Kieran Culkin, Daveed Diggs, Tobias Menzies and Bob Odenkirk talk race on TV, getting in shape for nude scenes and seeking early happy hours (and therapy) during lockdown for THR's first-ever virtual Roundtable: "These are the questions we ask ourselves in the political moment we're in."
The Crown's Tobias Menzies, 46, was the first to acknowledge he was a ball of nerves, which then prompted Watchmen and Black Mirror star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II to admit his heart was racing, too. And who could blame the pair, joined on Sunday afternoon for The Hollywood Reporter's first-ever virtual Roundtable by Star Trek: Picard's Patrick Stewart, 79; Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk, 57; Succession's Kieran Culkin, 37; and Snowpiercer's Daveed Diggs, 38? They were meeting against the backdrop of worldwide protests following the killing of George Floyd and a global pandemic that has all six actors out of work for the first time in years. From their homes in Los Angeles, New York and London, the leading men didn't shy away from discussing the value of art in this moment and the power that television series like Watchmen, a nine-episode meditation on racism and policing in America, or Snowpiercer, an examination of class warfare, can have. Says Abdul-Mateen, 33, "The time is always now to make content that is going to make people uncomfortable."
We are living through unprecedented and emotional times, and we are doing it from our homes. What have you learned about yourselves in the past three months?
KIERAN CULKIN That I can sit and eat cans of food and get really fat and hardly sleep and hate myself? (Laughter.) Everything's going great. How about you, guys?
PATRICK STEWART I've discovered that I'm much better at jigsaw puzzles than I knew I was. You can laugh, but I'm actually having them framed. And I used to think of cocktail hour as being a point somewhere between half past 5 and 8 o'clock. Now it's quarter to 6, go! That's when the drinking starts. I'm becoming a little anxious about that. So much of it in the evening. …
DAVEED DIGGS Yeah. Or the morning.
YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II You do learn about yourself. I learned some things that I probably don't even want to share.
CULKIN Share! Share!
ABDUL-MATEEN For the past five years, I've been bouncing around — going from project to project. This sat me down in New York and I had to say, "What are the relationships that I have? How much money do I have? Not what's on its way, but what do I have?" So for me, I'm coming out of this with a sense of direction and definitely a better sense of humor about myself. I needed that.
DIGGS Sometimes you just get in a mode, right? You're saying yes to jobs and going and doing jobs because you like to work. Having all this time to be home has been really good for me. My capacity for procrastination is so much higher than I knew it was — and I knew it was high. I have plenty of things to do, and I still find plenty of days to do nothing — to look around at drink o'clock, be that 10 a.m. or 8 p.m., and realize I have accomplished zero work. I started therapy for the first time, which, turns out, I needed.
CULKIN The thing that bothers me is when people say, "Oh, I'm bored." I would kill to be bored. I'm living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with this 9-month-old baby. When this started, our baby could barely do a military crawl. Now she stands up, she spits in my face. It's been cool because I'm there every day seeing every tiny little moment.
TOBIAS MENZIES I have learned that I'm a workaholic. Being forced to stop, my mind has spun a bit. And like Patrick, I realize I do drink more than I realize.
STEWART Let's take a vote. Put your hands up, all those who think they're drinking more than they did before. (All but Abdul-Mateen raise their hands.)
CULKIN I shouldn't have my hand up. I've got a baby that I have to put to sleep in the middle of the night.
BOB ODENKIRK The best thing has been to spend time with my kids, who are college-age and otherwise would not be around at all. We watch a movie every night. Kieran, I got to spend a lot of time with my kids when they were little, not because of quarantine but because I was a writer and made my own schedule [Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show], and every minute you spend with them now pays off later.
Patrick, you have been resistant to revisit the part of Jean-Luc Picard for years, including on this project. Why the resistance and what ultimately brought you around?
STEWART We did seven seasons and four movies of Next Generation. I felt that I had said everything I had to say about Jean-Luc Picard and there was nowhere else to go with it. Then an email came, and when I saw the names of the writer-producers [Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, Kirsten Beyer and Alex Kurtzman], I was astonished. What they came up with was something that so fundamentally changed the nature of the character. Also, I had grown old differently in those 17 years, and I was interested to see how I could merge that into him.
You've been vocal about how challenging it had been to get people to see past you as Picard …
STEWART There was a supporting role [many years ago] that I was really eager to have a go at, and I finally met the director, and he was lovely, but he said, with a smile on his face, "Patrick, why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?" That had a bad, bad impact on me for a long time afterward. I thought, "Oh my Lord, is this it?" Has that happened to anyone else?
