Before Kieran Culkin began filming Succession’s pilot, he made one distinct character choice about Roman—the second-to-youngest Roy sibling he would end up playing for four seasons of the Emmy-winning HBO series.
“This is a guy who’s felt like he’s never had to suffer any consequences. He can always blag his way out of something. He can always talk his way out of it or pay his way,” Culkin tells VF in a phone call. And for most of the series, that statement remained true—his actions, remarks, and unsolicited nudes went unchecked. Even in season four, as Roman’s grief roller coaster led him on a whiplash journey involving a mountaintop breakdown, impulsive executive firings, and helping fix a presidential election for a fascist candidate, the character continued operating like a foul-mouthed despot.
But in the series’ penultimate episode, “Church and State,” Roman finally accepts that his father’s death is one situation he can’t slickly contort himself out of. At the podium during Logan’s VIP funeral, the character suffers an Emmy reel-ready emotional implosion.
Even when Logan died, Roman “still believed that this is going to be fine,” Culkin explains from Poland, where he’s filming a movie with Jesse Eisenberg. But in Sunday’s episode, Roman slowly realizes that his father’s death and its impact on him “isn’t okay, and it’s never going to be okay,” says the actor. Roman “doesn’t know how to deal with that. This is the first time, I think, in his life where he felt like he had absolutely no control or say in the situation.”
Ahead, the actor tells VF about filming Roman’s funeral breakdown, not wanting to know about the character’s sexuality, and Succession creator Jesse Armstrong pitching him on fifth-season ideas.
Vanity Fair: It seems like Roman’s been hit hardest of the siblings by Logan’ passing. Why do you think that is?
Kieran Culkin: I’m sure we’re all hit pretty hard. Everyone just has their different coping mechanisms. I’ve always felt that he had a very unrealistic sense of family—he always felt the closeness to everyone and felt the most comfortable when they’re all together in the same room. You don’t often see Roman out with his friends. I don’t think he has many. For our entire lives, the center of our universe was Dad. And now he’s gone. And what do we move around now?
What’s funny is when we did the wake episode [404, “Honeymoon States”] and Roman said he pre-grieved [and was fine], I remember sort of feeling like, “That doesn’t seem right.” I think he’s in-tune with himself enough to know, “even if I’m having a nice moment, I’m probably not fully through this.” And Jesse, by the time he was writing episode 5, came to me and said, “I’m a little worried that I might have put you on the wrong trajectory with the pre-grief thing. I’m not sure that’s right.” And I was like, “No, it’s O.K. You can feel one thing one day, and then another, you’re different.” Emotionally, he’s been on a rollercoaster. I don’t think he knows when it’s going to hit him.
Right. We’ve seen him have this mountaintop breakdown in one episode, and then spontaneously fire Gerry (J. Smith-Cameron) and the Waystar studio head. But in the election episode, he was this diabolical force—more clear-eyed and motivated than either of his siblings.
Which is great, because I almost never get to do that in the show. Whenever that happens, I’m usually bouncing off Shiv’s [opinion] which is fun. Last season when we were trying to pick the candidate—the Mencken vs. Jiménez argument—those scenes were fun. You’re talking or yelling over each other. I love when Roman actually has a very clear point of view and a clear pitch. You said “diabolical,” but the way Roman sees it, Mencken really is the best thing for the company.