Confessions of a recovering child actor
Given what Kieran Culkin has lived through - the goldfish-bowl existence with his superstar brother and domineering father - he's surprisingly well-adjusted, writes Donald Clarke.
'I had to call the butler or whatever twice after I arrived," recovering child actor Kieran Culkin says. "And both times it was because I had broken the TV." As he speaks, he is fighting to silence the bellowing rock band - Somebody-or-other and the Somethings, apparently - whose CD he has wedged in the massive television-cum-stereo-cum-cigar humidor that London's Mayfair hotel provides for its guests.
Looking round at the suffocating opulence, I point out that when you pay these sort of prices, you probably shouldn't feel uncomfortable about summoning the staff at will.
"Yeah, well it's not me that's paying," he says. "I get a bit embarrassed. I couldn't figure out how to turn the lights off last night, so I ended up sleeping with them on."
I think I'm a little disappointed. Considering the life Culkin and his siblings have had, we have a right to expect them to be self-absorbed, violently tempered trolls. Or if not that, they could at least have the grace to be impenetrable enigmas such as Jodie Foster. Yet, as he picks at his basket of chips and jingles the ice in his coke, the main things that distinguish Culkin from most 20-year-olds are his lovely manners and apparent lack of arrogance. This hardly seems fair.
Ever since the seven-year-old Kieran took a supporting role alongside his elder brother Macaulay in the staggeringly successful 1990 comedy, Home Alone, the Culkin family has offered much Gothic entertainment for those who feel that success should come at a price. There was Macaulay's peculiar early marriage. There were the rumours of strange goings-on after hours at the Michael Jackson estate. And, most of all, there was their notorious father, Kit Culkin, a man Kieran once described as "the stage father from Hell".
In the first scene of Burr Steers's excellent new film, Igby Goes Down, Culkin, playing a wealthy high school drop-out, murders the mother whose controlling instincts have produced nothing but hatred in the boy. I imagine I am not the first person to suggest that Igby's antagonism towards the society ice queen played by Susan Sarandon might have reminded Culkin of his own feelings for his father.
"Well, you're not quite the first, but there haven't been too many," he says. "I don't exclude that possibility. It wasn't like I was looking at Susan and thinking Kit or anything. There weren't direct similarities, but I did draw a little bit from my experience. The two relationships are different, but there is definitely something there. Then again, I haven't seen Kit for five or six years. It's hard to remember that far back."
The story goes that Kit, who has vanished from Culkin's life following a messy custody battle, was ruthless in the furtherance of his children's careers. By the time the young actor appeared alongside Sharon Stone in 1998's The Mighty, his father's outrageous behaviour had become legendary.
"Oh he was a real pain in the ass to work with," Culkin says with a good-humoured smile. "He would say: 'I can shut this production down any time I like'. He just loved to throw that weight around. If he was still around, I doubt I'd be able to work. When I was going up for The Mighty, the director, Peter Chelsom, said you are number one on a list of one, but we're still not sure. I think my dad was still part of the problem. I had to convince people that he was no longer on the scene. He had got some sort of court order that I had to read lines with him, which I didn't really want to do. But then he left because he couldn't get on set."
Culkin remembers his father having professional photographs taken of the six children when he was still a toddler.
"We were too little to say no," he says. "We didn't really know what we wanted at that stage. He really tried to get my sister, Cody, to do something on stage, but she fought and she got out of it."
He is keen to clarify that he has no memories of having any projects forced on him and that there was no abuse in the home. Nonetheless, his father was determined to propel as many of the family into showbusiness as possible.
When he succeeded in making Macaulay a superstar, did Kieran suffer any pangs of envy?
"Oh no. I remember at one screening he was mobbed. It was really scary. There was just the two of us - two kids as high as everybody else's waist - and people were pulling on his shirt, and I remember holding on to him and shouting: 'Don't leave! Don't leave!' High school kids used to follow him home and shout things at him.
"People, even now, come up to him and take off his hat and say to their friends: 'See, I told you it was him.' So, no, I didn't envy him. At least I could go to a baseball game."
Given Macaulay's success, the custody dispute that began in the late 1990s was reported as being a battle for the Home Alone millions. Kieran denies that it was about money, but then casually says something rather shocking.
"It was about the custody of the five kids then under 18, and that's all. But his main concern was that he could be our manager. He was OK with losing custody, if he could still be our manager."
Was he really more interested in being their manager than their father?
"Oh, I always knew that," Culkin says. "He was never really a dad. He was just this guy who was hanging around. And if he went away for two weeks it was great. We used to have a great time then."
Culkin's relaxed, good spirits about all this are enormously impressive. He betrays no bitterness, merely a bemused exasperation, as if he was the father and Kit was a befuddled adolescent who couldn't be held responsible for his actions.
"I don't mind talking about it," he says. "I have nothing to hide. Anyway, it all seems so long ago now. It is five years ago, but it feels like 20."
Still the excesses of the Kit era come back to haunt him. Earlier this year, in a characteristically deranged attempt to set the record straight, Michael Jackson told Martin Bashir about the evenings he used to spend cuddled up between Kieran and Macaulay. What can he tell us about that?
"I'm going to pretty much dodge that question," he says. "It's weird to talk about him because we haven't spoken in two years. I can't really speak about it."
But nothing untoward went on? He makes a mouth-zipped-up gesture: "I really can't talk about it," he says.
In the years since the defenestration of his father, Kieran has slowly edged forward as the Culkin most likely to stay the course (though his little brother, Rory, who appeared in the film, Signs, and who plays Kieran as a boy in Igby, is showing good early form).
In The Mighty, playing a severely handicapped child, he stole the show from Stone and Gena Rowlands and then went on to receive fine reviews in the West End production of Kenneth Lonergan's play, This Is Our Youth.
But it is Igby Goes Down that marks the actor's coming of age. With the squashed grace of a younger Robert Downey Junior, Culkin manages to hold his own against Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum and Claire Danes in this literate tale of life among Manhattan's uptown snoots and downtown bohemians.
Given the fact that he has already been in the business for more that a decade, he must be quite blasé about working with all these stars.
"Oh no," he says, slightly shocked. "I'm never blasé. That's the best part of the job. Well, that and the work itself. Right now I'm in a place where I just want to learn as much as possible. I was thinking of taking a few acting classes, but the best way to learn is just to be with these performers."
Written and directed by the urbane actor, Burr Steers, the film has received fine reviews and has gained Culkin just the right amount of recognition in his beloved home town of New York.
"Yes, people do come up to me and say: 'Hey, I enjoyed that movie'. And that's OK. I really like that," he says.
At moments like this, grinning and tossing aside a curtain of hair, Culkin could be any normal youth. But he himself has no such illusions.
"The other day a friend was saying something to me about something or other," he says. "And I didn't understand what he was talking about. Eventually I had to just say: 'Look you have to remember that I never had a childhood. I've missed a lot'."
And, to his great credit, he snorts with laughter as he says it.
Igby Goes Down is on general release