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Return of the Mack

MacaulayCulkin went from being Hollywood’s highest-profile child star to livinga life of almost total seclusion. He’s made millions, been married anddivorced, and very nearly thrown his career away. Now 23, with a bigmovie and a potential sitcom, he’s growing into a new role: adulthood.

Oneside effect of emerging from a decade of self-imposed exile is thateven the most mundane details of your life will inadvertently soundscandalous. So let’s just get the banalities out of the way:
1. Macaulay Culkin, age 23, likes to smoke.
2. He also likes to drink.
3. He also likes to gamble.

I have learned this much about him within threeminutes–within three questions–of meeting him, when he tells me thathe spent the night before our interview playing poker with a few closepals. “It was one of those games where everyone puts in their money,and nobody leaves until someone has all the chips,” he says. “It camedown to me and someone else, and so we had to sit there until 7 A.M.”On a gray New York City afternoon last December, we are eating lunch ata restaurant within walking distance of his East Village apartment. Buthad it not been for the timely intervention of his brother Kieran,Culkin might have missed this appointment altogether. “He woke me up byringing my buzzer. I’m like, ‘Thanks, jerk.'”

It would seem strange to say that Macaulay Culkin has becomea grown-up version of himself, if that weren’t the most accurate way ofdescribing how he looks today. Beneath the up-all-night weariness inhis eyes, the unmistakable smell of cigarettes on his breath, a coupleof popped pimples on his forehead, remain the trademark features of theboy whose ten-year-old visage is forever fixed in our minds. He’s stillgot the sunny blond hair, the preternaturally glossy lips, the electricblue eyes that marked him for stardom before he could sign his ownname. And still deeper, under these superficial traits, lie the scarsof an adolescence that no one would ever wish for himself.

Even Culkin’s earliest memories bear traces of the tworecurring themes of his childhood: a budding ability to entertain and abrewing conflict with his father. “I remember one Thanksgiving,” hesays with a wryness that borders on theatricality, “my father was aboutto give a prayer, and he started out, ‘God is great, God is good…’and I went, ‘Amen! Let’s eat!’ I thought it was hee-larious. I don’tremember eating Thanksgiving dinner that year. I couldn’t have beenmore than seven.”

Everyone knows the part of the story that comes next: By theage of eight, Macaulay Culkin, the third of seven children born toPatricia Brentrup and Christopher “Kit” Culkin, was acting alongsideBurt Lancaster in Rocket Gibraltar and John Candy in Uncle Buck; by ten, he was starring in Home Alone,which would go on to make $285 million at the U.S. box office andbecome the highest-grossing comedy of all time; by 12, he was earninganywhere from $5 million to $8 million a movie; by 14, he never wantedto work again.

The oft-stated explanation for Culkin’s withdrawal from showbusiness was that his father, who was also his manager, had becomeabrasive as a representative and abusive as a parent. But as the actorwill tell you himself, this was only a symptom of a larger problem:Culkin couldn’t take it anymore. “Everyone was always saying, ‘ThatMack, he’s nine going on 40.’ No, I’m nine going on ten, and I’m reallylooking forward to 11. I went from having nothing to do with my life towanting to have full control over it.” The same precociousness that hadmade him famous was now telling him it was time to hang it up. “Theysaid, ‘Do this,’ and, ‘You’re good at that, keep on doing it,’ so Ikept on doing it,” he says. “The next thing I know, people are buildingan industry around me. People’s livelihoods are on the line–I’m nine!’What are you talking about?’ It was a little crazy. I had to get outof there.”

But getting out would require a protracted legal struggle,one that began in 1995, when his mother sued his father for solecustody of their children (they were never married), and ended in 1997,when a judge granted control of Culkin’s earnings to his accountant andplaced him and his siblings in the care of their mother. Culkin has notseen or spoken to his father since the day the suit was resolved. Andas far as he was concerned, the constellation of agents, advisers, andhandlers who revolved around him could disappear from his universe aswell. “It was like, ‘That’s it, no more,'” he says. “‘Hope you all madeyour money, because there’s no more coming from here.'”