ODENKIRK I'm sure that's going to happen to me, but I'm so lucky to have this role that it's OK if I get labeled with it.
DIGGS I am being followed by the specter of [Hamilton's] Thomas Jefferson — probably for the rest of my life, which is weird. To have that particular slave master chasing you is intense. Even in my limited distance from that, I get the impetus to try and do everything in your power to do something that is not that. And there is a point in every meeting where you start to get the feeling that maybe what they are looking for is, "Thomas Jefferson in outer space," or something, and it's always disheartening. (Laughter.)
For the rest of you, how does Hollywood see you?
ABDUL-MATEEN My résumé is extremely diverse. Fresh out of drama school, I wanted my acting career to be like my theater experience, where I have played clowns, kings and everybody in between. I wanted to do the same thing in TV and in film. And then the business started to come in. I never thought about the business. All of a sudden I'm thinking, if I take all of my jobs, put them in a hat, shake them up and throw them out on the table, it didn't say much about my career — or much about the type of actor I was. I had a conversation with Frank Langella about that on The Trial of the Chicago 7 because I was a bit uncomfortable that it felt like my career didn't have a specific trajectory. He reminded me that that's a beautiful thing because that's what it means to be an actor, to be able to be diverse and for people not to be able to pin me down.
CULKIN On the flip side of that, I pretty much just play one thing.
ODENKIRK What is that, Kiernan? Define what you play. (Laughter.)
CULKIN I did a movie right before Succession called Infinity Baby. I was like, "Oh, there's some similarities with these characters." And I did a play called This Is Our Youth, and I'm like, "Oh, he's kind of like that, too." And I was trying to figure out what it was and, "Oh, I'm drawn to sociopaths." (Laughter.) I don't really want to explore why. It's just something I connect with.
STEWART Kieran, you are now stuck with, and I mean this as the greatest possible compliment …
CULKIN Oh boy. (Laughter.)
STEWART … the creepiest character that I have ever seen on TV. I'm not always sure I can stay in the room when you walk onto the screen.
CULKIN Wow. Thanks. Someone asked me recently, "What's Roman's sexuality?" I don't know. I don't think he knows.
ABDUL-MATEEN His sexuality is "yes" and "now."
CULKIN The pilot was sent to me to read for another character, Cousin Greg, and I immediately knew that I just wasn't that guy. But I read on, and Roman walks into the room, and his first line is, "Hey, hey motherfuckers," and he just starts jabbing everybody. I'm like, "Well, this guy looks like fun." He's the kind of guy who just has suffered no consequences ever in his life. He can say and do horrible things, and I have the freedom to just be as awful as I want, and then maybe turn that thing off before I go home and see my wife and baby. But there is something about it that is freeing, that's just completely filterless and awful. Like the worst parts of me turned all the way up. It's therapeutic.
For the rest of you, are there doors that still aren't open to you?
ABDUL-MATEEN I haven't found that to be my experience. I got my first job in 2015 on The Get Down by Baz Luhrmann on Netflix. I have realized, just being in touch with my peers, that my position is a very privileged position. Everyone doesn't get that opportunity, especially young Black actors. A lot of times we have to show our worth in different ways and we have to really stand out with the stereotypical characters. We have to bring life and humanity and real narrative and personality and a heart to two-dimensional characters or one-dimensional characters in order to be given the opportunities to play two-dimensional characters and three-dimensional characters that are written on the page.
Which brings me to Watchmen, which is ostensibly a comic book adaptation, but in actuality it's a meditation on racism and policing America. In what ways did you hope it would be impactful when you were making it and in what ways has it become that much more so in this moment?
ABDUL-MATEEN Watchmen was as good on the page as it ended up being on the screen. And while making it, I was just a fan and I wanted people to be able to come in and watch good TV. I knew that there was a historical relevance to it. I wanted people to learn about the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I learned that a lot of people did not know about that before watching the show. I was really proud to be a part of a show that was talking about that part of American history that's often not talked about — and when it is talked about, it's editorialized in a way where the true horrors of it are never really exposed. Watchmen talked about trauma passed down from generation to generation, where you go back almost 100 years and then that same trauma lands in someone's lap 100 years later and how that follows you. Watchmen said, "Hey, we're calling the problem as it is. We're offering not necessarily a solution, but we're saying that racism in these institutions needs to be eradicated and that there is a way to do that while also telling an exciting story." It was very, very accessible to anyone who was willing to sit down and allow that narrative to penetrate. I learned a lot just from the discourse that took place afterward.
