Revisiting Macaulay Culkin's Unique Career, From Signature Child Star Scream to Stealth Cameos
The star of Home Alone and Ri¢hie Ri¢h is turning 40 and we're celebrating with a trip down memory lane to revisit his most enduring (and surprising) movie and TV roles.
"I have a lot of growing up to do," Macaulay Culkin told New York magazine in 2006. "Or a lot of growing down. I think that's probably more appropriate."
Such was the perspective of the former child star, who at the time was releasing a novel, Junior (about…wait for it…a child star, coping with fame and a difficult father), and was busily exploring various artistic avenues in addition to acting, which he kinda gave up in the mid-'90s to salvage his youth and later returned to with a wink-wink approach, taking roles as far removed from the impish little-kid characters he paid his family's bills with as possible.
"I was tired of it, to be honest," he told Ellen DeGeneres in 2018. "I did like 14 movies in six years or something like that…I was away from home a lot. I was away from school. I needed something else."
But thanks to some serious hustle over a 10-year period that started when he was barely 5 years old, he at least has had the freedom not to have to bank on his child stardom—and yet, he knows by now that his still-chugging, oft-experimental acting career may always provoke some version of "Hey, it's the kid from Home Alone!"
He was simply just fated to be in one of those movies that still resonates with the kids (and their parents) who packed into theaters to see it 30 years ago, prompting a symbiosis between fan and star that has resulted in a life-long interest in how Culkin is doing.
And Culkin's been the first to admit that he wasn't always doing great, that being super famous and having a lot of money by the time he was 12 proved damaging at times.
But he did get busy finding himself, ultimately settling on the fact that all he could do was do his own thing and hope for the best.
"I really disassociated myself from 'Macaulay Culkin' mentally," he told New York. "Like, if someone actually calls out that name on the street, I don't turn my head. Literally. When I was 14 and I quit, I said I'm never doing that again—say whatever you want about me. That I'm crazy, that I'm an alcoholic. Call me a drug addict. I don't give a s–t anymore. That's not me anymore. That's for you. It's yours. Go ahead, have fun."
At the same time, he told ABC News, also upon Junior's release, "I am a very happy person. I think I have a very good simple life, and I wouldn't change anything."
As it turned out, he does really like acting—on his own terms, in projects that speak to him, for whatever reason—and it's made for a fascinating career that, as Culkin turns 40 today, has included a little bit of everything.
"That's the thing, you become a senior in high school and you want to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life," he told BlackFilm.com in 2004. "I thought about coming back to [acting] and I kind of had this fear that I almost didn't know any better. That the only reason that I'd get back into it is because I didn't know any better and I'd just be doing what I know. That was almost scary to me. I just wanted to do it again."
Here's a look at his onscreen trajectory, starting from the very beginning:
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Every actor starts somewhere, and in this case a barely 5-year-old Macaulay Culkin made his debut as "Halloween Kid" in this 1985 TV movie that aired on ABC.
Culkin shared the screen with Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster and luminaries including Patricia Clarkson and Bill Pullman in the 1988 drama, about a dysfunctional family reunited for their patriarch's birthday.
This family drama with an A-plus pedigree (directed by Alan Pakula and starring Jeff Bridges and Farrah Fawcett, as well as Mac's fellow child stars Drew Barrymore and Lukas Haas) came out in April 1989.
More memorable from the summer of 1989, however, was his turn as inquisitive nephew Miles in the John Hughes-written-and-directed Uncle Buck, starring John Candy—whose daughter Jennifer Candy, sweetly, met Culkin on the set of this film and they remain friends, decades later.
"I was just there, bowling," Jennifer recalled hanging out with the cast during the Uncle Buck bowling scene when she was a guest on Culkin's Bunny Ears podcast (recorded in his living room) in 2019. He agreed, "I very much looked forward to that, too. Like yeah, 'Oh, there's going to be a bowling sequence! This is great!' Yeah, you don't look forward to the washing-the-dishes scene."
As he noted himself while ranking his own films for his Bunny Ears website, Culkin couldn't really count this 1990 horror drama about a Vietnam vet who's plagued by terrifying visions upon his return home among his favorites.
"I was not even in the credits," the actor noted of his minuscule role as Jacob's son Gabe, who's killed in an accident before his dad goes off to war. "And I was hit by a car."
