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I, Mack

Macaulay Culkin's new play, Madame Melville, is about a man reflecting on the searing experiences of his youth. But Culkin's own childhood was infinitely stranger. Now, at age 20, he looks back.

"I'm 20 now," says Macaulay Culkin. "And I've been in this business for sixteen years, had an agent for fourteen of them and a lawyer for eleven. Those kinds of things." He cannot remember a time when he wasn't famous. "Maybe some spotted memories here and there of going to the park with my mother. But it's hard for me to remember a time when people weren't staring at me for one reason or another.

"Teenagers are the ones who are hardest to handle. Their parents raised them watching my movies, so they feel they can say whatever they want to me."

People are staring at him right now. He's sitting under a trellis of rubber grapes in an Upper West Side diner across the street from the Promenade Theater, where an enormous image of him hangs out front, announcing his run in the play Madame Melville. It is Culkin's first work as an actor in six years. The play was cast by Billy Hopkins, the same casting director who gave him his very first acting job, when he was only 6. "He was like a little angel with a tilted halo," says Hopkins. "The critics would get mean and say he had on too much lipstick, but of course those were his real lips. He was exactly the same as he is now -- except not smoking."

It's a show-business convention, nearing a cliché, that child stars are cursed. Cuteness transmogrifies into tiresome idiosyncrasy. They grow up too fast and end up topless and snorting lines (Drew Barrymore), or they are racked with a maddening nostalgia for the glory years (Judy Garland), or their inevitable decline fills them with criminal rage (Dana Plato). Culkin's childhood was every bit as grueling as any of theirs, and a good deal more public. But he seems to have survived more or less intact. "I've been spending all these years trying to find the good stuff about it," he says.

Smoking has stained his teeth a khaki color, and his eyes have sunk deeper into his face, but he still has floppy blond hair and pure, pale skin. You can still see that kid -- mouth wide open, palms smacking against his cheeks -- pushing at the edges of Culkin's face. He manages to look pixieish and oddly dissipated at the same time. It's an uncanny combination.

These days, Culkin likes to talk in a hipster patois of his own invention, repeating words ("coolcool," "goodgood") for emphasis. "It's like I'm on The Brady Bunch," he says. "My wife would always laugh at my lingo. Like I call everyone 'chicks.' 'Chicks' and 'girls' and 'women' are all part of the rich tapestry of life."

Madame Melville will run in New York through August 26, Culkin's 21st birthday. It is a play about a boy expected to perform as a man and rewarded for doing so with pleasures and privileges most kids only fantasize about. Meanwhile, he struggles against his father for autonomy. ("The line 'I didn't like your father' would always get a big laugh in London," Culkin says.) But his character is also sometimes an older man, looking back on his youth. "Sections of the play are narrated by a middle-aged man saying, 'This is something that happened to me a long time ago that made me the man I am today,' " says producer Gregory Mosher. "Mack has that ability to look back on another life."

"I didn't think of half that stuff when I took the part," Culkin says. "Then you start to realize, you know, there are some parallels."

Some of Culkin's earliest memories are of helping his father, Kit, at the Catholic church where he worked. "I'd help him set up Mass and stuff like that," Culkin says. "It gave me a very tainted view of religion because I saw the man-behind-the-curtain sort of thing. You see your father taking the body of Christ and the blood of Christ down from the tabernacle or whatever, and everybody's believing it's, you know, a big holy thing, and you're like, 'It's just a bottle of wine and some crackers from a box in the back!' "

At that time, the family lived in an apartment on 94th Street and Second Avenue. All seven Culkin children were sharing bunk beds in one room, and Culkin's mother, Patricia Brentrup, was working as a telephone operator. "It was basically one long hallway separated by doorways with no doors," he remembers. "I guess we couldn't afford doors or something." Culkin laughs and gives a little huff. "They were all-right times for my family. My father was always, you know, abusive, but it didn't get really, really, really bad until later on."

The Culkins were neighbors with Susan Selig, a stage manager at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. "She knew this family -- this huge family -- around the corner, and she figured there might be somebody of the right age and the right gender and there I was," says Culkin. Kit Culkin, who'd been a child actor himself -- performing once with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn, and in George Balanchine's production of The Nutcracker -- was happy to get his son into show business. "My father, I think, had been sort of an actor when he was young" is the way Culkin puts it.

"They were so poor I had to use my own money to make sure that he got to and from rehearsal," says Hopkins. "Macaulay would crawl under the bleachers at the theater to look for change that had fallen out of people's pockets. They were like the Beverly Hillbillies."

Then, in 1988, Culkin got his first film role, in Rocket Gibraltar. At first, acting felt like freedom. "Initially," he says, "my God. You get to play on the beach and ride a bike all day. On the first take of my very first film, all we were supposed to do was just ride, you know. So I'm riding, I'm riding, I'm riding, and the director yells, 'Cut!' and I kept on riding. I just kept going. Finally the director had to run me down." Culkin giggles as he picks at his breakfast -- a kid's breakfast -- of French fries and Coke.

"I didn't even realize who I was working with. It was one of Burt Lancaster's last things. He sits me down and he's like 80 and I'm 6 and he goes, 'So, do you have any advice for me?' I go, 'Yeah: Just don't step on my lines.' "

His role in Uncle Buck the following year began to make him famous -- and began to teach him about the rigors of the profession his father had chosen for him. "That's when I started missing home. Being away for three months is like forever for an 8-year-old, but it was still fun. I mean, my father was pushy and stuff like that, but working with John Candy was cool," Culkin says. "He was a fun guy to be around; he was jolly. It's a cliché, but he was."