A writer for Decider.com recently wrote, "Between its calls for racial justice, the ubiquitous masked faces and the tragic theme of inherited trauma, Watchmen has become a mirror for life in America today." You shot and put out the show before recent events, but do you think the series takes on new resonance today?
ABDUL-MATEEN The thing about Watchmen is that if you watch it any time in the past 60 years and even further, it's going to be relevant. I [spoke to someone] yesterday, and they said, "It's really relevant now, right?" And I said, "Well, actually, Watchmen is 60 to 70 years late." So that's kind of sad. It's chilling. The time is always now to make content that is going to make people uncomfortable, and, for as long as we'll be around, I believe that Watchmen will be relevant. Hopefully it becomes relevant in a way that causes us to look back and remember what we came out of.
Daveed, Snowpiercer is an examination of class warfare, which, like Watchmen, is wrapped up in an entertaining genre show. So I'm going to ask the same question that I asked Yahya. Does it have a different resonance today?
DIGGS Similarly, what's in the show has been true for a very long time. We all — all of us — are participating in a class system that we were born into. Our world was created this way, and we have ended up on this train, and our jobs every day involve us interacting with it — and particularly how class interacts with resource scarcity. So that seems to come to the forefront because we are being confronted with what would have felt like an allegory if our real life were a sci-fi show, but it's just our real life, right?
DIGGS I think all the time about how two days after lockdown happened, I got a phone call [from someone] offering me a test for COVID-19. Nobody could get tests, and I got offered one. The party line across the board, politically, was "tests are not available." My class allowed me access to what I have been told is a scarce resource, which starts to beg questions about how intentional is resource scarcity and who does it serve and what system is it holding up? Those are the same questions that we ask ourselves in the political moment that we're in. What system is being supported by a police force that justifies the brutalizing of Black bodies? A big part of what Snowpiercer is doing is questioning systems. It is class-focused and honestly has to be — because there is not enough diversity in the workplace for it to not be. It can't be race-focused and do it well and do it honestly.
You're also turning your beloved film Blindspotting — which begins with your character witnessing a white cop shooting an unarmed Black man — into a TV series. What did you hope to say with the movie at the time? And as you revisit it in 2020, has that message or its potential power changed?
DIGGS We started writing that film in 2009, after Oscar Grant was murdered two blocks away from my house. The instigating incident from that film is the same instigating incident for our current protests — the same instigating incident that we have seen my whole life. Our real hope with that film was to present Oakland, the city that I come from, in a way that felt accurate and to speak about the act of gentrification of a city as it relates to how a community is policed. We said all the time when we were doing press that we wished it was a period piece. It would be really nice if Blindspotting felt like, "Oh man, 2009 was wild."
DIGGS As we start down the road of converting it for television, we are working on allowing it to do a thing that TV is particularly good at — expanding the world and allowing time to tell more and smaller stories in the hopes that it can give us a clearer picture of the larger context of things. Ninety minutes is a terribly difficult time to fit a lot of ideas into.
Bob, you have spent a lot of time with Saul Goodman, traveling in time with this character over the past decade or so. As you approach the end of the series, in what ways has he changed you?
ODENKIRK The hardest thing to play is the immaturity of the character. It's weird, but you start to become a champion of your character, no matter who they are, and you want them to make the right, the best and healthiest choice. (Laughs.) That doesn't work out with Saul. The idea of calling [creators] Peter [Gould] and Vince [Gilligan] — and I've done this and it's embarrassing — and saying, "Can he just be a good guy or can he make a better choice?" You start to like the guy, and you want him to learn the right lessons from his experience, but that's not the story that they are telling. For me, playing the character has been a chance to think about my own short-sightedness in life and immaturity and impetuousness that is really a big part of who that character is. I don't think that's as big a part of me, but it's been something to try to revisit those feelings inside me and see where they still are a part of me and try to vanquish them.
Tobias, in signing up for The Crown, you had the challenge of taking on a real-life powerful figure and inheriting a role that was played to acclaim by someone else. Did either concern you?