Fun fact: This movie opened just two weeks before Home Alone did.
It's up to Kevin McAllister to defend his home from a couple of (luckily idiotic and unarmed) burglars when his family accidentally leaves the country without him for Christmas vacation in the 1990 blockbuster. Made for only $18 million, Santa left $477 million under the box office tree and Culkin became a 10-year-old superstar.
That's Culkin rocking out (before his "dad," played by Cheers star George Wendt comes upstairs and screams, "I thought I told you to turn that thing off!") at the beginning of Michael Jackson's cinematic music video for "Black or White," the first single off of the artist's 1991 album Dangerous.
Culkin's friendship with Jackson began when the singer, recognizing a kid who was about to have the weight of the fame world on his shoulders, reached out after Home Alone became a global phenomenon—and their bond endured until Jackson's death at 50 in 2009.
"I talked to him like he was a normal human being…He's just a guy, who's very kid-like himself," Culkin, who is a close friend and godfather to Michael's daughter Paris Jackson, said on Larry King Live in 2004, the year before he testified that Jackson was never inappropriate with him when the Grammy winner went on trial on charges of child molestation (and was acquitted).
One day we'll (probably never) get over the demise of Thomas J. from bee stings in this coming-of-age dramedy from 1991. (If only Anna Chlumsky's Amy from Veep could go back in time and tell those bees to get the f–king f–k away from her best friend!)
He reprised the role of Kevin—and his famous scream—for the 1992 sequel that found the rambunctious grade-schooler managing to make it to the airport with his family but, after mistaking another coat-wearing traveler for his dad, ending up on a flight to the Big Apple instead of to Florida with everybody else. The movie was a raging success, making $365 million worldwide.
Elijah Wood's Mark senses there's something off about his cousin Henry in this Omen-esque thriller from 1993.
So many productions based on the classic Balanchine ballet, so little time, but in this one from 1993 Culkin was Drosselmeier's Nephew, as well as the titular toy come to life.
Part-live action, part-animated, Culkin played a shy boy who finds his inner hero after he's sucked into the pages of an adventure tale when he pops into a library to take refuge from a storm in this 1994 fantasy.
Because in movies no grownup is savvy enough to avoid being pranked by a 13-year-old, Culkin's Timmy easily gets his criminal dad, played by Ted Danson, to take him along for what turns out to be a wild ride of father-son bonding and a little thievery in this 1994 comedy.
Unbeknownst to his fans, Culkin's turn as the richest boy in the world (but the moral of the story is that money doesn't matter if you don't have friends to invite to your personal McDonald's) would be his last movie for almost a decade.
"It was the last movie I made for 20 years," the former child star told Bunny Ears, exaggerating just a bit. "John Larroquette hated me, but we bonded over Barq's root beer because he was from Louisiana and that's where Barq's was made. Also, everyone in the cast was over 6-foot-2 in order to make me look shorter and younger than I was at the time."
Based on a real-life turn of events, Culkin played "King of the Club Kids" Michael Alig, who spent almost 17 years in prison for manslaughter after he and Robert "Freeze" Riggs killed and dismembered fellow New York nightlife aficionado Andre "Angel" Melendez in 1996. Riggs also served prison time for manslaughter.
To prepare for the role, Culkin visited Alig behind bars, telling Barbara Walters in 2003, "We spent four hours at the prison. I'd never been to prison before. I kind of just was listening and I was watching how his hands moved…He seemed remorseful, but at the same time he was putting up this facade. He was putting on the 'Michael Alig' act for me, the wild and crazy guy."
Asked if he, too, had a dark side, the then-25-year-old actor said, "I guess you can say that. But not anywhere near as dark as him. It's so easy to see me as this wicked, little thing, you know? This wicked little, like, you know, blond-haired kid, making trouble for everybody."
Moreover, he recalled to Bunny Ears of the glam-rock look that was essential to Michael, "I always felt pretty, but that's where I learned I actually was pretty. It taught me to totally understand why women put in all that time getting ready. It's worth it and I looked awesome."
