I, Mack

“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.”

When Home Alone came out in 1990, it quickly became the most successful comedy ever made, and the third-most-successful movie after E.T. and Star Wars. But there were no robots or moonscapes or flying bicycles. Home Alone’s special effect was Macaulay Culkin. Almost overnight, Culkin says, neighborhood kids he had played with were transformed into awestruck snoops, and everywhere he went there were cameras. “It was one of those paranoias like, There are people in the bushes! There are people in the bushes! But there really are people in the bushes. It was that kind of thing.

“Hats don’t really help,” he says. “They say if you cover your forehead, you cover 80 percent of what people associate with you, but it doesn’t work. When I was 9 years old, I got recognized wearing a ski mask. Maybe it’s the lips. I couldn’t hide from the world at all.”

Culkin started staying inside the apartment as much as possible and watching a lot of television when he wasn’t working. “I remember I was doing Home Alone 2 and I was getting changed in my trailer on the street. Next thing I know, there was a group of upwards of about 200 people shaking my trailer. It scared the shit out of me,” he says. “You get scared of everything out there because they’re all trying to get in here,” he says, motioning toward himself. As he jerks his arms in the air, the few people in the restaurant who haven’t yet noticed him turn and stare. “I’m a self-diagnosed agoraphobic,” he says.

Kit Culkin had quit his job to manage his son’s career (Kit and Patricia split the standard 15 percent management fee), and the two were on the road or on location for most of the year. “I just remember the exact point when I was growing a little more tired – during The Good Son. I had already done one or two things that year, and I just said to Kit, ‘Listen, I’m really getting tired and I’m not at school as much as I’d like to be; I really need some time off.’ He said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and the next thing I knew I was on the next set doing the next thing, and it just kind of clicked in my brain: Okay. There’s basically nothing I can do to make this stop.

As Culkin tells it, his father was constantly trying to teach him a lesson. “I was making God-knows-how-much money, and Kit was making me sleep on the couch, just because he could,” Culkin says. “Just to let you know who’s in charge and just to let you know if he doesn’t want you to sleep in a bed, you’re not going to sleep in a bed.”

“Michael Jackson’s still a kid. I’m still a kid. We’re both going to be 8 years old forever in some place because we never had a chance to be 8 when we actually were. That’s the beautiful and cursed part of our lives.”

Sometimes, Culkin says, his father would hit him or one of his siblings or his mother: “It was something that was always there, you know – it kind of always contributed to some of the unhappiness.

“He beat our spirits down,” he says, and pauses for a minute. Like most people, Culkin becomes confused when he tries to describe his relationship with his father. “You really just had to be there to see what kind of a man he was.”

One day when Culkin was 9, he got a call from Michael Jackson inviting him to Neverland. He went with his parents and his younger brother Kieran – Kierie, he calls him – in a helicopter Jackson sent for them. “He had every kind of soda in the world there, every kind of candy. A two-floor arcade, a carnival, and a movie theater.” Culkin, who kept ferrets, rabbits, cats, and dogs at home, was particularly impressed by Jackson’s private zoo. “He had giraffes, elephants, tigers, orangutans, chimps, ostriches, llamas. We were driving around in golf carts, and the thing that cracked him up was he got us talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and instead of ‘Donatello,’ I’d say ‘Don’; instead of ‘Leonardo,’ I’d say ‘Leo.’ Like I knew them way back, me and Michelangelo – Mikey – are tight.”

A bond formed quickly. “We had very similar experiences in childhood,” he says. “It’s not like I can just bump into people on the street and say, Oh! You too! It doesn’t happen that often. Michael’s still a kid. I’m still a kid. We’re both going to be about 8 years old forever in some place because we never had a chance to be 8 when we actually were. That’s kind of the beautiful and the cursed part of our lives.”

When Jackson was accused of child molestation in 1993, Culkin says, he “would have liked to have said something in his defense – I still wish I had – but my father kept me out of it.” Culkin calls Jackson “one of my very best friends in the world” and is the godfather of Jackson’s son, Prince Michael, and his daughter, Paris. “Michael and I had an understanding about my father,” Culkin says. “He knew what that was all about. He’d lived it.”

