“None.” This is Kieran Culkin’s one-word answer to my question about how much preparation he put into playing Roman Roy, the charismatically loathsome scion of the billionaire Roy clan and the breakout character on HBO’s Succession, the breakout show of the summer. We’re sitting in Decibel, the impressively graffitied East Village sake bar. It’s early enough that it’s empty save for a few tourists who’ve just arrived, guidebooks in hand. “Thirty-five and a half years on the island of Manhattan,” says Culkin about his lifetime in New York. “I can’t tell if there’s more people on the street or I’m just old so I’m getting more frustrated that there’s people on the street,” he says of East Village crowds. “I’m dating myself, but I used to Rollerblade down the sidewalk and it was fine. Now I have a hard time walking.”
Decibel is a good refuge from all that. “This place is authentic. It really is what it is. It’s not like some designer came in and said, ‘Let’s put a bunch of graffiti on the walls and stickers.’ ” As it happens, it’s also the bar where I had my first date with my now-wife. When I mention this to Culkin, he wants to know how long we’ve been married, then holds up a wedding ring, along with a single nail-polished fingernail. “Five years.” He’s married to Jazz Charton, whom he met in a slightly Roman Roy kind of way: He approached her while she was out at a bar when the guy she was with went to the bathroom. He seems happy to have settled down. His Valentine’s Day tradition with his wife is to “eat doughnuts in bed and watch terrible movies” while drinking the occasional shot.
The waiter arrives, greets Culkin, then takes our sake order. “The nigori is the one my friend got me turned on to,” Culkin says. “It’s nicer. I like the nigori shit. Is that what you fuck with here, usually?” We order the nigori, along with some dumplings that he warns me are very good but kind of like Russian roulette. “Sometimes, there’s just an incredibly spicy one. The last time I was here, I had, like, eight of them and I was good. But sometimes …” he says by way of warning, before we get back to discussing his new show.
Succession is the story of a power struggle in a family very obviously modeled on the Murdochs, but also reminiscent of the Kennedys, the Redstones, the Trumps, the Bluths, the Ewings, the Carringtons, and the Lears (that’s King, not Norman). The clan is presided over by a monstrous ailing patriarch, Logan (Brian Cox), who toys with his presumptive heir, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and idly tortures his other offspring: his eldest, Connor (Alan Ruck); his daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook); and Roman, played by Culkin as part incubus, part imp, a wisecracking mash-up of Puck and Iago sheathed in an Armani suit.
Once upon a time, “played by Culkin” would have required an immediate qualifier: That’s Kieran, not Macaulay. But as an observant fan on Twitter noted, Succession has also been about “Kieran Culkin’s rapid and unforeseen takeover at the top of the Culkin brothers ranking.” Since his acting debut at 8 years old as his brother’s bed-wetting cousin in Home Alone, Kieran has long borne the burden of being less famous than his own last name. But Macaulay has since retired from acting, leaving Kieran as the surprise standard-bearer for the family dynasty. Not unlike with his character, Roman, you underestimate him at your peril.
In his most notable roles, Culkin has made something of a boutique career playing characters that are horrible, selfish, and yet somehow still likable. There was his 2002 turn in the indie film Igby Goes Down, where he played a rich kid escaping the yoke of his upbringing, and Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, a play he loves so much he starred in three different productions, most recently in 2014 alongside Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. He played Dennis Ziegler, whom one critic described as “a funny and appropriately irritating alpha narcissist, whose will to rule borders on psychopathic.” It’s not a stretch, in other words, to imagine Igby and Dennis as proto-Romans.
Today, Culkin appears much as Roman does: well groomed, gym trim, hair slick, in a well-tailored shirt. When the script for Succession was sent to him, he was asked to read for the part of Cousin Greg, which will strike you as hilarious if you’ve seen the show. “The moment I read the description — Greg, early 20s — I thought, I’m way too old for that,” he says. “Then I read the first line of dialogue and I thought, This is a mistake, I’m not right for this guy.” Still, he kept reading. “Then Roman walks in the room and says, ‘Hey, hey, motherfuckers!’ And I think, Okay, I kind of understand this guy. He’s a piece of shit. But I like him.”
As it turns out, everyone likes him. Roman’s inspired critics to anoint him “TV’s Best Dirt Bag” and write appreciations like “Succession’s Roman Roy Is a Total Scumbag, but You Know You’d Still Hit It,” which celebrate Roman as “the perfect poster boy for the times.” Naturally, I pose the question to Culkin: So why exactly do we love watching rich assholes on TV so much? Especially at a moment when rich assholes are sucking up so much of our attention already?
He flinches. His eyes begin to water. He waves me off.
“I got a hot one!” he says.
I suppose it’s a controversial topic, I think, before I realize he’s just popped one of those catastrophically spicy dumplings in his mouth.
When he regains his composure, he says, laughing, “I don’t know.” Yet the scene in the pilot that sold him on the character is the same one that’s often cited as evidence of Roman’s cavalier malevolence. Roman, during a family softball game at a company field outside the city, offers the young son of a groundskeeper a million dollars if he hits a home run. The kid does — almost. Roman tears up the check in his face. “When I read it, I thought, I can do that,” Culkin says. “And I like it. I don’t like the guy, but I like it.”
When I press Culkin for his inspiration for Roman — does he hang out with the superrich, say, or follow Donald Jr. on Instagram? — he says, “Any time I do anything external, I get fucked up. It’s kind of why I don’t want to do accents or period pieces, because then I have to do research. And then I’m in my head. I would almost like it if I never had to put on a costume or a different haircut. I want to not have to think about it and just do it.” So Roman Roy is basically Culkin, but with no heart, no internal censor, and no concern for social niceties. It helps that the show’s creators give the actors ample room to improvise. “I’m playing this guy who says whatever he wants, and it gives me ideas, like, I can just lay into this guy for his fucking mustache? Boom! But at the end of the day, I have to go home and shut that piece of my brain off,” he says. “I’m building this muscle that’s like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t care if you hate me or I piss you off.’ There’s something really therapeutic and nice about playing that. But I imagine being that person is tiresome and awful.”
Of course, the real trick is not just to make us like Roman — as Peak TV has shown us, we’re predisposed to like sociopaths — but to make us understand him and, eventually, even sympathize with him. Which, by the end of season one, Culkin accomplishes. “He’s a person,” says Culkin of Roman. He shrugs. “We’re all fucking people. He still wants his mother to hug him. He wants someone to kiss him and tell him he’s great.”
*This article appears in the August 20, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!