Acknowledging his long break from the limelight, Culkin, who was appearing in his first movie since Richie Rich, told Walters, "I don't want to do what I did before. Before it was, you know, it was like people's livelihoods were on the line…They like built an industry out of me. It was just this really odd dynamic that I think made me uncomfortable for a lot of my young life. I'm not one of those people who needs that gratification of doing like 10 films a year…I'm just trying to be, you know, an artist."
The 2004 satire, in which he played the non-religious brother of Mandy Moore's fervent evangelical Christian, ranks up there among Culkin's favorites because, as he told Bunny Ears, "Mandy Moore is a delight. I also got to be in a movie with people who were all my own age for once. All the other movies had been me as a kid with adults. On Saved! I was the only one who was old enough to buy liquor."
Culkin practiced using a wheelchair for several months before filming began and shadowed wheelchair users to make his movements look as authentic as possible.
The indie comedy from 2007 further proves that having anonymous sex with others, even followed by breakfast—as prescribed by Culkin's therapist character James—isn't the best way to fix the troubled relationship you're currently in.
"I read a lot of material and loved this script," Culkin told Variety about what drew him to the film. "It's really about the pressure that leads them to experiment, the anticipation leading up to the event and then the fallout."
This 2009 drama, a modern-day retelling of the biblical story of King David, starred Ian McShane and Sebastian Stan and only lasted for one season, but featured Culkin as the king's nephew Andrew, returned from exile. (And, because it's a small world after all, brother Kieran Culkin's future Succession dad Brian Cox was in it too, playing the former king of another territory.)
Culkin had a running cameo as a New York barista version of himself in the TV Land comedy.
"We were trying to establish an ongoing disagreement me and Adam Goldberg's character had about what a barista looked like," Jim Gaffigan explained to TV Insider about how Culkin's involvement in the show came about. "And so, the idea of the barista being someone famous or kind of legendary is just like an ongoing thing. Like you know in everyday life, someone will be like, 'Yeah, you know that waitress that looks like Julia Roberts?' You know what I mean?"
He continued, "I had met Macaulay when I reoccurred on That '70s Show and he was dating Mila [Kunis], but a comedy club manager also grew up with him. And so, I just kind of broached the idea and through him reached out to Macaulay. And he was into it. We kind of brought it up where, 'Wouldn't it be funny if he came back and did this?' So we just kept trying to figure out different ways where Macaulay just kind of comes up in Jim's life as a joke, but also reflecting what happens in everyone's life where you go, 'I keep seeing that guy.'"
Culkin joined Breckin Meyer and Seth Green in this 2019 ensemble dramedy about two estranged pals reuniting and confronting life's challenges and mundanities on a trip to Thailand.
It's become apparent through his fascinating choice of guest appearances over the last couple decades that Culkin relishes randomly popping up in projects, and so he did in one 2019 episode of this Hulu series, starring Kat Dennings as web designer Jules, who after putting all of her girlfriends on the back burner while she focused on her boyfriend is trying to reconnect with her pals after getting dumped.
Culkin played Dan, a guy Shay Mitchell's Stella met while on vacation who strikes Brenda Song's Madison as a possible serial-killer type.
"I'm a thirtysomething retired person, pretty much," Culkin told WTF podcast host Marc Maron in 2018. At the time he had been living primarily in Paris for several years, "walking around with a baguette under my arm, living the romantic life," while still holding onto his longtime home in New York. "I bought in the '90s," he quipped.
And why did he move to Paris? Because he liked it, and because he could.
Asked what he did all day, Culkin said, "I write, I paint, I sleep, I drink." He got a two-bedroom apartment so he could host friends in bands who pass through town and have studio space to create.
The siren song of acting eventually lured him back to the States, though, and next year—depending on what the pandemic has to say about it—he'll be on the upcoming 10th season of American Horror Story.
"You know, it came about just because it's how I always do things, where I have always loved Macaulay Culkin's work," series creator Ryan Murphy explained to E! News in May. "I loved everything that he's done, I love the stuff he did in Home Alone, I also loved the sort of the older, more recent stuff that he did. And he hasn't worked in a while."
Murphy continued, "I'm excited for him to be in my world because I think…I'm gonna want to do a lot of things with him if he wants to work, because I think he's fascinating and interesting, and I think he has a soul. There's both a lightness and a darkness with Macaulay Culkin that I'm attracted to."
Or maybe Culkin's tendency to leave 'em wanting more worked like a charm.
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