‘I Was in ‘Home Alone’ 1 and 2, Then I Became an Olympian’

When I was five, I was at a Fourth of July party talking to a friend of the family who was in the movie business somehow. I was very similar to how I am now; I had a deep voice for a girl and I was very outgoing. This friend told my mom she had to get my picture taken to show to casting agents. But my mom grew up in south Florida and had nothing to do with movies, so her attitude was: absolutely not.

Eventually she gave in and got my headshots, but she thought nothing was going to come of it. A month later, I got a part in an American Playhouse TV movie called A Matter of Principle with Alan Arkin, playing one of his daughters.

It was interesting because I never strove to be a successful actor, so I didn’t have a lot of nerves. I wasn’t shy or ever worried about whether I was going to get a part or not and my parents were not stage parents, trying to get me jobs. It felt like roles just fell into my lap. I had also started practicing judo when I was 7 and continued the whole time I was acting. Judo instantly became my passion, which probably explains why acting was never really my priority.

I have no recollection of this, but my mom has told me that John Hughes, who wrote Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, actually met me when I was much younger, so I think that helped me get the role of Megan McCallister, an older sister to Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister.

Home Alone was filmed in the Chicago area so I got to stay home, sleep in my own bed and only had to drive 30 minutes to set each morning, but to this day, my mom still says that she probably wouldn’t have said yes if it hadn’t been a John Hughes movie. The concept of a kid at home on his own sounds kind of ridiculous on paper. We had no idea it was going to be the hit that it was.

As a whole, my memories of Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York are that it was a very fun set. Between the McCallisters and the cousins there were a lot of children, so it was a very kid-friendly environment. Catherine O’Hara was one of the best things about that movie set. She was funny, great with kids, and just a wonderful person. I actually had a lot of fun filming the scene we did running through O’Hare airport, and that was because I was with Catherine.

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I’m about three years older than Macaulay Culkin so I had just turned 13 when the first movie was filming and he was around 10. My impression was that he was a typical little boy having fun and that his personality really shone through. How much fun would it be for any kid to have that part? He got to set booby traps and fight burglars!

A lot of the scenes I was in were just the McCallister family all together which was always fun, but the scene I was in that stands out to me is when I ask Buzz, played by Devin Ratray, if he’s worried about Kevin, and Buzz explains why he isn’t. I don’t know if it was in the script or Devin just made the lines up, but it was really funny to film.

The producers had actually rented a high school that had shut down, New Trier Township High School, and built sets in there, like the interior of the McCallister house. We had so much fun running around that high school, doing our school work there with our tutors and hanging out.

Once the movie came out and did so well, I think Home Alone 2 started getting planned pretty quickly and was filmed the following year, in 1991. We stayed at The Plaza hotel in New York for several weeks and shot the New York scenes, but everything else was shot on set in the Chicago area, even the scenes where we are on an airplane.

Macaulay was still a kid though, he was completely the same and I remember going to hang out with him and his siblings who were all staying at a hotel in Chicago. His little brother Kieran Culkin was the cutest; I loved him.

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My very first kiss in real life was actually with Macaulay Culkin’s older brother, Shane, who was around my age. It was one of the times we were all hanging out in Chicago. As I was having my first kiss, Macaulay was army crawling out of a hotel room into the hall, trying to see what was going on! He was a little prankster. I have two sons of my own now and I’d say Macaulay was just a normal boy.

We’d hang out with Macaulay’s bodyguard as our chaperone and go to Navy Pier in Chicago and lip sync to music videos. Macaulay had been in Michael Jackson’s « Black or White » music video by that point, and I remember we did the dance and lip synced to that, which was really fun.

One day during filming in Chicago, a car with blacked out windows drove up to the set and I remember hearing somebody say: « Oh, there’s a Michael Jackson lookalike here! » It was actually him. The whole situation was surreal and weird, it was like, « holy s***, that’s Michael Jackson! » I’m not impressed by famous people often, but Michael Jackson was next level.

Michael seemed uncomfortable with the adults and my memory is that he spent his entire time with Macaulay and us kids. He was very softly spoken and he would almost cover his face up, but he was very friendly. Although I don’t remember what we asked him specifically, he was very engaged and friendly. He just seemed very shy. Macaulay was this free spirited young boy being goofy and loud and was just becoming super famous. He still had that « normal kid » free spirit, I feel, so I wonder if Michael felt a connection with him because he had been through child stardom himself. Perhaps he used to be like Macaulay was; more outgoing.

