in so I have no idea what it’s gonna look like or how it’s gonna be until I see the show. So, I’m a little bit like fans of the show that are waiting to see what’s gonna happen. I have an idea, but I’m not quite sure how it’s gonna be executed.
Succession airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.