Succession co-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.
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."
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." ...
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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kieran Culkin, is one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession," which is kind of a comedy disguised as a drama about personal and corporate power and greed and the ability of right-wing media to manipulate politics. The story revolves around the Roy family that runs the conglomerate Waystar Royco, which owns a conservative cable news network, as well as a cruise line, theme parks around the world and other businesses. The patriarch of the family, Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox, is old and has had some health crises that he nearly didn't recover from. His daughter and two of his sons have been competing to be the one who takes over from their father. Logan Roy has another son who wants to run in the Republican presidential primary. Each sibling will do anything to get power and undermine their other siblings attempts to be the anointed one.
When Kieran Culkin hosted "Saturday Night Live" a few weeks ago, he said this in his opening monologue.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
KIERAN CULKIN: I play Roman Roy. He's one of the nicer characters on the show...
CULKIN: ...Which still makes him one of the top 10 worst humans on TV.
GROSS: Well, if it was ever true that he was one of the nicer characters on the show, it kind of isn't now. Culkin's character, Roman, is the most immature of the siblings. He's always jokey and ironic, often unpredictable and uses his - ha-ha-ha I-didn't-really-mean-it attitude to gloss over his cruelty. This season, Caulkin's character, Roman, has been trying to prove that he should take over the company, and he's been making some power plays to prove he can do it. On a recent episode, the Roy family was at the conservative Future Freedom Summit, where the political powers and major donors basically decide who the next Republican presidential nominee will be.
The Roys have a lot of influence because they can use their network to back or undermine a candidate. And if their candidate wins, the Roys expect favors in return. In this scene, Roman is talking to a would-be candidate from the far right who Roman thinks his family should support because this guy is already famous, he's good on camera, he's, quote, "fun," and he can excite voters. He's a white nationalist named Jeryd Mencken. Roman is trying to convince Mencken they can help each other. This clip starts with Mencken explaining to Roman why he's against immigration.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")
JUSTIN KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) People trust people who look like them, and that's just a scientific fact. They will give more tax dollars to help them. Now, you can integrate new elements, of course. But come on, man - slowly. I mean, [expletive]. I like this country. Yeah, let's just take a beat before we fundamentally alter its composition.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah. And in terms of, you know, this - here, there's a thing here, right? And I get it. You're 6G, and we're Betamax. But you know, you need us, I think. Our news, our viewers, those almost-deads - that's a big slice of pie.
KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Well, if I'm the nominee, are any of them really going to vote against me?
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No. But you know, it's going to be a [expletive] [expletive] show going into the convention. I think you could really use our push.
KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) I think you could use mine.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Maybe.
KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Where are you in all this?
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Me, Roman? You know, I'm creeping on the come-up.
KIRK: (As Jeryd Mencken) Oh, yeah?
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah. I've got some ideas for ATN, you know, sluice out the porridge and add some sriracha - poach some of those TikTok psychos, you know, e-girls with guns and Juul pods. You know, give me some straight-shot Blacks and Latinos, no more of this pillows and bedpans. You know, we're strictly bone broth and [expletive] pills. Deep-state conspiracy hour but with, like, a wink, you know, funny. And the whole show is kind of set up for the star - President Jeryd Mencken.
GROSS: Kieran Culkin made his movie debut at age 7 in the 1990 hit film "Home Alone," which starred his brother, Macaulay Culkin. He continued acting in such films as "Father Of The Bride" and "Cider House Rules." He starred in the 2002 film "Igby Goes Down" and co-starred with Michael Cera in "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World." They worked together again, along with Tavi Gevinson, in the Broadway show "This Is Our Youth."
Kieran Culkin, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you. I love the show. I love your performance in it. I love the writing. I love all the actors. Anyways, thank you for being on our show.
CULKIN: Thank you. (Laughter) That's really nice.
GROSS: So that said, after all the praise, when the first episode was on, I didn't make it through the episode. I didn't like it. I thought, these characters are monsters. They were, like, the most privileged people in the world. They're monsters. Why would I spend my time watching this story about them? And then I finally figured out through hearing other people talk about it that it sounded great and I should give it another shot. And that's when I realized the show is really funny. I mean, you wouldn't know it just looking at the surface 'cause everybody is so in character and is so serious in the way they play their role. But the writing is just hilarious.
Were you all worried about that, that there'd be a lot of people like me who wouldn't realize at first that it was really funny and would just kind of not care about these monsters?
