The comeback kid

Macaulay Culkin's early stardom brought him divorce from his father, misery, painand paranoia. The only person who understood him was Michael Jackson - it was that bad. But after retirement, family breakdown and a failed marriage, life begins at 20
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The Independent Online

I am due to meet Macaulay Culkin - at one time the highest-paid child star ever - at the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand in London where, after a six-year break from acting, he'll be shortly making his comeback in the new play Madame Melville. I'm early, and chat with the nice old bloke at the stage door.

I am due to meet Macaulay Culkin - at one time the highest-paid child star ever - at the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand in London where, after a six-year break from acting, he'll be shortly making his comeback in the new play Madame Melville. I'm early, and chat with the nice old bloke at the stage door.

"What's Macaulay like?" I ask.

"Seems nice."

"Who was the last to star at the Vaudeville Theatre?"

"Lionel Blair."

"Tough act to follow, then."

"Actually, Macaulay's been getting fan mail this high..." he indicates a height of about six inches, "every day, even though he hasn't done anything for years."

"And Lionel?"

"A few at the beginning of his run, but then nothing. Nothing."

Poor Lionel. And he's stuck to it throughout like a true pro and everything. Life can just be so ruddy unfair.

I'm told Macaulay has arrived, and am led through the theatre, up to the dress circle bar. Is there anything more ghostly and sad and echoingly empty than a silent, deserted theatre during the day? Only, I suppose, Macaulay Culkin himself. True, he is exquisitely dressed - gorgeous, deep-blue Burberry shirt, expensive looking checked trousers. He adores clothes. "I once spent $2,000 on a Calvin Klein jacket and then felt so guilty I donated the same amount to charity." But still, and for all the beautiful wrapping, he looks very small, almost feminine, with pale, practically translucent skin and strange, pink-hooded eyes, rather like the eyes of a rabbit in pain on Animal Hospital. (Rolf, make them put it down!)

Of course, I try to cheer him up. Lionel Blair is rubbish, I say. Not a patch on you. He blinks with bewilderment. I tell him I could have been a child star myself, which I could have, as it happens. Indeed, I used to attend Miss Brass's ballet classes over the Golders Green Odeon and it was all going brilliantly until, one day, I overheard Miss Brass say to my mother: "It's up to you, of course, but I feel I should point out you are wasting your money." I was heartbroken, naturally. I liked the tutu and the tights and the little pink pumps and first position, which I was good at, because it didn't involve jumping, which I wasn't especially good at, being a fat and inelegant thing. Macaulay insists I was lucky. "Believe me," he says, "it's smarter to keep out of it. And ballet dancers? They're the worst. They eat nothing but fluff and celery all day." Well, that's cheered me up, at least.

But Macaulay? Macaulay is now 20. A young man, still, but with, perhaps, a rather old and melancholic heart. Do you like your looks? "No. I can't look at myself in pictures. But I do make a point of looking myself in the eye in the mirror once a day." Why? "Everyone should be able to do that. For a while, I couldn't. I'd walk with my head down. I've made myself look up."

What's been your unhappiest moment? "I'd say my unhappiness has been pretty evenly spread." What's your earliest memory? "I'll have to think about that. I've blocked so many things out." I wonder if we should throw ourselves into the stalls now, and have done with it. No. I've a lot to live for, actually. I'm planning a new kitchen. I almost found Ikea the other day. And Macaulay deserves to survive, I think. He might even have rather earned it.

I had, I must say, expected to meet the total cliché that's the washed-up child star. You know: I'm still big, it's just that the clothes got too small. And, certainly, Macaulay did the whole child star bit with knobs on: huge, global fame from the Home Alone movies at nine, worth about $30m at 13, but pretty much eaten up and spat out by the time he was 14. More, there was the ugly business of his family's unravelling - his parents separating and bitterly suing each other for custody, plus Macaulay's eventual "divorce", at 15, from his own father, Kit Culkin, who was less a father, more the pushy stage parent to end all pushy parents. Was he ever affectionate?

"No. Never." You can't recall one little hug, even? "Not if it wasn't for show, no." When did it all stop being fun? "I do remember that moment. It was when I was making The Good Son [a movie he made at 14] and I was walking down the road with my father and I asked him if I could have a break. I'd worked non-stop and I was tired. He said 'yes', but the next thing I knew I was working on the next project." What motivated your father? "I don't know. Perhaps his intentions were good, although it certainly never seemed like they were."

He is messed up, yes, but then what child actor isn't? We agree, even, that the words "child" and "actor" don't properly go together, because it's not like you're allowed to be a child and it's only rarely you're required to act. I suggest, further, that there should even be a law banning child actors which, if nothing else, would dramatically increase employment opportunities for midgets. Macaulay is with me all the way. "I've always thought that, too!" he exclaims.

So, messed up, yes, but not totally ruined. I think a certain intelligence and self-awareness have always managed to pull him back from that. He's always known to avoid the cliché, "which is why I've never done drugs. People assume all former child stars will end up on drugs. So, because it was expected of me, I never got into them." He is well-read. He's just finished George Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris. He thinks he might re-read Catcher in the Rye next. His notion of life is not, thankfully, one where ambition means matching what he achieved when he was 11. "I just want to work on my terms, with the people I want to work with." He can afford to be picky. He's hung on to most of his fortune. "We lived off the 15 per cent my parents earned as my joint managers. The rest went into a fund I couldn't touch until I was 18. So at least I have something to show for everything I've been through."

