With his angular, etiolated features and shoulder-length hair, few are naturally endowed to the Satanic world of black metal as Rory Culkin. His recent portrayal of Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth for Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos biopic saw Culkin take on the misanthropic founding member of blood-lusting Norwegian band Mayhem, whose early years are punctuated by harrowing acts of violence, pernicious in-fighting and several counts of church arson.
Beyond their physical resemblance however, similarities are few and far between, with self-professed ‘homebody’ Culkin rarely prone to the type of depraved stunt that propelled Mayhem to worldwide notoriety during the early 90s. Now 29, the actor, who is the youngest of eight, can scarcely recall a moment when performance was not on the agenda. In those early days, often spent playing younger doppelgängers of brothers Macaulay and Kieran, it always felt more like a hobby than work. But some twenty years on, Culkin is ready to cut loose and, in the words of Mayhem, “Rock hard and fight, turn up the amps and ride into the night”.
FB: So you’re in LA right now but I know you’re more of a New York guy. How do you find the city?
RC: Yeah, I grew up in New York and live in Brooklyn now. I like LA, it used to make me sort of anxious because this is where you come to either get jobs, or not get them, [laughs] but it’s growing on me.
FB: Can you remember your first time there?
RC: I think it was an award show or something. I was so nervous because I didn’t really know what it was, there were just a bunch of adults and flashing lights. In my mind I wasn’t working, it was the other part of the job that I was starting to learn about…
FB: What do you remember from those early roles?
RC: I mean I had pretty great experiences. My first movie was Kenny Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, which I believe was his first movie too, so I was spoiled. But I was particular with the movies I chose, so they’re all pretty great experiences.
FB: You were selective from a young age?
RC: Yeah, I can’t really recall a project I didn’t like.
FB: Would you say you were born into it or was there a conscious moment when you decided it was what you wanted to do?
RC: Well, for You Can Count On Me I went to Upstate New York with Kenny Lonergan and Mark Ruffalo. The three of us went out to the woods to rehearse the scene where I’m hammering with Mark and as soon as Kenny said “Action”, Mark said his line, it came to mine and I just looked at them and said, “I can’t do this”. They talked me down, they were like, “Of course you can,” you know, and they just explained it: “This is fun.” I was nine years old but I felt like, in that moment, Kenny Lonergan and Mark Ruffalo just simplified the whole thing, somehow that stuck with me. From that point, I was really into it.
FB: Mark Ruffalo has a very soothing voice, too.
RC: Very soothing.
FB: Was there any point at which acting wasn’t on the cards?
RC: We all auditioned but some of us didn’t really take to it, like my brother Chris decided early, “I don’t want to do this” and I decided I did. I guess it was a choice but it’s not like we were getting offers, we just went out to audition for things and happened to get them, I guess.
FB: Did that interest in performance initially come from your Dad?
RC: It’s hard to say. I mean probably, because he was a theatre actor and he grew up in New York, but it’s probably been ingrained in the family for a while.
“…my homework was to put on leather, paint my face and pose in the mirror for an hour”
FB: Do you have an alternative release that helps you switch off from acting?
RC: Oh I’m a homebody; I love being at home especially after a project that I’ve put a lot into. I just crawl into my cave and shut down for while, I love it, I’m a bit of an introvert in that way.
FB: It’s like a decompression zone I suppose, which, after playing Euronymous I would imagine is quite necessary. What did you learn from the role?
RC: I tried to really take charge you know, I was playing this young, confident rock star so I just allowed myself to a be a bit of a narcissist.
FB: What do you mean?
RC: Well we had black metal advisors to teach us the music and stuff…
RC: Yeah they would also teach us the attitude and the poses, so my homework was to put on leather, paint my face and pose in the mirror for an hour. If you’re going to commit to that you got to really sort of feel yourself and like I said, become a narcissist. It’s funny because I’d like to think I’m pretty grounded but Euronymous is a role where I’m playing a sort of phony which is something I’ve always wanted to do.
FB: What else did these advisors help you with?
RC: It was a Hungarian band called Bornholm, they taught us the attitude and we would just rehearse the music for hours, in the smoke breaks they would just talk about the culture.
FB: Were you already familiar with black metal culture?
RC: I knew about true Norwegian black metal but not very much. I wasn’t a big listener of Mayhem or anything like that, but after trying to learn their music you immediately gain an appreciation for it, because it’s not easy. It’s not easy to listen to for some people, but it’s not easy to play either.
FB: I can imagine. I tried getting through a whole listening of Deathcrush [Mayhem’s 1987 EP] and found it… testing.
RC: Right, it’s not easy listening but that seems like the point. It’s built into the culture to reject people and reject attention, it’s very, ‘look at me, don’t look at me.’ It’s like, “You sure you want to listen to this? Are you sure?” It’s beating your ears up and if you are sure then you’re for real and you can stay, it’s funny.
FB: It’s interesting you refer to Euronymous as confident, because there’s a lot of posturing but he was just a kid at the time. What sense of the person did you get when preparing for the role?
RC: It’s an odd balance because he’s two characters in one. He’s Euronymous and he’s Øystein, the kid. I leaned into the character of Euronymous, or Øystein playing Euronymous, so it’s a weird inception sort of thing where you’re acting within the film while you’re acting, but it was fun, it’s fun to allow yourself to feel yourself. But then you’ve also got to think, he was insecure too because he had to maintain this façade. I spoke to people who’d hung out with him and this woman described him as very confident, someone who was able to read a room but with obvious insecurities too. There was a lot there to unpack.