CULKIN: I had the same feeling even while we were shooting it. I looked at the pilot script, and I said, I know this is quality. As we were shooting it, I felt great about what we were doing. But I felt, who's going to want to watch this? Who is this for? You know, it's hard to just tell people, hey, it's good. Watch it. Like, I just didn't think that it was going to have tremendous appeal.
It's funny 'cause I've been doing interviews since the first season, basically telling people, like, it's not bad at the beginning. There just isn't really anything that hooks you, I think, right away. I feel like somewhere in the middle of the first season - and I still don't know; I still haven't been able to identify what that thing is. But I start - I'm engaged, and I care about these characters. I mean, I don't like them, but I care to see what happens with them.
GROSS: Right, right. So, you know, in the clip that we just played, I'm thinking, has Roman just picked a candidate that would have been leading the insurrection? (Laughter).
CULKIN: (Laughter) Probably.
GROSS: Did you think about that?
CULKIN: I did. But it's funny. He just goes on instinct. I don't think he went into that summit with this guy fully on his radar. Mencken approaches him at a bar. And I thought, oh, this is a guy we can work with. This is a guy that if I form a relationship with him - I think what probably motivates Roman in this is strictly to be in Dad's good graces to position himself better. And if he finds the guy, then he's in a better position. And I think this is a guy that he felt he could work with. He asks him in the bathroom, too. He says, like, something to the effect of, fascism is cool, but not really - in other words, like, you're not going to get me in trouble, right?
CULKIN: 'Cause that's the only thing that can cause it. But otherwise, like, I don't really care what you do as long as you win and you and I - he - Roman has no care for what happens to the country or anything like that as long as it puts him in good standing with Dad.
GROSS: Yeah. And your character has no beliefs, no real moral center (laughter).
CULKIN: Yeah, probably not. I don't think he even has any sort of political agenda of any kind. I don't think he really cares.
GROSS: It's just about winning.
CULKIN: It's just winning, yeah.
GROSS: Your character has done some very horrible things during the course of the series. What do you think is one of the most horrible?
CULKIN: The one and only choice I made for the character was this guy grew up never having to suffer consequences. And so he doesn't really know what that means, to suffer consequences. So I think - and I've stuck to that - he can say and do whatever he wants because he completely means it, on one hand. On the other hand, he really doesn't mean it; nothing means anything. (Laughter) So it's hard for me to even say what's horrible. Like, I go back to the pilot sometimes and think about when he tells that kid that he'll give him a million dollars to hit a home run.
GROSS: Oh - oh, that's so horrible. Why don't you explain what he does?
CULKIN: Yeah. He goes up to that kid and tells him if he hits a home run, he will sign a check for a million dollars.
GROSS: This is - let me just set this up. This is a family baseball game, and there's like a young kid who's maybe 10 or something standing by with his parents. And you invite him to go up to bat. And you tell him, if you get a home run, I'm going to give you a million dollars. You write out the check. And so like, the kid is, like, so nervous, and his parents are just kind of biting their lips and just, like, toying with him. And, of course, he doesn't make the home run, and you tear up the check. And it's just a horrible thing to do to a kid
CULKIN: The kid comes close, too. But I think in - to look at it from Roman's perspective, like, that's why a lot of people have told me that it was horrible. I read it on page and thought it was horrible. And when we did it, it was like it took a different perspective, which was he didn't have to offer that kid anything in the first place. This was in the spirit of fun and play. And, you know, it would have been nice if he gave him some sort of consolation prize, but that also wouldn't be fair. The kid didn't win.
CULKIN: So he tore up the check in front of him.
GROSS: Right, right.
CULKIN: He doesn't get the million dollars.
CULKIN: So is it that horrible? He actually provided this kid with a tremendous opportunity and gave the family memories. I'm not saying this is my - Kieran's perspective, but that's how Roman, you know, feels like he's not so horrible.
GROSS: And it also shows Roman's idea of money. Like, it's meaningless. You know, he wants as much of it as he can get, but he can also act like it's a piece of paper that you can write or tear up. And it just doesn't really matter.
CULKIN: Yeah, there's another million coming if you have to spend this one, so it's fine.
GROSS: So fans of the show are usually very interested in the relationship that you've developed with Gerri, the general counsel of the family conglomerate, played by J. Smith-Cameron, who - you've developed this relationship with her in the show where she's kind of the verbal dominatrix, and you get off by hearing her be abusive to you, calling you things like a slime puppy and more abusive than that. So, you know, I've read a little bit about how that got started, but tell us from your point of view how that relationship got started. I should mention she's decades older than you are.
