According to the calendar, Rory Culkin is a man. He turned 21 last July, while filming Scream 4 in Michigan, and thus he has the government’s permission to drive, enlist and hoist a pint. But midway through his transition to adult actor, the Culkin clan’s youngest (brothers Macauley and Kieren are 30 and 28, respectively) doesn’t consider himself a grown-up.

“Not at all,” he says, drinking a glass of water in New York’s East Village. “I always refer to myself as a kid. Y’know, 21 is last call to be a kid, so next couple of years... trying to hold on to it.” Despite his chill demeanor, this is a perilous moment. Witness the dead careers of many child stars who bungled the transition.

Fortunately, Culkin was more child actor than child star. At age nine, he scored an Independent Spirit nomination for You Can Count on Me. “I remember freaking out on my first day,” he recalls, grateful to a kind co-star. “Mark Ruffalo took me aside and said, ‘Calm down. You can do this.’” Subsequent gigs included Mel Gibson’s tinfoil-hat-wearing son in Signs and a bullied teen in indie drama Mean Creek.

Culkin’s offscreen maturation included studies at Professional Children’s School and osmosis from his siblings. Though he doesn’t drive (“The car is a scary device!”), Culkin moved last year into his own downtown apartment, which he shares with his cat, Cleon, named for a character in 1979 film The Warriors. “We’re in a fight right now,” he says. “I came home last night, and he’d peed all over my bed.”

Among his mentors is writer-director Derick Martini, who cast Culkin opposite Alec Baldwin in 2009’s Lymelife. Set in ’70s Long Island, the film required Culkin to rock plenty of polyester and shaggy helmet hair. “It was awesome.” The actor’s own style leans toward shoulder-length curls, T-shirts (today: Michigan Wolverines) and slouchy jackets, plus a jumble of bracelets on his right wrist.

While making Lymelife, Martini let Culkin observe the filmmaking process, and the director remains a confidante. “I call him for any sort of decision I have regarding the business,” says Culkin, soon to shoot a small role in Martini’s upcoming Hick. He’s the De Niro to Martini’s Scorsese. I’ll take it, Culkin says. Culkin reeks of New York actor: meaty résumé, casual sincerity and a bit of Al Pacino (and Kevin McAllister) around the eyes.

Forbidden to divulge much about Scream 4, lest he spoil the whodunit, Culkin plays president of a high school cinema club, while murders resume 15 years after the original killings. (Culkin took boxing lessons before filming to goose his physicality.) The role was a stretch: “I couldn’t see myself being the head of a club.”

In younger days, Culkin was cautious about accepting jobs. “I’m trying to open up a bit more,” he says. A fan of sci-fi novel The Hunger Games, he covets a role in the movie version: “I’d be an extra. I’d be a tree in the background.” Whatever his future holds, Culkin is confident about the journey. “I thought there was going to be this moment when I felt the transition,” he says. “But it’s been happening naturally.” — Ian Hodder

(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)