Kieran Culkin interview: This Is Our Youth

Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson are currently on Broadway at the Cort Theatre performing in previews of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 drama This Is Our Youth. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the production – which arrives direct from a Steppenwolf Theatre Company season in Chicago – opens on September 11.

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

In 2012, Culkin and Cera appeared in a production of the same play at the Sydney Opera House. Here is an interview I did with Culkin then:

Ever since Kieran Culkin appeared in Kenneth Lonergan’s acerbically funny play This is Our Youth in London’s West End in 2003, he has wanted to perform in it again.

“I never actually stopped looking at it,’ he says over the phone from New York where the cast is rehearsing prior to a season at the Sydney Opera House.

“I’ve carried the same copy around with me for the last 10 years. I loved the play from the moment I first read it and when I got off stage well over nine years ago I just knew immediately that I wanted to do it again. I played the character of Warren the first time around. I knew I wanted to play Dennis at some point.”

Set in New York in 1982, This is Our Youth follows 48 turbulent hours in the life of two disaffected college dropouts from affluent but dysfunctional families: the magnetic, domineering, drug-dealing Dennis and the weedier, awkward Warren who arrives at Dennis’s Manhattan apartment one day with $15,000 stolen from his abusive father.

Since premiering off-Broadway in 1996, the play has starred the likes of Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhall, Casey Affleck, Hayden Christensen, Mark Ruffalo and Anna Paquin.

For the Sydney season, Culkin plays Dennis with Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno) as Warren. Completing the cast is Australian actor Emily Barclay as the fashion student Warren wants to bed. They make a pretty cool young trio.

Having spent ages looking around the right person to play Warren, Culkin realised Cera would be perfect when they were doing re-shoots for Scott Pilgrim vs the World, the 2010 geek-gamer movie in which Cera played Scott Pilgrim and Culkin his amusing gay roommate Wallace.

“I gave him the play about a year and a half ago,” says Culkin. “I didn’t realise he hadn’t done a play. I said you should read it. I don’t know anybody who has read it and not loved it so I figured if he read it he’d fall in love with it.

“The second I handed it to him I thought I can’t believe (I didn’t think of him earlier). I was smacking myself in the forehead. Now I can’t read it any other way. Every time I read it I see him in the part.

“He read it that night and came back the next day and said, ‘I love it. Can we do it?’ Being naïve, I said, ‘yes let’s put it up next month’ but it took about a year and a half.”

Eventually discussions between Broadway producer David Binder and the SOH’s head of commercial programming Andrew Spencer led to a Sydney season.

“The fact we’re all getting a trip to Sydney out of it is pretty amazing because I’ve never been there and I’m really looking forward to it,” says Culkin.

Asked if it will tour elsewhere, Culkin says: “That would be wonderful but there are no further plans. I’d do it for many more months in Australia. I’ll do it anywhere.”

Both the boys in the play have troubled relationships with their parents. Culkin and his siblings – which include Home Alone child star Macaulay – famously had a fraught relationship with their ambitious actor father Kit who pushed them all into acting and who was criticized for mismanaging Macaulay’s career.

However, Culkin says he has not drawn on personal experience for the play. “I can’t say that because their situations are extraordinarily different – especially Dennis and his family. It seems pretty dysfunctional. He mentions that he has brothers and sisters but he can’t be close to them as he hardly mentions them.

“I can’t draw on that at all from my personal experience. My mother is an amazing woman and I’m very close to all my siblings.”

Culkin began acting at age eight in the first Home Alone film. His other film credits include The Cider House Rules and Igby Goes Down (2002) for which he got a Golden Globe nomination.

Shortly after that he stopped acting for several years and disappeared from sight.

“I never thought, ‘no I don’t want to do this’ (acting) but I definitely reached a point around age 20 where I was uncertain,” he says. “Because of starting so young I never actively chose to be an actor. I never said, ‘I want to pursue this’ and it was strange to be 20 and have a career and never have decided to have that. So I took a lot of time to myself and just sort of figured out if it’s what I wanted to do. I was pretty sure it was what I wanted but I wanted to give myself (some) distance from it to come to that conclusion on my own. So that’s what I did.”

Fame doesn’t particularly interest him. “I’ve always been pretty fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with a lot of that stuff. I’ve tried my best to be as distant from that as possible by trying to remain uninteresting and beneath the radar.”

NEW SYDNEY SEASON OF THIS IS OUR YOUTH

While Culkin, Cera and Gevinson preview in New York, a new Sydney production is in rehearsal. Newly formed Sydney-based indie group The King’s Collective is presenting three American plays that explore youth at the Tap Gallery (September 10 – 28) as part of the Sydney Fringe: This Is Our Youth, Mark St Germain’s Out of Gas on Lover’s Leap and Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.

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The Government Inspector

Belvoir St Theatre, March 30

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies, Mitchell Butel. Photo: Pia Johnson

As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.

However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.

To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.

Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.

Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.

The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.

On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.

The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.

Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.

Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.

The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.

People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.

The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6