CULKIN: (Laughter) Was that worth mentioning?
GROSS: And also, like, she is the general counsel. Like, she - like, you have no real beliefs. You have no boundaries. She's all about knowing what the law is, knowing what the boundaries are, so she can protect the company. So you're not exactly made for each other.
CULKIN: Yeah, perhaps not. Maybe that's the appeal. I'm not too certain. She's also been around for over 30 years with the company, and I believe she mentions that her husband was Shiv's godfather. So she's been around since we were very, very little kids. So I think that's also what makes it so inappropriate for Roman to be flirty with her or acting this way. And I think that may be where some of the fun comes from. But I know that when she came around in episode two - and I didn't know that she was going to be playing that part until the night before - I looked at the call sheet and was like, oh, J. I love J. This is going to be great. The character was actually initially written to be a man, and she got cast, so I was really excited.
And then, for whatever reason, over the course of the first season, a lot of times, they either let the cameras roll after a scene or, like, one of our directors, Mark Mylod - he calls them freebies. We get, like - after we've gotten the scene, he does another take where we're allowed to do whatever. And for whatever reason, Gerri and Roman just started being kind of flirty. When I say they're being flirty, I think Roman would be a little bit inappropriate with her, and she would sort of roll her eyes and shoo him away. And that was just us playing. It didn't make it into the first season.
But my understanding of what happened was I think we were shooting the last episode, and they let the cameras roll. And I said something inappropriate to Gerri, and she rolled her eyes. And as I was walking away, I turned and checked out Gerri's butt. And then she didn't know that. And then I looked away, and she checked out my butt, and I didn't know that either. And that was something that they apparently saw in the edit. That's - my understanding of the story is, you know, Mark Mylod saw that in the edit, thought that was funny, and they thought, maybe this is worth exploring. I didn't think it would turn into sort of what it turned into. You know, I still am uncertain as to what it is that really gets Roman excited about that.
GROSS: (Laughter). So all the actors on "Succession" are so great. Do you feel like you've learned things about acting from working with such a fantastic ensemble, including Brian Cox, who's the patriarch of the family?
CULKIN: Brian is fantastic. Of course, you learn from working with great actors. Yeah, I mean, it just sort of rubs off on you. I feel like the whole point is to always sort of be evolving and learning. Like, I don't have - my process on working on the show has been very different from what it used to be because, you know, you try to learn from people and take on the experience and evolve. But just being in a scene with someone like Brian, there's a lot less work for me to have to do. I'm just looking at dad, and he is just - Brian is the force to be reckoned with as a person. So he just brings so much that, you know, there isn't much effort I have to put forward on a lot of days. Something that's also really interesting on the show is 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, like, people's different approaches and how they can all make it work.
GROSS: Do any of them stay in character even when the cameras aren't rolling?
CULKIN: Sort of hard to say because, sometimes, you know, there's elements of the real stuff that's already in the character. So it gets blurred a bit. Like, Brian has Logan-y (ph) 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?
CULKIN: Like, is he just...
CULKIN: Somebody get him a sandwich. He's about to snap at you, you know?
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman Roy on the HBO series "Succession." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "ALLEGRO IN C MINOR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kieran Culkin. He's one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." He plays Roman Roy, one of the siblings competing to succeed their father in running the conglomerate. Kieran Culkin got his start in film when he was 7 in "Home Alone," which starred his brother Macaulay Culkin.
What was it like finding Roman's cadences? Because your character has a certain way of speaking that's really, like, so jokey and so funny and ironic. Even when he's acting monstrous, he, like, disguises it with this, like, joke, and he - jokey, tossed-off irony. But it's all in, like, the music of how he says it.
CULKIN: You know, I don't really know. I'll say something that isn't about me. When I was reading the scripts from the pilot to Episodes 2 and 3, I noticed that the writers had started picking up on people's cadence and started sort of writing to that. But, you know, in case - in the case of me, making me sound a lot more clever than I actually am.
But I remember in particular Alan Ruck's character, the big change that happened between the pilot and Episodes 2 and 3 when we got those because Alan brought so much to that character that I don't - I didn't see on the page at all. And they - I just remember distinctly, like, reading Episodes 2 and 3 and going, oh, they learned how Alan speaks as this character. And they found a voice really early on for him. And I found that really interesting.
So in terms of, like, the cadence, like, I wonder how much they're taking the way I speak or what I don't know. But for me, it's a lot of fun, but it also feels like I got some practice with this sort of way of speaking in "This Is Our Youth," playing the character Dennis Ziegler. The way he talks, he goes - there's these pages-long speeches where he just jumps from one thought to another in a second. And I got to do that play for - basically, for years. So I felt like I had that muscle in my brain so that when the show came along, it was just like, oh, I get to do more of this and have more fun.