And at the time, Jackson’s estate was the largest starfucker-free zone Culkin had ever been in. “You know there’s not going to be a photographer in the bushes. You can walk around and no one will stare at you and you can be normal,” says Culkin. “Neverland is still the only place on earth where I feel absolutely, 100 percent comfortable.”

Kit Culkin’s status as hollywood’s most hated stage mom has been well documented over the years. “I just remember him yelling his head off on the telephone to God-knows-who, every day,” says Culkin. “He was a screamer, he was an intimidator.”

Ultimately, he did secure $8 million a picture for his son’s work, putting Macaulay on the same earning curve as adult stars like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. “On some level, his intentions were good,” says Culkin. “He was trying to get the most for his family.”

But there were other motives as well. “I knew Kit very, very, very well,” says Ken Weinrib, Macaulay Culkin’s lawyer. “I made every deal he ever had, and a lot of the difficulties were not about money; that’s the reason it would get so difficult and toxic. Because it wasn’t about money. It was about power.”

By 1993, Kit must have been able to feel his power ebbing. Macaulay had turned sullen, which was reflected in his work. Kit and Patricia were at war almost all the time – both have since admitted they were involved with other people. And it was Kit who took the first step toward dissolving the family.

There is a famous scene in Home Alone in which Catherine O’Hara realizes that she has forgotten something. Her horror mounts as she figures out that the something isn’t the alarm or the bathroom light; it is – “Kevin!” – her son. The mood at the Culkin house was very different when it dawned on them that they were missing Kit. “We didn’t even realize for a while that he wasn’t there,” says Culkin, grinning. “We kind of looked around the house and all of a sudden we’re sitting there watching TV – laughing – and we’re like, ‘Wait a second, where’s Kit?’ We were feeling really good. All that stress in our shoulders was gone. We were like, ‘What’s going on? What’s making this good?’ “

As he crosses broadway at 76th street, a man – two stories up, a block away – shrieks, “Hey, Macaulay!” out his window. Culkin gives a little wave and heads into the Amsterdam Billiard Club, where he likes to hang out. For one thing, he can smoke his Parliaments here, and for another, the patrons at this time of day are serious pool players who don’t care much about the young man in their midst wearing blue jeans and a wine-colored leather jacket studded with rhinestones and grommets in the shapes of shooting stars and comets. “My stylist sent it over,” he says with a self-mocking eye roll.

The bartender recognizes Culkin immediately. “I’ll get that,” he says, handing over a bottle of Poland Spring before the celebrity can go for his wallet. Culkin thanks him and settles himself on a high stool by the window. “It’s funny,” he says, flipping his bottle of free water in his hands. “The more money you have, the less you need.” When he got his first credit card, Culkin bought a $600 ebony cane with a sterling-silver tip, “because I could.” He laughs, pushes his hands through his blond hair, and lights a cigarette. “I feel like some rich little kid left me his inheritance.” He looks older in this light; leaning on one knee, smoking in his leather with his hair back and the sound of pool balls snapping all around him. “No,” he says, exhaling smoke. “I feel like some little kid worked really, really hard and I got his money.”

It was when Culkin’s mother filed a custody suit that he found out just how much he was worth: some $50 million. “My father would hide newspapers from me so I wouldn’t read the stuff about him or find out how much I was making. I can understand why they did that; they didn’t want me running off to my friends saying, ‘I just made $8 million!’ “

But as the custody case moved through the courts, Culkin, then 16, decided to gain control of his finances. “He didn’t want to be the subject of his parents’ dispute,” says Weinrib.

“Basically, I had millions and millions of dollars in the bank and my mother couldn’t pay the rent because she was spending all of her money on lawyers,” Culkin says. “We were about to get evicted from our apartment. The only way I could get access to that money was to take my father’s name off it, but I didn’t want to make it messy, so I figured I’d take both their names off.

