There are Christmas films and then there’s Home Alone.
Released back in 1990, no one really knew what to expect from this low-budget family comedy about a boy forced to defend his house from a pair of bungling burglars after being accidentally left behind from a family holiday.
Yet Home Alone is one of those rare examples of all the stars aligning in Hollywood to create something special. It’s a truly unique Christmas film, both feel-good and immensely funny, rivalled only in that respect by Will Ferrell’s Elf.
There are countless reasons why it remains a festive classic; John Hughes’s script, Chris Columbus’s deft direction, the work of cinematographer Kevin Macat and John Williams’s score are just a few examples.
One that often gets overlooked, however, is Devin Ratray’s Buzz McCallister.
Few actors have succeeded so well in bringing to life all the painfully familiar tropes of the average older brother. Buzz can be mean. His behaviour occasionally borders on bullying. But he’s also funny and, when it comes down to it, has a good heart.
Ratray’s performance embodies that strange sibling duality perfectly.
Hughes had written Home Alone with Macaulay Culkin in mind for the role of Kevin, while Columbus was always keen on bringing together the diverse talents of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as hapless criminals Harry and Marv.
It was Casting Director Janet Hirshenson who recruited Ratray for the role of Buzz – a role he could never have predicted, 30 years later, he would still be talking about.
“I’m asked about it all the time,” he tells Den of Geek.
“At this time of year, I am asked about it on a daily basis.”
According to Ratray, people tend to fall into one of two distinct categories when it comes to realising he played Buzz in Home Alone.
“People either know me right away or they find out after knowing me for some time. It can be quite a surprise. I don’t look the same as I did when I was 13,” he laughs.
Born in New York to actor parents Peter Ratray and Ann Willis, he had already been acting in movies for four years prior to landing the part of Buzz following a “relatively straightforward audition.”
After an initial meeting with Hirshenson he was invited to a hotel in midtown New York to read for Columbus.
“Chris encouraged me to explore the material. If I felt like throwing in a line or improvising, he wanted me to do that so he could get a better sense of who I was. He made me feel at ease and very comfortable and I walked out feeling quite relaxed. It was a pretty good experience in terms of an auditioning process and just a total joy when I got the part.”
Ratray is even able to recall what he read for Columbus, more than 30 years later.
“I remember doing the Old Man Marley speech in Buzz’s bedroom for the audition. I guess it helped that I had memorised it and felt comfortable with the script. I just felt very at ease with Chris Columbus. Maybe he felt that he could work with someone who didn’t come across as nervous on camera. I don’t know what it was but I’m just grateful that I got it.”
Some actors may have been able to draw from their own personal experience when it came to shaping a character like Buzz – plenty of us have been born with older brothers, after all.
But, fortunately for him, Ratray’s formative years were a far more pleasant experience.
“I have an older brother and there is almost the same age difference as Kevin and Buzz but he and I got along very well growing up. He was nothing like Buzz at all. The exact opposite in fact, so there was no familial inspiration at home.”
Despite his largely negative depiction in Home Alone, the role of Buzz was one that Ratray relished playing and one he had no apprehension about taking on.
“Up until then I had played either nerds or bullies. Both ends of the spectrum. But playing the bad guy is always more fun and playing a nasty, surly, rude teenage bastard like Buzz was great.”
Ratray has fond memories of life on the set of Home Alone working alongside the rest of the kids that can be found running around the McCallister house at the start of the film.
“We would laugh and joke around. We bonded like brothers and sisters. I don’t recall any fighting at all. I was also a bit older than most so they did treat me like Buzz the older brother but I felt very close with them and we had a pretty good time together.”
Even so, Ratray remembers facing a gruelling schedule of filming and school work on the set of Home Alone.
“It was hard. We had to go school on the set for three hours a day as well as putting in the eight-hour work day. We didn’t have breaks really.”
Occasionally, if there was a break in filming, he would be rushed off into a lesson with one of the private tutors on set. However, if filming resumed within 20 minutes, none of that lesson time would count towards the required three hours of schooling a day.
Despite the intense workload, Ratray has few regrets about being a child actor.
“It was still fun. A tremendous, unique childhood. I enjoyed it all. I only wish in retrospect I had paid more attention to the schooling on set. It made for a difficult transition when I would get back from a movie and have to catch up at school.”
The hours may have been long and the schooling stop-start but Ratray still has fond memories of his “very brotherly relationship” with Culkin, who he was already aware of prior to Home Alone.
“He was the kid from Uncle Buck at the time and I loved his work in that. He was great to work with,” Ratray says.
“We would try and crack each other up on set. He never succeeded but I absolutely got him.”
Ratray had Culkin in stitches during the scene in which Buzz intentionally eats the cheese pizza specially ordered for Kevin and then offers to “barf” it up for him – classic Buzz.