GROSS: You seem to have had this, like, approach-avoidance attitude toward acting. There's been periods where you've acted, and periods where you've decided to drop out. Has the show and its success and your fabulous performance and role in it made you feel any differently about acting?
CULKIN: Yeah, it was - you know, 'cause I've been doing it since I was a kid. And I don't think, you know, when you're 6, 7 years old and you say, hey, Mom, Dad, I want to be an actor, that you're actually (laughter) really making a decision for your future. It doesn't really - you're just a kid, you know? 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 I suddenly 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 figure 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 - I enjoy doing work from time to time.
But while working on this show - and I - now I can't remember if it was Season 1 or 2, but I remember coming home from work one day and telling my wife - I said, it's - you know, it's going really well. And she said, yeah? I said, yeah, I think I know what I want to do with my life. I think I want to be an actor. And at that point, I'd been doing it for about 30 years.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. That's - yeah.
CULKIN: You know?
CULKIN: It just took that long. And now I feel comfortable with it now. It's like - before, I think I've always had this sort of - I had a relationship with it. It was a love-hate. I loved doing the work. I hated all the stuff that came with it. I always hated, you know - I hated doing press, was one thing. I hated the fact that my face could be on a poster. That was always a nightmare to me. And those things are not like - like, the poster thing is not great, but I no longer have a negative relationship with it anymore.
GROSS: What did you hate about the idea of your face being on a poster?
CULKIN: Are you kidding? Oh, there's my head on the bus going by. You know, I don't know. There's just something about that that's just really...
GROSS: Some people just dream about that happening. That's their ambition. I want to be on a bus.
CULKIN: Those people are nuts. I think of, like...
CULKIN: To me, that's a nightmare. That's like, you know - you know what I want to hear? I want to hear the sound of my own voice. You know when you, like, you hear a recording of yourself on, like, a voicemail or something how that's a nightmare? That, to me, is just like when you put your face on a poster how awful that is. Like, now I have to see my face?
On the corner where we're currently living, there is a poster for "Succession" that came up. On our corner, every day we leave the building, I go out with my daughter, and I was like, ugh. But on one of the first days that it was there, I point to my daughter as she's walking by it. I go, hey, who's that? She goes, Daddy and just keeps walking.
CULKIN: Didn't care, didn't care. It was like I showed her a picture of myself on the phone, and I was like, OK, now I kind of like that 'cause now any time she saw it on a bus or, like, at a, you know, anything, she would point at it and go, Daddy. And I'm like, OK, this is actually kind of cool now. This is the first time I've ever not hated it.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, that's great. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kieran Culkin, one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "BUDDHA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kieran Culkin, one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." He plays Roman Roy, one of the siblings vying to take over the family-run conglomerate from their father. Culkin got his start in movies when he was 7 in the movie "Home Alone," which starred his brother, Macaulay Culkin. Kieran Culkin starred in the 2002 film "Igby Goes Down" and later starred with Michael Cera in the film "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World." Cera and Culkin worked together again, along with Tavi Gevinson in the Broadway show "This Is Our Youth."
So let's talk about your early years when you were acting, and it wasn't your choice. That choice was basically made for you, I think, by your father. So when your brother, Macaulay Culkin, starred in "Home Alone" in 1990, you played his cousin. So what's the backstory to that? How did Macaulay end up starring and you end up playing a role in it?
CULKIN: You know, we got started all at the same time, and that was mostly my father's idea from what I understand. And he pushed all of us - there are seven of us Culkins altogether, but some just did not want to do it at all. And some took to it and kind of enjoyed it. So, like, I think a lot of times people think that, you know, my brother started and then some of his siblings joined in thereafter, but we all sort of started around the same time.
GROSS: What was your experience like? Did your father say, OK, you're going to be in this movie, you're going to play a part?
CULKIN: I didn't really know what the movie was about. I didn't understand. You know, I think when I auditioned for it, I was 6 and my first job - I might have been 7. My first job was a commercial, which I remember distinctly shooting. I was 6 years old. And I remember when I went in for the audition for "Home Alone," my father had a VHS tape of that commercial I did. And he told me to walk over to the casting person and hand it over. And I kind of remember when I did that, they, like, giggled and thought that was funny. So I was like, here, look at my reel kind of thing, but really, I just did a commercial and I was 6. And I didn't even know what the movie was about. I had no concept of what this movie was about. So when I saw "Home Alone" at the premiere, I remember falling on the floor laughing, and I had no idea my brother was the star of it. I didn't know what it was about. I was in stitches.
