Roman Wasn't Built in a Day

"Igby Goes Down" features an 18-year-old Kieran Culkin in an early draft of the youngest, snarkiest Roy.

Roman Wasn't Built in a Day
Claire Danes and Kieran Culkin in “Igby Goes Down”

It’s always fun to see a performance by a young actor and think “That person’s going places.” But you usually don’t have to wait so long for the payoff as the 16 years between Kieran Culkin in “Igby Goes Down” (2002) and Kieran Culkin in “Succession” (2018-)

To be sure, the talk this week is about that wild Jeremy Strong profile in The New Yorker. The not terribly surprising subtext of the article is that an actor as demonstrably intense as Strong can be a huge pain to work with. Worth it? For the viewer, certainly, and Kendall Roy’s obdurate/insecure belief in himself wouldn’t be nearly as weirdly moving if Strong winked to let us know he was in on the joke. (The revelation of The New Yorker piece – or one of them – is that Strong doesn’t think there’s a joke there at all. To him, “Succession” isn’t satire but the tragedy of a lost boy wounded over and over by an inconstant patriarch.)

You know who winks? Culkin as Roman Roy. Literally, the actor has a tic where his right eyelid droops a half-second before his left, usually just before Roman issues a snide mal mot. It’s the character’s tell, a sign that the youngest Roy knows he’s a little shit and that he’ll someday get called on it. (Which is precisely what happened in last Sunday’s episode.) I’d be fine if The New Yorker followed up with a profile of Culkin as early as next week, if only because the actor’s so delightfully agile in his portrayals of smart, decadent twerps. He’s like Robert Downey Jr.’s neurasthenic little brother, or George Sanders as a trust-fund brat, and he makes Roman’s scenes with J. Smith Cameron as Waystar general counsel/interim CEO Gerri Kellman delightfully squirmy.

Kieran Culkin in “Succession”

A lot of people didn’t know there was a Kieran Culkin before this show, but, like most of his siblings, Macauley Culkin’s younger brother has been knocking around the industry since childhood. Kieran’s supporting role in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) was an interesting test run for Roman, but the movie that had already established his dry, detached persona was “Igby Goes Down” (2002), a dark comedy that I maintain is the best film adaptation of “The Catcher in the Rye” that isn’t actually “The Catcher in the Rye.” The 18-year-old Culkin is cast as a disaffected prep-school reject with an ice-queen mother (“You call her Mimi?” “Medea was taken.”) played by Susan Sarandon. The supporting cast is a blast: Claire Danes as a world-weary Bennington dropout named Sookie Saperstein, Amanda Peet as a brittle party girl, Bill Pullman as the hero’s defeated father, and Jeff Goldblum as a smooth Upper East Side monster in Paul Stewart shirts. Culkin doesn’t just hold his own in this company, he owns the movie with an early version of Roman’s cynical defense system combined with a buried but real vulnerability. You could even say that Igby is Roman Roy at a point when he still might have been saved. But that might not have been as much fun for us.

Directed by Burr Steers, “Igby Goes Down” is currently streaming on HBO Max and for rent on Apple TV and Amazon. Some dated music cues aside, it holds up very nicely.

What about you? Was there a time you saw a movie and knew an actor was going on to bigger things? Even if he or she didn’t?

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