Lately, you might have seen her as journalist Vivian Kent in the Emmy-nominated Netflix show Inventing Anna, as Chief of Staff Amy Brookheimer in Veep or as FBI agent Miriam Lass in Hannibal. For many people, however, Anna Chlumsky’s best-known role remains Vada Sultenfuss, the sensitive young heroine she played aged just ten in the 1991 coming-of-age movie My Girl.
Still, though My Girl might have been Chlumsky’s breakout film, it wasn’t actually her debut. That honour, instead, goes to the 1989 John Hughes hit Uncle Buck. A comedy blockbuster starring John Candy and Chlumsky’s future My Girl co-star Macaulay Culkin, Uncle Buck gave Chlumsky a fleeting but life-changing cameo.
Born in Chicago on December 3, 1980, Anna Chlumsky came from a creative family. Her mother Nancy was an Eastern Airlines attendant with aspirations of being a stage actress, while her father Frank Chlumsky Jr, who managed a restaurant in Wisconsin with his own father, was a keen saxophonist. Chlumsky’s great-grandfather, meanwhile, had a particular passion for cinema: he owned a bear that starred in Three Stooges films.
When Anna was only three months old, one of her mother’s flight attendant co-workers, who worked part-time as a model, recommended her parents enrol baby Anna in a modelling agency. Anna got her first job at ten months, as a baby model for department store chain Carson Pirie Scott. The infant Chlumsky would make various commercial appearances over the following seven years, including in the Sears catalogue.
Anna’s parents divorced when she was a toddler, and by the time she was eight years old she had lost interest in modelling. “I quit [modelling] because I didn’t like it anymore,” Chlumsky told Premier magazine in 1994. Now longing to be an artist, Chlumsky told her mom “I’m tired of being stuck with pins” and moved on.
Chlumsky was a precocious creative. By fifth grade, she was directing and starring in a school production of Grease. Having appeared in commercials from the age of five, young Anna found acting to be her main passion. At the time, says Chlumsky, her mother Nancy was “pursuing acting herself and did a lot of like community theater musicals”. And so mother and daughter decided to audition together for a Chicago stage production of Annie, a musical that Anna was obsessed with. They both secured roles, with Anna winning the part of Molly. She wound up participating in 86 stage performances.
Then, at the age of eight, Chlumsky landed her first film role, with a small supporting part in writer-director John Hughes’ 1989 family comedy Uncle Buck. Cast as a classmate of Gaby Hoffman’s Maizy, Chlumsky’s role was so minor that her character wasn’t even given a name. (You’ll find her credited on IMDb as ‘School Child’.)
As Chlumsky remembers it, she was simply “lucky enough to be randomly plucked from the gaggle-load of children, so I got to sit next to [Hoffman] for one day of shooting.” Early in her career, Nancy was Anna’s acting coach; according to The Hollywood Reporter, Nancy would give Anna advice like thinking about ‘how much she missed her dog’ to make her cry for sad scenes.
Unfortunately, the young Chlumsky hadn’t yet mastered movie-making. My Girl director Howard Zieff would later tell The Hollywood Reporter that he was initially concerned about casting Chlumsky in that film due to her inexperience, saying that at first “instead of looking at the other actors she’d look straight at the camera”. Chlumsky’s habit of glancing into the camera can even be seen in the final cut of her Uncle Buck scene.
Chlumsky has since said her role in Uncle Buck was that of a “glorified extra.” Reportedly, she recorded ten lines for the film but they didn’t make it into the final cut. More fortunate was Macaulay Culkin, whose role in Uncle Buck would be his Hollywood breakthrough. A year later, he would become the biggest child star of his generation off the back of 1990 blockbuster Home Alone.
Though they were co-stars on Uncle Buck, Chlumsky did not meet Culkin during production on the film, when they were both still unknowns. Culkin was still relatively unknown when he was cast in 1991’s My Girl, but his profile was sent skyrocketing by the release of Home Alone just before production began. Culkin, then, would be red-hot from his Home Alone success when he and Chlumsky finally met on the My Girl set.
Chlumsky wound up landing My Girl’s lead role of Vada because the filmmakers were specifically seeking an unknown for the part. Overlooking her Uncle Buck bit-part completely, My Girl’s marketing would read ‘Introducing Anna Chlumsky,’ treating the film as her debut. Though he initially worried about her lack of experience, My Girl director Howard Zieff would later say that after one week of filming Chlumsky had become a “total pro.”
For her part, the young Chlumsky was bewildered by the star treatment she received on set: “It was weird to have everyone waiting on you. It’s like, ‘Anna wants milk!’, ‘Anna wants milk!’, ‘Anna wants milk!'” Her kissing scene with Culkin proved even more confusing. It was Chlumsky’s first kiss, off-camera or on-, and as with most film scenes it required several takes. It proved rather awkward for the young actors, both of whom were aged just ten at the time. Chlumsky later reflected, “It wasn’t enjoyable… unfortunately”.
My Girl proved a hit on release in November 1991, earning $121.5 million at the box office. Culkin’s profile in the film industry continued to rise, and for a short time Chlumsky also seemed to be on the ascent. Unfortunately, the Culkin-free sequel My Girl 2 flopped, as did Chlumsky’s subsequent films Trading Mom and Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain (which also starred Christina Ricci).
As the job offers dried up during adolescence, Chlumsky quit acting at 18 and decided to concentrate on academics, earning a degree in International Studies from the University of Chicago in 2002. Chlumsky then spent several years pursuing a career in publishing, but in the years that followed she found herself missing acting and decided to give it another shot.
Having come to acting as a child without any training except for tips from her mother, in her mid-20s Chlumsky signed up for classes, with New York’s Atlantic Acting School. Chlumsky then worked her way up from the bottom again in unpaid amateur theatre productions (“some of which were great and some of which were horrible,” the actress has reflected).
After breaking back into screen work with some small film and TV roles, Chlumsky’s career was really revived by Armando Iannucci’s 2009’s film In the Loop. This led to a key role on Iannucci’s TV show Veep, which earned Chlumsky multiple award nominations and a busy career as an actor that continues to this day. Even so, Chlumsky says she still gets recognised for My Girl more than anything else. Don’t forget, though, that Uncle Buck came first.