Macaulay Culkin

We all have scars from childhood. Macaulay Culkin is no exception; some of those scars are even on his skin, visible to anyone who cares to look.

Take his right index finger. It bears a white mark from when he was nine years old. For you or me, that might be a memento of falling out of a tree, or an unwise experiment with broken glass. For Culkin? It’s a reminder of the time Joe Pesci bit him. “In the first Home Alone, they hung me up on a coat hook, and Pesci says, ‘I’m gonna bite all your fingers off, one at a time.’ And during one of the rehearsals, he bit me, and it broke the skin.”

For Culkin, every unusual childhood event–in what was an extremely unusual childhood–seems to have unforeseen ripples in his adult life. “I was driving down the street in L.A., and I look over at a red light–there’s Diamond Dallas Page, the wrestler.” Culkin’s a wrestling fan, and has even attended multiple WrestleManias; when he meets wrestlers, they always seem to know this already, and tell him, “You’re a wrestling fan.” (Which is something he knows, but is not quite as patently obvious as another phrase he frequently hears: “Hey, you’re Macaulay Culkin!”)

Carrying on a conversation block by block at multiple red lights, Page told Culkin that he was training Rob Zombie to wrestle and that he had a bowling date with Pesci the following week. “I told him to say hello,” Culkin says, and then pauses, taking in the absurd consequences of being a young man with a famous boy’s face. “It’s just a weird world.”

Macaulay Culkin, remarkably if somewhat inevitably, has grown up. He’s now twenty-three years old. This means he can legally order a beer, which he does when we meet at 3 pm on a Thursday afternoon at a bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Usually four o’clock is my cutoff,” he says, taking a pull off his Stella Artois. “But three’s fine. I’m making an exception.”

His baby face remains familiar, and he’s still small: a skinny five-foot-eight, up from the four-foot-four of his childhood stardom. His hair is longish, and he plays with it constantly, his hands rummaging through it like he’s searching for the mystery of life, or maybe just a cigarette. Sometimes his hands move down so he can fidget with a blue rubber band on his wrist instead. He’s wearing a battered T-shirt inscribed “New Yawk.” He speaks at ninety mph.

On Michael Jackson’s child-abuse charges: “I love him, he’s a good friend of mine, but I haven’t talked to him in six months. It’s an unfortunate situation, and because of the relationship we had when I was younger, people get weird. So even if I say something in his defense, people will be like, ‘Well, weren’t you ten years old when you hung out with him?’”

On his drug history: “I made sure I tried everything once, except when it comes to needles–I don’t fuck around. I did some E, and I’m thinking, ‘This is great: I’m always like this, happy and full of joy.’ But once it’s run its course, you just want some more happy pills. So I see why it’s illegal. But there’s nothing wrong with smoking some dope once in a while.’

On the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq: “We haven’t even found those weapons, and I don’t appreciate being lied to that way. They can’t even be bothered to plant the evidence.”

Aside from this tendency to be a motormouth, Culkin seems happy and well-balanced. So I ask him if he’s ever a dick.

“People react very funny to me,” he says. “I try to be respectful and nice, but I have strong boundaries, and if you approach me the wrong way, I’ll be a bit of a dick, and say, ‘You know what? You’re being very rude right now.'”

When else? “If I’m really good at a videogame and you’re not, I’m going to be a dick.” He laughs. “I’m going to kick your ass so bad and make fun of you the whole time. I was a late bloomer with Halo, but my brother Rory taught me, so now we play.”

Culkin laments that he doesn’t have the time to play videogames the way he used to. Nevertheless, he played his way through Grand Theft Auto II. A year later, he was having dreams about it, so he erased his memory card and played his way through again. In real life, starting over was somewhat more complicated.

“I have all the F.U.M. that you could ask for,” Culkin says. That’s “Fuck You Money”–Culkin’s bank account is worth an estimated seventeen million dollars. So, he emphasizes, his recent return to acting has not been for cash or fame–he has a surplus of both. He had fully intended for his retirement to be permanent, but realized that acting was fun and it came naturally to him. He likes the notion of making one good movie a year.

Last year, Culkin starred in Party Monster as Michael Alig: New York club promoter, extremely theatrical homosexual, and convicted murderer. (“My lawyer got paid more for Party Monster than I did,” Culkin notes.) This year, he’s in the ensemble of Saved!, a smart comedy about a Christian high school where a devout girl gets pregnant when she sleeps with her boyfriend to save him from homosexuality. Mandy Moore plays the school’s holier-than-thou diva; Culkin plays Moore’s brother, an acid-tongued cynic who has been confined to a wheelchair since a childhood fall from a tree.

“The camera really loves his face,” says director Brian Dannelly. “That nose and those lips and those eyes.” Although Dannelly is more than a decade older than Culkin, he’s a relative tyro: Saved! was his first feature film. On the first day of shooting, Dannelly suggested that the filming should be “organic,” a piece of film-school jargon that Culkin didn’t let slide. Dannelly jokes, “I said it once, and then I get tortured the rest of the time. Fuck him!”