“That’s kind of something that’s up in the air in my brain,” he continues, “whether parents should be earning money from their children in that kind of way. That’s something for future generations of child actors to figure out, whether parents should be creating that dynamic.”

Kit Culkin never showed up for the last day of the trial, and his son has not seen or spoken to him since. There is still a bench warrant out for Kit’s arrest for allegedly assaulting a photographer at the trial. “When he disappeared after the trial,” says Culkin, “first he stole all my memorabilia, like my very first costume and all the things I had collected over the years. My pictures, this and that. Stuff that I was going to put in storage and dig out when I was 50 or 60 for a laugh. He took that with him.”

Ken Weinrib thinks that once Kit lost control of his child’s finances, it dawned on him that he would lose control of his children altogether. “I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t show up for the last day,” Weinrib says. “I don’t think anyone who knew him was. He wasn’t after Mack’s money – none of it was ever really about money – but that decision made it apparent that he wasn’t gonna get control of everything. He was gonna lose.”

“For now, my opinion is, the farther away he is the better when it comes to, like, everything,” Culkin says. “We think he’s in Arizona. That guy always wanted to be a cowboy.”

“High school was a great time,” Culkin says brightly. “When Kit left, it was like, I can finally have my own room, you know what I’m saying?” He attended the Professional Children’s School and had a group of twenty friends who would hang out in his room every day. His apartment became their headquarters. “People would come from all over the city and put their names up there: I had floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall graffiti. Even the tiles on my bathroom, on my toilet, on my mirrors, on the ceiling. Everywhere. It was something I always wanted to do, and now that he was gone I could.”

They were a pack of “pseudo-punks,” Culkin says, loitering around Sim’s deli on Columbus Avenue, where they went for smokes, stealing orange caution cones from the street and vandalizing the occasional parking meter. “I did all those kind of great things, like I dyed my hair. I did purple and I did pink and I did orange, and they made such a big deal out of it – it was on the cover of People!”

“They were always printing things about his beer parties,” says a former classmate, “but he was as normal as you could be if you were fucking superfamous and a millionaire at 8.”

“His way of rebelling was not to fulfill everyone’s expectations and become little Mr. Hot Shit and go to Moomba to bring home six models every night and do drugs,” says Gregory Mosher.

“It was so blown out of proportion,” Culkin says. “I never did anything more than any upper-class Upper West Side kid you know would. We weren’t, like, all squatting in the corner shooting heroin.”

By his senior year, though, Culkin was attending school “for purely social reasons. It was one of those things where I could pass without lifting a finger,” he says. “That was kind of pissing them off. I’d get really high scores on my standardized tests but like D’s across the board.” And then there was the matter of the stool he brought with him from class to class, refusing to sit on one of the school’s regular chairs. “Eventually, they called me in and said, ‘We think you’re trying to tell us something with that stool.’ ” Ultimately, he dropped out, a few credits shy of graduation.

He met his wife, Rachel Miner, when he was 14. “She always says she thought I was a jerk,” Culkin says. “On the first day of school, she said, ‘Hi, my name is Rachel,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, welcome to the school,’ or whatever. She thought I was such a jerk for not saying, ‘And my name is Mack.’ “

When he talks about Miner, he is talking on the one hand about a marriage, on the other about going steady. “We hung out in a big group of people, and you start kind of pairing off. We dated four times before we got married. She’d broken up with me three times before, and so the last time we were going out I said, ‘Marry me now before you dump me again.’

“What can I say?” he says now, sounding a bit wistful. “She was my girl.”

They were married at a small stone church in Connecticut on June 21, 1998. To avoid press coverage, no printed invitations were given out. Instead, the 60 guests were sent on a kind of treasure hunt, with directions given to a hotel where the front desk provided directions to the church. “The wedding was very small and low-key,” says Emily Gerson Saines, the manager who represents three of the seven Culkin children and Rachel Miner. “The party was like a fancy version of a family picnic. It was at someone’s house in Litchfield County, and children were running everywhere, swimming if they wanted to. That’s who Mack and Rachel were as a couple – family always came first. They would go over to Pat’s house and help the little ones with homework.”

