Kieran Culkin Confides in Taika Waititi About the End of Succession
MONDAY 6 PM APRIL 10, 2023 NYC
Kieran Culkin was in his Brooklyn apartment, just a few weeks removed from saying his final fucks as Roman Roy. After Succession creator Jesse Armstrong shocked the world by announcing that the fourth season of the hit HBO show would be its last, Culkin was left to face a future without the character that made him a household name. The director Taika Waititi joined him on Zoom to help him process it.
KIERAN CULKIN: Hey, how are you?
TAIKA WAITITI: Good dude. How are you?
CULKIN: Pardon my five minutes being late.
WAITITI: No worries. It’s actually good that we pushed this because I got to see one of the greatest episodes ever last night, including some of the best acting ever.
CULKIN: Thank you. I have odd feelings about that. I think because that was such a hard episode to shoot that I maybe built it up as something else, and it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d ever worked with. So it was very important that we killed ourselves working on it. And then I saw it last night, and I guess I don’t know what I was expecting.
WAITITI: I was watching this episode, and I’m so cynical now because I watch things and I’m like, “Is that how they thought they should do it?” I haven’t felt that on this show at all. Because I’m always like, “Everyone’s so good and there’s constant talking over everyone.” It’s just surprise after surprise, and not in a way where the craft—and fuck, I hate that word—but where the craft is super evident. It’s so annoyingly slick.
CULKIN: The talking over is encouraged and gets me comfortable with the rhythm of what we’re doing. I picked up that trick from Jeff Goldblum, who you’ve worked with.
WAITITI: Dude! Stop! I was just going to say Jeff Goldblum. That makes me so happy that you said that. Such a wonderful man.
CULKIN: There was stuff that I learned from him specifically. On day one, he was going up to the crew and talking to all of them on a first name basis, and I was like, “That’s really cool.” I found out that he’ll get a crew list before a show and try to memorize it.
WAITITI: That’s awesome.
CULKIN: Now, ever since I was 18, I ask for a crew list. Then there’s stuff that I didn’t realize I’d picked up from him. Sarah Snook is one of the greatest scene partners ever. She’ll be in the middle of her dialogue, and I’ll interrupt her, and she’ll be like, “What the fuck? I’m talking here.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know you’re talking. I don’t really care what you have to say.” And we just go back and forth until she gets back to her point.
WAITITI: Is there much improvising around that stuff?
CULKIN: For me, it’s more the Jeff Goldblum thing. I’m like, “I want to talk. I want to interrupt.” I want to ask them questions while we’re talking so it feels more natural. It comes from a more natural place and less of, “Let’s improvise and do some funny things that they’re going to maybe use or not.” But we definitely show up and give alt lines. Sometimes we’ll throw in bits of improvised things about our childhood that are just for us because we like creating our own background. We know they’re not going to use it.
WAITITI: I love improvising as long as it’s got somewhere to go, and there’s a point to it. The show is perfect for that because you’ve got people talking over each other and there’s layers to the dialogue. It’s full of that stuff, which I love, as opposed to when an actor goes, “Can we improvise?” And it’s just them wanting to say a list of things that they thought about the night before.
CULKIN: I’ve definitely worked with that actor before. It was like, “Can I try something here?” And it’s like, “Oh, you wrote a speech in your hotel room last night.”
WAITITI: Or the first thing that comes to their head, which has nothing to do with anything.
CULKIN: With actors like that, you find the rest of the cast in the room looking at the actor, like, “Is he done? Okay, good. Let’s continue the scene now.” You can smell it right away. And in our show what that comes from, too, is the writing is so fucking good. It doesn’t need any flourish. So when I say I want to tack on, that’s just for me, as far as a process to making my dialogue as good as I can make it. There’s no ego. Jesse [Armstrong, the creator of Succession] doesn’t say, “There’s a rhythm to this that you have to hit.” It’s, “Play with it. We’ll find the rhythm together.”
WAITITI: I love that. So this is the final season. How are you feeling?
CULKIN: I don’t know yet. I still haven’t processed it. We finished filming about a month ago. I came home for a few days, got really sick, did two weeks of press, and then my whole family got sick again. Now the press is over, the show is airing, it’s done. So what do I do now?
WAITITI: It’s awesome that it’s done. In a way, I’m sad that it’s the final season, but Americans do too many episodes of things. If you love it so much, watch the whole thing again and again.
CULKIN: Yeah, that’s a good point. I knew this wasn’t the kind of show that could keep going and going. I always thought five seasons. It was just a number I had in my head. I remember, towards the end of season three, going, “I’m worried we’re going to enter a territory where we’re becoming Succession-y.” Then when season four happened, the first two episodes, I remember reading scripts and thinking, “Okay, this feels a little Succession-y. It’s very good, but I’m a little worried about it.” And then from three on, this season is very, very different, which is exciting, but makes me feel like, “Couldn’t there be a five, now that the show is kind of different?” I want to see what else happens. And there very well could be. Jesse knows that.
