Trying to pick the smarmiest member of the Roy family on HBO’s Succession is practically futile. But if you have to play that game, you’d be smart to put money on Roman Roy, the snarky middle child with no moral compass, no filter, and, as displayed in the Succession season finale, no idea how to manage an overseas rocket launch even when it’s technically part of his job.
Just in time for the finale, Kieran Culkin — whose performance has made Roman not just the smarmiest Roy, but also the most entertaining — spoke to Vulture about how he was first considered to play Cousin Greg, why he came to love doing improv on the show, Roman’s out-of-nowhere marriage proposal, and what Succession fans should expect in season two.
How did Succession come to your attention and what appealed to you about doing the show?
In my career, I have never quite figured out what it is that I like about something. This was sent to me, actually, to read for another character. I was like, “Oh no, I can’t play him, this isn’t for me.” But a few pages in, I thought, “Oh, this is really good writing, I may as well keep reading and see if there is anything else in here.” I saw the character Roman pop up and I was like, “Oh, this guy!” I just found myself reading and rereading his stuff.
Who was the other character you were reading for?
It was sent to me to read for Greg, cousin Greg.
Yeah, I read his first line of dialogue and I was like, “Oh, I think they made a mistake. This isn’t somebody I can play.”
What personality traits stand out to you about Roman?
When we shot the pilot, he was the kind of guy who will make himself comfortable in any room he walks into. That is a learned skill. He will insult somebody to be on top. As it went on and I realized the type of guy he was — he grew up rich and entitled and all that stuff and he has never had to suffer any consequences in his life — when I came to that realization, I realized I actually know someone like that.
When you know them personally, it is kinda weird. And then you start to find the consistency in someone’s character traits. It’s because they are rich and they don’t have to suffer any consequences. They can always just be like, “Eh, I’ll figure it out. If they don’t like me, fuck ‘em, I’ll get a whole new batch of new friends.”
I have an 11-year-old son and sometimes I’ll ask him why he does something and he’ll say, “Because I can.”
Ooh, damn. That kid is playing with fire right there.
Well, he’s joking. But for some people, they really do things just because they can.
Yeah, I bet you Roman was the kind of kid that said the same thing without the irony. And ge grew into his 30s and was doing the same thing — “because I can.” That’s pretty cool that your kid has that sense of irony.
I’ve tried to raise him well. This must be a really fun character to play, huh?
Yeah, it is. There is a lot of freedom. I mean, in the pilot he goes up to that kid and offers him a million bucks to hit a home run. Since then, the writers have been pushing it farther to be like, “Okay, what if he said this?” Playing Roman, he says the most perverse, awful things you can say. A lot of that stuff didn’t even make it to edit, which I am kinda happy about. They would start giving me alternate lines in the middle of the scene like, “What if he said this to her?” “Jesus, that’s awful.” “Okay, let’s do it.”
What’s an example of a line you didn’t end up using?
I don’t know that I can give an example. Even if I did, I don’t know if they would like me to say that.
In addition to what the writers are throwing at you, how much improvisation would you do in the middle of scenes?
I have gone back to watch the show and I actually can’t remember what stuff I came up with, what stuff was an on-the-fly line that a writer gave me, and how much stuff was in the original script. They were like, “Say what you want or say this or say what was scripted,” and then we would shoot several takes. Sometimes we would do a few without stopping the camera. Sometimes the other actor would say a different line and I wasn’t sure if they were improvising or if a line was changed, and then we would just have to play.
Is that different from your other acting experiences?
I was always terrified of doing anything improvisational. It always terrified me. I have done a lot of theater where if you missed a comma, you had to go to the playwright and apologize. So that was my safety zone. Adam McKay told me before we started shooting, “We’ll do one or two scripted and then we are just going to be loose. I might shout lines to you in the middle of the take.” I started panicking and I told him, “I don’t know how to work that way, I don’t come from that background. Can we make me the exception?” He took it easy on me for the first half of the shoot, and then he started to push it. It was terrifying.