GROSS: You didn't know your brother was the star of it.
CULKIN: No. And I remember sort of thinking at the time going, oh, that makes sense because he was on set a lot (laughter).
GROSS: Wow. Yeah, well, you were 6 or 7. What was the commercial that you did before that?
CULKIN: I - you know, I know it had something to do about learning disabilities like dyslexia or something, some sort of awareness, but I can't remember specifically what it was. But the one thing I do remember was that basically my job was to stand in front of a chalkboard with a piece of chalk in my hand and look sad. The idea was, you know, the kid doesn't know the answer. He doesn't know what to do, and he's standing up in front of the class and he's, like, sad. And I remember - because the idea was there were supposed to be kids - like a voiceover of kids - telling me that I was dumb or that I was stupid and all that stuff. But I remember the director standing off camera and going, dumb, idiot, stupid. And I remember even at the age of 6 going, like, you don't have to do that. I can pretend.
GROSS: Oh, that's so interesting. Yeah.
CULKIN: Like, he was trying to get me to, like, have a reaction or something and I was like, no, no, I get it. Look sad. You don't have to do that.
GROSS: You don't have to insult me.
CULKIN: I'm not a method actor. I'm 6. You know, it's fine.
GROSS: (Laughter) So did your father want the kids to act because he was an actor and he wanted you to to succeed in the profession he loved? Or was it more about money? Do you have any idea?
CULKIN: I don't know. I'd have to ask him, but I don't speak to him, so that would be a tough call to make. Let me see. I would guess the former. I would say that, you know, he had been pursuing acting since he was a kid. My understanding - and, you know, it could be wrong with some details here, but, like, he came from a bit of a showbiz family himself, him and his three siblings.
Actually, we emptied a storage unit a few years ago and we found these - I don't really know what you would call them. They're, like, little pamphlets or something from, gosh, I would guess the '50s that were about him and his siblings and what sort of skills and talents they had. You know, he was the oldest and he was an actor and his sister, Bonnie, she was a singer, I believe. And then the other one was a dancer. And it was sort of like a resume. And they were sort of trying to be, you know, these showbiz kids.
And I'm not sure how successful they were because I haven't really done a deep dive into that, but I know that some of them continued to pursue acting. My aunt Bonnie, I believe, is still acting. And I think for my father, by the time he was having children, I don't think he was acting any more. I think it sort of stopped happening for him. But it was the only thing he really knew. So if I were to guess, I think it was, hey, this is something I can pass on to my kids, or we can see if this works. And I think his parents were, like, managing their careers, too. So I think that was sort of a throwback to what his parents did. Like, maybe I can do that too. I'm not sure.
GROSS: You know, acting is such a tough profession, in part because you're getting judged all the time. You're getting praised or rejected. You're getting cast or, you know, losing the part. What was it like for you to know you were being judged as a child on, you know, things that you couldn't really understand? Like, you couldn't really understand acting technique yet.
CULKIN: I never and still don't, like, pay attention to that (laughter). Yeah, maybe it's just because I've been doing it for a long time. I never looked at it as losing a part or - it's not a competition. 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, like, 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 just - you don't think about that stuff.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman Roy on the HBO series "Succession." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kieran Culkin. He's one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." He plays Roman Roy, one of the siblings competing to succeed their father in running the conglomerate. Kieran Culkin got his start in film when he was 7 in "Home Alone," which starred his brother, Macaulay Culkin.
What was it like seeing child stardom - watching your brother become, like, one of the most famous kids in America? Because "Home Alone" was such a big hit, and the whole thing with him, like, holding the sides of his face with his hands and going, ah (ph) - I mean, that was - like, that was all over. There was no such thing as viral yet because there wasn't really internet yet, but - or not much anyway. So - but if the - like, it was the equivalent of going viral.
CULKIN: Yeah, it was pretty nuts. And I think what people sometimes fail to remember, too, is that, like, he was a kid. He didn't really choose that. It's just 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.
I - like, for me - I've been saying it like this. Like, sometimes people pursue the fame thing and don't really realize what it is until it hits them. And I have a friend who basically had this experience where he had been pursuing acting, sort of thought, you know, success would be nice and it - something changed overnight, where his movie came out on, like, a Friday. And the way he described the story was he went out to dinner Friday night with his girlfriend, and it was a normal evening. They went home. The next morning, they went to the same restaurant to have breakfast, and on the way, he got recognized. When he had - over the course of breakfast, his table got interrupted four or five times by different people. And then on the walk back, people were taking selfies. And by the time he got home, he realized his life was different, and he kind of panicked and since then has had a very hard and sort of tough relationship with his own fame.