“I’m not one of those actors who needs every detail about where my character went to school and what he has in his pockets,” Culkin says. “But I have a process now. Before, it was relatively easy, because people just wanted me to be a kid and say things loud and open my eyes wide.”

“Mac’s in a league of his own,” says Mandy Moore. “He likes to party–he’s awesome.” Everyone involved with Saved! describes Culkin as the ringleader of the cast. “I’m about three years older than the next-oldest one in the cast,” Culkin says. “And there’s different age limits on drinking up in Canada, where we were filming, so I was definitely the bad influence on everyone.”

The cast played a game: if somebody else got you to look at their hand below their waist and it was forming the thumb-to-index finger OK sign, you had to pay a forfeit. In some variations of this game, you get your earlobe flicked, but for the Saved! actors, it meant you were assigned an embarrassing sentence you had to say loudly.

For Eva Amurri, the daughter of Susan Sarandon who plays Culkin’s Jewish girlfriend in the movie, it was “I only got this movie because of my big breasts and my famous parents.”

Culkin had to say a line from Home Alone: “Do you guys give up or are you ready for more?”

Moore hates cursing, so she was given the line “I love my cunty pussy!” After a while, she got more comfortable saying it, and then she began to enjoy it–so her penalty was switched to “LeAnn Rimes would’ve been better in this part.”

“Child actors pay attention to other child actors,” says Seth Green, Culkin’s co-star in Party Monster and a former juvenile thespian himself. “Before I met him, I was intrigued by his decision to get out of the business. It seemed really smart of him to take that time. But he’s one of the most well-adjusted people I’ve ever met–he’s a really good example of how to be normal, despite stratospheric celebrity.”

After Party Monster wrapped, Green and Culkin kept hanging out. One day, Green told him, “You know, you’re a funny guy. You should do comedies.”

Culkin reminded him, “I’ve done sixteen movies, and more than half of them are comedies. They’re funny movies.”

Culkin made fourteen of those movies between the ages of eight and fourteen, including Uncle Buck, Home Alone, and My Girl. At age ten, Culkin was treated like a Beatle. Walking through the Tokyo airport, he was greeted by crowds thrusting presents upon him and girls bursting into tears. When he filmed Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, a mob of a hundred people surrounded his trailer, shaking it. People always recognized Culkin on the street–even when he covered his face with a ski mask.

If somebody came to Culkin and told him they were thinking of taking their kid on auditions, would he recommend it? “Gosh, I don’t think it’s a good idea overall,” he says. “I’m grateful for the experiences I had, but it creates a very odd dynamic if the kid starts getting paid more than you. In my case, it took a couple of years to get over being the family breadwinner, although I was ten years old. I was relatively lucky that all that stuff happened really fast–I was on the auditioning circuit for only about a year. But you see some jaded twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds aren’t supposed to be jaded.”

Culkin became America’s favorite child star since Shirley Temple, earning as much as eight million dollars per movie. At the same time, his father, Kit Culkin, was becoming one of the least-liked managers in Hollywood. He was a hard-nosed negotiator; for example, he threatened to pull Macaulay out of Home Alone 2 unless he was also cast in The Good Son–against the wishes of The Good Son‘s director, Michael Lehmann. Kit got his way; Lehmann left the movie he had developed. Macaulay says, “My father burned enough bridges that there’s still certain people in this business who won’t sit down in the same room with me.”

Culkin’s last childhood role was the title part in Richie Rich. By then, he had already hit puberty and its attendant growth spurt, so he was surrounded by a cast of Hollywood’s tallest actors, such as John Larroquette, to create the illusion that he was still wee. “When I stopped, I told whoever would listen that I was done. ‘I hope you guys made all your money–there’s no more coming from me. I’m going to sit back, eat Cocoa Pebbles, go to high school, and figure out the rest of my life.'”

Of course, nothing’s ever that simple–Culkin’s family spent the next few years in legal disputes: His parents, who had never married, split up and were having an extended custody battle, while Culkin and his dad tussled over control of the money he had earned acting. One day in the tenth grade, in the middle of the legal proceedings, Culkin came home to the apartment he shared with his brothers Shane and Kieran. Shane was home already, with the television on. “He’s watching Geraldo,” Culkin says. “And it’s Dr. Joyce Brothers and A.J. Benza, this ragtag collection of therapists and gossip columnists, and they’re talking about me. They’re saying I have a whole new bunch of friends, and they’re talking about what I’m doing after school. It was me after school watching them talking about what I’m doing after school–which is actually watching them! It was like putting two mirrors up to each other.”

In 1998, Culkin dropped out of his senior year at the Professional Children’s School; shortly thereafter, he married his high-school sweetheart, Rachel Miner. (They divorced two years later.) Before they got engaged, Culkin told her, “You know, they’re going to say that you’re pregnant, that I’m trying to fill some kind of void in my life from my shattered family. So let’s be cool about this–I love you, you love me, and that’s all that matters.” Culkin’s predictions were accurate, but he didn’t anticipate another criticism: that he was getting married to boost his career. He imagines that dialogue with the press: “You guys think I’m a freak–what else can I do that will freak you out more to help my career?”

