Unfortunate Son

Photo: Ann Weathersby

On a cold Jersey day, not so far from the maw of the Lincoln Tunnel, Liam Aiken, the 14-year-old star of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, clomps down the creaky stairs of his old home (which will catch fire just a week later). He passes his sticker-splattered guitar cases and a beat-up skateboard (thoroughly smoked-up in that same fire), with hands plugged deep into the pockets of a worn denim jacket (one of the few articles he’ll save from his soon-to-be-uninhabitable bedroom).

If the gleefully macabre narrator Lemony Snicket were telling this tale, the happy dog yapping at Liam’s scruffy Chuck Taylors (and who survives the fire) might instead be a symbol of the nagging misfortune that follows this brilliant young actor around, and of how coolly he bears it. After all, he twice missed being the most famous child star in the world: first by passing on the The Sixth Sense part that went to Haley Joel Osment, and then being touted as Harry Potter, only to be dumped in the end.

So it’s no wonder that Liam says the role of Klaus Baudelaire—the indefatigable bookworm orphaned by a house fire at the outset of A Series of Unfortunate Events—is “more like me than any role I’ve played.” But it is surprising that he says this one week before his own house burns down.

On November 23, Liam and his mother, Moya, were in Los Angeles to promote the film with co-star Jim Carrey when a friend called to tell them that their house was in flames. They caught the first flight back to JFK. It will take six months of rebuilding before they can move back in.

It’s a grim twist worthy of Snicket, and all the more reason to suspect this franchise has found its perfect star. And not just because he’s delivered subtle performances in the major roles he has won, opposite Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Paul Newman. If Harry Potter is the lollipop of children’s franchises, Lemony Snicket is the sour ball. Author Daniel Handler’s eleven novels (and counting) have sold 25 million self-described “extremely unpleasant” copies by tracking the three unlucky orphans and the evil Count Olaf, who rather persistently tries to murder them for their inheritance. Corpses drop as often as they do on Six Feet Under, or in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Instead of magic wands and flying brooms, the series introduces knives, poison-filled syringes, and leeches. Now, on December 17, there will be a big-budget holiday picture starring Jim Carrey (as Olaf), complete with aflac tie-in, using the film’s woe to sell insurance.

“This is the kind of stuff kids like,” says Aiken, a punk fan who aspires to play the guitar like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. “It’s maybe not what they’re supposed to like. But kids like it.”

Oddly enough, Snicket’s “misery and woe” is a comfortable briar patch for Aiken. Unlike those smiling, sun-kissed kid actors on the West Coast, Aiken has already cultivated a more gritty, actorly, East Coast oeuvre. He’s one of the only young male actors who’s consistently played dark without playing creepy. He debuted on Broadway at the age of 6 in Ibsen’s not-so-cheery A Doll’s House, without a hitch. “I remember somebody said, ‘You yawned onstage. Nobody yawns,’ ” recalls Liam. “I don’t know why, but I was just never worried.”

“I think I had this feeling that it wouldn’t work out,” says Aiken about losing the Harry Potter role. “But it was fine. I would have just been Harry Potter from then on.”

And he has continued to play roles with a natural ease, never too eager to please, or too quick to cry. He made his film debut as Parker Posey’s love child in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool; played the son of an unhappy single mother in The Object of My Affection; starred with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in Stepmom; played the dour boy who murmurs “It’s all so fucking ridiculous” in Road to Perdition—for which director Sam Mendes praised his “innocence and old-soul wisdom.” In fact, Liam so rarely plays cute that his mother was shocked when he scored the lead in 2003’s fun kid-and-his-dog film Good Boy! “A kid with two parents! Who’s not depressed?” she says. “We thought, What’s going on?

Aiken’s acting career began with another horrible event—probably the most horrible of events. “We’d just gotten moved into this house,” says his mother. “His father got sick, and died within a year. At 34.” Liam was 2; Moya was a freelance graphic artist working at MTV, where her husband had been a producer. “We had no insurance, nothing.”

“Shortly after my dad died, my mom figured that if I could do a few commercials,” explains Liam, hands in his jacket pockets, “I’d get a college fund.” Moya started him off with a Ford Aerostar ad, but knew how easily the life of a child actor could turn bad. So she set some ground rules. No food ads. (“They make you spit it out! Talk about eating disorders!”) No drug ads. (“Drug commercial for cancer? Oh, no.”) And no print commercials. (“They cast kids by the color of their hair.”)

Gradually, Moya’s smart decisions and Liam’s subtle performances made him a leading man (well, leading tween)—and now, with Snicket, he’s about to become a star. But it almost happened much more quickly. “There was one film that went on to be one of the biggest movies ever,” says Moya, who declined the part over Liam’s objections. “But I just couldn’t see him doing it when he was 8, because it had too much to do with death.” Was it The Sixth Sense? Moya won’t answer, but a knowledgeable source confirms that it was.

But that was nothing compared with Harry. In 2000, paparazzi stalked his home, and British tabloids ran his picture under headlines like AMERICAN IS CONJURED UP TO PLAY POTTER. Director Chris Columbus was set on him. But Rowling decreed that only a full-blooded Brit could play Harry (Moya is Irish; her husband was American). “I know it sounds weird,” says Moya, “but I remember Liam was so relieved.”

“I think I had this feeling that it wouldn’t work out,” agrees Aiken, in a fatalistic, Snicket-like manner. “But it was fine. I hadn’t done much before, and I would have just been Harry Potter from then on.”

On the eve of his first potential blockbuster, it looks like sidestepping premature superstardom may have worked out for the best. After all, he’s 14 and looks it. Which wouldn’t be extraordinary, except that child actors almost never look their age (Macaulay Culkin, 24, still looks 14; Ron Howard, maybe a bald 24 these days). Opposite Jim Carrey, Aiken plays a 12-year-old—and Aiken looked 12 when they started. “But his voice changed and he grew five inches before they were done,” teases his mother. “Later, the makeup person asked us to send her a current picture, to see if they could do some reshoots.” So they doctored photos, adding a digital beard. “They weren’t, uh, too happy,” says Liam, grinning slyly.

It’s easy to imagine Liam—who has a quiet, hangdog charm that reads more Mark Ruffalo than Doogie Howser—sporting that stubble before too long: as a teen icon, or as a brooding, impish, leading man. In Snicket, you can hear Aiken’s voice breaking—noticeably, into a throaty howl in one scene on a boat—just as you can imagine Aiken’s emerging from child-actor-dom, and his house fire, practically unscathed: With a more-than-healthy résumé, but without a catchphrase or a running character he’ll have to shed later.

But right now, he’s not committed to anything past his freshman year at high school—and learning chords. He’d like to start a band, he says. “But everybody at my new school’s already got their own bands.” And the school play? “Ah, um, nah,” he shrugs.

Unfortunate Son