Regaining possession of his destiny made it no easier forCulkin to decide what to do with it. “I had made enough money that Icould sit around eating Cocoa Pebbles and watching professionalwrestling on TV all day, and my kids would still go to college,” hesays with an alarming degree of specificity. “I chose to be a slacker.”For a time, he enrolled in Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School,partly because he wanted to make some friends his own age, and partlybecause he appreciated the institution’s revolving-door policy forstudents in show business–or at least pretending to be. “It was soeasy to walk in or out,” he says. “Just sign ‘audition,’ ‘I have to goto ballet class,’ or ‘I have to shoot my soap opera.'” But Culkindropped out of PCS in what would have been his senior year. “It becameweird because I wasn’t working at all,” he says, “and I felt there wasresentment from some people who were out there auditioning, trying tonail down these jobs. Not like I could just snap my fingers–Get Marty Scorsese on the phone! It wasn’t like that.”

Having abandoned both his work and his education, Culkinseemed content with his status as an ironic cult icon, appearing in a1998 Sonic Youth video for the song “Sunday” and cultivating a circleof celebrity friends many years his senior, including R.E.M. frontmanMichael Stipe and Jane magazine editor-in-chief Jane Pratt, whowas introduced to Culkin at one of Stipe’s annual Christmas parties.”He was the most dapper person in the room,” Pratt recalls. “At first Iwondered if he was old enough to drink, because he looked so young. Butthe second we started talking it didn’t seem weird at all. I felt likehis experience was absolutely equal to mine. He was an adult by thetime he was seven.”

Years ago, Macaulay Culkin learned how to tune outthe gawkers who inevitably greet him by slapping their hands to theircheeks and letting their jaws drop in mock horror: He stopped answeringto his given name. “People who have known me for long enough know me asMack,” he says. “Mack like the truck. I’ve programmed my brain: WhenI’m walking down the street, if someone yells out ‘Macaulay,’ I don’tturn around. I’ve actually walked by my own family before.” Even so, hecouldn’t completely stop thinking about how he was being perceived bythe outside world. “You’re always trying to figure out what otherpeople think of you,” he says. “Some people think I sit in a closeteating people’s souls while doing heroin and pissing on Christmastrees.”

By 2000, Culkin was wondering if his life really had becomea punch line. “If you were going to write out all the clichés of beinga young actor, what are they?” he asks. “Either you’re going to loseall your money, you’re going to be addicted to drugs, you’re going tobe gay, or you’re going to get married young.” He throws up his hands.”Okay, guilty on that count.” (His 1998 marriage to actress and fellowPCS student Rachel Miner lasted a little over two years, or one yearand 364 days longer than anyone expected.) He had avoided most of thetraps that had ensnared any number of his equally adorablepredecessors–he stayed away from drugs, and by his own account, henever even set foot inside a club until the age of 20. But he hadbecome a recluse, and that’s when he realized he had to get back to theonly thing that had ever mattered to him: acting. “There was a reasonwhy I gravitated toward it at such an early age,” he says. “I wanted todo it again, but I wanted to do it the right way–so that I owned it.”

Yet as he prepared to start working again, he was fearfulthat his father’s scorched-earth negotiating tactics had gotten himblackballed by the industry. “We were kind of a package deal,” Culkinsays, “because whatever he did reflected directly on me. If he’syelling and screaming to somebody on the phone, it’s on my behalf. Itdoesn’t matter whether I’m six or seven years old, ’cause he wouldn’tbe yelling on the phone if it wasn’t for that stupid kid. Itwasn’t like, ‘Hey, Dad, you gotta get me that extra five milliondollars.’ It wasn’t like we sat down and read the contract and I said,’I need two star trailers instead of one.'”

