Being a child actor is a dangerous game. Statistically it sure seems that if you make it big when you’re still small, you’re likely in for a rough ride. Just think of all the good examples that pop to mind: River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, Brittany Murphy, Charlie Sheen, Macaulley Culkin, Lindsay Lohan, and the list goes on. Stories of the ones that escaped unscathed seem few and far between. Who can you think of? Rick Schroder… Sarah Jessica Parker…?
Tabloids aside, I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective. I was a child actor. While I never struck it big I had a brush with fame and lived to tell the tale. When I was thirteen, I played Rod McCallister in “Home Alone,” and two years later I played the same character in “Home Alone II.” Who was I, you ask? One of the many kids running around in the house at the beginning of the movie… I had a nice little scene, a handful of lines, and a great time. It got me into Harvard, and left me with infinite fodder for cocktail parties. Here’s a behind-the-scenes, all access pass—and answers to the questions most folks don’t get to ask:
Was Macaulley Culkin an asshole?
I can’t claim to know him well now, but when he was nine, and I was thirteen, he was a nice kid. He also had a lot on his shoulders. After all, what were you doing when you were nine? He had a multi-million-dollar movie depending on his performance.
That said, I saw him at a high school reunion a few years ago. He knew me by name, said hello and shook my hand, so in my experience he’s a pretty good guy.
What was the weirdest experience you ever had on set?
That was the day Michael Jackson showed up to visit. Yup. Nothing untoward—just surreal. We were shooting an exterior shot at the “family house” for “Home Alone II.” When Michael’s limo pulled up, the set ground to a halt. He and Macaulley had become friends post-“Home Alone.” Michael wasn’t there very long, but he posed for pictures with all of us.
What was the most fun you ever had on set?
On the set of “Home Alone II,” our director Chris Columbus loved to play around and prank the cast. He staged a few murders in the background and other dark but funny jokes. We were at the end of a long day, filming a silly cover shot with John Heard and Catherine O’Hara in the background. They had screwed up the rhythm a few times, and I overheard Chris joke that someone should “go in and shoot them” to save us all from having to do another take. I was 15 years old, and managed to chime in at the perfect moment with, “I’ll do it!” We all laughed, and I thought that was the end of it.
Five minutes later, the prop master tapped me on the shoulder with a serious look on his face he asked, “Have you ever fired a gun before?” Swallowing hard, I managed “Of course not.” With that he gave me a stern safety lecture and handed me a revolver loaded with blanks. He explained that John and Catherine were in on the joke—the last take was a keeper, so this next one was just for fun. They kept the camera rolling as I walked into the master bedroom, yelled “Uncle Pete, Aunt Kate, I’ve had it!” and squeezed off three rounds. Without missing a beat, Macaulley raced back in, stared straight into the camera, and with both hands on his cheeks—just like the iconic scene from the first movie—screamed as loud as he could. We played the clip for the whole cast and crew the following day.
How did you get the part?
I auditioned. I started performing professionally when I was eight. By the time I was thirteen, we lived in Chicago, I worked with three separate agents, and my mother and I would fly to NYC on a regular basis for auditions. “Home Alone” was my first movie, but not my first job.
How did you manage high school, with your performance and filming schedule?
Believe it or not, I was not forced to be home schooled. There is a high school that specifically caters to kids with demanding extracurricular schedules. It’s called Professional Children’s School, in NYC. If you have a legitimate reason for missing class, you can be out for an extended period of time.
My graduating class had about 35 kids, and any one of them might book a job and be out of town for a few weeks or months.
What’s it like to be recognized by a stranger?
I have only been recognized by a stranger once. I was on the subway, heading home from school. As a kid growing up in NYC I’d learned to be aware of my surroundings, so I noticed the big intimidating guy who seemed to keep looking at me. I was fourteen at the time. Finally, he walked up to me, and said, “Were you in ‘Home Alone’?” I signed an autograph for him.
That said, being recognizable can be difficult. While we were filming “Home Alone II” in Chicago, all the kids took a day trip to a big mall. While we were wandering around, a laser dot suddenly appeared on Macaulley’s chest. Needless to say, Mac’s bodyguard got very serious, very quickly, and our trip to the mall was over. In the end, I don’t think anyone was trying to threaten Macaulley. Some idiot just thought it would be funny to point a laser-pointer at him. Still, fairly disquieting if you’re the person being pointed at, or his bodyguard.
How has your career as a child actor impacted the rest of your life?
First, there’s Harvard. My first night on campus, the President of the University addressed the freshman class. He said, “I can guarantee that you are all thinking the same thing right now: ‘How did I get in?’” I don’t know about everyone else, but I certainly was. I had good grades in high school, and good scores on the SATs, but nothing that I thought justified admission to Harvard. He went on to explain that each year they could fill the class with applicants who had straight A’s, who had perfect scores on their SAT’s, or were their high school valedictorians. But they didn’t because they were actively looking for diverse and interesting stories. My career as an actor made me interesting.
Second, there’s disappointment. I dreamed (as many do) of fame and fortune. After I got my degree, I returned to New York, planning to pick up my acting career where I had left it. Unfortunately, after a few years as a starving artist, my love affair with performing was over, and it was time for a “real job.” Through the audition process, I had learned to deal with disappointment on a small scale, when I didn’t get a part. That experience helped me deal with the disappointment of giving up on a career that I believed I was meant to have.
Finally, there’s entrepreneurship. Being an actor is a lot like running your own business, and without that experience as a kid (and young adult) I wouldn’t have had the insight or the confidence to start my own company. Now I run RocketHub, a crowdfunding site that has helped thousands of people raise millions of dollars from around the world.
So how does it go so wrong for some?
Well here’s my take. Success as a kid means four things:
1. A lot of money,
2. A lot of fans,
3. A lot of temptation,
4. And the nagging sensation that you may have peaked early…
There are plenty of pitfalls for normal kids, who don’t have access to the money and fans. Without good parents, or roll models that are actively involved in your life, there’s a good chance you’ll blunder into at least one. Most of us can brush the mistakes of our past under the rug, and move on to new friends, a new job, or a new city. But for the kids who make it big, there are a whole lot of people watching as they fall, and not too many career choices thereafter.
Perhaps I had the best of both worlds: the fun of early success, without the burden of feeling that my glory days are in the past. In the end, I wouldn’t trade my experiences as a child actor for anything. They led me to my wife… and now we’re waiting to see if our son is a natural performer.