The cover stars of our Young Hollywood issue have a remarkable amount in common.
For a start, they’re both products of showbiz families: Emma Roberts’s dad is the prolific character actor Eric Roberts (who’s appeared in everything from The Dark Knight to The Young and the Restless), while her aunt Julia is one of the most famous actresses in the world. For his part, Rory Culkin comes from a long line of thespians that includes older brothers Macaulay and Kieran.
Not surprisingly, both actors have been working since they were very young, Culkin in films like Signs and You Can Count on Me and Roberts as the star of Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous. They also show up together this spring in Scream 4, the latest installment in director Wes Craven’s already iconic horror franchise. (It’s the third time these two have appeared together in a film, following Lymelife, in 2008, and Twelve, in 2010.)
For all that unites them on paper (and onscreen), though, Roberts and Culkin embody dramatically different notions of what Young Hollywood thinks, says, and looks like. When I meet Culkin for drinks one afternoon at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, he’s wearing faded jeans and a ratty white T-shirt; the next morning, Roberts turns up for coffee in Bel-Air in a delicate sweater and expensive-looking boots. Culkin speaks with disarming honesty but avoids eye contact, as though talking about himself were somehow an embarrassment; Roberts exudes a politician’s intensity, gazing straight at you as she sells the point she’s making. They even live on different coasts: While
Roberts lives in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon, Culkin is a born-and-raised Manhattanite with a newish apartment in the East Village.
Yet it’s precisely that contrast that makes the pair such a perfect illustration of Hollywood’s shifting nature right now, at a moment when the lines are blurring between indie and studio, underground and establishment. “They’re great kids,” says Craven, a man who knows about great kids—he once cast a young Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street. “They’ll both have long careers.”
“My mom always jokes that she came out here with me for a vacation and 20 years went by.” That’s how Emma Roberts explains her move from Rhinebeck, New York, to Los Angeles, where the 20-year-old has spent more than half her life in front of the camera. She became interested in acting as a little kid while visiting her aunt Julia on film sets; Roberts even had an uncredited role as an extra in America’s Sweethearts. Still, her enthusiasm wasn’t quite enough at first to win over her mom (who split from Emma’s dad when she was a baby).
“I went on my first audition when I was nine,” Roberts remembers. “And my mom was so not into it. She just thought, ‘Ugh, people are gonna give me so much crap for this. You don’t need to be doing this, but I’ll send you on an audition so you can see how it
is and it’ll shut you up.’ So I go to the audition and they come out and they’re like, ‘Where’s your mom?’ She was outside on the phone just not even paying attention. I was like, ‘Mom, you have to come here.’ She comes inside and they’re like, ‘Can you come back tomorrow, because we really like her.’ And I actually got the part!”
The part was a small role in Blow, director Ted Demme’s 2001 cocaine drama, which eventually—and somewhat improbably—led to Roberts being cast as the lead in Unfabulous, a squeaky-clean Nickelodeon series about a junior-high kid named Addie Singer who writes songs about her life. Starring roles in the similarly family-friendly Nancy Drew and Hotel for Dogs followed before Roberts began taking on (slightly) more grown-up parts in the likes of Valentine’s Day and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But if you think she now views those early gigs with a cynical eye, you’re wrong.
“I loved that part of my life,” Roberts says. “A lot of people that were on Disney or Nickelodeon bash it afterwards. And I just think, That’s what got you your start! And also, from my experience, it was so fun. It was the calm before the storm: getting to work, but not having to deal with so much of the pressure.”
In spite of the difficulties some of her peers have faced, Roberts says that the segue from kids’ stuff to adult fare is simpler than it might seem. “If you make the transition in the same way that you’re transitioning in real life, you’ll be fine,” she says. “It’s when you’re 16 and you’re trying to play a 20-year-old hitchhiking stripper that people are gonna give you a hard time.”
Though she doesn’t play a hitchhiking stripper in her latest film, Roberts does acknowledge that “a lot of people are probably thinking, Wow, Emma Roberts in Scream—that’s kind of random.” (She plays Jill Roberts, the younger cousin of Neve Campbell’s character Sidney Prescott.) “Everyone sees me as the girl next door. But I think that’s what makes it so cool.”
According to Craven, “everyone” included one of the film’s principal producers, Bob Weinstein. “Bob was worried that Emma was a little small and slight for the role,” says the director. (“I’m 5’2” on a good day,” Roberts admits with a laugh.) “But when she came in and read, she just knocked it out of the park. She has an emotional intensity about her. I said, ‘Look at that power, Bob.’ He came around.”
That passion is also on display in Homework, a lower profile movie (Fox Searchlight is releasing it) out this summer, in which Roberts plays a New York City prep-school student in a unique relationship with a troubled classmate, George, played by Freddie Highmore (read about him on page 147). The actress compares it to (500) Days of Summer and says she’s especially excited to have the film hit theaters not long after Scream 4.
“People like to make rules for actors: ‘They can do this, but they can’t do that,’” she says. “Or they like to put them in a box: ‘She’s only gonna do romantic comedies.’ I always think it’s fun when you see people that do totally different things. I love that Gwyneth Paltrow’s on Glee. That’s something you would never think she’d do. And the fact that she just thought, I’m gonna let loose and do this—that’s so cool.”
“Emma’s been really, really clever about how she’s moving forward in her career,” says Homework’s director, Gavin Wiesen. “I don’t even categorize her amongst the other actresses her age who are sort of growing up in front of us. She’s hardworking and so curious. On our set, which couldn’t have been lower-budget, she’d be sitting in whatever chair she could find reading The Collected Works of Joan Didion or cracking up all the crew members. Those two things, I think,
are a recipe for how well she’ll do.”