Instead, Culkin’s comeback began on a stage in London’s West End, in the play Madame Melville,where he starred as a high school student seduced by a teacher twicehis age. “I was really expecting to be roasted out there,” heconfesses. “But it was thousands of miles away, so if I stunk, only alimited amount of stinkage would have leaked over to the UnitedStates.” In fact, Melville earned him some of the highestpraise of his career. Its London run was immediately followed by a NewYork staging just two blocks from his mother’s apartment, and he couldfeel his confidence returning.

Back in New York, he began work on his first film in nearly seven years, Party Monster,which cast him as notorious nightlife promoter Michael Alig, whopleaded guilty in 1997 to murdering his drug dealer. As opposed to themultimillion-dollar projects Culkin had previously appeared in, thebudget for this indie was minuscule. “We’re showing up in Times Squareat four in the morning with no permits,” he says excitedly, “waitingfor the cops to drive by on patrol, and then run out there and shootour scene and run back before the cops drive by again. This is likesome outlaw, underground filmmaking going on.”

Party Monster received mostly mixed reviews upon itsrelease in September 2003, and Culkin’s flamboyant–ifdead-on–portrayal of Alig incited more than a few “Homo Alone” jokes,but it just might be Culkin’s favorite of all his movies. “One out ofevery ten people who recognizes me now will say, ‘Hey, I liked you in Party Monster,'”he says. “Even if it’s only one in 20, or one in a hundred, it’sfulfilling, because that was one of the few things that I decided to dosolely for myself.”

Culkin’s new movie, Saved!, may be his mostsurprising yet, for the simple reason that it’s the first he’s madesince the ’80s for which he isn’t receiving top billing. In the darkhigh school comedy–a sort of post-millennial take on Heathers in which all the villainouspopular girls are evangelical Christians–he’s just one member of ayoung ensemble cast that includes Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, and PatrickFugit. In Saved!, he plays the wheelchair-bound Roland, the film’s resident wiseass and agnostic, who makes further waves by daring to date–gasp!–aJewish girl. Though Culkin professes an aversion to teen comedies, helatched on to this one because it allowed him to satirize “thearrogance of a little high school world,” and also because it’s beingproduced by Michael Stipe. “Mack doesn’t really have to shout to breakstereotype,” says Stipe. “His subtlety and his finesse as an actorconvey his message quite well: ‘I’m an adult, I’m smart, take me forwho I am.'”

At the same time, Culkin can’t deny the pleasure of workingwith people his own age–of being allowed to behave like an overgrownkid. “It felt like summer camp,” he says of the shoot. “Me and Jenadefinitely made it our job to be the corrupters and ringleaders, tomake sure everybody had a good time.” And what, exactly, does he meanby “corrupters”? “Don’t worry,” he answers through a smirk. “All goodthings. Everyone’s wiser now.” Frequent field trips to perform karaokeand attend Christian events during the production also gave the castand crew numerous opportunities to get better acquainted with Culkin’sgirlfriend of the last two years, Mila Kunis, of That ’70s Show. “He’ll probably kill me for this,” says Brian Dannelly, Saved!‘scowriter and director, “but I love that we’re at this giant Christianrock concert, and he’s making out with Mila. People were horrified, butI thought it was kind of fabulous. It shows he’s got a strong sense ofhimself.”

If Culkin’s Saved! costars expected him to be aloofor maladjusted, the poised, outgoing young man who instead showed up tothe set was a welcome letdown. “The bottom line is he’s totally coolwith the shit he’s gone through,” says Malone, who was herselfemancipated from her mother at the age of 15. “That’s more than I cansay with some 40-year-olds, who haven’t had nearly as much to dealwith, and they’re fucking bitter and crazy. He has an understanding ofwhat went down and why, and what he wants to do with it now. That takesballs, and that takes a lot of brains, too.”