For me, I got to witness it (laughter) - 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.
GROSS: Your brother has said that your father was emotionally and, I think, physically abusive toward him and that at some point he basically, like, legally emancipated himself from your parents. He removed their names from his trust and appointed an independent executor to oversee his financial holdings. Was that your experience of the family, too?
CULKIN: No. We had a - our experiences were a little bit different. I mean, our father was very much a terrible person. I didn't experience much, like, physical or emotional abuse personally, but I'm sure Mac did. And I think the - it's so funny. It's been years. I've been meaning to talk to Mac about this for a long time.
I feel like the emancipation thing is a little bit blown out of proportion. Basically, my understanding of it is there was a custody battle, like any other custody battle, that was happening between my parents. The only difference was that one of their kids had millions of dollars of his own, and it was becoming complicated in terms of what the court was going to do because whoever gets custody of this kid also, you know, becomes the manager of his money, because, you know, he's - he was a kid, so even - he was not really in charge of his money. So I think it was more of removing it from the equation so that the custody battle can move forward. I don't think it was really him divorcing his parents, but it makes a really nice headline.
GROSS: That's such a strange thing to think about that the kid, the child during the divorce, is the one with the millions of dollars. That's so topsy-turvy.
CULKIN: I know. But people look at it as, like, the parents were fighting over the money. They weren't. They were fighting over custody. It's just that one of the kids had a lot of money. That's all it was. It wasn't they were trying to take his money or take control of the whatever, but it was becoming very complicated with the lawyers and everything. So it was just, hey, you know what? Let's assign this guy to be in charge of the money until he turns 18 so that neither of the parents can touch it. That - that's my understanding of it, but I still haven't, like, properly talk to Mac about it because we tend to not really talk about crap like that.
GROSS: You talked about how difficult fame is, how unpleasant fame can be. Were you confused with your brother when you were young because you both looked similar? You're not far from age. So were you ever confused with him? And if so, what was that like?
CULKIN: Oh, you mean, like, people in the street.
GROSS: On the street - like, strangers on the street, yeah.
CULKIN: There were a few. There was one time this woman - I was about 9 or 10 years old. I got out of a car. I think I was with my dad at an airport. And she ran up to me - like, I had barely took a step out. She must have thought it was Mac. And she ran up to me and she said, are you McCluckly McCluckly (ph)?
CULKIN: And I remember saying, no, nobody is.
CULKIN: And then she wanted to take a picture with me. And, like, I was trying to tell her that I wasn't, but she still took a picture anyway. It was very confusing. So there were things like that. But, you know, I don't know.
He had some weird ones. He had some weird ones on the street that I remember. Like, I remember him, like - he was in his trailer, I think, for "Home Alone 2," and he and I were in there. We were talking, and he was changing from his costume to his clothes at the end of the day. And he looked up, and there were a bunch of kids, like, at the window - because this was in New York City - like, looking in and shouting stuff at him as he was, like, changing his clothes. And I was like, you know, that's weird.
There was a woman on the street once - I've told this story bunch. There was a woman on the street once - he was probably a bit older, like 13, 14 or something, but he was pretty young. And he had a hat on to not get recognized. And he and I were walking down the street. And this woman - grown woman - tried to look at his face and was trying to see if it was him. And he was clearly, like - you know, we got to a - the corner and the light said don't walk, so we had to stand there. Brother was clearly nervous. This woman walked up, just took his hat off and put her face in front of his and said, yeah, it's him. And I remember my brother - like, he yelled when that happened, because, you know, he's a kid and this woman basically, like, assaulted him. She took his hat off to say, hey, it's him. This is the guy. And then, like, handed him his hat back. And, you know, this is a - an adult who should know better.
GROSS: That is really a violation of privacy.