“Every time on his close-ups, I would slowly shovel pizza into my mouth. I totally got him. He was at my mercy.”
Some actors might have struggled with take after take of eating pizza – but Ratray had no qualms about enjoying the delights of Little Nero’s Pizza, happily consuming slice after slice on camera.
“I have no idea how many takes it took but I never had any difficulty. I really encouraged Chris to let me eat the pizza in the grossest way possible. Milk it for all it was worth. I did a pretty good job.”
While Ratray remembers laughing a lot with Culkin on the set, he cites his onscreen mother and future Schitt’s Creek star Catherine O’Hara as someone he looked up to on the film.
“She taught me so much about comedic timing and being real. There’s real acting in her performance. I studied her and learned a tremendous amount. The balance between frantic panic and true comedy. Almost screwball comedy. It’s a very fine line and she does it brilliantly. I just loved working with her.”
Ratray wouldn’t encounter the more fearsome of the film’s two Wet Bandits, Joe Pesci, until work began on the sequel. It was an encounter that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Goodfellas.
“I let my hair grow out after Home Alone. So, initially I had this long, shoulder length hair. Joe Pesci, at the time, had a massive, almost pompadour style thick head of hair and they shaved him bald for the movie.
“He was outside the makeup trailer once as I was going in with the long hair and he said ‘What? They’re letting you keep that? They’re letting you keep your hair like that? They had to shave mine!’”
“I had to be like ’No, Mr Pesci, I’m going in to get the buzz.’ Then he was still there when I came out with the fresh buzz cut and was like ‘look at that, they got you too! Let me see it’ and ribbed me a little for us both having to shave our heads.”
One person he does regret not interacting with on the film is John Hughes though Ratray was fortunate enough to later be cast in another of his movies, the Home Alone-esque Dennis The Menace.
“I found him to be such a warm and caring and humorous guy. Joking around, laughing with kids. Working for him was an absolute honour and seeing what a great guy he was. I wish I could have spent more time with him.”
The Home Alone movies changed Culkin’s life, catapulting him to superstardom and staggering $8 million pay checks for the movies Getting Even With Dad and Richie Rich.
Ratray might not have enjoyed the same level of stardom but he’s continued to work steadily , popping up on TV procedurals like Blue Bloods, Law & Order Special Victims Unit and Elementary as well as in meatier roles on underrated shows like Mosaic and The Tick.
Alongside that has come film roles in critically-acclaimed fare like Nebraska and Blue Ruin. It’s a CV that demonstrates he’s never ended up typecast as a result of Buzz McCallister, even if it has had its ups and downs.
“I am very privileged to have continued to act as my only profession and luckily I am able to continue to do interesting and different roles that aren’t just Buzz. But clearly Buzz is something that is going to stay with me.”
Ratray acknowledges he has occasionally been on the receiving end of people who think it is “funny to challenge Buzz McCallister” in public but has never been targeted or bullied over it. He’s also encountered fellow actors who have told him he “caught a lucky break and didn’t deserve” the role. It’s hard to know which sounds worse.
And like Culkin, Ratray struggles to watch a film millions tune in to watch every Christmas.
“I don’t watch it the same way anybody else would. I watch the film and I think about the set that we were on or something that happened at lunch during that day. It’s a dissociative experience.”
With much of the world in lockdown and many film and TV productions only now beginning to get back up and running, Ratray decided to show the film to his seven-year-old son.
“I was expecting him to be a little more impressed. He was a little disorientated to tell you the truth. He watched it and was kind of fascinated when I was on.
“I’m not quite sure he comprehended that when he was looking at the child on the screen that that was his big bearded dad. It must have been an odd experience for him.”
All these years later and despite the personal difficulties he has with it, Ratray still has a favourite scene or two from Home Alone.
“I enjoy telling the Old Man Marley story. Also, at the end when Buzz tells Kevin it’s pretty cool that he didn’t burn the place down. That was a moment that showed he wasn’t a total dick.”
Generally, though, he is hypercritical watching himself back.
“I don’t really like my performance in Home Alone. I go for obvious choices. If I did it now, I would have been funnier and meaner and better all around.”
Even with all those difficulties and the fact that, 30 years later, he’s still fielding questions about a Christmas movie he made as a teenager, Ratray has nothing but gratitude for being involved in the movie.
“I am grateful and thankful it has become a favourite for different generations and transcended film and become bigger than a movie. People associate the holidays with it and they associate family memories with it. It’s made a deep, visceral impact on many people and also, now, their children and even grandchildren over the past 30 years.
“It’s a tremendous phenomenon to be part of and I am very glad that I get to say I played a part.”
Buzz McCallister undoubtedly played an important part in making Home Alone the film fondly remembered today – and it may yet end up being a part he returns to in the not-too-distant future.
“I’m not at liberty to say right now but there may very well be a future engagement and return to the character. But I am not allowed to say right now.”
Watch this space.