For former child actors best known for Christmas movies, Groundhog Day is probably the seasonal film that best describes their experiences.
There are child actors, and then there are Christmas-movie child actors. A seasonal subset known for their twinkly-eyed, scene-stealing work, they occupy a perennially nostalgic place in cinema history. But what happens when they grow up?
A fan once asked Ian Petrella, who played Ralphie's snowsuit-clad little brother, Randy, in A Christmas Story (1983), to do the "I can't put my arms down" line. Only it was when Petrella's voice was changing. "I did it, and there was a horrified look on their face, like, 'Oh my God, why did I ask him to do that?'" he said. "I don't do it anymore."
Now 44, Petrella has forged a new career as a puppeteer, and others who started their careers as he did have followed similarly disparate paths. Here, five former child actors from beloved holiday movies reveal what it's like to be part of your annual living-room obsessions.
Mara Wilson, Miracle on 34th Street
The character Susan was originally written as a boy named Jonathan in the 1994 remake of the tale of a department-store Santa who claims to be the real deal. But the filmmakers changed the role for Mara Wilson, who had charmed the previous year in Mrs. Doubtfire. "My mum told me it was about a little girl who didn't believe in Santa Claus, and I said, 'Oh, is she Jewish like us?'" Wilson recalled.
Even at 7, Wilson wasn't sold on Hollywood's obsession with making kids adorable and resented changes to the John Hughes script that she believed dumbed down her role. "I didn't feel like my cuteness was my defining aspect," she said. "And then it's even harder once you go through puberty and suddenly people are like, 'You're not as cute anymore, therefore, you are useless.'"
Now 32 and a writer and voice artist for audiobooks and shows like Big Hero 6: The Series, Wilson fondly remembers shooting Miracle in the sweltering Chicago summer with her co-star Elizabeth Perkins. "It was 100 degrees (37C) out, and we were in layers of corduroy and wool," she said. "There were all these flies on set, and Elizabeth smashed one against a wall and then walked away, looking gorgeous and elegant, with a smashed fly on her palm. It was so gross, but it's those weird, funny memories that stick with you."
Devin Ratray, Home Alone
"Buzz, your girlfriend. Woof!" No matter the subject of Devin Ratray's Instagram posts, fans will inevitably comment with a Home Alone quip from Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), the boy left behind when his family goes away for Christmas. "Everyone thinks they're the first ones to think of it and that it's so funny," Ratray, who played Kevin's bullying big brother, Buzz, in the 1990 hit, said. "No one realises it's been 30 years of people saying that to me."
At 13, Ratray found himself on the director Chris Columbus' "chaotic" Chicago set, where the most famous actor to him was Big Bob, a tarantula that had starred in Arachnophobia. Ratray returned for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York two years later and filmed Michael Jackson on his video camera when the singer visited Macaulay Culkin on set. "Catherine O'Hara opened the door for Michael Jackson to walk into the Home Alone house," Ratray said. "That's a moment that will never happen again."
Now 42, he continues to act, recently in Hustlers and The Tick, and he's finally come to terms with his place in Christmas lore. "Being associated with one job is not the way I want my career to go, but I have realised that Home Alone has become bigger than my ego," he said. "It is this iconic experience — and it's more about the people who watch it than the people who are in it."
Miffy Englefield, The Holiday
Living in an idyllic, Nancy Meyers-approved house in The Holiday (2006) was a far cry from Miffy Englefield's working-class, occasionally homeless childhood in Hampshire, England.
While shooting in Los Angeles and Britain, the then 6-year-old and her on-screen little sister, Emma Pritchard, helped make the stars that hung in their characters' bedroom tent and improvised "Mr. Napkin Head" lines with their movie dad, Jude Law. At the end of filming, Law and Cameron Diaz, who played his love interest in the story of two women swapping homes at the holidays, gave the girls denim jackets customised with their names. "They made all this time for these two little kids running around," Englefield, now 20, recalled.
After the shoot, the transition back to British public housing was difficult, and it was nearly impossible for Englefield's single dad to keep driving her to auditions while also taking care of her siblings. By 12, she'd taken solace in the local punk scene. "At school, people were a bit funny about the fact that I used to be an actress, but I could go to these gigs and be around people who didn't care," she said.
Englefield now works as a barista and performs regionally as a singer-songwriter. She's also game for a sequel to The Holiday. "My character, Sophie, could be some really cool, artsy girl now," she said. "I think a lot of the cast would probably get a shock at my tattoos and piercings, but it would be lovely."
Eric Lloyd, The Santa Clause
When 8-year-old Eric Lloyd arrived on The Santa Clause set in 1994, he knew Tim Allen only as "the guy my dad likes from that show he watches." Allen was at the height of his Home Improvement fame when he took the role of a regular dad forced into sleigh duty on the big guy's most important night. But Lloyd, who played Allen's movie son, Charlie, was preoccupied with the toys filling the massive Santa's workshop set in Toronto and the disappointing reality that brown paint was used for on-screen hot cocoa.
On a day off, Lloyd fell and hit his mouth on a rock, knocking out two of his teeth. "I woke up to the producers and director above my bed being like, 'How bad is this? Can we fix this?'" he said. They created fake teeth and, in the immediate aftermath, Charlie's dialogue was rearranged to hide the injury. "When Tim is talking to Bernard the Elf in the workshop, you see me on a train smiling and waving with my mouth closed strangely," Lloyd said, "because the inside was all swollen."
Lloyd now has his own production studios in Glendale, California, and recently got engaged to his studio co-runner, Camille Jun. Twenty-five years after The Santa Clause, the 33-year-old still has one of the snow globes used in the film. "It's safely held with my mum," he said. "She's the keeper of all those things."
Olivia Olson, Love Actually
Olivia Olson belted out Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You as Joanna in Love Actually, the 2003 British comedy of holiday vignettes, but her 10-year-old voice was so powerful, producers feared it would be unbelievable to audiences. "I recorded it and they were like, 'OK, that was great, but can you just maybe do it not so great?'" she said. "I was very confused by that."
Now 27, the Los Angeles native — who had a crush on the actor who played her on-screen love interest, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, during filming and learned how to cry on cue from another co-star, Emma Thompson — is back in London after appearing on The X Factor: Celebrity.
"Everyone's always asking me, 'Why haven't you done anything since Love Actually?' And I'm like, 'I have.'" That would include a decade of voice-over work on shows like Phineas and Ferb and Adventure Time, as well as releasing her debut solo album in 2018.
"To this day, if someone knows they're about to meet the girl from Love Actually, they expect me to still be that 10-year-old," she said. "It's funny that people think I'm in a time capsule."
As for her current relationship with Carey's holiday hit: "It makes me happy to hear the song, but I'm not going to go out and perform it during karaoke."
Written by: Ashley Spencer
Photographs by: Elizabeth Weinberg, Vincent Tullo, Andrew Testa and Tom Jamieson
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