Kenneth Lonergan on What It’s Like to Know Kieran Culkin

Kieran-Culkin Kenneth Lonergan
Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix/Shutterstock/Justin Lane/EPA-EFE

For Variety’s latest issue, we asked Kenneth Lonergan to write a tribute to Kieran Culkin, one of 50 people to make our New Power of New York list. For the full list, click here.

It’s hard to write about Kieran in this context because I genuinely love and admire him, and genuinely find him aggravating. Only when he is unsure of himself is my first impulse to praise and encourage him. But I have to clarify: His values, for lack of a less dirtied-up word, and his morals — which are way too severe for me — will always restrain him from being obnoxious because he’s doing well. He’s just one of those people who are pleasanter when you have them at a disadvantage, so that’s how I prefer it. Maybe that’s just my own insecurity talking.

Another reason it’s hard to write about Kieran as a New Power in Hollywood is that apart from the perfectly reasonable desire to make a good living and play good parts, he has never demonstrated the slightest ambition to be anything of the kind. His career has dragged behind his creative interests, not the other way around. That he hasn’t totally sabotaged himself as a result is only partly a testament to what a good actor he is; it’s also a testament to the reassuring if sporadic persistence with which audiences respond to exceptional work even when it’s not under a horrible and garish spotlight. When someone like Kieran does gain the appreciation of a wider audience, it’s so rewarding to your sense of justice that you don’t mind having to strike another name off your private roster of underappreciated great artists.

It wouldn’t be good for Kieran for me to call him a great artist here, but he won’t mind if I notice that he’s a serious one. As an actor he reaches great depths with no visible effort, and while you could fairly call him a purist, he’s the opposite of precious. In fact he’s astonishingly spontaneous and freewheeling, all the more so because of his great emotional reach; and he’s really funny. I really don’t know anybody like him, and after almost 20 years of watching and working with him I’m still amazed — amazed! — by what a good actor he is. As for his aggravating qualities as a friend, they’re fairly insubstantial — he’s a bad arguer, he’d rather get on your nerves than make his point, he’s never seen a movie pre-1980 and constantly accuses me of only pretending to like them to show off, etc., etc. But these things pale in comparison with his finer points. I mention them only in passing, and as far as I’m concerned he’s welcome to all the Hollywood Power he can handle.

Kenneth Lonergan is a playwright, director and screenwriter. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea.”