WAITITI: Christmas special!
CULKIN: [Laughs] He really didn’t know. He told us at the beginning, he thinks this is the end, but he’s not sure. And he let that ride the entire season, kept us all guessing. When we finished episode three, we were like, “We’re doing more.” Then we get halfway through, and we’re like, “I think he’s tying this up. I think he’s finishing it.”
WAITITI: There was something I wanted to talk to you about but I can’t remember. They did suggest things for us to talk about and I promptly lost that document.
CULKIN: I always go in really unprepared. Sometimes I feel bad. I did an “Actors on Actors” with Dan Levy and I was going to look him up, but I was like, “You know what? I don’t know him. I’m going to go in clean so that I’m asking genuine questions I don’t know the answer to.” That was cool for my half of the interview, but then I felt like a schmuck because the guy did his research and asked me some really good questions.
WAITITI: Did you do Hot Ones recently?
CULKIN: A couple of weeks ago, and unfortunately I now have a taste for fucking hot sauce that I never had before. I’ve just been eating wings like crazy for the last few days. My guts are rolling.
WAITITI: The internet’s blowing up over your Hot Ones interview.
CULKIN: Have you done it?
WAITITI: No, I really want to, but I’m actually super nervous about it. I don’t want to fail at it. I saw everyone was talking about how you had no reaction at all to any of these sauces. You were the terminator of sauces.
CULKIN: I didn’t know what my level was because I don’t really eat spicy foods. I thought I might be a little bitch about it. The first six were nothing at all. Seven had a little kick, and then there’s that one, which everyone warned me about, called Da Bomb. It was really spicy battery acid. It’s disgusting. That’s the one that gets you. But what’s great about Sean [Evans, the host], if you’ve watched a lot of his interviews—
WAITITI: He knows his shit.
CULKIN: He really knows his shit.
WAITITI: He knows too much. There is such a thing as too much research.
CULKIN: Kind of. He brought up a drunk grilled cheese situation that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about publicly. Does he know my friends? Does he know the deli guy? How does he know about my drunk grilled cheese?
WAITITI: If you’re anything like me, you would’ve just divulged a whole lot one night to a bunch of people at a bar. I used to have this thing where I would wake up on a Saturday morning and then I’d get an email or a text that would be like, “Hey, it’s Jason. So nice to meet you last night. Thanks for agreeing to read my script. Here it is.”
CULKIN: Oh god.
WAITITI: Just giving away my email to randos.
CULKIN: I don’t do that, and for whatever reason, when people do things like, “Can I send you my script?” I’ll always jokingly be like, “No, I’ll never read it. Ha, ha, ha.” We all have a good laugh, but really, I’m never going to read it.
CULKIN: I get sent scripts through the proper channels, and I don’t read those. I’m sure I’m giving up a lot of opportunities, but I don’t have time to read even the ones I’m supposed to read.
WAITITI: What are you doing next? I know what you’re doing next. You’re doing a film with Jesse Eisenberg [A Real Pain].
CULKIN: Yeah, in Poland. This is going to sound terrible, but I’ve tried to get out of it because it’s going to make my life miserable. But I don’t want to not do it because it’s such a beautiful script. I was finding every reason to not do it. I was like, “I’ll watch his first film, maybe it’s going to be terrible.” I watched it, and I was like, “Shit. It’s really good.” Well, let me reread the script, I’m going to find holes in it. Maybe I was in a good mood when I said yes to it. I reread it and it was so wonderful. When I finished it, I went to my wife and I was like, “I’m sorry, honey. Fuck, I have to go do this movie.” It’s just too good.
WAITITI: I don’t know anything about the film other than you guys go to Poland. Do you go to a concentration camp or something?
CULKIN: Yeah. It’s based on, I guess, what happened in his life. He and I play cousins and our great-aunt has died.
WAITITI: It’s contemporary, right?
WAITITI: For some fucked-up reason I got this idea in my head of Jesse Eisenberg in a Holocaust movie where he’s still wearing a purple t-shirt and a hoodie.
CULKIN: [Laughs] That would be an interesting choice. Our great-aunt who dies is a Holocaust survivor in the movie, and in her will, she’s given us a trip to go see the town where she was born and the house she grew up in.
WAITITI: Nice. Is that this year?
