Kieran Culkin on the ‘Succession’ Series Finale, Roman Roy’s Fate


SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from “With Open Eyes,” the series finale of HBO’s “Succession,” now streaming on Max.

During their cover story for Variety’s Actors on Actors, Claire Danes — who’s starred in a number of TV shows, including “Homeland” and FX’s recent limited series “Fleishman Is in Trouble” — asked Kieran Culkin whether he’d ever done episodic television before “Succession.” The answer, even though Culkin has been acting since he was a child, was no.

Danes laughed, and said, “So you just thought, ‘No, I’m just going to do the best one, and start right there.’”

“Then retire, that was the plan!” Culkin replied.

Greg Swales for Variety

That conversation took place in April, five weeks before the end of “Succession.” In the series finale of Jesse Armstrong’s Emmy-winning drama, Roman (Culkin), who throughout the show’s arc could go from impish extremism to vulnerability in an instant, ended up alone at a bar drinking a martini. With his face banged up, and his stitches busted open courtesy of an overly aggressive hug from his brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman flashes a brief smile — but whatever he’s really thinking is indecipherable. Earlier, however, in a disastrous boardroom meltdown among his siblings Kendall and Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman had decisively come to the same realization their father, Logan (Brian Cox), had long ago come to: “We are bullshit… We are nothing.”

As part of our Actors on Actors issue, Culkin shared his insights for the first time on the finale — calling Variety from Poland, where he’s filming a movie. There was just one issue, though, since he’d been so busy, and is so far away from home: “I haven’t seen it, so no spoilers!”

Well, I’m going to spoil something. In the conference room scene with Roman, Kendall and Shiv, Roman is the one who finally crystallizes everything, really, when he says, “We are bullshit.” Can you break down that scene?

It was right there on the page, what Jesse wrote. I know “we are bullshit,” that that was written, but there were different versions that would come out. I remember apologizing once, because some other version came out. He said, “No, it’s fine.” Jesse and I were synced up about what the moment was for Roman.

Initially, it was written as more of a screaming match between Shiv and Kendall that got a bit physical, and he ended up throwing a phone, and they sort of scuffled. There was a discussion, a safety thing, because Sarah was actually pregnant at the time.

Jeremy and I are of the same opinion: We don’t really love rehearsing. We know what’s happening in the scene, let’s just do it. But we also have to be safe, because there was a safety risk.

We thought maybe it would get to a place where Shiv was going to push him or throw something — we weren’t sure. But when he went for her, I just instinctively grabbed him. And then he turned his attention to me. There were a few takes where we ended up scuffling, and really going for it on the floor. I haven’t seen it, so I’m not sure what made it in.

He pushes you against the wall — 

And grabbed my face, right. 

It’s pretty violent.

Does it ever come to, like, slaps? Or do we ever go to the floor, or anything like that?

You wrestle, but you’re not fully on the floor, no.

Oh, well, cool! There were some where I was on top, and I was smacking his head. There were times when he got on top of me and just punched the shit out of me. And it was very alive, because we weren’t sure what the next one was going to be, and how it was going to manifest.

Can we talk about the hug with Kendall, when he busts open Roman’s stitches? People have different interpretations of it.

Well, Jeremy and I, as I said, we don’t really like to rehearse. I actually really hate discussing the scene, especially when I feel like I understand it. The worst thing a director could do is come in and describe what the scene’s about, and what our characters are going through: We don’t need to discuss it, we understand. Jesse had said something earlier in the season, which I agree with, which was: “What’s funny is sometimes I’ll write something with a very specific intention. And then the actor has their own interpretation of it. But when they play it, both work, so I don’t have to come in to note you, even though I have a feeling you have a different read on it. It works my way, and works your way.”

In that scene, when I read it, I was kind of confused as to what was happening. A couple of days before, we had to talk about the stitches, the prosthetic, and all that stuff. He showed me — sort of vaguely — what he thinks of how the hug opens up my stitches. I had my own interpretation of it, and I didn’t want to ask him. And we shot it, and he seemed happy with it.

After the fact, I asked him what he thought that moment was about. And we did have the same idea — which is great. But the thing is, if it was something else, it would work all the same. Because before I came to the conclusion of what I thought it was, I realized there could be two or three different things that this could mean. And it could mean everything all at once.

