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Kieran Culkin is having fun with 'Succession' — and he hopes you are too

Kieran Culkin says the cursing on <em>Succession</em> has affected his speech: "The F-word just slides out of me."
Macall B. Polay
Kieran Culkin says the cursing on Succession has affected his speech: "The F-word just slides out of me."

Successionco-star Kieran Culkin has grown up on screen. His first gig (when he was 6) was in a commercial, followed by a small part in the 1990 film Home Alone, which his brother, Macaulay, starred in. But it was only recently, nearly 30 years into his acting career, that something clicked.

"I can't remember if it was Season 1 or 2 [of Succession], but I remember coming home from work one day and telling my wife, 'It's going really well. ... I think I know what I want to do with my life. I think I want to be an actor,'" he says.

HBO's Succession is a comedy disguised as a drama about corporate power and greed. Culkin's character, Roman Roy, is one of three self-involved adult siblings vying to take over Waystar Royco, the family-run media conglomerate, after their elderly father retires or dies. Roman, the youngest brother, is known for his slimy sense of humor and casual zingers.

"Everything is dancing on a line," Culkin says of his character. "This guy grew up never having to suffer consequences, and so he doesn't really know what that means to suffer consequences."

With previous projects, Culkin wasn't so invested in audience reception. He'd finish a film or play and move onto the next thing. But with Succession, it's different.

"I kind of hope people like the show I'm on because I'm having such a good time doing it, so I want to keep doing it," he says.

Interview highlights

On feeling ambivalent about being an actor

I've been doing it since I was a kid, and I don't think when you're 6, 7 years old and you say, "Hey, mom, dad, I want to be an actor" that you're actually really making a decision for your future. You're just a kid. So I felt like I'd just been doing it since I was a kid and never actually made the choice to do it. And I think around the age 18, 19, 20, I found that suddenly I had a career that I never decided I wanted, and didn't really like that. So I kind of tried to stay out of the limelight as much as possible while I figured out what I want to do with my life and, in the meantime, I'll just do this acting thing as long as I like it and as long as I find a project that I like. I didn't necessarily pursue the acting career or success or anything like that. I just enjoy doing work from time to time.

On working with such a talented ensemble cast in Succession, especially Brian Cox, who plays patriarch Logan Roy

It just sort of rubs off on you. ... Just being in a scene with someone like Brian, there's a lot less work for me to have to do. ... Brian is a force to be reckoned with as a person, so he just brings so much that there isn't much effort I have to put forward. That's also really interesting on the show. I agree there's a lot of extremely talented actors on the show, and a lot of them just work very, very differently and you get to see people's different approaches and how they can all make it work. ... There's elements of the real [actors] in the character, so it gets blurred a bit. Brian has Logan-y in moments, but for the most part, he's like just a wonderful guy and Logan is obviously not. But you see these little things going, "Is that Logan or is Brian just hungry? Can someone get him a sandwich? He's about to snap at you."

Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin play siblings who are vying to take over the family's media conglomerate in <em>Succession</em>.
Macall B. Polay / HBO
Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin play siblings who are vying to take over the family's media conglomerate in Succession.

On how all the cursing in the show has affected his real speech

I would say the F-word just slides out of me. I mean, I think in general, that's always been a sort of natural word for me. But since doing the show, it's every sentence, more or less. I'm trying to be careful now because my two-year-old daughter actually has become a mimic. So that one's been tough. She hasn't said it yet.

On witnessing child stardom via his brother, and how toxic fame is

It was pretty nuts. And I think what people sometimes fail to remember, too, is that he was a kid. He didn't really choose that. It's something that happened to him. And I think when you're a kid, you obviously don't have the tools to handle something like that. So I think it might have been pretty tough. ...

For me, I got to sort of experience it secondhand as a child. So to me, I always have known this is not something one would want to pursue. It's not a very nice thing, fame. No anonymity, it's terrible. I have friends that are very famous. They can't walk down the street without several people stopping them. Forget trying to board a plane. It's ridiculous. They can't go out to a restaurant with friends because people are going to come to the table saying, "Oh, I never do this," or "Sorry to interrupt." ...

Any reasonable person would not, could not, look at fame and go, 'I want that.'

Some people probably enjoy it, and they probably have been able to figure out life with it. But I think for the most part, it comes to people and they go, "Oh, I've made a horrible mistake," and now they have to manage it. That's the way I look at it. Any reasonable person would not, could not, look at fame and go, "I want that!"

On rejection in the industry

I never and still don't pay attention to that. Maybe it's just because I've been doing it for a long time. I never looked at it as losing a part. ... I'm just not right for it or I am. If the job doesn't happen, great. If it happens, great. And that's sort of always the way it's been. I do kind of remember my father teaching me like in an audition, "You work really hard for the audition and the moment you leave that room, you forget about it because it's not your job. You let it go. If it comes back to you, then great, and you get to do the work again, but you don't think about that stuff."

On being surprised by how much he loves parenthood

It was never something I considered until we did it. Now it is quite actually the greatest — way better than I could have imagined! It doesn't matter how hard it gets. Like with anything else, you have a job that's too difficult or a relationship that's too hard, you just end it. It's like, done, move on. [With parenthood] it doesn't matter how hard it gets. It's always fulfilling and always wonderful. And I'm only two years into it. So who knows, but it's the greatest thing, way better than I could have imagined.

On his ability to memorize lines very quickly

That is something that I can credit towards my childhood acting, because I memorize lines extremely fast. It's almost like a parlor trick. ... I can look at a speech like once or twice, and I can repeat it back pretty quickly. ...

I also don't like running lines, which I know a lot of actors like to do. ... I actually don't like saying the words. I don't say them out loud when I'm working on them the night before or the day of. I don't like saying it until I'm in the room saying it. And there was one day ... it was a big scene with a big group of us and [Brian Cox] yelled, "We're running lines!" And then he started in the scene and everybody's doing it. It came to my part and he looked at me and I said, "Well, I haven't actually looked at the scene yet." So I grabbed the sides and I just sort of read it once and then we were called to set and we came in and we just shot it. And he goes, "When did you learn those lines? Just now?" I went, "Oh yeah, just now." And he went, "Goddamn it!!" And he got so mad because he had to work the night before and try to learn the lines and I looked at it twice and I knew it.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.