CULKIN: Yeah, we’re going in a few weeks. The reason I wanted to get out of it is I have a 1 1⁄2-year-old and a 3 1⁄2-year-old, and we’re going to be bouncing around Poland. I don’t like being away from them for more than two days at a time, and it’s not practical for me to have them there the whole time. I’m working on trying to convince my wife to come out for two weeks and bring the kids. It’s just a lot on her.
WAITITI: It’s so much on the other parent, who’s looking after the kids all day.
CULKIN: Oh, man. We do have a nanny here, but she can’t travel with us. So she’s doing that all herself, and she really earns her half of what it is I do for a living. Except sometimes that can be like, “Look, there’s a nice paycheck here, so let’s work really hard.” And sometimes, like this, I’m like, “This is for me, I want to do it, and you get nothing out of this except hard work.” It’s a hard sell.
WAITITI: I get it, man.
CULKIN: Do you have kids?
WAITITI: I’ve got two daughters, ten and seven. But it’s very different with us. I’ll be away for a month or two at a time and try to really make up for that when we get back together. It’s tough being a parent who abandons your kids.
WAITITI: You start justifying things in your head. You’re like, “Yeah, but they’ll really appreciate the work ethic.”
CULKIN: That’s a good perspective that I try to give myself. But I also think, “You know what? I’d rather be the at-home dad that’s very attentive than the one that’s always working.”
WAITITI: I think we’d all rather do that.
CULKIN: I have a friend who works crazy. He goes away for months at a time for what he does. And I remember thinking, “You must have a very disconnected relationship with them.” Then I see him with his kids, and they’re still intensely close. I guess there’s just an understanding that dad has to go away for long stretches of time. But I saw that and I’m like, “Oh, okay. There’s still a chance to be a good parent and have a connection with your kids even if you’re busy.” I always saw it as, I need to be home. But then again, my kids are between one and three. I do need to be home because if I go for a week, they change.
WAITITI: These are good years for you to be home. I think that if you’re a good person and show a good example, they’re going to turn out great. It’s kind of hard to fuck it up. You’ve got to really try to be a shit parent.
CULKIN: Yeah, but sometimes I see it. One thing that was really key for us was, in the first six, seven, or eight months of us being parents, it was just this haze of, “What the fuck are we doing?” And then we started going to this playground and that helped us meet a lot of really good parents. Then it really stands out when you see a shit parent. It’s like, “Oh, you took some effort here to really not be around your kids or give a shit.”
WAITITI: Yeah. And also, you had a kid. You have to just do that. It’s like signing a contract for a job. You’ve said yes, so you should just do the job.
CULKIN: This is an advice question. I’m told that while they’re one and three, they’re very portable. You bring them with you when you travel. But there gets to a point when they reach an age where they just want to stay home, be in school. They’ll talk back and say, “I don’t want to travel.” Does that happen?
WAITITI: Yeah. Ultimately, kids are terrible, terrible things to have.
WAITITI: Yeah, they are very portable, and those early years are great. It’s more like now one’s ten, the other one’s seven, and they want the stability of being around their friends at school, instead of spending four months in Budapest where they’ve got to make new friends that they don’t understand.
CULKIN: I feel like I can drop a name here, it’s fine. I had a meeting with Francis Ford Coppola, and I had just become a parent. And he goes, “It’s great. With what you do for a living, you can take your kids everywhere. You take them out of school because if you’re going to be shooting in Italy or Australia for a few months, they get that culture.”
WAITITI: But look at those kids. What have they ever achieved? [Laughs] He’s absolutely right, though. It’s this incredible community to be a part of for a kid. My kids have been on every set of every film, and they meet all different types of personalities in this little contained society. It’s really cool.
CULKIN: I think so, too. I grew up around that shit all the time, and I liked it.
WAITITI: And it’s not the school thing at all that really worries me. I couldn’t care less about school. You’ll learn a lot just by being around smart people and being around books.
CULKIN: I’m still always seeking advice, because of how hard it is for me to be away from my kids. I’ve started to second-guess what it is I do for a living. It’s the first time I’ve started to go, “Maybe I’ve chosen the wrong thing.”
WAITITI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well brother, it’s been lovely.
CULKIN: Yeah. My parting words to you, I would really love to see you do Hot Ones.
WAITITI: I will do it.
CULKIN: And I didn’t get to tell you that I’m a huge fan of your work, obviously.
WAITITI: And now we’re friends. I’m going to get your number and I’m going to text you.
CULKIN: Sounds good. I’ll send you my script. You have to read it.
Grooming: Benjamin Thigpen Using Oribe At Statement Artists
Photography Assistant: Dylan Garcia
Fashion Assistant: Brodie Reardon
Lighting Assistant: Dean Dodos
Post-Production: David Turner At Mcd Creative
Special Thanks: Gary’s Loft