MENZIES Yeah, I really wish Matt [Smith] had played [Prince Philip] much less well — that would have helped me out a bit. (Laughter.) It was a very curious, unusual set of circumstances. It was a hugely successful show, so you kind of know what you're getting into. But I had to forget all that and reset. It's a bold decision to recast everyone and then carry the story on with a whole new set of actors. So I think we took refuge in going, "We're just going to make this our show, the best we can." Then you've got so much footage, so much audio of the real person, and at times I would go down the rabbit hole of just wanting to sound exactly like him, move exactly like him. I really sweated that. But you have to come out the other end of that because the show is not mimicry.
Have you received any feedback from anyone associated with the royal family?
MENZIES From the real people? Oh, no. The crown never comments, I'm afraid. I mean, I'd love it if [Philip] watched it, but I don't think he does, sadly. He probably watches documentaries. He probably has no time for fiction.
When fans run into you on the street, what do they most often say? Kieran, I can only imagine.
CULKIN Everyone who yells that I'm an asshole thinks they are the first one to say it. (Laughter.) There was one guy who stopped me, a security guy, I was getting on a train, and he was like, "Hey, hey, hey, you're a real asshole on that show, keep it up." (Laughter.)
STEWART Well, one that I actually enjoy and usually this happens around construction sites …
STEWART Thank you. You know, I have never had that one. (Laughs.) No, people will call out, "Hey, Captain, how ya doin'?" Now I like that because my father was a military man, both of my elder brothers did military service, I didn't do any of it, and I know my father was very disappointed that I never got into a uniform. And sadly he did not live long enough to see Next Generation and to find that I am known as Captain.
MENZIES You did it.
DIGGS That's beautiful.
If Gene Roddenberry were alive today, what do you think he would think of your continued success in this role? You have acknowledged in the past that you were not high on his list to play this part.
STEWART Who is the question aimed at? Me?
CULKIN I'll take this one. I think Gene Roddenberry … (Laughter.)
STEWART Yes, go for it.
CULKIN He really approved of my … I yield my time, fuck you. (Laughter.)
STEWART It was very odd with Gene because I was dragged in to audition for him in his living room the morning after I'd been seen doing something at UCLA. My meeting lasted about six minutes, and then it was perfectly clear I was not wanted in that room any time longer. It was Gene who said, "What the hell? I don't want a bald, middle-aged Englishman." There was a faction who was very enthusiastic, but Gene used to come on the set once a week — maybe twice, it depends on who the cast were (Laughter) — and I would catch him looking at me with an expression on his face which said, "What the fuck is this guy doing in my show?" It was clear he couldn't understand why I was there. Somewhere in the cellar of Paramount Pictures, there's a Post-it note which says, "I do not want to hear Patrick Stewart's name mentioned again ever!" signed Gene Roddenberry.
Yahya, when you took on this part in Watchmen, you thought you were signing on to play the husband of Regina King on an HBO show. You obviously did not know, until two episodes in, that you were going to be Dr. Manhattan. Take us back to that conversation with Damon Lindelof, and what is going through your head?
ABDUL-MATEEN I felt like [with] HBO, Regina King and Damon Lindelof, it had enough good ingredients that if I just hop on that train, good things will come from it. So I'm having a conversation with Damon about where the character is going to go and very soon into the conversation he said, "So I brought you here to let you know that Cal is actually Dr. Manhattan." On the inside, I'm going crazy, and I'm thinking, "Well, I should've asked for more money. And I've got to get in shape." (Laughter.) Then you go and start to do the research and think about how you're going to portray the character and how you're going to differentiate your performance from the last performance and things like that. To me, Dr. Manhattan was an exploration of character work. It is very, very complex to learn how to play a god.
It also meant that you had to be naked. A lot.
ABDUL-MATEEN It did. (Laughs.)
Did you have any hesitation? I've since heard you say it was liberating. I'm hoping you can elaborate on how so.
ABDUL-MATEEN Yeah, well, one, I had to get in shape — like real shape. It would've really been a shame if Dr. Manhattan showed up and just didn't have the body. (Laughs.) But there's this thing that we kind of adopt in school about tolerating your discomfort. For me, I wasn't looking at this as, "Well, I have to walk around naked." It was, "This is not comfortable, but I'm going to do it, and somehow that is going to make me a better actor, a better, more confident person." I did it. I walked around naked, my ass out and everything else. And then the sun came up the next day. You know what I mean? So it was really a lesson in courage. And speaking up for yourself, making sure that I had everything that I needed, that I'm comfortable, that's where the liberation came from. I'm kind of looking for more scenes and more opportunities to get out there and be naked and be free, so to speak. (Laughter.)
