Breakthroughs are tricky business for actors, because they can define an actor as easily as they can establish them. But Kieran Culkin has been around for years, doing terrific work in lots of different kinds of movies, so his latest breakthrough feels like more of a reminder than the arrival of some unknown quantity. That said, it may still feel like people are seeing him for the first time – as an adult, anyway – as he steals scenes from Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as Wallace Wells, the roommate, critic and sometime conscience of the title character.
Cinematical sat down with Culkin at the Los Angeles press day for Scott Pilgrim just days after the film premiered at a secret screening in San Diego during the 2010 Comic-Con. In addition to talking about his character's camaraderie with Scott and the rest of the ensemble, Culkin examined his own approach to playing such varied roles throughout his career, and reflected on the prospect of putting himself into the public consciousness with his high-profile appearance in the film.
Cinematical: One of the key reasons that Wallace is such an interesting and effective character is because his sexuality is open but the movie doesn't feel a need to "deal with" him being gay. How did you make sure that part of his personality was presented in a way that showed that it was just one part of who he is?
Kieran Culkin: I think that was easy. When I read it, that was how I saw it; I read it in the script and the comics and was like, okay, that's Wallace. To me, and while I'm talking about it now I'm not trying to be p.c. or anything like that, but when I played him that has nothing to do with who he is. That's just his sexual preference – that's just his sexuality. And after that, people have said, why do you think or what was the point of his being gay, and the only thing I can think of having read the comics and a little bit in this movie, is to show how immature Scott is – just by saying, "hey, this is my gay roommate Wallace Wells." It was important to me because I think it was the way it always was; if that's the way it was in the comics, I feel like that was probably important to Bryan Lee O'Malley, and it had some appeal to me too. At last a character that doesn't have to be "the gay character."
Cinematical: The idea of normalizing that is really interesting.
Culkin: Also, what's great, too, and what's consistent with the comics as well as the movie, is that it isn't pointed out that it's normal. Or [no one says] "look, he's gay, but look at how he's acting." It's not pointed out in any sort of way, it comes out in sort of a smooth, natural way, I think.
Cinematical: The movie moves so quickly while you're watching it. But how do you feel like the production reflected that? Were you able to sort of live in these scenes, or were the logistics of the shoot demanding enough that the shooting speed was equally brisk?
Culkin: For my stuff, I thought it was relatively easy to consider all of this a reality. I mean, that was pretty much my job. Okay, and then the guy is going to explode through the ceiling and fly down and start fighting and singing in a pirate suit – and I'm like, alright. I didn't even really have to be told it because I read the books, and I understood, even though personally I'm not a huge fan of musicals, I've heard the comparison [to this] – they break into fights. But I understood it from the get-go, that's what this was, and I didn't feel like I had to make any conscious decision to say, "bring it down to reality. I know they're fighting and I know there's explosions happening, but bring it down to reality, even with exploding coins." I just sort of treated it like it was natural, and like I would any other serious part I would play.
Cinematical: Where did you get most of your information or inspiration for the character – the source material or the script? Or was it just about spending time with Michael and building a rapport?
Culkin: I think, yeah, it was just hanging out with Michael on set and shooting that stuff. Plus, it helps when everybody have love for it to begin with – love for the comics and these characters and what they want it to be. And then of course with good old Edgar, the talent on our side putting it together and making it all happen, our need to please him and wanting to create this Scott-Wallace dynamic, there was a lot of that there. And then [there was] just a lot of hanging out there in Wallace's apartment, which I will give some credit to the set designer for making it look and feel like a real apartment and also like in the comics. It felt like we were in this room, in this bubble of ours, and getting to do this stuff, and it felt pretty great.
Cinematical: In general do you think about the arc of your character – where they are in their story, or is it better just to be present in each scene?
Culkin: More what his overall contribution to the story is. Hmm, I don't know. I'm not really sure. I think I take it scene by scene; I'm not really sure.
Cinematical: Did you think specifically about the purpose he serves in the story?
Culkin: It's tough to put into words – and people have been asking me to explain it as well. Usually I can be a pretty articulate fellow, but there are certain times when I – like when I read this, I [went], I get this guy. I get it, I get why he's here, I get what I'm doing. I get what he is to Scott. And then when it comes to explaining it, I'm like, ugh, I'm a complete f*ck up for not being able to let you in on what I'm thinking.
Cinematical: In general do you intellectualize your preparation for a role?
Culkin: I try not to. What sort of drives me nuts the most is talking about it too much. Now, after the fact, is completely fine, but I don't like to talk about it a lot beforehand. Sometimes you work with actors, especially on stage, that like to talk about their characters with each other, and in groups – which I hate, even when you kind of have to, for rehearsals. Everybody sits in a room and they talk about it, and I find a way of zoning out because I should know where you're coming from; you can be coming from that place, and I should be able to pick up on that or not and we should work together, but otherwise in real life I wouldn't know where you're coming from so I shouldn't know that. Also, on the flip side, if I start talking about it, I feel like I've blown my load and I feel like I've told you everything I'm feeling and everywhere I'm going, but now when I do it just pretend that it's real. As far as talking about it out loud, I don't even do that in my head; if I seem to get it, I try not to overthink it.