My first go at it is sort of was — it’s a thing that happens. Which I know is sort of silly. But sometimes I don’t want to overanalyze something, because in the moment, Roman’s not going to know why he’s doing it, perhaps. So why would I know it? Sorry, it seems like I’m talking in circles, but there have been times when I go to Jesse when there’s a line that sounds like it’s just words, but there could be a meaning behind it. And I’ll go up to him and say, “This thing here, that just a —?” And he just goes, “Yeah, it’s just a —.”  And I go, “OK, great, say no more.”

That sounds like maybe a lazy interpretation? But that’s actually just what people do. So when I first read it, I sort of thought, “This could just be a thing that happens, and nobody really knows why it happened, it was just fucking strange. And they might have to talk about it in therapy to figure out what it is.”

But I have my interpretation. And I do kind of want to keep that one to myself too. Which is very unsatisfying to you

My interpretation was that Roman has been physically abused by Logan, and Kendall is kind of bringing him to heel. My wife’s interpretation was that Roman is freaking out about being embarrassed, and Kendall is giving him the gift of opening up his stitches so it’s more clear why this person can’t be the CEO of a company. 

What was the Logan thing? What was yours again?

That Kendall, in his attempts to turn into Logan, was abusing Roman. Physically controlling him.

Interesting. I will say that one of your interpretations has elements that are in mine, and one of them not at all!

I guess I’m the one who’s wrong! Annoying.

I’m not going to say! They’re both very interesting, actually. 

Courtesy of HBO

Roman was very upset about Gerri being in the office for the final board meeting. In his last scene at the bar, is he drinking that martini, and thinking of her? J. Smith-Cameron tweeted something about it.

Yes, she likes to have fun with her tweets. I have my thoughts on that, but I don’t really want to put that out there. Jesse didn’t write that in for that reason — I’m pretty sure he just said, “…orders a drink.” So that’s not a pointed “Roman-orders-Gerri’s-drink” moment, as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not that was my intention behind it, I will keep to myself.

What do you think that final scene of Roman means about where you see Roman heading in this world, if this were a season finale and not a series finale?

Where do I think he goes from here?

There are people who think that Roman is going to be just fine, more than any of the characters.

But that’s not saying very much, is it? None of the siblings are in a particularly good place at the end. I’ve heard that interpretation, and I think that’s interesting. A lot of people just go, “Well, he’s got tons of money — he’ll be fine!” Which just isn’t really the case for these people. I don’t think it’s as simple as, “Well, I guess I’ve got my riches and my martini, I’m fine.” I don’t think he’s OK. No. 

I remember on that day, Jesse said, “Do you want to talk about this moment, or not?” I said, “No, let’s just shoot it.” Because I didn’t want to hear what it was. Because I had my own idea. He has said that he thinks it’s more of like, “Roman has gone back to where he was at the beginning. What’s really sad about that was all of this was for nothing. It’s been a waste of his time. Like, what’s the point? What did he learn? What did he gain?”

Which is a cool interpretation, and that’s his, so that seems to be the one that’s right. 

But there’s mine, which has, I think, elements of that. People inevitably do grow when they go through experiences like this. I think he has evolved as a person. I don’t think he’s gained nothing from this. I think there’s something he must have taken away from it, whether or not that’s for better or for worse. The thing that gets me, even at the end of Season 3, was if Roman’s cut out of the company, and there’s no reason for him specifically to come to the office and interact with his siblings, they don’t have the capacity to say, “Hey, I miss you. Let’s get together and hang out.”

I think he not only just genuinely loves his family, I think he needs them. Now that it’s done, and he’s out, and they’re all out: When is he going to see them again? Who does he have? He has fucking nobody. That’s it. And siblings are out there, somewhere. And it’s not like we’re gonna get together for a beer. He’s very much alone. Have you ever seen Roman with a friend? 

God, that’s terrible. In your thinking about this, do you think there’s a world where they can reconcile?

Roman would be very much up for that, I think. But I have no idea! I love that there are different interpretations of it, and different theories. I love that, because all these things can exist at once — that’s why I think it’s great that it ended where it did. It feels very much like the end, but there could be more. Because there really could be!

