After an eight-year break from the movie business, during which the actor went to school and lived a relatively normal adolescent life, Culkin returns to the big-screen this month playing an outrageous gay murderer in the new film "Party Monster."
So, how did the 23-year-old manage to keep a level head through all of that?
"I just quit," Culkin told reporters in New York recently. "I just quit for eight years. I said, 'Forget about it.' No, there was a lot of s-- that happened to me at a very early age and it was crazy because I was never really given a chance to digest everything. I mean, I didn't become really fully aware of everything that had happened until after I kind of took a step back and was able to take a breath and do a full year of school and things like that where I was actually able to kind of figure out who I was and who I wanted to be and just have a chance to reflect on what I did. ... I just needed some time off. I needed a breather. It was really, really intense."
Culkin said he initially intended to stay away from filmmaking forever, but later realized he missed it too much.
"When I stopped, I was never ever going to do it again," he explained. "I mean, that was it. It was totally over. It was fun and I hope everyone had made their money because there was no more to be had, and 'I'm going home for a while.' Then, I just lived my life and figured it out. I became a senior in high school and figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and I thought about a lot of things, and I just remembered how I really, really loved doing this. It was something that really came naturally to me and something that I really wanted to do. It just kind of got out of control and became something that wasn't mine anymore. So, I just had to dip my toe back in the water just to see what was there and what I could do and what I really wanted. I wanted to do challenging things. I want to do unique, one-of-a-kind films, and I think that this is one of them. I've never seen a film like this and barring any copycats, I don't think that we'll be seeing any other movies like this. We're first."
"Party Monster" is based on the bizarre true story of Michael Alig, a notorious New York party promoter who beat his drug-dealer roommate with a hammer and injected him with Drano during one of his frequent drug-fueled rages. Alig was convicted of manslaughter in 1996 after he bragged about the slaying, and The Limelight, the famed disco where Alig held court, was recently shuttered due to too many incidents involving the sale and use of drugs on the premises. Alig's story is perceived by many as a cautionary tale about the lifestyle of excess embraced by a group of high-profile, downtown partygoers at the end of the last century.
For Culkin, old enough to remember the grisly murder but too young to have partied at The Limelight, playing Alig was a liberating experience, one that allowed him to play a character much different from the squeaky-clean boys he played in his youth. The role also afforded him the chance to explore fame and how cheaply it can be attained in modern-day society.
"It's funny, I think what (the club kids) were doing was more of a commentary, than anything else," Culkin remarked. "And kind of un-celebrity in a celebrity society. Like for a while there, they didn't have any substance. And that was like the whole thing. Celebrity without a cause. You know, 'I'm famous 'cause I say so.' And that was it. So, it was a really interesting commentary. And that I think a lot of people were catching on to. You know, that they did have some kind of odd message. Even if it was almost accidental, more than anything else. But I think they really completely distorted the notion of celebrity, and what everyone thought of as celebrity."
Speaking of the notion of "celebrity," Culkin said he doesn't consider "Party Monster" his "comeback vehicle" per se.
"When someone says 'comeback' or something like that, it implies that you're trying to remind people of how it used to be or you're trying to run away really, really fast from something, and I'm not trying to do either," he reasoned. "I'm just trying to do really good work with really interesting people and I think that this film was a really good reflection of that, just doing something that's really different and one of a kind. I try not to look at things in the scope of a career. Of course, I try to keep that in mind, those kinds of things, but at the same time, I'm not doing this for any reason other than myself and I hope that other people enjoy what I do, and that's all that you can really ask for."
Culkin's return to the big screen was almost simultaneous with the debut of David Spade's "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star," a comedy about an adult trying to cope with the loss of the fame he enjoyed as a pint-sized thespian and the childhood he missed due to his hectic work schedule. The Spade flick features numerous actors famous for making it big when they were little, then hitting the skids in their teens. Asked if he has consciously avoided becoming a child-star cliché, Culkin replied, "I don't think I've necessarily tried to stay away from that."
"Because for a long time, I wasn't thinking in terms of the business, and the way people thought about me," he continued. "I totally quit the whole thing. Like I didn't have a publicist to protect me. I didn't have any of those things. I was just trying to live my life, and go to high school, you know? But at the same time, I did try to kind of steer myself away from a lot of those cliches. And I kind of just tried to live my life. And do what I felt I wanted, and what I felt I needed. And that's it. I mean, I'm sure ('Dickie Roberts') is gonna be funny, and I'm sure they're gonna make fun of all those cliches, and stuff like that."
Next up for Culkin is a role in the more mainstream movie, "Saved," which Culkin is filming with Jena Malone, Mandy Moore and Patrick Fugit. But the actor said that doesn't mean he will turn his back on more audacious roles in the future.
"I'm not really looking for anything specific," he said. "Like it wasn't like I was looking to play a gay drug addict club promoter. You know, I never felt that. I just look for the script, I look for the material. And I find what's interesting and what's different, and I kind of go from there. And I wouldn't restrict myself by like saying, 'Oh, I don't want to do something that takes place in high school.' So, I don't want to restrict myself like that. It all comes from the material. And I think that's the most important thing, when you're doing something like this.
"I just want to do great work, with really interesting people. That's always been my main priority. And I'm not doing it for any other reason, but to satisfy that part of myself that wants to create interesting things. And I don't have to do things to pay my bills, or anything like that, thankfully. Because of what I did when I was like 10 years old, I've been afforded the opportunity of being able to explore myself and explore what I want to do."