After the Home Alone movies, I did get recognized a little, but the movie people really recognized me for was Big Girls Don’t Cry…They Get Even which was released between Home Alone and Home Alone 2. It was a movie that a lot of girls my age saw, even though Home Alone was much more popular. It was interesting because acting wasn’t my ultimate goal, so I did the best I could and then I went back home and went to the same school. Movies and judo were just what I did. I was totally comfortable and the other kids at my school were used to it.

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Throughout the time I was filming movies, I was also still practicing judo and competing around the country. I rarely lost so when the 1991 U.S. National Judo Championships in Hawaii were approaching, my dad said we should go. I thought he was insane, but we went and I won in the under 44kg weight class, even though I was 14 and fighting women who were 30. That was a big turning point for me because I began thinking that by ’96 I could be ready to compete in the Olympics in Atlanta.

Athletics had always been first and foremost for me. I was naturally talented so I excelled in that area and got a lot of joy from it. I remember that in 1992, I went to my parents and told them that I couldn’t do both acting and judo any longer and that I wanted to compete in judo at an Olympics. Thankfully, they weren’t wrapped up in my success as an actor or focused on the money, because you see how that happens with some child actors’ families.

After that, I saw a trainer after school every day and went to practice five times a week. Thankfully, when I was 14, I had found a judo club in the suburbs of Chicago with coaches who had both competed at the Olympics in judo. It normalized the idea for me. They had been to the Olympics, so why couldn’t I?

Three years later, I won the 1994 World Junior Judo Championships in my weight class, becoming the first American to do so. It was a huge accomplishment. The next American to win was actually Ronda Rousey in 2004. By ’96 I was competing at my first Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. It was an incredible experience. Having an Olympics in your own country is just amazing; virtually everyone in the stadium is American and cheering for you.

I didn’t end up placing but I enjoyed it a lot, and afterwards I finally moved up to the under 52kg weight class. But I tore my ACL in 1998, which required surgery, so the chances of recovering and making it to the next Olympics were slim.

Hillary Wolf Saba with her husband Chris Saba and their sons Dylan (left) and Michael (right).
Eileen Broderick Photography

Simply making the U.S. Olympic team in 2000 was a huge accomplishment for me, but I didn’t have the greatest experience in Sydney. I was four years older and it felt a little more final. I knew I could have made the Olympics team in 2004, but I wasn’t going to get a medal without training overseas. I had met my husband Chris by that point—he’s a wrestler and was an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling alternate twice, for the ’96 and 2000 U.S. Olympic wrestling teams—so when I stepped off the mat in Sydney, I was done.

There hasn’t been a single moment when I have regretted my decision to quit acting, but sports was a little tougher to close the door on. It’s weird when athletics is your passion; you still have the heart for it but at some point your body can’t do it any more. And when I retired I probably could have competed for a while longer.

Instead, I finished college, got married and worked in sales for around five years. I stopped working when I had my two boys, Michael and Dylan, who are 14 and 11 now, and restarted my career this year as director of events and volunteers at Pikes Peak United Way. I love it.

It’s been 31 years since Home Alone, but I never wanted anyone to think that I considered myself really cool because I was in those movies, so I didn’t really tell anybody I met. I was so private about it that it’s almost like I didn’t embrace the joy and the fun oddity of being in Home Alone movies.

I’m so glad I was able to let go of caring what people think, because in the past five years it’s become a fun thing to share. There is a look of joy and shock I see in people’s eyes when my friends tell them I was in Home Alone. When I’m at work meetings and people drop, « You know Hillary was in Home Alone? » it just changes the dynamic in the room. I think it’s awesome now, I love that it makes people smile. And, I still get residuals now, so I can’t imagine what Macaulay must get!

There are people who have known me for years and have no idea about the movie stuff and I could just pretend that it didn’t happen. But being a child actor and then an Olympic athlete is who I am. Now, I feel I’m able to appreciate it.

Hillary Wolf Saba is a former child actor and Olympian living in Colorado with her family.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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