Kieran Culkin Breaks Down 'Succession' Leadership Surprise: "I Don't Think Anyone Else Is Ready"

The actor behind Roman Roy breaks down the good and bad of the show's new CEO and explains why the youngest Roy could be "an actual candidate" to succeed his father.
Graeme Hunter/HBO
Kieran Culkin in 'Succession'

[This story contains spoilers for Succession season 2.]

The battle to become CEO of Waystar Royco is over, and Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) appears to have emerged victorious. Or has she?

The eighth episode of Succession, which concludes with Logan Roy (Brian Cox) publicly naming his latest girlfriend and business confidante, Rhea, to the position, offers no easy answers. Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), Rhea's main competitor for the top job, shockingly advised her father to appoint Rhea after she learned the company was headed for troubled waters: A whistleblower, perhaps backed financially by one of Logan's enemies, is preparing to go public with his knowledge of secret payoffs at Waystar's beleaguered cruise line. At the same time, Logan Roy's bitter brother, Ewan Roy (James Cromwell), capped the episode off with a threat to his brother that it was "time to pay up" — suggesting Ewan himself may be the financial backer behind the whistleblower, or have some knowledge of the coming revelations.

As Shiv astutely surmises, Rhea's rise to the top at such a turbulent time might ultimately benefit her and her siblings, even if it means that they have to hand over some corporate control to a family outsider. None of Logan's entitled children appear ready to helm such a large company, and Rhea's leadership could provide them all some time to prove their potential.

Perhaps none could use it more than Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), a wisecracking trust-fund baby who has spent the bulk of the second season trying to catch up on the basics of his father's business. In Sunday's "Dundee" episode, Roman attempts a grand gesture to show Logan his business mettle, only to watch it fall flat (he attempts to buy his father's favorite Scottish football team, except he buys the wrong one). "The moment that Roman feels that he's in the position where he could be the guy [the successor], then he gives a hell of a shit, but right now, he's just like, 'At least Rhea's not one of my siblings,'" Culkin tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Prior to the eighth episode's release on HBO, Culkin — who had not yet seen the episode in its final form — sat down with THR to discuss the Roy children's brief moment of unity in "Dundee," Roman's strange relationship with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and why Roman could be "an actual candidate" to take over his father's business empire.

One major revelation in the episode is that Rhea is being named the next CEO of Waystar Royco. Will that decision ultimately benefit the Roy kids or imperil their future at the company?

It's interesting. She's clearly angling herself for the job and putting herself in a position where he [Logan] considers her first. But what she's saying isn't wrong, either: I don't think anyone else is ready and I don't think there is anybody there that is up for the job. I have to look at it through Roman's perspective and think, "For me [Roman], this is better than Shiv or Kendall. I can't have them be in charge of me because then I'm toast, so you know what? She seems smart, she's transparent in terms of trying to charm the family, she does seem right for the job, and maybe ultimately I can build a nice rapport with her." So from Roman's perspective, I think it's not the worst thing. The moment that Roman feels that he's in the position where he could be the guy, then he gives a hell of a shit, but right now, he's just like, "At least Rhea's not one of my siblings."

Another major moment was the episode’s final scene because it was so potentially explosive. When Ewan Roy threatened Logan Roy that it was “time [for him] to pay up,” does that mean he’s the financial backer behind the cruise line whistleblower?

Maybe if I knew I could be able to make the decision about whether or not I could expose that information, I just have no idea; honestly, I didn't know that was in the script. We do a table read about a week or so before we start the actual episode, and then from there, there are so many changes on a daily basis, we get so many rewrites in a day that [I ask myself,] "Does this involve my character? No? Then I can't involve myself. My character wouldn't know what's going on." There's a lot of the show I watch where I'm like, "Holy shit, that happens? I had no idea." Particularly with Greg and Tom, I had broad strokes of what that was going to be because of the table read, but I had no idea about the details of it.

Roman seems to have been priming himself to be a real successor candidate this season but faced a few setbacks in this episode. Are we going to see him redeem himself going forward?