His choice of Madame Melville is a wise one. A new play by Richard Nelson (who won an Olivier award for Goodnight Children Everywhere ), it's about a 15-year-old American (Culkin) in Paris who receives some extra-curricular tuition from his French teacher (played by the spectacularly wonderful French actress Irene Jacobs, who starred in the films The Double Life of Veronique and Kieslowski's Three Colours: Red). The play doesn't open until next week, but I've seen some video footage and, although I'm far from expert on such things, it looks as if Macaulay might actually be able to cut it, in a way perhaps even the supremely talented and versatile Lionel cannot.

There is an almost spectral and unearthly fragility about him that I find quite moving. He is sometimes too frightened to go out. "You get this paranoia, that people are after you, although it's not really paranoia, because they actually are. Photographers jump out at you from behind bushes... and it does feel like they are trying to steal your soul."

It is rather complicated this, isn't it? How much should you feel for someone like Macaulay Culkin? He got a divine Calvin Klein jacket and pots of money out of it, after all. But, that said, it's not like he ever understood what was happening to him while it was happening. It's not like any of it has been his fault.

Macaulay, the third of seven children, was born in New York to Patricia Bentrup, a telephonist, and Kit Culkin - a one-time actor who never made it himself, and who ended up working as a sexton in the local church. At the age of six, Macaulay was already acting in stage shows at the city's Ensemble Studio Theatre. I ask him what he thinks he'd have chosen to do, if he ever been given the chance to choose. He says that's impossible to answer. "I'm sure I wanted to be a fireman at five, but from six years old, acting was who I was and what I did."

He worked, worked, worked - little parts in films - until Home Alone, a rather innocuous and silly film about a boy forgotten at home when his parents go away, took off like a lighted match dropped into a petrol tank. Boom! It made $500m world-wide. There were Macaulay posters, Macaulay key-rings and Macaulay dolls. Macaulay was befriended by Michael Jackson. Here's a quote from an interview Macaulay gave when he was 11: "We always go to Toys R Us. We each get a shopping cart and go up and down the aisles picking out what we want. Who pays? Michael." Michael Jackson, I say, spooky or what? Macaulay is offended. "He is not spooky," he says. Oh, come off it. "He isn't. He's one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life." You're still friends, then?

"I'm godfather to his children. We understand each other on a deep level. We've had similar lives." I wonder if he has hung on to any other friends from that time. He says there are no other friends from that time. "I only really had acquaintances. I do run into them occasionally, but I've changed so much since then. Then, I was just a numb, little kid who woke up, and went on set to say some words I'd learned the night before."

In retrospect, I suppose, it's easy to see that Macaulay could not endure. That he was a phenomenon, not an actor. That he would fizzle out almost as quickly as he flared. Kit did not see it, though. Kit raged through Hollywood. Macaulay would only do such and such a film if his sister, Quinn, could be in it. Macaulay would do that film, yes, but only for $8m. Macaulay won't work with that director. Fire the director. Hollywood would, probably, have worn it if the films had been great successes, but they weren't. My Girl. Richie Rich. The Page Master. The Good Son. All hopeless flops. And Macaulay? He didn't know who he was or where he was anymore. "I was just going though the motions."

I ask him if, in spite of everything, he loves his father. "Perhaps, on a deep level, but on a day-to-day level, no." Do you forgive him? "I can't truly answer that. He's done a lot of wrong and never explained himself. He just ran away. If I never see him again, so be it."

Macaulay hasn't seen him since the "divorce" when he was 15. What if he were to call today, to say he was in London, and wanted to talk? "I'd have to think about that. I'd want to hear what he has to say, but I'd be pessimistic. I'm not sure if he has it in him to apologise."

So, what's he been doing since his retirement at 14? School? "I went to the Professional Children's School in New York, which wasn't professional, we weren't children, and it was hardly a school. It was full of musical prodigies and a 10-year-old magician, who was pretty good, in fact. I never learned anything there. I got most of my education from the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel. I dropped out in my senior year, when I got married."

He married Rachel Miner, an actress, at 17. They separated recently, but it might not be a permanent thing. "It's complicated. I can't say what the future has in store. We're still friends. We're trying to figure out if we can live together on a day-to-day level. She taught me a lot about being a man, and the responsibilities men have."

But how can you be a man, when you haven't been a child? "That's what you have to learn. You have to have some sense of who you are." And do you? "Yes." What have you learned, then? "That nothing really matters, apart from being a good person with good intentions." I am moved, like I said. But then, I cried during The Champ. And Kramer vs Kramer.

Our time is up. I have to go. We part affectionately. I give him a big hug, because he looks like someone who needs big hugs. He is all brittle, bird-like bones under his Burberry shirt. I promise to come and see the play. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to find out what he can do. I hope he is good. You never know, he might even be as good as Lionel. But let's not rush things quite yet.

'Madame Melville' opens at the Vaudeville Theatre, London on 18 October. To book tickets, call 020-7836 9987