Do you remember your awkward phase as a kid? You may have had some physical growing pains or you had trouble making friends in school, but, hopefully, it wasn’t too damaging to your psyche. Now imagine that you are part of an industry that put your talent and that awkward phase in front of a camera. Do you think you’d be able to get through it? In Alex Winter’s terrific, gentle HBO documentary film, Showbiz Kids, he candidly talks to some actors who have been able to look back at their time as a child star and reflect how they dealt with trauma.
There is a disturbing way that the media pushes the downfall of performers, and it’s harder to imagine when we see it happen to a child or young person. Winter spoke with so many actors including Mara Wilson, Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Bridges, and Milla Jovovich, and Winter realized that what they all had in common was how they dealt with the trauma of being in the industry. All of these people–who we have seen grow up before our eyes–were silently coping with personal issues and they each thought that they were alone.
Winter leads with a gentle hand. His interviews don’t sensationalize trauma and he doesn’t emotionally push the actors into territory that would make them or us uncomfortable. It hits home a very important lesson in listening to those who might be dealing with something on their own.
Awards Daily: I enjoyed the tone of Showbiz Kids so much, because whenever we talk about young people in the industry, it usually devolves into scandalized topics or something like “child star does this” or “former child star busted for that.” We know we are dealing with children, so why did you want to take this avenue?
Alex Winter: I don’t fault the media really or the public for sensationalizing narratives around child stars. It’s what happens. There’s a very thin line that is a P. T. Barnum thing. I hate to say it, but there’s a line between the lure of public kids whether they are in sports or in entertainment. You could make something about either of those, and I guarantee they would be identical. That line is very thin between a voyeuristic, baroque, overdramatized bloodlust to see them in peril.
AW: It’s human nature and that’s always fascinated me. The media is made up of human beings, so I don’t honestly think they are pushing it for views. That allure is there for a journalist in the same way that it’s there for the public. That’s a very superficial narrative and largely unhelpful. Having lived these experiences, I knew they bore no vague resemblance to my experiences. I had some traumatic things happen to me, so it wasn’t like I was wondering why they were always focusing on this. My experience is much more what I think most children’s experiences were, and that is an entire constellation of experiences. Some magical and wonderful moments of my life and some horrifying things. And boredom. I just wanted to make a film that looked at that constellation of experiences only from the point of view of people who had experienced it. It was like an ensemble cast speaking in one voice.
AD: I do appreciate your relaxed interview style. I was impressed by how much people open up to you, especially when people like Evan Rachel Wood admit that she felt like she couldn’t stop working because she was talented.
AW: I didn’t intend to shy away from the more intense or grave aspects of this or the issues themselves. I wanted to talk to people who experienced trauma but were also able to process it and talk about it in a very open way. I wanted to explore this in a non-sensationalistic way and Evan has gone to the Senate and worked on legislation on these issues. People like Todd Bridges have done extraordinary work on the trauma he experienced. When you heard about what he went through, your jaw drops. I wanted to hit that all head on but, hopefully, in a nuanced way. I didn’t want it to be sensational.
AD: Something that is very important is the responsibility of listening to these young people. I got that from everyone who spoke in the doc. I wanted to ask how you found the young people who are looking to make it in the industry? Marc is trying out pilot season and Demi is having more success.
AW: It was helpful for me, because I had been both of them in my own life. I started out as Marc and kind of became Demi. I wasn’t going to camp as a kid and not doing the things I thought I wanted to do. I lived that transition myself and I also have done a lot of directing with kids in episodic TV and commercials. I audition a lot of young actors and I have good relationships with acting agents so I knew how to find them. I interviewed a ton of kids and parents. I know this journey very well in the present world even though I grew up in the Dickens era. (laughs)
AW: Now it’s so important with social media, so it was important to talk to someone like Cameron Boyce who, sadly, is gone. He grew up with a 25 million Instagram account and watched his life. It’s almost abstract with how I wanted to play with that. The film isn’t a reality show and it’s not a doc series but I wanted them to serve as texture to ground you in what the journey looks like while the meat of the film is the confessions or interviews who already went through this.
AD: I didn’t know you interviewed Cameron for this. I wasn’t super familiar with some of the films he was in, but I knew he was someone everyone was watching.
AD: I was also very sad to see that Diana Serra Carey passed. What was it like to find her and how much time you spent with her?
AW: I always wanted to convey that a child is a child whether it’s today or the 1900s. Childhood is what it is and so is professional childhood. It doesn’t matter what the time period is and the experience is the same. I wanted to go to the early days of Hollywood the transition of Vaudeville to film. If Judy Garland was alive today, she would be the perfect example because she was one of the biggest movie stars we had. It was important to me to get someone from that period and I spent a lot of time on the phone with her and at her home. What was so amazing about her was that I knew she was so smart and that she could contextualize her experience because she was writer. She was also a historian so she was kind of the best doc subject.
AD: I imagine.
AW: She opened her mouth and she told my story. It blew me away. This woman in the 1920s was having the same experiences that I had some fifty years later. The way she processed it was almost identical and what she had to do to course correct was also almost identical. What it unlocked for me, which I didn’t know going in, is that every single one of our stories are almost the same when it comes to the emotional innerworkings of them. When I got to Mara Wilson, she was a little reluctant to do this. She didn’t realize how much we all had in common. I thought I was dealing with this all on my own. We all have the same shit. Not only was it lovely in terms of the connectivity and I knew that it would convey it to the audience. That universality is what you want.
AD: Do you think it’s a fear or reluctance in terms of blowback from the industry if they talk about this? Is there just a general nervousness?
AW: Of course there is. There can be a myriad of reasons but I think it’s ultimately worrying about not being heard. If you look at the #MeToo movement and why it was so successful is that Tarana Burke and the others with her that formed this had personal investment in the movement they formed. They weren’t social scientists who wanted to talk about trauma, and that caught on like a brush fire. That’s what took to change the narrative on trauma and shared experience. For those of us that come up in the industry there is a taboo to open your mouth because you think no one wants to hear it or they don’t identify with it. I don’t think it’s a blowback but I think some people don’t want to be on the cover of magazines. You can, in a way, benefit from it in the industry. That fear of it not being a nuanced, trusted response. You have to be very careful how you communicate these things and you have to expect, to a degree, that some of it will be twisted and misinterpreted to a degree. Some of it is very unpleasant the people don’t want to hear it. In the entertainment industry, it’s partly a fantasy and how much does a celebrity divulge reveal who they are. I am a staunch believer that that’s not true. As an artist you have more identification.
AD: The more vulnerability you show, the more people can connect with you.
AW: Yeah. And it’s real and you’re not bullshitting people. You’re showing who you are and that’s very valuable and not presenting yourself as a yoga guru who only eats green food. I think you will see more of it because of #MeToo.
AD: I kept thinking of how now young people can go on Instagram Live and talk to their followers and their fans but in the 1930s and 1940s there were those magazines that talked about the personal lives of movie stars. There’s always been that hunger to learn more about people who we see in the movies.
AW: Some of that isn’t unhealthy. It’s not like I think the traumatic experiences that a showbiz kid experiences is to rarified–in fact it’s the opposite. It can become an easier way into a more universal story.