Even though you knew you had permission, it’s still scary when somebody says, “Just do whatever!”
I’m just a dumb actor. They tell me what to say and then I have to figure out why I’m saying it. Instead, they’re saying, “No, just go be him.” And now that I have done it, I feel a little spoiled. To have that freedom to go and be him is pretty cool.
I want to ask about Shiv and Tom’s wedding. Where did you shoot that?
It was in England. It was a castle — Eastnor Castle.
How long were you there?
Five weeks, at least, shooting in a castle that had to be heated by the many fireplaces. There was somebody whose job it was to come in early and go to the rooms and fill them with logs and start fires. Because it was otherwise freezing. It was cool!
A lot of important things happen to Roman in the finale. First, why do you think he proposes marriage so spontaneously to Caitlin Fitzgerald’s character?
There is a line where we first see her and I go, “Dad would totally go nuts for her.” I think since he saw his dad have a couple of women in his life, he tends to go for women who are very strong and who make it difficult for him. And here’s this woman who’s already very independent, strong by herself, doesn’t need Roman, and isn’t even really buying into his charm. I know it’s a little on the nose, maybe, but that’s another one of trying to get dad’s approval.
Is there also an element of trying to keep up with his siblings? The idea that he does it in the middle of somebody else’s wedding?
There is that, too. He lives on planet Roman. He is very self-centered. He is the kind of guy who would, in his best man’s speech, stop his toast and make it about himself.
Do you think there is a future for those two?
I actually quite hope so, yeah. I have a couple feelings of where I’d like to see that go, so I am curious to see what they’re going to do. I think — do they say what she does for a living?
I can’t remember if they specifically said.
They shoot so much and I don’t know what makes the edit. I think it was something where she had her own company and then sold it so she would more or less be retired at a young age. But what she does is she coaches people in business, specifically how to run a business. I thought that could be cool to see how that plays out with Roman, who is trying to get himself in the position of running this company but he has no idea how to do it. Here is this woman who does know how to do things like that.
That’s good point. Then there’s the disastrous rocket launch. Are there going to be any consequences? Obviously Roman was relieved that only some limbs were lost.
It’s like that stuff that Tom has to go through when he finds all these NDAs. I think Roman knows, “Oh, people lose some limbs and some thumbs, and yeah, yeah, we can just pay them off, nobody died. It’s going to be fine. This isn’t going to be the PR nightmare that I thought it was going to be.”
Do you know when you’ll start shooting season two?
No specific start date, but I am hearing January is when we are going to start shooting. I’m hearing that, but I don’t know. I’m hearing that they want it to air by June, but I don’t know that either.
My last question for you: A writer at Vulture wondered, “Which Rich Knucklehead Should Actually be the Boss on Succession?” Who do you think should actually be the boss?
Hmm. We actually talked about this while we were shooting. I think it’s possible that Dad still knows what he is doing, but when he steps down, I think the person who would probably be best for the job would be Shiv. She’s the smartest, definitely. She’s the most independent, she feels confident, she knows what she’s doing, and in that way, she is the most like Dad. And she doesn’t necessarily seek his approval because she has always had to find her own way.
As opposed to Roman or Kendall, Shiv seems to be least concerned with courting Logan’s favor.
Exactly. I would pick that. Who would you think?
I might say Shiv too. The writer picked Tom, though.
Ooh, actually, yeah. Then again, I think Shiv would just …
He is a little bit of a pushover.
Only with her, if you notice.
Yeah, that’s true.
He has two sides. For the most part, he is Tom. And then when he is around her, you will see him try to be himself and she will give one little comment and then he finds himself being her puppy dog. Tom is not a bad guess, though.
I’m sorry to tell you that Roman is number 12 on the list of 13 possibilities.
[Laughs.] Not surprised, not surprised.
He was disqualified for jerking off on his office window.
Yup, after he checks his email and realizes this is overwhelming. I have no idea what I am doing. I guess I will just jerk off.