Culkin shakes his head. “The career I don’t have that isn’t even mine. I mean, I feel like some little kid worked really, really hard, and I inherited all of his memories and all of his money.”

Culkin doubts he’ll ever speak with his father again. “It’s a sad scenario,” he says, not looking especially mournful. “People say, ‘Aren’t you sad you don’t get to see your father?’ And it sucks–in theory. You should have your dad to go to baseball games and say ‘Good work, son!'” Culkin mimes a punch on the shoulder. “But it wasn’t like that, and it’s a good thing he ‘s not around.”

He remains close with his siblings: five brothers and one sister. His younger brother Kieran got rave reviews in 2002 for the misfit title role in Igby Goes Down, and hasn’t made a movie since. What happened? “He took some time off,” Culkin says. “We had a couple of conversations: Can I be an actor and not go on The Tonight Show? Kieran has a purist approach: he wants to do the work, and everything that comes with it is bullshit. But my [14-year-old] brother Rory works more than the rest of my family put together. He likes the lifestyle, he likes living out of hotels–his first question is ‘How much does it pay?’ I figure I fall somewhere between, the happy medium where I understand the realities of the business, even if I’d rather avoid them.”

Walking that middle road, Culkin did a guest spot on Will and Grace last year, playing a youthful divorce attorney. After that appearance, NBC signed him to a holding deal. Culkin blithely took the money, figuring he wouldn’t mind meeting some writers, since he wasn’t obligated to actually shoot anything. Then he read the script for a pilot called Foster Hall–about a malicious twin brother and sister who keep getting sent to different foster families–and couldn’t resist. He’s also involved on the production side, which is new for him. “I’d never been on that side of casting sessions before,” he says. “I always thought that as soon as I walk out of an audition, they’re making fun of me.”

Culkin figures if he’s gotten acting out of his system by age thirty, he’ll try being a writer instead. He’s already finished his first book, composed in 2001 when he was living in London, acting in the play Madame Melville, in which he is seduced by his French teacher. (He says he’s not sure if he wants to publish the book under his own name–or at all, actually. But a few days later, Miramax Books announces it will be publishing it, with the title Junior, next March.) “I was drinking two bottles of wine a night and just writing,” he says. “By the time I got back, I had a backlog of 200 pages: short stories, essays, tongue twisters. Just crazy things that I do. So I met this literary agent–”

Wait a minute. Tongue twisters?

He grins shyly, and recites: “Heidi was her name, hiding was her game. When Heidi hid, horses halted, hounds and hares hopped hopelessly hither….”

Culkin’s cell phone rings: it’s programmed with the theme from Diff’rent Strokes. “Stop calling me,” he mutters.

“I’m getting a little silly with the ring tones,” he reports. “This is if my girlfriend calls–” He pushes a button, and the phone plays the theme from The O.C. “That’s specifically for her because she’s a California girl.” (She’s actress Mila Kunis, Jackie on That ’70s Show.) “That show’s one of my guilty pleasures–it’s like an entire season of 90210 in one episode.”

Culkin has a 5,000-square-foot loft in Greenwich Village, but now spends about half his time in L.A. with Kunis. “I try to live a relatively modest, simple life,” he says. His biggest extravagance: sometimes he’ll buy her a piece of jewelry from Tiffany’s. Expensive, but not as pointless as what he bought when he finally got access to his acting fortune: a tuxedo and tails, complete with top hat and monocle.

Culkin wants to buy a home with Kunis in L.A., someplace with a yard. “I’m not talking a white picket fence, but something nice. She’s like, oh, I’m not ready to settle down yet. I said, ‘I’m not asking for kids, I don’t want to marry you–I just said “Let’s buy a house.”‘” He shrugs cheerfully. He’s agreed to not mention the word house to her for the next year. “I find the proposition of buying a house more exciting than going to a club, while she probably finds going to a club a lot more exciting proposition than buying a house. I went to all those Hollywood parties when I was ten.”

He does faithfully attend shows by his favorite bands, the Strokes and the White Stripes. He even does karaoke with friends now and then, picking Sinatra songs that he can croon. “He has a fantastic lounge-like voice,” says Seth Green.

Still, Culkin considers himself to be basically a recluse. “I can go weeks without leaving my apartment,” he says. “It’s a relatively unhealthy habit. I actually thought about writing J.D. Salinger a letter: ‘Hey, I don’t like leaving my house and neither do you, we’re both loners, so let’s chat.”

Culkin laughs, and for just a moment, stops fidgeting with his hands. “I’ve made a weird deal with the world. It’s going to fuck with me–and I’m going to sit here and act like I’m not surprised.”

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a marginally shorter version) in Rolling Stone 950 (June 10, 2004).