Though “Schitt’s Creek” is about community and “Succession” is about power, both shows are contemporary examinations of wealth and family. Daniel Levy, who co-created “Schitt’s Creek” with his father, Eugene Levy, and Kieran Culkin of “Succession” both expertly have played spoiled sons who’ve been neglected by their fathers. For six seasons on the Pop TV comedy, Levy gave life to David Rose, who finds love, purpose and himself in the small town. Culkin portrays Roman Roy on the HBO drama as sarcastic yet wounded — descriptors that also apply to David. They talked to each other over video chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors issue.
Daniel Levy: I guess my first question to you would be, what’s it like to be on the greatest show on television right now?
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Kieran Culkin: Well, to answer that question very seriously, I would be a terrible person, wouldn’t I?
Levy: That was a passive way of me basically saying you’re on the greatest show on television right now. How did you get to become a part of “Succession”?
Culkin: It was sent to me to read for the part of Cousin Greg, and I immediately got to who Cousin Greg was, and I went, “That’s not me. I couldn’t do this,” but I liked it enough to want to read on. And then Roman walks in the room and his first line is “Hey, hey, motherf–kers,” and I went, “Who is this guy?” And then I saw that he was kind of horrible, and I immediately loved his voice. By the end of the first episode, he offers a kid a million dollars to hit a home run and gets to tear up this check in front of this poor kid, and I’m like, “Oh, that would be a really fun day of work.” To torture a small child. I asked if they were auditioning Romans, and the word I got back was they weren’t yet, and I said, “Well, I’m just going to put myself on tape anyway.” And I picked three scenes and sent it in.
Levy: You can’t watch the show and walk away thinking, “Eh, it’s fine.” It’s not one of those shows.
Culkin: I think the first few episodes, it is that. Somewhere around Episode 5, I came home and my wife asked me how work was, and I was like, “Good.” And she was like, “Really?” And I was like, “I don’t know what happened, but I sort of think we have something here. I just care about these people now.”
Levy: I think that’s inherently kind of the structure of the first season of any kind of television show. I was saying I always admired the pilot, those first few episodes, and again I think a lot of it is a testament to the casting, because I think even in terms of figuring out how things work from a writing standpoint, the writers were so lucky to have this cast of actors inhabit these roles from day one. In my mind as someone who’s writing TV, it’s like that’s the gift is knowing exactly who the voices of these people are, and it just makes it that much easier to write to.
Culkin: That’s exactly what it is. And actually, the moment we got picked up, by the time we got the scripts for Episodes 2 and 3, I was like, “Oh, they’re writing Alan Ruck’s voice right now.” I think Connor was supposed to be a completely different character, and then Alan showed up with his stuff, and they were like, “Let’s make him this guy.”
I want to know how “Schitt’s Creek” started. How do you even get a show with your father?
Levy: Well, I brought him the idea, which at the time was kind of a grain of a concept about a wealthy family who loses their money. A lot of that for me was playing on this collective consciousness we have now about how wealthy people live. It’s all over reality TV, and we have this kind of intimacy into the lives of very wealthy people. What do these people look like when they have nothing? And that became the seedling that grew into the show.
It was really just wanting to satirize and explore the level of wealth that we’ve all become accustomed to, and I think for me speaking about our show, our budget is the first two seconds of your show. But both kind of are examinations of wealth and what it does to people. My show is sort of if your family were to lose everything and really have to refigure their lives and their priorities. So it’s like hopefully they find love and the meaning of the true value of love and that it can’t be bought.
I don’t know if that’s the case with your cast, because those characters are really intense!
Culkin: I think they’d be lost without money and power, yeah.
I think I told you this in that 10 minutes that we hung out that one time, but Catherine O’Hara is responsible in your show for making me laugh one of the hardest times I’ve ever laughed in my life, to the point where I actually was on the floor and it actually started getting to a point of being unpleasant, how hard I was laughing, because it was hurting. My wife was laughing at me. It was the bit when she’s doing the commercial for the wine, and she’s very drunk.
Levy: Nobody plays drunk better than Catherine O’Hara. Nobody. There is not a single human actor on the planet that can play drunk with the level of complexity, struggle, nuance that Catherine … I mean, and we’ve asked her time and time again to share the secret of it, and she was like, “It’s just a matter of not wanting to be drunk.”
Friends of mine who have also been actors since they were quite young, I was always curious to know how they navigated a very professional and adult industry. And also, I look at “Igby Goes Down,” and I’ve seen it 700,000 times, and you’re so good at it.
Culkin: Thank you.
Levy: There’s really heavy subject matter being thrown at you over the course of your whole life. Processing that as a younger person, even though it’s acting, you’re still in a way kind of living really dark realities. Was it tough?
Culkin: I can tell you it wasn’t really an unpleasant journey for me. I remember it being kind of fun growing up, doing the acting thing. But there were times when I’m like 9, and I would be staying at the Sheraton Universal Hotel for three months while shooting “Father of the Bride” or something, and I’m in an apartment or hotel room. You open the door, you trip over the bed, you fall in the toilet, and I’m there with my dad for three months, and my family’s back home, going to school.
I don’t think what I did as a kid is at all what I do now. That wasn’t acting; that was memorize your lines, show up on time, which means somebody else got me dressed and put me in a car. My first job was when I was 6, I guess. And there’s certain things that I did get from that, like I memorize lines really fast, which isn’t really a talent. It’s just a little party trick.
Levy: It’s a full-blown talent. I cannot do that. Watching “Succession,” the sheer level of indulgence and the world that they have managed to create — the authenticity of a billion-dollar lifestyle. What is that like to play in?
Culkin: He’s just Roman. This is all he knows. But there are little things. Like you said, the helicopter. They have consultants on set for how very wealthy people live. We did a take where we all got out of the helicopter, and they told us, “You would have been doing this your whole lives. You know where the propeller is. You wouldn’t be ducking your head.”
Levy: Sorry, just to go back for a second. There is a wealth consultant?
Culkin: I haven’t actually met this person, but the writers talk to them. There’s cool ones where we do a fitting, and we get there on the day, and they’ll say something like, “These people wouldn’t have winter coats because they leave their building; they go into a car; they leave that car and go into a private jet. They would have one in their closet, but they would never use it or wear it to go to work. They’re taken care of all day.”
Levy: That’s wild. You were about to shoot the third season in April. Do you have any idea of where you’re going?
Culkin: People get mad. I’ve talked to people that are like, “Tell me you already shot it.” I’m like, “No.” They’re like, “You’re halfway through? We’re going to get some episodes?” No. We were just about to start. I’m just as eager to get back to the show as anyone who might want to watch it.
Levy: Well, I obviously can’t wait, and this whole thing is an interesting thing in terms of the industry. My dad and I have had this conversation multiple times now. If our show had been shooting right now, we would have been done. We would just never have shot it.
Culkin: You guys would have figured it out. I bet you anything. You could have shot your whole show on Zoom, and you would have made it f–king work. You don’t think so?
Levy: No. I think we would not have been able to afford it. We wouldn’t have been able to afford to change the shooting schedule. It would have been awful.
Culkin: So you got there just in time.