Everyone’s favourite sadistic sibling on HBO’s Succession has been in the business since the age of eight. Catching up with old friend and fellow actor Michael Cera, the issue 31 cover star and multi-Emmy and Golden-Globe nominee considers their craft and the unexpected joys of fatherhood
Michael Cera: Cool. I think I’ve run out of things to ask you.
Kieran Culkin: Okay. Well, this was great. Thank you for taking the time.
I think it’s important to establish for the reader that we’ve known each other for 13 years. I’m curious, why do you think we’re friends?
I remember being on the set of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World – one of the first times we met – walking around my character’s bedroom. We both clocked the Nintendo and started talking about gaming.
A huge piece of both of our identities; a major first language for me. I was impressed you remembered the squelching sound when you paused the game Battletoads. We have since played a lot of Nintendo together, the game we bonded over the most was Contra. You also gave me a mock Scott Pilgrim NES game which was secretly Super Mario Bros. 3, because at one point I had told you that game is coded in my DNA.
I’ll bet you anything you have since lost it and have no idea where it is.
That’s true. It’s unfathomable to me that I lost track of it because I treasured it so much. You made the fake label and everything. It’s one of the most generous gifts I’ve ever been given, and I don’t have it.
I think we’re friends because I’ve always loved the way that we’ve worked together, how much fun we have.
You’ve been a father for three years now, but you’ve also been busy with work. How have you been finding the balance?
At the moment it’s chaos. You should see this apartment. There’s no such thing as self-care anymore; there’s no time for it. I don’t watch TV, my social life doesn’t exist. After work I am rushing back for their bath-time and bedtime. Recently after filming, someone said, “this was a tough week, go relax this weekend”. I laughed, then started to cry, because sometimes the weekend is tougher. I haven’t seen my kids all week, so there’s this emotional build-up to the brief window I have. I then put a lot of weight on it and it becomes stressful, I feel like I’m always trying to catch up. But then my daughter, out of nowhere, will hug my head and whisper, “I love you daddy,” and it’s the greatest thing in the world. I try to enjoy those moments as much as possible, but I also mourn them, because eventually she’s not going to do stuff like that.
You should listen to the Bruce Springsteen song ‘Glory Days’, it’s about how fast it all goes by. You’ll cry.
I am also realising the value of asking for help. Help, is in fact, helpful. One thing I have kept working on vigorously is me and my wife Jazz’s relationship.
That’s a very important leg of the table that can easily be neglected.
When my daughter was less than a year old we were looking for an apartment and didn’t bring her. Walking down the street, it occurred to me that I could reach out and hold Jazz’s hand, because normally one of us is juggling or hold- ing something or other. For a moment we were a couple walking down the street, and when we finished early we were meant to go back, but decided to sit down and get a coffee together. That was so nice.
You’re confident, often hilarious, but then there is another side to you that is introspective and analytical – the opposite of that guy. I think this is used in Succession and you could say that about your character, Roman Roy, too. But then, he’s also a mess… Do you watch the show?
I do, but I’ve never really concerned myself with how the whole thing fits together because I am solely concerned with my one thing, which is Roman. I don’t particularly care about how the audience is going to gauge the story, view it in its entirety – that’s none of my business. I’m just the guy; I’m protecting my character and trying to be as true to myself and to him as possible. I’m making sure to track Roman so there’s consistency, that I’m not doing anything that inherently contradicts what’s gone before. Sometimes Jesse (Armstrong) – who created the show – will ask me, “would Roman do this?”. And we figure out what makes sense, feels right. That being said, people flip flop all the time. They’re constant walking contradictions. So even though it completely tracks that my character has said ‘x’ all this time, he can change course, have different dimensions.
This is your first proper TV job. Is the approach you’ve just outlined one you discovered for it?
I’ve been acting for 33 years now and every time it’s been different. Always, when I think I’ve gotten the hang of it, my process changes for one reason or another. I used to want to get off book on the entire script, know my full arc. Now I do the complete opposite on Succession, because sometimes we get rewrites the night before, ideas and possible trajectories will be cut… This job requires a completely different skill set and muscle memory. I’ve had to adjust. Now I read over a scene before bed to check for any issues, normally show up on set late, do my hair in a rush, make decisions about costume, remember I still have to shave, do one slightly wonky take, and then we figure it out. It all works because I have all-star scene partners like (Sarah) Snook, someone I’ve built such a rapport with that we can discuss a scene we’re about to film, then swap lines if we think they would better suit the other person – with permission from the writers. Whatever your process is, you can’t be complacent. I feel like if I ever get to a place of thinking I know exactly how to do my job, then I’m probably doing it wrong.
