To be a child star is to be a permanent spectacle, a one-man freak show, an eternal curiosity. Macaulay Culkin has been in only two films in the past twelve years, and yet as we walk to our table for lunch at Coffee Shop, people whisper, gawk, and, in one unfortunate instance, forget how to properly sip liquid through a straw. It doesn’t help that, at 25, he still looks startlingly like he did sixteen years ago in Home Alone, when he slapped aftershave on his pale cheeks, gave a bug-eyed shriek, and became a pop-cultural phenomenon before he understood the concept of pop culture. “To a lot of people, I still am that kid,” he acknowledges. “It’s a blessing and a curse. I can go to any restaurant without a reservation, but while I’m there, everyone’s gonna be staring.”
Child actors are supposed to play two roles. As kids, they embody a mythically wholesome version of childhood; as adults, they are expected to personify a more ominous stereotype, living in a state of suspended implosion. “Yeah, it’s funny,” says Culkin. “A lot of people meet me and they’re like, Why aren’t you crazy?” As if to add to the confusion, he has now produced what he aptly deems “a strange, weird little book” called Junior, a quasi-fictional chronicle of a former child star who may or may not be borderline certifiable. “Yes, it’s me,” says Culkin, “but no, it isn’t, you know?”
In person he is quick-witted and chatty, affable but distant, someone who learned to interact through professional exchanges, not personal ones. He manages to be simultaneously oblique and revealing, constantly checking the tape recorder to make sure it’s picking up everything he says. He tells me repeatedly that he leads a “simple, simple life,” spending his free time walking the dog, feeding the fish, cleaning the house, and cooking for his girlfriend, Mila Kunis, who just ended her run on That 70’s Show. As for his own career, he isn’t retired, as some have surmised, though he jokingly refers to himself as “not exactly the hardest-working actor.”
An understandable position, given his past. Just glossing over Culkin’s coming-of-age is psychologically exhausting: Raised with six siblings in a one-bedroom on Second Avenue and 94th Street, he started scoring choice roles at age 8 and was a millionaire by 10, but his rapid ascent seemed less adorable and precocious the more people learned about his home life. His father, Kit, notoriously ruled the family—“his kingdom,” says Culkin—by humiliation and physical abuse, eventually leaving the household in 1995. That’s when his mother, Patricia, filed a custody suit, igniting a bitter public battle with Kit, and Culkin had his parents legally blocked from controlling his $17 million fortune, a move that forever estranged him from his father, who today Culkin “thinks” lives in Arizona. “I learned how to read court papers at 14,” he says, inadvertently quoting his alter ego, Junior. At 17, Culkin married actress Rachel Miner; by 20, he was divorced. When he was arrested a little more than a year ago for possession of marijuana, he was most frustrated to be perceived as conforming to type. “You know, I am a former child actor,” he says with a sarcastic chuckle. “I’m supposed to be a lot more fucked up than I am. I took a certain amount of pride that I wasn’t that cliché, so it was, like, Oh, great, I gave a lot of people exactly what they wanted.”
Novels written by celebrities tend to be grating, solipsistic affairs. Given a choice between Ethan Hawke’s literary fiction and the veiled memoirs of glittering train wrecks like Nicole Richie, most sane people would choose television. When I heard that Culkin was now a novelist, I rolled my eyes along with everyone else, a reaction I had to suppress repeating when he prefaced our chat by announcing, “The funny thing is, I’m not really a big reader, not a big fan of books in the first place.” But Junior turns out to be oddly, unwittingly . . . compelling. A postmodern mishmash filled with drawings, epistolary fragments, personal manifestos, and public diatribes, the book is best appreciated as a piece of conceptual art rather than a legitimate novel. Tear out the pages, staple them to a wall, and you’d have a deconstructionist installation, an accidental dissertation on the crippling self-consciousness brought on by early fame. Child Actor: Fall and Rise.
“In a perfect world, my name wouldn’t even be on it,” says Culkin, who prefers to think of the book as a meta-artifact of celebrity. “It came from the idea of everyone wanting me to write a memoir. I play with that a little bit, the idea of naming names, kind of teasing people, you know?” Early reviews of the book have not been kind—“self-indulgently infantile,” scolded Publishers Weekly—but he isn’t surprised. “I’m not expecting the American literary community to welcome me with open arms,” he says. “To them I’m just some schmuck kid who wrote some book.” If Junior has a clear theme, it’s coping with fame, a subject that brings out Culkin’s caustic side. “I really disassociated myself from ‘Macaulay Culkin’ mentally,” he says. “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 shit anymore. That’s not me anymore. That’s for you. It’s yours. Go ahead, have fun.”