I think it's possible. The way I see Roman is that he grew up never having to suffer any consequences; he can say and do whatever he wants: Sure, things get handed to him, but he feels he's entitled to them. In the first season, it was all about him feeling like he should be COO, even though he has no idea what that job entails — [he feels] he deserves that job, and he'll figure it out. The part of him who's very ambitious says, "I'm going to go for it. I don't know what that means, but I'm going to go for it." And there's also that no-consequences thing simultaneously happening of like, "Fuck it, none of this matters anyway." So when he really wanted to buy the right football team and he didn't, he thinks, "Oh, of course I bought the wrong football team, I'm an ass, look at me, I'm a dipshit, ha ha, whatever, fuck it, I'll try something else. Or not." There's no heavy consequences with him. He's always looking at that job and always looking to find his way in, but that's not his whole life. This entire show, it's never about one thing, which is something I love. I've never had to go, "What's this scene about?" because that's not what the show is. Roman's not like, "How can I scheme to the top?" It's there, he's ambitious, but also there's this other shit.

Shifting toward Roman Roy’s very idiosyncratic relationship with Gerri, what did Roman mean by telling Gerri they should “marry” this episode? Is that a way of him asking her to form a business partnership?

It's never this or that [for Roman]. It's not only not this nor that, it's always simultaneously all of it. I sometimes worry that the scene becomes "about something." Usually before I have to say anything, Jesse [Armstrong, the showrunner] gets on it and is like, "No." So Roman says "Let's get married," and that means, "Haha, I'm kidding, but also, yeah, it's a business partnership, but maybe we should also fuck or actually get married or not, whatever, fuck it. We should do it. Or not." That does not clarify things, bu I think as confusing as it may be to [Gerri] to hear him, he's probably just as confused inside himself.

Where do you see that relationship between Roman and Gerri going?

What's funny is that between seasons one and two, I had an idea that I would love to see some version of a strange — sexual or not — relationship with Gerri. Because J. and I have known each other for a long time, we sort of fuck around on set during the scene or in between, and there is a lot of in-character flirting. Gerri took it so easily, rolled her eyes and was able to bat it away or say something right back; she knew that I was just some little ant that she could flick away. That was fun, and I think [the writers] watched that, liked it and were willing to experiment. Maybe this is kind of it, maybe we're at where [the relationship] goes. I'd like to think that there's a lot more between them. I think she's the one that Roman calls he needs actual help, actual advice. She's the only one at the moment he can actually rely on.

In this episode, the Roy kids teamed up to make Rhea look like a bit of a fool in front of Logan. Are we going to see them bonding together, rather than fighting among themselves, more going forward?

I feel like unless something really huge happens, you're always going to see both. In the first season, they were always fighting and saying horrible things like they meant it, but they could also get together at the boathouse, smoke a joint and hug it out. They can get together for a common enemy, too. I have lots of siblings, and whenever we saw an outsider creeping in, being weird with the family, we were all just like "fuck this guy" and they were ousted pretty fast, but there could still be infighting. I had somebody tell me that it was hard to watch all the horrible shit Roman was saying to his brother at the beginning of this season. I was like, "Oh really? I mean, it's real, he means it, there's venom but there's no weight." Because at the end of it, Roman says, "I'll see you at dad's dinner, you piece of shit. I hate you, and I mean it, but, really, see you later."

What can we expect from Roman Roy for the rest of the season?

Slowly what's happening, in a backwards sort of way that he didn't mean, is that he's taking his future and position a little more seriously. Again, not directly. And I think he's actually kind of doing a good job. Even in the last episode, he had to [hound] his mother for money, and he does a pretty good job of it. It's not a big deal to him, and he doesn't really care, [like,] "Yeah, I have to prove something to my dad, it's my job, I'll just do it", but he does it well. I think Roman does have good ideas, he doesn't necessarily always know how to execute them, but people always see him as the dipshit and he seems to believe he's not, and the more he grows up and lets go a little bit, in his future I see him being an actual candidate. That's funny, because at the end of the first season, I thought, "He's not really a candidate. Sure, if they want to fuck things up, he's the guy." But I think in the very near future he could be in that position where it makes sense and people might be able to see that. The plot is up to Jesse; I just feel like it's going in that direction, but we'll see.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.