— -- Macaulay Culkin admits he is somewhat of a mystery.
From 1990 to 1994, he was one of Hollywood’s biggest properties, starring in movie after movie, including Home Alone, My Girl, and Richie Rich, where he played America’s wealthiest kid. The role was not much of a stretch for him — he was the highest-paid child actor ever, reportedly making $8 million per film at his peak. Then, at the age of 14, Culkin seemed to drop off the face of the earth.
Culkin says his desire to have a normal life led him to stop working as an actor. “[I was] starting off high school, so I decided to tell my mother, my representatives… ’I don’t wanna do this anymore, I wanna go to school, I wanna make friends… so don’t even bring up movies, don’t even bring up acting,” he says. “I told them to call it retirement… I never wanted to do it again.”
But now, at the age of 20, Culkin is doing it again, acting for the first time in six years. Madame Melville, which recently arrived in New York from London is earning Culkin glowing reviews. In it he plays a 15 year old who is taught about love and life from an older woman.
He tells 20/20’s Barbara Walters his return to public life and performing is something he now feels ready to do, and shrugs off the rumors that have swirled around for years that he spent the last six years battling drugs and alcohol. “I always kind of felt that [the substance abuse] was almost expected of me in a way, that’s kind of why I stayed away from it.”
All Work, No Play
Culkin is the third of seven children. And while in the Home Alone films he has a loving family —, albeit occasionally absent — in real life, he says his father, Kit Culkin, was a constant and controlling presence. His mother stayed home with his brothers and sisters, his father traveled with him from one movie set to the next. Culkin’s father managed his son’s career and is said to have alienated most of Hollywood with his rages and excessive demands.
Culkin says his father’s treatment of him and his family mirrored the way he dealt with people in Hollywood. “He was very hard on me, and he would deny me certain things in my life.”
He says his father would not let him have his own room, forcing him and his brother to sleep on the couch. “I think it was just a way of him wanting to break my spirit,” he says. “He wanted me to know and my brother to know that he was in charge and if he didn’t want us to sleep on a bed, we weren’t gonna sleep on a bed.”
Culkin asserts his father established the hectic filming schedule he kept from 1990 to 1994. “I’ve done 14 films and I’ve never read one of the scripts,” he says. During the movie shoots, Culkin says he and his father would stay up every night, studying the lines the young actor would have to say the next day. It was, he says, all work and no play — a situation that discouraged the young star.
Although the young actor says his father promised to give his son a break from production, Kit Culkin continued to cast him in movies that were bombing at the box office. The young star says he was relieved his films were not as successful, allowing him to “disappear off the face of the earth.”
All Grown Up
Shortly after he stopped making movies at age 14, Culkin’s parents separated. The bitter custody battle that followed meant that his father could no longer control his career, but kept Culkin and his family in the headlines. The actor’s mother claimed his father was physically and emotionally abusive, charges his father vigorously denied.
Shortly after Kit Culkin decided to drop the custody battle, he disappeared. Culkin says he had not heard from his father in years, until the opening of Madame Melville when he received a telegram from him. He says he remains unsure if he would like to see him again.
At 17, Culkin burst into the headlines again with the news of his marriage to a high school classmate and 17-year-old actress Rachel Miner. After two years of marriage, they announced their separation in early 2000. Culkin admits his reclusive tendencies had a negative impact on their relationship. “I had to learn to talk and how to communicate,” he says, “and I should’ve done it more.”
As he and his wife consider their future, Culkin says he’s fighting the urge to stay inside, even though he still feels uncomfortable dealing with fans. Although he is now 20, to many he still remains the little boy in the movies, a fact he says he has come to accept.
With the rebirth of his career, the lessons learned through his family and in his marriage, Culkin says he’s ready to take on life — on his own terms. “I’m trying to be the best person I can be,” he says. “I have my family, I have my friends, I have basically everything I need in life right now.”