CULKIN: It is. And there were things like that. There was one, I remember, where my - Mac and I and my brother, Shane, who's the oldest, we took a cab home. And the cab driver recognized Mac. And this was right around, like, "Home Alone," "My Girl," and my brother, Shane, was enough to go - to not give them the real address and said, you know - basically dropped us a block away and said, we're going to get out here and walk 'cause this guy's weird. And then as we were walking, the cab was slowly driving alongside us 'cause he wanted to find out where we lived. So my brother Shane said, get down; tie your shoe. And we tied her shoe, and the cab stopped. And I was about 9. You know, my brother Shane was probably, like, a teenager. Like, he had to be in charge of this thing happening where - and then, you know, I finished tying my shoe. And then as we walked, the cab moved in, and then he had to stop and tie his shoe. And eventually, cars honked and made the cab move. But that was frightening. Like, there's a creepy guy who wants to know where we live because my brother's famous.
GROSS: Yeah. That's like being stalked by somebody who could sell your address to whoever he wanted to.
CULKIN: Yeah. There's stuff like that. I mean, you said stalk. It's like, you know, paparazzi - that's basically what that is. And...
GROSS: Well, yeah. And your family was in the tabloids when you were a child. And that custody battle really, you know, I'm sure got played up big in the tabloids. I mean, that's hard for anybody to be in the tabloids except for the people who really want to be in it. And some do. But did you feel the effect of that? Did you understand what the tabloids were?
CULKIN: Yeah. I mean, I got it. At that point, I wasn't too young. I think the custody thing - battle I was between the ages of, like, 12 and 15 when that happened 'cause it took a couple of years. So - but I do remember like, OK, we - thankfully, we had a short walk to school. Our school was next door from where we lived. But there were paparazzi waiting out in front of the school to get pictures. They also would start interviewing students, like, other 12-, 13-year-old kids that went to school with, to find out what, you know, Mac was like and what we were like and, you know, weird, very, very invasive stuff.
And then the other thing, being a kid and seeing things written up in, you know, like, the New York Post that was just completely false made me - gave me the perspective at a very young age to go, oh, the newspaper can just make up stories and put it in there, and people can tell me that it's fact. Like, I didn't know that. And now I do - not to say that all news is fake or whatever. I'm not talking about fake news. I just mean that, like, it gave me perspective of like - somebody told me, you know, believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. I take a lot of those things with a grain of salt when it comes to, like, gossip, things you hear. It doesn't matter where it's written. It may or may not be true.
GROSS: Once you were in movies, which was kind of always (laughter), did you watch movies differently? Did you watch movies thinking, how do they do what they do? Where is the lighting? Where's the camera - the kind of thing that you think about when you're - that I assume you think about when you're actually in a movie?
CULKIN: Yeah. I think a lot of times when I watch a movie, it's like work. So I tend to not really watch thing - like, I tend to not really watch, like, films, if that makes sense, because it - like, I do. But it always feels like I'm working.
GROSS: Has it always felt that way since childhood?
CULKIN: Yeah, I guess so, which is why I sort of like - I watch things that I have nothing to do with. I watch like, you know - on TV, I'll watch, like, the news. I'll watch, like, animated shows - you know, "Wheel Of Fortune." Like, I don't really, like...
CULKIN: And then I'll watch TV shows that are really, like, engaging and fun but are very different from what I've ever done before. Or like, sitcoms - I've never done sitcoms, so I watch a lot of those.
GROSS: How's your memory in terms of memorizing lines?
CULKIN: That is something that I can credit towards my childhood acting 'cause I memorize lines extremely fast. It's almost like a parlor trick. And that has nothing to do with, like, you know, talent or anything like that. It's just like a neat little skill because I've been doing it since I was 6. But I can look at a speech, like, once or twice, and I can repeat it back pretty quickly. But it's funny 'cause, like, I think anything else I did as a child actor, I - just all those things that I did are kind of useless now. I don't use any of those things, but there's the little technical ones. Like, I know how to hit a mark without looking for it. You know, I can memorize lines really fast. There's just things like that that I'm thankful that I did as a kid.
But - yeah, Brian Cox sometimes gets mad at how fast I learn lines. (Laughter) There was one time this past season - I also don't like running lines, which I know a lot of actors like to do. I don't want to run lines with people. 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 - and some people know I don't like running lines. If I see some actors running lines, I usually leave the room 'cause I don't want to be rude. But I just don't like - for my, you know, whatever process, I don't like doing it. But Brian, it was a big scene with a big group of us. And he started running the lines. He actually just yelled. He goes, we're running lines. And then he just started in the scene. And everybody's doing it. It came to my part, and he looked at me, and I kind of didn't what to do. And I said, well, I haven't actually looked at the scene yet and - properly. We had sort of rehearsed, and they were setting up the shots. So I grabbed the sides, and I just sort of read it once, and then we run it again. And I read it a second time, 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 God d*** it. And...