When Macaulay Culkin drives in Los Angeles–orrather, since he has neither a car nor a driver’s license, whensomeone, usually his girlfriend, is driving him–he is often sighted byother celebrities. Some weeks ago, he was stopped at a traffic lightand noticed the wrestler Diamond Dallas Page in the next car over. It’sa well-known fact within the pro-wrestling community that Culkin is afan of their pseudosport, and the two started talking. “He’s like, ‘Afriend of mine just won a celebrity auction!'” Culkin says. “‘He getsto go bowling with [Home Alone costar] Joe Pesci, and I’m gonnago with him! You want me to tell him anything?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. Tellhim…hi.'” Culkin may not be able to keep his past from catching upwith him, but at least he’s getting better at dealing with it when itdoes.

It’s a routinely balmy day in late March as Culkin and Ireconvene on a balcony at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel, where heis chain-smoking Parliaments and brimming with enough energy to keepthe town running for a week. Last year he did a guest spot on Will & Grace,as a comically juvenile lawyer representing Megan Mullally’s Karen indivorce proceedings; a few months later, he was signing a deal with NBCto star in a sitcom of his own. Now he is weeks away from shooting thepilot, and by the time you read this, NBC will have decided if hisshow, produced by Conan O’Brien, will join their fall schedule tobecome the next Friends or if it will become nothing. Ever thegambling man, Culkin compares its odds of success to a roll of thedice. “I’d be surprised if it didn’t get picked up,” he says, “but I’dbe totally surprised if it did.”

It’s not hard to see why this particular sitcom, presently titled Foster Hall, might appeal to him: It would star him and actress Busy Philipps (Freaks and Geeks)as Clark and Peg Hall, a pair of wicked siblings who spent theirformative years bouncing from one foster family to the next and whoboth did time in prison–and now they’ve decided it’s time to settledown. “It’s basically a story about revenge,” Culkin explains. “Itopens up the door for an endless amount of parents we could have.” WhenI point out to him that Foster Hall would represent the latest in a series of projects, from Home Alone to Madame Melville to Party Monster,in which he has played boys or young men who have been left on theirown and forced by factors beyond their control to grow up before theirtime, Culkin says it’s just a coincidence. “It’s not like I’m saying,’Let’s find these lost souls for me to play,'” he says. “But I’m surethere’s some subconscious thing going on there. Now I’ll have to bemore aware. Now you’ve got me thinking.”

Speaking of lost souls: At some point, every profile ofMacaulay Culkin must eventually address the topic of his boyhood friendMichael Jackson, but when I bring it up, his response is as distant asif I had asked about the time he appeared on The Equalizer. In2001, Culkin said he wished he had spoken out in Jackson’s defenseduring a 1993 investigation that implicated the King of Pop as a childmolester. “I’m still the same person,” says Culkin, “and I’d still saythe same words.” He calls Jackson’s current prosecution “a sadsituation. But it’s going to work itself out.” He says that no one fromthe Jackson camp has contacted him this time. “There’s no reason to.I’m so far removed from all that now.”

Nor is he concerned that the publicity that comes withstarring in a network TV show could possibly lure his father back intohis life. “It’s something I’ve got to deal with either way,” he says,”whether I do this or anything else. It’s something that’salways there. But I think I feel equipped enough to handle it now.Otherwise I wouldn’t be putting myself in this position.”

These potentially painful subjects cannot even faze him,because right now Culkin (who plans to spend half his year in L.A.) isfocused on creating a new existence for himself, one in which he andhis girlfriend drive and hang out and raise their two dogs together insomething resembling normalcy. “If the show goes,” he says, “I made hera promise that two years down the line, we’ll upgrade the abode in BuyMode, like in The Sims.” More important than the house, though,is the fact that Culkin actually leaves it from time to time. “Everyonce in a while, I’m in the mood–I’m dressed up, ‘Let’s go.’ SometimesI’ll get dragged out, and sometimes I’ll just stay home. I’ll be like,’Just go–go be a girl with your girlfriends! Just don’t drink anythingweird from any weird guys.'” He exhales a puff of cigarette smoke witha sigh. “I’m such an old man.”