Cinematical: Everyone has thus far really been knocked out by your performance in this film, partially because it's markedly different than other roles you've played. Do you think strategically about what roles you pick, either to make sure you continue to work, or just continue to do things that interest or challenge you?
Culkin: No. It could sound like a lame answer, but it's completely true, totally genuine – I never think in terms of my career and what I should do next to counterbalance this or because I haven't done this or that before. I never think in terms of that at all. I really go project to project and try to find something that I like and feel like I can actually do. Even with this, I usually have my mind set on one thing, and I'll read things and I just won't like them until I get this one done. It's not about working a lot, it's not about strategizing, and I think some people can do this, but I think forming a strategy as far as what your career is, I'm sure you'll be fine and successful at it, but I don't think it's really going to make you any better at your job. Well, to me.
Cinematical: What did you initially connect with in this story as a whole that made it that next thing you wanted to do?
Culkin: With this thing, you either get it or you don't. What's great, though, is that I think most people get it, and not even just the source material and all of that stuff, but that it was a story that may have been told before but was never told this way. That was great. Some people don't understand and think that it is just a video game-pop art-comic book that you're thrown into and there's no heart – I've heard a person say that – but, well, no, there's actually a lot of heart, and there's a lot of it in this movie. There's a whole idea that it's an excuse to have fighting sequences in the movie and bad ass music, but really it's a fantasy world of Scott's and what he's imagining in meeting this girl, and maybe not actually even meeting these ex-boyfriends, but certainly comparing himself to the guys that she used to date. People have gone through this before and maybe this story has been told, but you've never actually gone and fought them in a surreal world where they explode into coins.
Cinematical: If this is at all to be interpreted as Scott's dream, did you envision yourself as the little guy standing on his shoulder sort of reminding him of things he needed to know? Because Scott's decisions are not always sympathetic.
Culkin: As far as it being his fantasy world, I feel like almost all of his stuff with Wallace plays out the same in reality as in the story. Somebody said that to me, too, about how every time you see a scene with Wallace, it's like he's come home. Scott always has to go out on these [missions] and he always comes home, and if this were his fantasy, going back into reality, the apartment probably looks that way, and it probably plays out mostly like that – with exaggerated things like the text messaging and things like that.
Cinematical: What sort of stuff are you working on next?
Culkin: I have no particular project coming up, which I actually feel pretty good about. I think sometimes actors feel weird about saying "I've got nothing coming up," but I don't mind waiting a few years and telling people I don't mind waiting a few years, as long as I end up doing something that I'm happy doing.
Cinematical: Has it been hard to find those things that you can invest yourself in? Even if you don't strategize, does it take a lot of patience?
Culkin: Patience, but I don't have that bug in me that feels the need to work, work, work, so that helps. I don't mind if it takes a few years to find the thing that I want; by the time I find that thing and I pursue it, if I do get a chance to do it, I'm the happiest guy in the world that I get to work on it. I don't mind those years in between, and I actually quite enjoy not working as well.
Cinematical: It also seems like that would give you more time once you did start working on something – that your mind wasn't cluttered with a lot of different things to focus on.
Culkin: Definitely. If ever I've gone from one to another, even if I had a month or two in between, I've felt like, "I'm doing this too soon." Also, if you see a lot of people that just go from job to job, when do they find time to get personal experience to draw from or to actually learn about who the f*ck you actually are to use that in their work?
Cinematical: Are you at a place in your career where you feel more comfortable taking more risks because you know yourself better, since you've maybe done less work?
Culkin: Yeah, but risks, it's tough to put that in words. I mean, anything could be a risk if you look at it a certain way. I wouldn't say I don't take risks, but I feel like the things that I've chosen to do don't feel like risks. Like this could have potentially seemed like a risk, given that potentially you don't know how the hell this was going to turn out and what it was going to look like. But I didn't feel like it was.
Cinematical: Was there anything with this you weren't sure how it was going to turn out? Even as talented as Edgar obviously is, was there anything where you were like, "I have no idea how this thing is going to look when we're done with it?"
Culkin: Well, a lot of the stuff, he was showing us along the way, and some stuff he had shot with stunt people before we even got there. So there was a lot of having a general idea of what he was looking for, him showing us stuff along the way, him telling us how things were going to look, where for me it gave me a very good idea how it was going to turn out. But then, fight sequences that I wasn't there to watch – like everything with Clash at Demonhead, I wasn't there for, or all of Gideon Graves' stuff, everything with Jason [Schwartzman], I was not at all on set for his stuff. I would say I was very, very pleased, but not surprised with how it turned out.
Cinematical: Was there anything at all in the film that kind of caught you off guard?
Culkin: Something I didn't catch when I first watched it was Johnny Simmons' performance. The first time I watched it, I was like, "oh, Young Neil, ok, good – that's sort of what I saw in his personality." I watched it the second time with an audience and I started laughing my ass of and seeing things I didn't notice the first time. I started talking with the other actors and we started comparing each other's [observations] of the things that we caught him doing, and then I went and watched it a third time and I caught all of this other stuff, and I pretty much decided to focus on Johnny each time he's on screen. And he took a character that is very understated in the entire comic book series, and when you read the script he hardly has any lines and it seems like he was just kind of there, and he took that and made it such a bigger part than anyone could have made it out to be. He's actually a really talented guy, and he kind of blew me away, that guy.