FB: What do you mean by feeling yourself?
RC: Well this role meant I could look in the mirror and refer to myself as a god and a demon, you know what I mean? [laughs]
FB: So it’s about surrendering yourself? Given the darkness of the character and narrative that can’t have been easy.
RC: The culture is dark and scary but then it’s also fun. There’s a reason why it appeals to so many people – it’s a pleasing aesthetic and it’s funny being in super tight pants, big boots and crop tops. These guys are ultra-masculine but they have long hair and they wear make-up, they’re pretty fascinating, you can never run out of things to research about this subculture.
FB: It’s interesting you mentioned narcissism because Mayhem loved having their photo taken, which is an interesting paradox – this anarchic group of Satan lovers who seemingly don’t care about anything but they do want to look fucking good.
RC: And you can’t argue they had a consistent message. I think they all had different definitions of what they were and they were still figuring things out. This was Norwegian black metal in its infancy, I’d like to think it’s evolved and the black metal scene are more willing to self-reflect.
FB: Tell me more about your musical talents, I assume you had some prior skill on the guitar?
RC: No I didn’t, I drum a little.
FB: Wait, what? You don’t even play guitar?
RC: No, I can play some Mayhem now but that’s about it.
FB: But you were shredding!
RC: [laughs] Thank you.
FB: That’s amazing, how long did that take to get there?
RC: Well I had a black metal music coach in Brooklyn helping me for a couple weeks and then we had Bornholm. We worked six days a week for three weeks on the movie, it was an eighteen-day shoot and our days off would be spent rehearsing the music all day. It was a lot of work, but the best part about earlier in the film is they’re still figuring out their sound so I could afford to fuck up some of the chords because it makes sense for the plot.
FB: Adds a bit of authenticity.
RC: Right, and so it was the songs later in the film that I had to keep really polished.
FB: I imagine you can’t rehearse that music without being 100 percent committed to it, you can’t just casually strum along to black metal…
RC: Exactly, and our black metal advisors obviously took it seriously and we wanted to show them that we were taking it seriously and respecting the art form.
“Well this role meant I could look in the mirror and refer to myself as a god and a demon, you know what I mean?”
FB: That must be a fulfilling part of your job, not only obtaining a skill like that but knowing you’re capable of doing it in such a short period.
RC: It’s a good takeaway, like nothing will seem as daunting. If it does I can be like, remember when you first dove into Euronymous? You can do it. Right when we finished shooting, there’s this postpartum like, “What do I do with myself? I can play Buried by Time and Dust, like, what do I do with that now?” [both laugh]
FB: It’s a great party trick… But that must have been a hell of a comedown from Euronymous.
RC: Yeah I really didn’t want to let him go.
FB: Really? So you liked him or just loved playing the character.
RC: Yeah I really liked him. I do a lot of smaller, independent movies where there’s a lot of quick shoots, sometimes as soon as you get to know the character you have to let him go and I sort of felt that way with Euronymous but it was appropriate for the story.
FB: Are you still discovering the kinds of role that you want to play, or is it just about the overall strength of the project?
RC: I’m not looking for any particular role, just something that piques my interest and something I want to fully invest in. I’m still figuring things out, I’m very much a work-in-progress but I’m totally open to a romantic comedy [laughs].
FB: And how do you deal with rejection?
RC: You become callous to it eventually. Nothing’s yours, no role belongs to you and the sooner you realise that the better. It sounds romantic to be destined for a role but most of the time you’re not and that’s OK. You’ve just got to be pliable and not let it affect you.
FB: But you’ve been dealing with that since the age of nine, which is crazy.
RC: But when you’re a kid it’s not a job, it’s a hobby. So there was no urgency to work when I was a kid. If I didn’t get a job it was like, “OK great, I can play this video game for the next month instead,” but when you’re an adult it’s like you’re trying to build something, there’s a greater sense of urgency. As a kid it never felt like rejection it felt like: “Go play instead.” Finn: Have you ever been interested in anything other than performing in front of the camera?
Rory: Oh yeah, I’ve got a couple of projects that I’d like to get going on eventually but I’m into writing and directing, that would be great one day.
FB: So you write your own stuff?
RC: Yeah, I do. I have a short film that I’ve been thinking about doing but I don’t know, I by no means have a particular genre that I want to dive into although horror is becoming more and more appealing to me for whatever reason.
FB: Horror would be fun to write.
RC: Well with this role in Lords of Chaos, at first I was just trying to understand the culture as a whole and why people like this dark, scary music and I think it’s similar to why people like horror, there’s a lot of crossover fans. It’s turning something universally scary like death or Satan into something fun by taking ownership over it.
FB: It’s like a controlled simulation of our most primitive fears.
RC: Right. I remember when I was real little I was afraid of the dark and my uncle told me, “If you’re ever afraid of the dark just pretend that you’re a panther. Panthers aren’t afraid of the dark, in fact, people are afraid of the dark because of the panther.” That stuck with me forever. I sort of went back to that lesson during Lords of Chaos, I was like, “Just be a fucking panther man.”
Lords of Chaos is out on 29th March.