Though the newlyweds appeared together in a Sonic Youth video directed by Harmony Korine (“He looks like a pale prince,” says Korine, who also published a book of grainy black-and-whites of Culkin with a Japanese publisher, titled The Bad Son), they spent most of their time at home, watching Culkin’s 500 DVDs and taking care of stray cats. “He had this menagerie of sick animals,” says Weinrib. “You walk into their apartment and you’re like, ‘What are these animals? It’s like Noah’s ark in here!’ “

A few days before their first Christmas together in 1998, Culkin and Miner woke to the news that a fire originating in Patricia Brentrup’s apartment had killed four people. “Two family friends basically broke down our front door and told us,” says Culkin. “I ran to the television and boom, there it was: the Culkin fire. Of course, the picture they had was of a Christmas tree on fire, but it had nothing to do with a Christmas tree.”

“All Pat did was turn on a radiator,” says Gerson Saines. But she was sued for $80 million in damages (still pending) and Culkin was sued for an additional $113,000 (since dismissed). “They made it seem like I was running around the house naked spitting vodka on the walls and throwing matches everywhere,” Culkin says. “I wasn’t even there.”

“Macaulay and Rachel and I went out to buy them socks and shoes and pajamas,” says Saines, “and we’re waiting on line at the Athlete’s Foot north of Times Square – we’re in the middle of a tragedy – and all the salespeople are staring at him till finally one of them gets the courage to ask him for his autograph. It was a surreal moment.”

“My father would hide newspapers from me so I wouldn’t read the stuff about him or find out how much I was making. They didn’t want me running off to my friends saying, ‘I just made $8 million!’”

The siblings moved in with Culkin and Miner for a time. “I had a place that was way too big for me and my wife anyway,” Culkin says. “It was a nice Christmas other than the fact that all their presents got burned … and their house. It made me feel good that we brought it all together and made it work. It was awful, of course – people died – it was awful.”

Though Culkin remains close with Miner, the two split before he left for Madame Melville’s London run. While he was away, there were various reports of his dating, most accurately of his fleeting romance with American model Agatha Relota. “They were so behind on the news,” he says. “That stuff didn’t even break until right before I left in February, and Agatha and I hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since late November.”

As for his relationship with Miner, “it just is what it is,” he says. “We still talk and stuff like that. We’re gonna wait until we’re in the same city to sit down and talk about it and try to figure out exactly what to do next. But, you know, whatever. It’s something we’ll figure out. I’m always going to love her.”

Culkin’s performance in London was more successful than most dared to hope. “In England, you could tell the press was just waiting to roast this kid on a spit,” says Mosher. But after the play opened, the critics of London found Culkin unindictable. The Daily Mail’s Michael Coveney wrote that “Culkin has eloquent body language and assured presence.” Seeing Culkin’s performance was “one of those rare evenings when you become suddenly aware you are in the presence of something rare and special,” wrote Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph, calling him “absolutely superb.”

Culkin says that one of the things that attracted him to Madame Melville was that it is a sexy play, and he is sexy in it. It isn’t the self-possessed sexiness of a man but the desperate sexiness of an adolescent. “He really does that horrible teenage awkwardness,” says producer Julian Schlossberg. “He reminds us of that difficulty of adolescence when you’re not comfortable as a boy, but you can’t possibly say you’re a man.”

Culkin didn’t hear from his father until a few months ago, when he received a telegram in London: “It said, ‘All the luck in a long successful run. You will, as always, be wonderful. Dad.’ ” It’s more the message of a long-lost manager than a long-lost father. “It was just funny; I’m getting back to work and now he decides to make contact,” says Culkin.

