Kieran Culkin Talks Roman’s Sexuality and What Happened to His Wife

SPOILER ALERT: This interview discusses gargantuan plot developments in “Kill List,” Season 4, Episode 5 of “Succession,” now streaming on HBO Max.

Kieran Culkin hasn’t yet watched this week’s episode of “Succession” because he’s traveling — and doesn’t like watching things on his laptop. Having wrapped filming only six weeks ago, and with upcoming episodes still in post-production, Culkin isn’t even sure how the gripping story of this family dynasty will end.

The April 23 episode “Kill List” was written by Jon Brown and Ted Cohen and directed by Emmy winner Andrij Parekh (for Season 2, Episode 3, “Hunting,” aka the “boar on the floor” episode), showcased one of Roman’s most emotionally driven scenes throughout the four seasons of “Succession.” In its tension-filled 60 minutes, Culkin demonstrated his abilities as a dramatic actor during a heated exchange with streaming media giant CEO Lukas Matsson (played exquisitely by Alexander Skarsgård). In the scene on the Norwegian mountaintops, Matsson insults Roman and Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the newly minted co-CEOs of Waystar Royco, as they try to “Scooby Doo” their way out of the GoJo deal the board desperately covets.

After the GoJo honcho tarnishes Roy patriarch Logan’s (Brian Cox) name, the grief building inside Roman since his father’s very recent death comes to a head: He confronts Matsson, telling him they’ll never sell their media empire to him. (By the end of the episode, though, Matsson regains the upper hand — for now.)

The day after “Kill List” aired, Culkin spoke with Variety about filming this week’s episode, what happened to the kid Roman appeared to have in the series premiere of “Succession” and his plans to submit for lead drama actor for this year’s Primetime Emmys.

Are you sad “Succession” is ending?

It’s all sorts of feelings, but I haven’t processed it yet. We just finished shooting six weeks ago, and there’s been a lot of press since then, and Jesse Armstrong is still editing. It still feels like we’re making it. Jesse told us at the season’s start that he thought this was the last one. And then he explained the entire season to me. When he finished, I said, “Well, that kind of sounds like the end,” and he goes, “Well, it could be, but…” and then he just spat out three ideas that he said were just off the top of his head, and that were all brilliant ideas for a fifth season. He had said something to the effect that “Succession” has a question that begs an answer. And by the end of the season, he gave them the answer.

It wasn’t until we did the table read for the last episode that he told us it was ending. While Jesse was telling us, and some people were crying in the room, he goes, “But it’s been a wonderful experience. And, you know, and I think that this is how it has to end — unless maybe there is a way forward.” He did it after we were finally absorbing the information. Then he pulls it back and says, “Maybe there is a reality where it could be — oh, maybe never mind. I don’t want to take your goodbyes away from you.”

It probably would have been great if we did another, but maybe not. I don’t know. All I knew was I could trust Jesse Armstrong to make that call.

HBO Succession S4
Graeme Hunter

How did you prepare for that emotional scene with Alexander Skarsgård on the mountaintop?

People won’t know this, but I sat up on the counter before we sat down for this interview, and you said to me, “Oh, that’s just like in the scene.” And I was like, “Oh, they used that take.”

I didn’t plan on it [jumping on the wall]. Maybe some takes weren’t working. It wasn’t about threatening him, or trying to make him feel threatened. It was more that he was unhinged. And I didn’t know what I was going to do. Getting him to listen to me was harder, until I could actually get in his face — he’s gargantuan.

One take they didn’t use is there was one where Lukas goes and pees on the rock. He has this little pouch for fake pee, and on one of the last takes, I went up and just unzipped and tried to pee next to him, which wasn’t in the script. I couldn’t pee, and then I remembered that it had been established that Roman couldn’t pee in front of other men. So then I just started peeing next to him, and as I was peeing, I started going into the scene, and he had this little smirk, the full Matsson smirk.

Do you think people think what you do with Roman is easy because he’s sarcastic and has a lot of one-line zingers?

Brian Cox would say things like: “People don’t get it. They think we’re circus monkeys.”

They don’t realize the hard work that goes into this thing. There’s internal stuff. People think, “Something snarky, and be funny.” Roman has a hard time communicating. That’s his way of expressing his discomfort.

At the end of Episode 3, after Shiv leaves and Kendall watches Dad come off the plane, it was initially written that Roman says, “I can’t go on. I’m not getting on that plane. I can’t do it.” And he asks Kendall, “Are you gonna do it?” He says he is, and then I get in the car and leave. I bumped into Jesse after that draft came out. I said I felt like I couldn’t just leave. For whatever reason, I think in my gut that he needs to see it.

So Jesse let me shoot two versions of it. That was such an important thing, to be able to speak up for my character. It seemed small, but they were willing to do that for me.

As we head into the finale, I have a question about your wife and kid we saw in the pilot episode. Where are they?

Not his kid. Not his wife, either. It was in the pilot, and after it was picked up, it was his girlfriend, and she had a child. I’m wearing my real wedding band in the episode. I was excited about the idea of having a kid, and the kid was like 7 or 8. It was a little disappointing, but I think the idea was that it would just give them more freedom to play with the character.

They had mentioned to me, even before we shot the pilot, about questioning what Roman’s sexuality is — and we don’t know what it is. But it put something in my brain, and I was like, “OK, but I’m married and have kids?” They were toying with the idea that she’s aware that you have sort of hangups sexually when it comes to monogamy, and might be more fluid, but we don’t know what that is yet.

Is it true you auditioned for Cousin Greg?

No, they sent me to read for Greg, and I knew I wasn’t Greg. I read the first element and knew that’s just not me. What’s fun about that is I thought the writing was good enough 10 pages in and just kept reading, which I don’t normally do. Then the character Roman walks in and says, “Hey, hey motherfuckers,” and then I was like, he’s fun, and kept reading.

And then I asked: “I’m wrong for Greg, so that’s a pass, but I don’t want to pass. Can I read for Roman?” The response I got back was they’re not reading for Roman yet. And I said, “Can I do it anyway?” My agent at the time was like, yeah, go ahead, play the game. So I picked three scenes, put myself on tape, and sent it in.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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