I interviwed cute-as-a-fucking-button Rory Culkin for the cover of Dazed and Confused. Photos by Hedi Slimane.
He’s got a face you just want to stare at: beautiful, spaced-out, eyes heavy set like he’s just been punched. A little bit wrong, but still totally hot. Like his older brothers Macaulay and Kieran, Rory Culkin started acting as a kid. This month he’ll star in the latest installment of Wes Craven’s slasher epic, Scream 4—his first big budget film since playing Mel Gibson’s asthmatic son in Signs nearly ten years ago. But for someone born into an infamous Hollywood family, Rory’s path to movie stardom has been surprisingly righteous. Meeting him, he’s weirdly normal. Like he could totally be your best friend’s little brother—that kid always hanging around on the couch, playing video games, exhaling clouds of smoke.
It’s Wednesday afternoon at Amsterdam Billiards, a dimly lit pool hall in Manhattan’s Union Square. Rory appears wearing a faded Tom Petty T-shirt, jeans and black basketball shoes. He’s 21 but looks younger, could probably pass for 16. He shuffles across the room, crashes down into the chair opposite me. “Yeah so… I don’t really do all that much,” he’s saying, staring into his lap. “I only work once or twice a year for about a month, so I have a lot of free time. But I’m good at being alone, which helps. Oh, and I recently started boxing.” He sucks at his lips, thinking. “I mean I don’t want to get buff or anything. Boxing’s just something to do while I’m doing nothing” he says, then smiles wide and sweeps a piece of stray hair from his eyes. He’s so pure looking, I ache.
Rory began his career in film acting alongside his older brothers, often playing younger versions of their characters. By the age of five he’d appeared onscreen twice as a young Macaulay, in The Good Son and Richie Rich, and later played a kid Kieran in the cult film, Igby Goes Down. “When I was little, acting opportunities were always proposed to me as ‘a favor’,” he laughs. “I remember my dad saying, ‘Why don’t you do your brother a favor and spend a couple days being a younger version of him.” And of course I always said yes. I just think it’s funny to call it a favor when you’re 6, as if I had something more important to do.”
The youngest of seven children, Rory was born and raised in New York City. His father, Kit Culkin, is notorious for being one of Hollywood’s most overbearing stage fathers, having been a pushy and controlling manager to his child star sons. However in ’95 Rory’s parents split, after which Kit fought for and custody of the children and Macaulay’s millions, but eventually lost. Shortly after, a sixteen year old Macaulay took his parents to court and fought to gain control of his fortune, estimated at $17 million. Macaulay has since spoken publicly about his dad, stating that between his father, the movies, and the media he had “lost all conception of what it was like to be normal.” Rory, however, seems to have been afforded a more conventional childhood. He was only six when his parents parted ways, and has had little contact with his dad since. When asked about him, he has little to offer. “Yeah, I’ve got no clue where that guy is,” he says with an absent minded shrug of the shoulder. “We’re not exactly what you’d call close.”
However Rory has maintained a strong relationship with his mum and the rest of his immediate family. He currently lives in the same downtown New York apartment building as Kieran, and just a five minute walk from Macaulay. “There’s no competition between us at all,” he says of his actor brothers. “People are always asking about that. But we hardly ever talk about work. We’ll give each other recommendations, like if one of them reads a good part for a teenager they’ll pass it on to me, but that’s it. Kieran and I have even auditioned for the same parts before, but it was no big deal.” When Rory talks about his mum, his normally sleepy blue eyes go all wide and lovey-dovey. “Yeah, my mum just moved out of New York this week,” he frowns, unable to mask his disappointment. “She’s engaged to a dude who lives in Montana, so she moved there to be with him. But she’s happy, so that’s cool. But like, it’s just been a pretty shitty past few days: my mom left, my grandmother died, and I broke up with my sort-of girlfriend. Suddenly all the women in my life are just gone.” He scrunches his nose, then suddenly goes all squirmy and shy. For a second I consider whether he might kiss me. He doesn’t. “Well, I, actually…” he stutters, face flushed, “I don’t know if I could call her a girlfriend. We were, whatever… ‘chilling’. It’s just weird because these three things happened all at once, so it’s hard to tell what I’m actually upset about.”