I really do want to see what happens with these characters. But I’m really satisfied sitting with that feeling of wanting more, and knowing that it’s over. 

To that point, though, do you think in your heart that you’re really done forever playing Roman Roy? I know it just ended — I know. And that Jesse Armstrong says he’s done. But given the “more” of it all, and given his love of this project, which has consumed him for years, how could there not be a movie or a limited series — or a something someday?

I mean — because he ended it. I think that’s it. That is the end. We don’t all love to hear that. But you know, it’s the end.

Dammit. Why do you think Shiv shivs Kendall at the last minute? What do you think is happening in her mind?

Ooh, that’s a question for Jesse and Sarah. God, I really need to watch the episode!

I feel like initially there was something in there where Roman was angry at Shiv for a moment about doing it. Like, he was embarrassed — like, “Hey, I put myself out there. And I look stupid now.” I can’t remember what it was, but then it ended up just not feeling right in the room. Because immediately when she did it, I remember instinctively, as Roman, feeling like, “Oh, yeah. No, absolutely, you’re right. It can’t be him.”

I can’t exactly interpret what those feelings are. But in my gut, the moment she bailed, Roman was like, “Oh, thank God, one of us had to do it.”

The relationship with Gerri doesn’t resolve, and I think J. Smith-Cameron said there was a scene that was cut from the funeral episode where she goes to him. What do you think of that relationship? Is it over forever?

Well, what does “resolve” mean? If this is a real, human relationship, what does that even mean? Are all your relationships tied up in a neat little bow in your life? It just doesn’t really happen that way. I would be unsatisfied if I were given a satisfying resolution there.

She said in an interview that you and she have a plan to go to Balthazar and have martinis when you get back from Poland.

She and I and her husband did that a few weeks ago. She just texted me the other day, like, let’s do that! I’m not sure if it’s a double date, or just the two of us. They make a really nice martini there.

Courtesy of HBO

You and Sarah Snook are both going into the lead actor categories this year, which makes total sense. And you’re acting a movie right now — do you feel that “Succession” has changed your trajectory?

I can’t think in terms of that. The one thing that’s an adjustment, that all of us in the show have talked about, was how the hell are we gonna work on something else? The way that we shoot is one of a kind. With the funeral scene, when we got there, [director Mark] Mylod told a lot of gave this big speech to everyone, including a couple hundred background actors, additional camera crew, additional PAs, what the day was going to be. And he basically said, “We’re going to run the entire funeral procession without rehearsing it. We’re going to shoot it with four cameras. And then we’re going to do that twice.” 

When we did the table read, Jesse had asked that we don’t read the eulogies, because we’ll just save it. So I specifically did not read the eulogies. This is shooting on film, so cameras have to keep reloading: We just did the funeral. And I didn’t know, for example, what Uncle Ewan was going to say until he was up there doing it. And there’s our genuine reactions to it. I didn’t know what Kendall was going to do after he saved me. I didn’t rehearse what my thing was — I learned the lines, but I didn’t know how it was going to come out. My understanding is the one that’s in the episode was the first take. We just ran the whole thing. 

Who the fuck does that? The entire funeral, which is almost half of the episode, we ran in its entirety. We never do coverage on the show. We don’t do marks. We don’t do continuity. All the things that are restrictions for an actor that you’ll do in any other movie, we just didn’t do. I’m not scared for another job? I’m more worried about not having the same kind of freedom.

But I’m out here working on this thing, and there’s the initial bump of like, “Oh, you’re putting a mark down? That’s weird. Coverage!” But it’s a couple of days of adjusting, and there’s been some adjustments on their part too. Like, I’m not given marks on this movie, so it’s loosened up a little bit. But it’s going really well. It’s odd, because I think I went in with an expectation of feeling very agitated or boxed in or something. But it’s not the case.


In other words, I’m looking forward to doing more stuff.

Is there anything that you want to say about anything the finale or Roman, or anything that I haven’t asked you?

No. There’s so much I don’t want to say, and there’s some stuff I said that I kind of almost regret. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. Ethan Shanfeld contributed to this report.

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