Macaulay Culkin has just spent eight long hours on the set of his latest movie, My Girl. It’s nearly 7 p.m., he hasn’t had his dinner yet, and he’s doing another interview.
He dutifully sits down with me at a picnic table in a huge, empty Orlando, Fla., auditorium that serves as a cafeteria for the cast and crew, who are still filming on the adjacent soundstage. He sips at his third or fourth Mountain Dew of the day, picks at a scab on his left knee, and toys with a five-foot-long empty cardboard tube. He is distracted, fidgety, but politely resigned to answering questions about how his life has changed since the phenomenal success of his breakthrough film, Home Alone.
”Sometimes it gets annoying,” he says, picking at the scab. ”’Sit here.’ ‘No, sit here, it’s more comfortable.’ ‘Are you the kid from Home Alone?’ No, I’m an alien from Mars.”
Suddenly he gets that look in his big blue eyes — that irresistible, devilish-but-darling look that helped make Home Alone the third-largest-grossing film ever, and has made this blond boy of 11 years a major star. The interview is over.
”Batter up!” he yells, swinging the tube like a bat. He grabs a roll of red gaffer’s tape and, winding it around his hands with intense concentration, proceeds to make himself a baseball. ”This is first base,” he shouts, racing across his indoor playing field to designate a plastic garbage can. ”That blue thing on the floor over there is third. Hey, Dad!” he calls out to his father, Kit. ”You’re on Meredith’s team.”
Then Mack, as he’s known by family and friends, flashes me the look again, this time adding a troublemaking grin. ”Dad’s a slow runner,” he says.
In the past year, Macaulay Culkin has been canonized as America’s Everykid. The good news is, that’s basically what he is. Culkin, who reportedly earned a salary in the low six figures for Home Alone (which grossed about $500 million worldwide) and will make more than $4 million for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, would rather listen to his favorite Poison tapes or play with his Wrestlemania dolls than sign autographs. He’d rather ride his bicycle than don a tuxedo for the Academy Awards. He does love acting — he’s been doing it since he was 4 years old — but the star treatment he can do without.
Yet Culkin, who has been to the White House, appeared on the Emmys, the Oscars, and The Arsenio Hall Show, and, most recently, shown up in Michael Jackson’s ”Black or White” video, is finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the consequences of his success. And for Columbia, which released My Girl on Nov. 27, the public’s adoration of Culkin has presented a peculiar dilemma.
Even though the movie also stars Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and 10-year-old newcomer Anna Chlumsky, the studio knew the public would see it mainly as Culkin’s follow-up to Home Alone. But the trouble began when word leaked out that something shocking happens to him in this movie: not his much-publicized first kiss, but his vivid death late in the film (he plays an extremely allergic boy killed by a swarm of bees). The story was quickly picked up by newspapers and magazines, which asked, Would parents want their children to watch their Home Alone hero die a brutal death?
Columbia shifted into spin control, setting up screenings for child psychologists, parents, and children. The movie’s press kit includes quotes from some of those psychologists: ”Feel the power. Feel the healing.” ”Perfect fare for parents and their children.”
”The (scene) is tastefully, sensitively done,” says Frank Price, the former Columbia chief who green-lighted the project. ”If everybody keeps writing solely about the death, that will have its own impact.”
”Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for,” adds David T. Friendly, My Girl‘s executive producer and president of production for Ron Howard’s Imagine Films, the company that made it. ”They know movies are not real life.”
Some child psychologists agree that children differentiate between celluloid imagery and reality and are more aware of death than adults may think. But Macaulay Culkin isn’t just any star. ”Children see him as a hero,” says Dr. Lee Salk, professor of psychology, psychiatry, and pediatrics at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. ”Look what he did (in Home Alone). He held his own against these intruders and managed to survive without his parents, every child’s dream. To them, this is a real kid. This could intensify their fears of death and separation. Sure, kids have to deal with death someday, but is this the day?”
”The only thing that makes it a big deal is Macaulay Culkin is a giant movie star and this is his first movie after Home Alone,” says producer Brian Grazer (Parenthood), Imagine’s co-CEO. ”If it weren’t Macaulay Culkin, would there be any controversy at all? No.”
Of course, without Macaulay Culkin, it’s unlikely that My Girl would have opened at No. 2 on the box office charts behind The Addams Family on Thanksgiving weekend. Despite some distributors’ concerns that the movie’s serious look at death would put a damper on business, the picture pulled in more than $17 million in its first five days. In fact, the film’s ”Mack Is Back” marketing campaign baldly capitalized on Culkin’s current status as a cultural icon for American children. ”Culkin is the big draw,” says John N. Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., Inc. ”There’s no question that he brought the audience in.”
The irony is that, unlike Home Alone, My Girl is anything but Culkin’s one-boy show. It is an ensemble piece that focuses mostly on Chlumsky, a Chicago native who has drawn praise for her performance as the hypersensitive, hypochondriacal Vada. Culkin appears in little more than a handful of scenes, though the on-screen chemistry between him and Chlumsky may be the most appealing aspect of the film.
”Mack and Anna were just two kids working together on a movie,” says director Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin). ”Mack didn’t have the attitude ‘I’m a star and you’re not.’ We added two or three more scenes with him because as he began to work with her, there was terrific synergy.”
Culkin and Chlumsky have just finished filming their first kiss beneath the shade of a large (fake) weeping willow at the edge of a (real) lake. Chlumsky and I sit in director’s chairs to talk about the big event. A strikingly beautiful girl with large, sad eyes and pouting lips, Chlumsky is shier and more subdued than the domineering Vada. But before she can say a word, Culkin, wearing his Walkman, stomps over, pulls up a chair, and stares her down. ”How was the kiss?” I ask.
”Yuck,” says Chlumsky, waving her hand over her face.
”I have to hear this?” moans Culkin in mock dismay. ”Oh, thanks.” He produces a pair of thick wax lips from the pocket of his khaki shorts.
”We’ll have to do it the whole day,” he says, putting the lips into his mouth and mugging for my benefit.
Culkin seemed to enjoy the interplay of an ensemble performance. ”Finally, I’m not alone,” he says. But his presence brought unremitting publicity to the project. One national tabloid reported the implausible rumor that Culkin paid a stripper $1,000 to perform in his trailer, a story everyone connected with the film found ridiculous.
”He takes everything very much in stride,” says his father, who has six other kids (three are actors) to contend with. ”He asked me the other day, ‘Do I still have a hundred dollars from my movie?”’
But even while Culkin seems to be shooting toward heights no child star since Shirley Temple has reached, industry insiders are wondering how long the magic can last. ”It’s almost impossible to predict,” says Zieff. ”Right now, he’s a great little Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. But by the time he’s 13, he’ll probably be another person.”
Culkin, though clearly a savvy actor who knows how to work a crowd, does indeed seem unaffected by all the fuss and unconcerned about what lies ahead; he is more interested in talking about the large puppet he stuffs with socks to trick his parents into thinking he’s asleep in bed.
”I cover the head with a pillow,” he explains conspiratorially. ”Then I go into my brother’s room and play Nintendo. I can do that anytime I want for as long as I want.”