Rory tends play more reserved, slightly awkward characters. He’s the sort of actor who says a lot without needing to say much at all, seemingly able to embody the spirit of all disenfranchised youth with a single stare. His first substantial film role came when he was 11 in You Can Count On Me, for which he won a Young Artist Award, followed shortly after by M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi smash hit, Signs. As a teenager he migrated toward indie films, with supporting roles in The Chumscrubber and Lymelife. Lymelife—in which he co-starred with Alec Baldwin—was Rory’s first opportunity to show that he could be funny as well as just sensitive and geeky. The film also featured Rory’s only sex scene to date, in a clumsy, virginity-losing scene with Emma Roberts. “I wanted to do a take where I couldn’t get it up,” he says, then smiles a weird smile that makes him look about 12. “I thought that would have been money, but we didn’t do it in the end. Thing is, that scene wasn’t actually meant to be ‘hot.’ It was meant to be uncomfortable and awkward, which made it fun to play. Acting in a hot sex scene would be strange. I’d just be concerned that I wasn’t matching up to, you know… well, whatever.”
Though he’s had quite a few sizable roles, Rory’s yet to play the lead. When asked about it, he mumbles that he doesn’t know if he is, ya know, leading man material, or whatever. It seems he might be feeling some pressure from the powers that be to fit a certain mould. “People who work with me think I should cut my hair,” he volunteers, then breathes in really deep. I watch his bony chest rise and fall under his T-shirt, transfixed. “They say casting directors are less likely to hire me with long hair—that they don’t have imaginations and can’t picture me looking normal. People literally have conference calls about my head when I’m not around.” He blinks, bemused. “I mean obviously I would cut my hair for an amazing part. But their argument is that I won’t get the amazing part until I cut it. They always say, ‘Name a leading role with long hair,’ and I just tell them that maybe I’m not necessarily looking for a leading role. Maybe I just, you know…” He trails off.
Rory goes on to talk candidly about unsuccessfully auditioning for True Grit and The Social Network. Its moments like these that make him seem so grounded, sane, and charmingly imperfect. “Hearing a movie you auditioned for is nominated for an Oscar is equivalent to hearing that your ex-girlfriend is fucking the coolest dude on earth,” he says through twisted mouth. “Like for real, kill me now.”
But while he’s faced rejection, there’s some good stuff on the horizon. Last year, Rory was hand picked by Larry Clark to play a role in his upcoming film—a fact that’s most likely left most other 20-something actors seething with jealousy. Tentatively titled Savage Innocent, the film will be Clark’s first in over five years, and tells the story of a dysfunctional suburban family whose world is radically altered when a mute boy suddenly appears on their doorstep. Filming was meant to start last fall, but was delayed due to financing issues. “That guy rules,” beams Rory of the Kids director. “He just doesn’t give a shit, ya know? He does what he wants, but sometimes that makes it hard to get financing. But I really want that to go though. It’s just such an amazing story.” When asked if he’s going to be participating in any quintessential Clarkian nakedness, or auto-asphyxiated masturbation, he (unfortunately) shakes his head. “Nope, no jerking off on camera,” he grins. “The movie is not really centered around me or anything. It’s more about this kid who comes out of nowhere and can’t speak. I think if there’s going to be any nudity, it’s going to be with him.”
Rory has a pretty laissez-faire attitude toward acting. He clearly cares about what he does, but will happily admit his flaws, and has never rinsed his family name in a desperate attempt to become famous. He’s got more integrity than that. And in classic Culkin fashion, he’s been able to achieve global notoriety, while still remaining a cult kid: authentic, irreverent, sexy, and seemingly naive to his own potential brilliance.