WASHINGTON — Macaulay Culkin is a normal, well-adjusted 23-year-old guy. Really.
“Contrary to popular belief, I’ve never been to rehab,” Culkin says. “What else haven’t I done? I’ve never been to jail, never been arrested. All the child-star cliches. I’ve actually tried very hard to avoid them all.”
A remarkable feat for one of the richest, most famous child stars in Hollywood history, who endured a nasty custody battle between his parents, quit acting at 14, got married at 17, divorced at 19 — and struck up a friendship with Michael Jackson along the way.
Culkin is easing back into the public eye with a supporting role as a cynical, paraplegic student at a Christian high school in “Saved,” a caustic but warmhearted comedy about faith and intolerance.
Culkin actually went to high school during his much-dissected hiatus from acting. Along with his “Saved!” co-star, Jena Malone, he attended the Professional Children’s School in New York.
“It’s one of these schools where young professionals, young people who have jobs, whether it be acting or dancing or professional rollerblader, can go and have their work sent to them on the road,” he said. “So half the time people weren’t there because they were working.”
Recovering from success
Despite its educational shortcomings, high school was a valuable, almost cathartic experience for Culkin, allowing him to keep a low profile after five years of stratospheric fame sparked by hit movies like “Home Alone.”
“I just felt like a human being,” he says. “How else are you going to act like a human being if you’ve never had a chance to be one?”
During this time, one of the more bizarre episodes in Culkin’s life occurred: his marriage to actress Rachel Miner, before either of them had turned 18.
Culkin makes no apologies. “I don’t think we were trying to pretend to be anything other than we were. We were just in love. I mean, big deal,” he says. “It’s not that uncommon (to marry at 17), it’s just that under these particular circumstances, people thought it was kooky and weird.”
Speaking of weird, what about Jackson?
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Culkin gives what he calls his standard answer about the child-molestation charges: “It’s unfortunate.” He also points out that he hasn’t spoken to Jackson in several months.
But he’s not so naive as to not understand why Jackson is perceived as a strange individual. “He’s been away from a lot of humanity for a long time. I mean, it’s not like he can walk down the street anywhere in the world. So sometimes he’s socially awkward, and so he doesn’t quite get it when he says something and everyone’s like, ‘Hey, that’s crazy!”’
Culkin, on the other hand, seems disarmingly sane when discussing his life and work. He quit acting after a string of bombs, all released in 1994: “Getting Even with Dad,” “The Pagemaster” and “Richie Rich.”
“When I stopped, I wasn’t going to do it again,” he says. “It wasn’t fun anymore, and it hadn’t been in a while, and I’d been saying for a good year or so that I wanted to stop, and it just seemed like no one was listening.”
The kid makes a comeback
But in 2001, his retirement ended when he made his London stage debut in “Madame Melville,” about a teenager seduced by his French teacher. He then starred as the murderous, drugged-out “club kid” Michael Alig — smashing all that remained of his cute, wholesome persona — in last year’s “Party Monster.”
He also guest-starred on an episode of “Will & Grace,” which led to a development deal at NBC and a sitcom pilot that was shot this spring. At the time of the interview, Culkin was waiting to find out if the show would be picked up, and it wasn’t, at least for the fall schedule. But he was sanguine about that possibility.
“I’d much rather go in there and make a pilot that never makes it on air, as long as I’m proud of it and it’s good and it’s funny,” he says. “I’d rather not just slap something together and slap my name on it and put it out there and see if it sticks to the wall.”
For “Saved!,” Culkin, Malone and their co-stars — including Mandy Moore, Patrick Fugit and Heather Matarazzo — attended Christian youth rallies and rock concerts to familiarize themselves with evangelical youth culture. Malone plays Mary, a dedicated born-again Christian who sleeps with her boyfriend after he confesses he’s gay, in an attempt to “cure” him. It doesn’t work, and Mary ends up pregnant.
Malone made her film debut at age 10 in “Bastard out of Carolina,” and like Culkin had a fractious relationship with a parent (in Malone’s case, her mother). She legally emancipated herself from her mother in 2000 and has since worked in movies as varied as “Stepmom,” “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” “Cold Mountain” and the cult phenomenon “Donnie Darko.”
Needless to say, Culkin and Malone are good friends.
Malone says she had “an instant understanding” with Culkin. “It’s always nice when you meet someone else and you’re like, wow, I’m normal,” she says.
Both demur, however, when asked if they have any advice for current or future child stars.
“It really bugged me when I was younger that all these people were always giving me advice, like I’d be watching something and Gary Coleman would be giving me advice,” Culkin says. “I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about? I’m eating Cocoa Pebbles. Besides my trouble with geometry, I’m not really having any other problems.”’
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