CULKIN I'd say you're definitely brave. Like for me in your situation, if I was told I'm Dr. Manhattan, I would've been like, "Ohhh, yes!" And then they said, "Get naked," I would be like, "Pass — hard pass." (Laughter.) I can't even tolerate seeing myself in the mirror as I get to the shower. My wife averts her eyes if I'm walking past naked — it's not a nice thing. You know what, I said you were brave — but if I looked like you, I would probably be like, "Yeah. I guess I'll get naked."
DIGGS I felt very fortunate for the particular TNT brand of nudity. It doesn't actually matter how I look in any given moment. You're not going to see … (Laughter.)
CULKIN I don't get naked, but I have masturbated three or four times on my show, so there is that.
I believe you've said that you think about how your mother is watching in those moments?
CULKIN The first time I had to do the masturbation thing, Mark Mylod was directing, and he just didn't cut. There's a camera behind me, another one that was roaming back and forth [for] like two full minutes. My arm's getting tired. I'm like, "Does he want me to finish? What is this?" So I eventually just have to stop and look at the camera, and I just said, "Hi, Mom." All I could think of is "My mother is going to watch this show." (Laughter.)
Has she commented on your many masturbation scenes?
CULKIN She really likes the show, but she said, "What's the deal with all the sex?" But there isn't much. I'm like, "Mom, there's like one sex scene and I have masturbated three times." Oh, that's her way of saying, "Can you please stop doing that?"
ABDUL-MATEEN That's quarantine sex, that's what that's called.
CULKIN That's called being-married sex. (Laughter.)
Do the rest of you think about your mom — or maybe it's your spouse or your child — as you're doing what you're doing? Maybe you even say, "Eh, I can't do this," or you're just wildly uncomfortable in the process?
ABDUL-MATEEN Yes is my answer, just straight-up yes.
DIGGS My mom comes to see everything I do, so I just had to get comfortable with it pretty early on. She's going to be on set probably while we're shooting a nude scene. She comes to see my band, and it's not the most appropriate music. But any time we're in a town where she is, she's there moshing with the 19-year-olds.
All right, we're going to end with a lighter one. When was the last time you were genuinely starstruck?
ODENKIRK When I met Patrick.
STEWART Ohh …
DIGGS I was actually going to say the same thing. I met you briefly at Comic-Con, and I was like, "Oh, I don't have words right now. That's Patrick Stewart."
CULKIN I just have to say, I learned something from you about 15 years ago, Patrick. You were on Ellen, telling a story, and in the middle, you said, "I poured myself a nice glass of Tanqueray gin." Ellen said, "Well, you know, because of that, they're going to send you a case of gin." And you went, "I'm no fool." (Laughter.)
And ever since you have listed your drink of choice in every interview you do, Kieran?
CULKIN Yes. Well, personally, I love Lagavulin scotch for anyone who's listening. (Laughter.) And Mortal Combat and PlayStation.
DIGGS I've got to get better at that. I was actually just sent a huge box of Beyond Burgers because I mentioned it off-handedly in an interview. And I was like, "Oh, they are good, but I don't know that I'm going to eat this many."
MENZIES You're not going to get any more now. (Laughter.) Last year, I saw Ed Norton at the theater in London, and I'm a big admirer. I'm terrible at going up and saying, "Hey, you're amazing." I just sort of grinned at him from across the room.
ABDUL-MATEEN I did a film called Boundaries with Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer. I worked maybe three days on the film, and they brought him by to see the set and get acclimated with the space, and he walks in, and my heart just goes, "da dun da dun da dun." And I'm like, "What the fuck is going on?" I just kept staring at him. I can also guarantee that in 10 minutes after this is over, I'm going to walk off and probably freak out because Patrick Stewart is here.
So, Patrick, who's gotten to you?
STEWART Well, it was quite recently. But here's why I'm uncomfortable with this story: I am 80 in four weeks' time, and names are now going out of my head. But I'm at an event, and a woman came up to me and asked if she could take a selfie. And I was about to say, "You know, this isn't really cool here," and then the man who was with her, who proved to be her husband, said her name. She was a Romanian gymnast whom I saw competing in the Olympic Games, maybe 25 or 30 years ago. And I was speechless with excitement. I actually grabbed her and said, "Selfie, yes, come on, let's take a selfie!" (Laughter.)
The tables had turned …
CULKIN I have to take this opportunity to tell you, Patrick, that your voice work on American Dad is so great. It's hysterical. Every line.
STEWART Thank you. He's almost as big an asshole as you are in Succession.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.