I learned a lot from doing the play This is Our Youth with you, that you’re naturally a very present actor. It was a high wire act; I felt like a trapeze artist flying and not knowing what was going to happen. You would always catch me. There were many times when your superpower of presence saved the show. I remember when my phone prop exploded, which I needed for an extremely pivotal, emotional moment, and mid-performance you remembered where the spare was and retrieved it for me. You learn a lot by doing a play.
You do. Every time could be completely different. On Succession we run whole scenes like a play, but they’re different puzzles to solve. What’s great about the show is there’s an aspect of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Because it’s fluid, the thing comes alive. There’s often no time to rehearse, so you’re forced to be present. It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not. I never took an acting class but I’m sure you’re taught to actually listen to whoever’s opposite, because they’re doing half the work for you. On stage or screen, you’re relying on the other person and your ability to truly listen.
Alan Rickman once said, “All I want to see from an actor is the intensity and accuracy of their listening.”
Burr Steers, who wrote and directed Igby Goes Down, taught me a trick. I was doing a scene with my therapist in the film, and Burr wanted me to get on his nerves without ever straying from the dialogue. I couldn’t figure it out, but he said to watch his behaviour and make fun of him. So, I’m watching him closely and trying to find something. In that moment I realised I was really listening to him and paying attention to everything he was doing. I was so hyper focused, reading exactly where and how he moved his elbow. It was great because I wasn’t in my head, I was watching the other guy. Thereafter, whenever I felt uncomfortable, I would pull this trick: lock into what my partner is doing and try to make fun of them. I was 18 when we filmed that and it’s stuck with ever since.
Have you ever been asked to conduct an interview like I’m doing right now?
No. And I wonder if I would say yes.
You’re not going to return this favour?
No, you’re a really generous guy who’s a better friend to me than I’ll ever be to you.
Well, I’ll try not to get nominated for an Emmy so you’re never put in that position.
That would be great. You should have been nominated for Life & Beth, you were fantastic in that.
Thanks man. I like the way you embrace people through roasting. I think you’ve got to be able to laugh, it’s so important. Some of the people I’m most worried about is because they have no sense of humour about themselves. They’ll tell you something that’s maybe weird and you want to poke fun of them to embrace them, in a way.
Whenever I see that, my instinct is poke fun and poke hard.
You’re the king of it. You actually poke so hard I think that you make people drop their guard. Laughing is a way to connect to the larger mind, it’s a way to zoom out, to share, to look back at yourself with others and be part of a larger fabric.
I feel that same way. If I were to trip and fall really badly on the street, I actually hope to God that someone laughs. My first instinct is to chuckle when I see it happen to other people.
This next question is actually from my wife. What has been your favourite age?
Four immediately flash up: 12, 22, 32 and 37. Twelve was the first year of the beginning of who I am now. I suddenly understood what I liked, what music I listened to, what clothes I wanted to wear – this is the kind of person I am. Twenty-two was the last year I was completely unattached, free. I had no partner, no kids, no job. I was not locked down to anything and it was lovely. Thirty-two was when we were doing This Is Our Youth, and getting that job was the result of an eight-year pursuit, a dream. I felt like that was a big step in terms of what I do now; I don’t think I’d be doing Succession if it wasn’t for that formative time. The freedom and fun of it. Finally, I turned 37 just after I became a dad and of course everything changed. I remember shortly after going on vacation – we go to Fire Island every Labour Day – and bringing my daughter. Over five days we just couldn’t figure out how to fit in the activities with friends. One day we were meant to go to the beach with everyone but I had to be in; she was napping, dishes needed to be washed and lunch needed to be prepped because Jazz had been up all night. I was so frustrated we couldn’t go, had spent the whole weekend thinking, ‘maybe tomorrow we will, or the day after’… So there I was, washing up, and suddenly I realised how much I loved this little spoon of hers. I looked out the window and thought, ‘oh, I don’t get to go to the beach. And that’s okay’. I felt this weight lift off my shoulders because I was 37, life is different now. I don’t need to chase the beach life or whatever it is I used to have. And look at this fucking little green spoon. It’s lovely. It’s actually quite amazing. Life is something else. It’s this other, wonderful, magical thing.
There’s a lot in that thought, that surrender. I admire people who have that ability to accept, to dance more eloquently with life.
The first three seasons of Succession are available to stream on HBO Max. Season 4 will be premiering on HBO & HBO Max in 2023
Photography Clément Pascal
Styling Julie Velut
Grooming Amy Komorowski at The Wall Group
Photography assistant Jeremy Gould
Styling assistant Kenni Javon
With thanks to The Production Factory, New York
Special thanks to the Historic Blue Moon Hotel, NYC
This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here