As for what move Roberts will make next, college is definitely on the long-term agenda, she says, if only to provide the kind of experience she never had being homeschooled or studying with a tutor on a film set. “I love acting—it’s definitely my number-one thing,” she says. “But I want to have other things I can talk about and be interested in.” (She figures herself for an English major.) Still, Roberts admits, Hollywood stops for no one. “It’s so hard to gauge what’s worth not doing in order to go to college, you know?”
She’d also love to collaborate on a clothing line at some point (Chloë Sevigny’s venture with Opening Ceremony is a personal favorite) and spend more time in New York, where she says it’s easier to live life outside the celebrity-industrial complex that sometimes gets her down in L.A. The other day, for example, she found a photographer waiting for her outside her house. “That’s a bummer,” she says. “In New York you can become anonymous; I think I’ve seen paparazzi there twice. The last time I was there I walked by Liev Schreiber on the street, and I was thinking, If this was L.A. there’d be 20 paparazzi in front of him. But in New York everyone’s just like, ‘Whatever.’”
Every time Rory Culkin wraps work on a movie he rewards himself with some kind of gift. Because he began his career as a five-year-old playing younger versions of his older brothers in movies like Richie Rich and Igby Goes Down, early gifts included a Nintendo 64 and a trip to Disney World. “Now it’s always something to improve myself,” Culkin, 21, says. After Scream 4he chose between learning a musical instrument and continuing the boxing lessons the studio had him take before filming began. He decided on the latter.
“Boxing’s just a little more mindless and takes me away from everything,” he says. “Music can do that, too, but it’s another art form, you know what I mean? It’s something to be passionate about. Whereas boxing is just like, I wanna kick some ass and get my ass kicked. It’s awesome.”
Given the level of thought Culkin puts into his roles, you can understand why leaving his brain at the door for a couple of hours every week might be appealing. For Scream 4, in which he plays a sarcastic movie-trivia master hopelessly attracted to a buxom blonde (Hayden Panettiere), Culkin developed an entire backstory which required him to regularly slap himself and sit in a darkened trailer mumbling about why he’s not worthy of his own affection. And things were no easier on set. “It’s weird doing something with such a big budget because there’s so many eyes on you during the process,” he says. “You just get that feeling that they’re putting so much into this that you better put a lot into it, too. They’ve got two cameras on you at a time, and each one represents millions of people staring at you—like, Don’t fuck this up.”
“Rory never does the obvious thing,” says Craven. “I very much wanted to
avoid the stereotypical comic-geek role—the one who’s really meek and easily intimidated—and Rory played the character with an unexpected strength.”
Like his costar Roberts, Culkin says he more or less grew up on movie sets with members of his family. “Then eventually my mom was like, ‘Do you wanna audition for this thing?’” he recalls. The tryout was for You Can Count on Me, the 2000 Sundance gem that went on to launch Culkin as an actor in his own right. “I was sick as balls that day,” he says. “And, I mean, I was nine—I didn’t read the script, I just went in there and said some words. But they liked me, and everything took off from there.”
In 2002 Culkin played Mel Gibson’s son in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. In the decade since he’s concentrated on artier features (including the dark drama Mean Creek,in 2004), but now he says he wants to broaden his repertoire. “I’ve been sort of scared of certain roles in the past, almost to the point of being kind of snobbish,” he explains. “Not because I thought something was below me, but because I didn’t think it was a good move. Now I’m just a lot more open to things—I’m starting to feel the need to exercise my acting and leave my comfort zone. I think Scream is an example of that.”
Although the Scream 4 shoot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reinforced Culkin’s love for his native New York (“I can’t sleep in total silence; I need sirens and shouting”) he has even considered moving to L.A. for work. “I feel like it’s just way more effective to go into the room with the director or the producers and have a little talk before the scene,” he says. “It’s weird being in New York because I’m just putting myself on tape at my agency with some dude behind a little camera. You don’t even know if they’re gonna watch it.”
At the same time, he’s wary of the way “some younger people in Hollywood get ahead of themselves and sort of dig on the lifestyle before they can. It’s like, No, man—this isn’t about getting on the cover of magazines.” He laughs. “I mean, it’s great that I’m on this one; that’s awesome. But that’s not what it’s about.”
In New York, Culkin’s defense against what he considers a kind of toxic self-regard is a group of close friends “who really don’t give a fuck” that he’s an actor. Several of them work at Shake Shack, the popular burger joint; Culkin even considered getting a job there, working for an hour and then throwing a huge tantrum just for the fun of it. (Alas, he never found the time to go through with the prank.) He also points to his family as a grounding influence, explaining that the allure of fame dwindles with familiarity—the kid from Home Alone isn’t an icon, after all, he’s Culkin’s brother. “I’m only 21 and I’m already over that shit,” he says. “It doesn’t impress me that you’re so impressed.”
What’s more, he’s not wild about the thought of inviting strangers into his personal life, even if they were interested in entering. Culkin doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter, the latter of which slightly creeps him out. (“There’s a strange religious overtone there,” he says, and then adopts a booming cult-leader voice. “‘I have a million followers!’”) “With certain actors that I look up to, I don’t want to know what you’re like in real life. At all. You’re the man onscreen, and that’s all that matters. Don’t tell me who you are. And I don’t wanna tell anyone who I am.”
As we drain our final gin and tonics in the hotel bar, one thing Culkin does want to tell is the answer to a question he’d felt sure he’d be asked at a Scream 4 press conference earlier in the day: What’s your favorite scary movie?
“I was gonna drop Sex and the City 2,” he says. “She cheats on him and he buys her a diamond? That shit’s scary!” He laughs. “But no one asked. I was so pissed.”