‘Succession’: Kieran Culkin Was ‘Terrified’ of Improv — Then, He Played Roman Roy

As an actor on Succession, Kieran Culkin often improvises snide comments, crude jokes, and physical hits. He’s adept at it but explained that he wasn’t always this way. Prior to his role as Roman Roy on the HBO series, Culkin and his castmates say he couldn’t improvise at all. The Succession Season 3 actor explained how this changed after shooting the hit show. 

Succession Season 3 actor Kieran Culkin wears a tuxedo.
Kieran Culkin | Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

Kieran Culkin took a long break from acting

Culkin began acting when he was seven years old. As the younger sibling to wunderkind Macauley Culkin, he didn’t get the same public attention, but he did get roles. By the end of his teenage years, he’d found work in the Father of the Bride movies, The Cider House Rules, and the acclaimed Igby Goes Down.

After receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Igby Goes Down, Culkin abruptly stepped away from acting.

“I realized I’d been doing it for 14 years and I never once made the decision ‘Hey, I want to be an actor,’” he told The Guardian. “So I flipped out and – you can check my IMDb – I didn’t work for years. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”

He returned to acting in 2008, but he took a small, curated collection of onscreen and theater roles. Succession is by far Culkin’s weightiest part in recent years.

The actor said he was afraid to improvise before ‘Succession’

According to Culkin, his experience as an actor, particularly in the theater, made him nervous about straying from the words in the script. 

“I was always terrified of doing anything improvisational,” he told Vulture. “It always terrified me. I have done a lot of theater where if you missed a comma, you had to go to the playwright and apologize. So that was my safety zone.”

Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and executive producer Adam McKay wanted the actors to approach the scripts with a little more flexibility, though. McKay told Culkin that they wanted to do several takes trying to catch the actors’ unscripted reactions.

“I started panicking and I told him, ‘I don’t know how to work that way, I don’t come from that background. Can we make me the exception?’” Culkin said. “He took it easy on me for the first half of the shoot, and then he started to push it. It was terrifying.”

Soon, he began to not only adapt to the loose structure but excel at it.

“Before we started, he never improvised once,” his onscreen father, Brian Cox, explained on The Late Show With Steven Colbert. “He couldn’t improvise at all. And now, he is extraordinary.” 

Kieran Culkin now appreciates actors who will improvise with him

Kieran Culkin has grown so fond of going off-script that his favorite actors to work with are ones who improvise well. 

“[Sarah] Snook and J. [Smith-Cameron] are possibly my favorite people I’ve ever worked with in my life,” the Succession Season 3 actor told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think Snook, in particular, I just feel the most comfortable with doing whatever.”

Culkin explained that Snook, who plays his sister, is the best actor to improvise with. 

“I’ll just throw at Snook, and she’ll catch the f—ing ball and bounce it back at me and elbow me in the face,” he said. “It’s just the most fun sibling dynamic on the set.”

RELATED: ‘Succession’: Kieran Culkin ‘Can’t Shut Up’ After a Day of Playing Roman Roy