CULKIN: ...He got so mad because he had to, like, work the night before to try to learn these lines. And I looked at it twice, and I knew it. And he was so mad (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, that's hilarious.
My guest is Kieran Culkin, one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE SHEARING'S "GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kieran Culkin. He's one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." He plays Roman Roy, one of the siblings competing to succeed their father in running the family-run conglomerate. Kieran Culkin got his start in film when he was 6 or 7 in "Home Alone," which starred his brother Macaulay Culkin.
You're the father of two, and your second child was born over the summer. Your mother had seven children, so she must have been pregnant a lot of the time and really, really busy 'cause I think she also worked. What impressions did it give you of parenthood to see her raising seven children?
CULKIN: Oh, boy. Yeah, that's funny. You know, I'm going to have to (laughter) really think about this one because, yeah, my mom - I was the fourth. So you know, I do remember her being pregnant at least the last two times and being very busy. And the apartment we lived in was very small. And in the morning, she would, you know, get the oldest few kids ready for school, and the dad ready to go to work. And then she'd stay home with the young ones, which was usually, like, three kids - three kids and a baby maybe - and look after them all day. And then kids would come home from school. She'd see to that, dinner, all that stuff, get the kids to bed. And then she would go to work, and she would work nights.
And I don't - I just don't know if she slept. I have no idea what she - but I know she didn't really ever sit down. She was always doing stuff. There's seven kids to feed. There was work to do. It was a very small and messy apartment to constantly be cleaning up. She happened to have a partner that didn't clean up. I have no memory of my father ever lifting a finger to cook or clean or any of that stuff. So she did that all herself.
Now, before becoming a parent, I really enjoyed my free time and sitting down, and I could spend days lying in bed. Not only do I not have that luxury, I don't even understand that mode anymore. I feel like I wake up in the morning, and I go to work, and I just don't sit down. There is no sitting down to eat anymore. There is always something to do. And at the end of the day, there's still so much left undone that it just gets added to the pile of there's too much to do. So now that you've asked me the question, I'm wondering if maybe that's what I took from my mom, watching her do that, maybe go into a gear of, OK, get to work.
GROSS: Did watching her do that affect your desire to be or not to be a father?
CULKIN: Oh, I don't know. I'm not sure. It was not something that either - my wife and I ever pursued. We sort of thought, you know, if it happens, it happens. But if it doesn't, you know, hey, that'll be great, too. And then the moment we found out we were pregnant - which is a term my wife hates. She hates it if I say that we are pregnant, so I'm just going to keep saying it. We...
CULKIN: When we found out that we were pregnant, it - like, we cried, and it was like, this is the greatest thing. Like, before I - like, it was just - the information, like, oh, my God. I had no idea how much we wanted this. And things changed from that moment on, I think. All of life changed from just like, oh, we're going to have kids now. Who I am is different now. How I pursue my work is different now. Thank God I found out just before that I want to be an actor and that I have a job because I have to look after kids now.
But yeah, it was never something I considered. It wasn't - you know, until we did it. And now it is quite actually the greatest thing, way better than any - I could have imagined. And - like, it doesn't matter how hard it gets, unlike anything else. Like, you know, you have a job that's too difficult or a relationship that's too hard, you just, like, end it. It's like, done. Move on. It doesn't matter how hard it gets. It's always fulfilling and always wonderful. And I'm only, you know, two years into it. So you know, who knows? But it's the greatest thing, way better than I could have imagined.
GROSS: Well, I love you on the show. I love the show. Thank you so much for being on our show. I really appreciate it.
CULKIN: Thank you. It was such a pleasure being here. Thank you.
GROSS: Kieran Culkin stars in the HBO series "Succession." Season 3's final episode is this Sunday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Mel Brooks. He wrote and directed such great film comedies as "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety" and, of course, "The Producers," which was adapted into a Broadway megahit. "The Producers" is about two producers with a scheme to make a fortune by staging the worst musical ever, "Springtime For Hitler." Now Mel Brooks tells his own story in his new memoir, "All About Me!" I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE FOR THE BEST (EXPECT THE WORST)")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Some drink champagne...
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE FOR THE BEST (EXPECT THE WORST)")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hope for the best. Expect the worst. I knew a man who saved a fortune that was splendid. Then he died the day he planned to go and spend it, shouting live while you're alive. No one will survive. Life is sorrow - here today and gone tomorrow. Live while you're alive. No one will survive. There's no guarantee. Hope for the best. Expect the worst. You could be Tolstoy or Fannie Hurst. So take your chances. There are no answers. Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.