In fact, Kit Culkin actually flew to London, where he slipped into the theater unnoticed to see one of his son’s performances. Kit now lives in a two-bedroom condo in Phoenix, Arizona, with a woman named Jeanette Krylowski. Kit would not be interviewed for this article, but Krylowski – who sent several letters to the editors of British newspapers – was only too happy to send a series of lengthy e-mails and to speak on the telephone despite Kit’s disapproval. “If he finds out I’m talking about Patti, he’ll be really angry,” she says. “But I don’t think he’ll leave me.” To hear Krylowski tell it, he’d better not: “I don’t know what he’d do if I wasn’t in the picture. I honestly think he’d be dead.”

Krylowski is now a day trader, but when Kit first met her – long before he and Patricia Brentrup separated – she was working at a wildlife preserve with lions and tigers. “Now we just have a small cat and a huge iguana, a macaw, and a Great Dane that we rescued and nursed back to health.” Kit, she says, aches for the children he never sees. “He rents their movies and he closes the door, and then he won’t talk the whole next day.”

As Krylowski sees it, Patricia Brentrup turned her children against their father. “After 1990, she got real resentful – I think envy is a better way of putting it. My analysis is she was the only one not getting famous and she felt left behind,” Krylowski says. “The kids do what Mom tells them to, because through the years, Mom had said, ‘Your father doesn’t love you, your father doesn’t love you.’

“This is how I know it got really bad: We had Kieran here for three days, and all he did while he was here was bitch that he didn’t get to spend enough time with his dad. I found out later when I read the court case that they claimed he had been kidnapped to Arizona. Kidnapped!” she fumes.

“Kit’s an old-fashioned guy, and he believes in marriage,” she says. “So his position through the court case was, She’s the mother of my children, and he would not be the one to talk badly about her. He still won’t. He figures, They hate me; if they find out what she did, will they hate her too? Let them have their mother.

Krylowski is angry with Macaulay for alleging abuse. “The whole family might have had three spankings in their whole lives,” she says. “And that stuff about sleeping on the couch? When they moved into the new apartment, Kit bought all this furniture that didn’t arrive for a week, so Mack slept on the couch. That’s abuse?”

But according to Macaulay, Krylowski would have no way of knowing: “I didn’t meet her. She’s always saying, ‘I was there! I was there!,’ and maybe she was behind the scenes with my father, but I never saw her. Ever.”

Krylowski may be spouting Kit’s version of the past, but she can see his present for herself. Kit is broke. He has a debilitating spinal problem. A year ago, they received a call from a National Enquirer reporter informing them that Kit’s daughter from a previous relationship had died from a drug overdose. He hasn’t been in touch with his kids, says Krylowski, because he can’t bear to be rejected anymore.

I ask her why he finally sent Macaulay that telegram when Madame Melville opened in London. “I sent the telegram to Mack,” Krylowski says. “It was the same message that Kit’s father sent to him the first time he was onstage.”

Culkin, however, is absolutely unconflicted about his father. “The one thing he taught me,” he says, “was how not to be, and how I don’t want to be with my children. He was a bad guy.”

Culkin has come for a quick dinner down the street from the theater at the Zen Palate. His mother is coming to a preview tonight, and he has a clean shave and a fresh haircut that makes him look younger than ever. “Now I’m having a really good time – a better time than I ever thought I would when I was younger,” he says. “I didn’t know that this kind of thing existed, working and being happy.

“I’m a very happy person,” he continues, making a little joke of it. “Yay me. Sis-boom-ba.”

Somehow, he says, he has just sorted through it all: “I’ve been writing, and it’s very therapeutic, the writing is. I write all kinds of things: really bad poetry, screenplays, and for the fuck of it I started writing my memoirs. I have no title yet.”

He is considering playing the homicidal club kid Michael Alig in an upcoming film adaptation of a book called Disco Blood Bath, and he wants to have kids someday. “But I’m still young,” he says. “Right now I just want to have fun. In London, I started going out to clubs and bars, and maybe now I’ll hit some parties. I just want to meet people, live life, and spread my pixie dust throughout the world.”

I, Mack