‘It’s about who can take the most abuse’: inside Showbiz Kids and Hollywood's problem with minors

Mara Wilson became famous overnight as 11-year-old Matilda Wormwood - Film Stills
Mara Wilson became famous overnight as 11-year-old Matilda Wormwood - Film Stills

Bill and Ted star Alex Winter says directing his new documentary Showbiz Kids, about the often abusive experience of being a child actor, was a “cathartic experience.” For decades Winter kept the story of his own abuse private, until the #MeToo movement emboldened him to speak out. Now, through the testimonies of some of the best-known child stars, from the silent era’s Baby Peggy, to E.T.’s Henry Thomas, Stand By Me’s Wil Wheaton, Thirteens’ Evan Rachel Wood and Disney's Cameron Boyce, Showbiz Kids offers a peek into the world of child stardom.

As a young teenager, Winter thought all of his Christmases had come at once: appearing in Broadway shows The King and I and Peter Pan. “I really wanted to perform at a very young age,” he says over Zoom. “I got to walk out onto the Broadway stage, and open a giant show, night after night, and sing a duet. It was magic.”

However, off-stage a hellish story was unfolding. An unnamed older actor, now dead, was sexually abusing him. “The PTSD from that is so intense,” he now recognises.

Winter was a movie star in the 80s and 90s, appearing in teen vampire comedy The Lost Boys, and playing Bill S. Preston, Esq in the Bill and Ted films. Throughout, he was concealing a deep pain. “My trajectory is similar to a lot of child actors. By the time they're in their 20s they need to stop, regroup and reassess who they are. I very much needed to do that. Around Bill and Ted 2, I just needed a break. I co-directed a movie Freaked which I was in and then I quit acting.”

Winter moved to London, set up a production company and reinvented himself as a director, recently making documentaries about the Deep Web and The Panama Papers. He never thought that he would speak publicly about the abuse he suffered, let alone make a film. That changed following the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. “In the post #MeToo era, it is now much more public what is going on and who these people are. That is very helpful. People feel that they can talk,” he says.

It could be easy to expect the 54 year old to be angry about entering the show business, so it's surprising to hear Winter say, “I don't regret anything.” In fact, not milking the trauma of child stars in Hollywood, and avoiding the sensational narrative often seen on social media, was important for Winter when making his film. “I didn't just want war stories. I knew in my heart from having experienced it, that the highs are real. It's rare to find someone who has gone through the world and completely regrets it. They exist. Wil Wheaton clearly says he regrets it.”

He has put together an impressive array of talent across cinema. Todd Bridges talks about Diff’rent Strokes, being abused by his publicist and financial trouble with his dad. Wil Wheaton recounts his friendship with Stand By Me co-star River Phoenix. Jada Pinkett Smith talks how she and megastar Will Smith got wrapped up in the cult of celebrity when supporting their now famous children, Jaden and Willow. “Jada grew up working class in Baltimore and now has these two famous and incredibly privileged kids. I knew she would have interesting opinions about raising kids in a privileged environment, who are also African American, that's a lot of dynamics at play,” says Winter.

Cameron Boyce, interviewed before he passed away last year aged 20 of an epileptic seizure, revealed the pressures of the Internet age – he wielded 20 million Instagram followers and enjoyed enormous success with Disney's The Descendants movies.

“I don’t know how Cameron did it,” says Winter. “There is no way that I could have had every single moment of my childhood and my development permanently archived in such an invasive way. I am not the kind of person that does well with the spotlight in that way, I love performing but I don’t love the spotlight. [Matilda star] Mara Wilson describes it very well in the film: the sort of imposter syndrome, it’s like someone singing to you at a restaurant.”

Boyce speaking on Showbiz Kids
Boyce speaking on Showbiz Kids

The interviews are candid and sympathetic. Winter visited many of his subjects at their homes. He built up trust with them. The actor could understand when people turned him down, recognising that they are on their own journey. One person he pursued, however, was Evan Rachel Wood, who starred as a modern-day Lolita figure in Thirteen, when she herself was 14. Wood had spoken about her experiences of sexual abuse to Congress in 2018 during a hearing on the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill Act.

“She has an extraordinary ability to articulate her experience,” says Winter. “I had heard her speak publicly, and I was aware of her activism. At the same time, she is honest and very vulnerable.”

Wood delivers the film’s most chilling soundbite, that should have parents frogmarching their kids away from the casting couch. “After a while, it starts to become who can take the most abuse,” says Wood. “Because someone is waiting in line to take your place. So, you just allow yourself to be abused in some form or another. Every actor is guilty of that: they are lying if they say they are not because it's just part of the deal at this point.”

Mara Wilson now - HBO
Mara Wilson now - HBO

That has changed in recent years following the Weinstein scandal. While #MeToo wasn't directly concerned with children, the measures taken to make film sets a safer place, such as having intimacy coordinators available for sex scenes have also resulted in more protections and awareness of behaviours around children on set.

“I have to say that I have found that there is a significantly improved culture of protection for kids in the post #MeToo era, so that is progress,” says Winter. “There has already been a pretty big improvement from SAG and AFTRA from them mandating certain types of on-set behaviour in terms of tutoring, working hours and protection. Now people are there just to ensure that everyone is behaving properly and that is a good thing.”

I ask Winter what he thinks of today's stars and the treatment of 16-year-old Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown, often accused of growing up too fast, and away from film, how 17-year-old Greta Thunberg was mocked by Trump.

“It is like being bullied,” says Winter. “There is really no difference between that type of media coverage and being bullied by somebody who has power over you in school. We all know that carries weight and can traumatise children. Everyone is not a fair game just because they have put themselves into the media.”

Growing up fast: Millie Bobby Brown
Growing up fast: Millie Bobby Brown

The rise of the TikTok star in the age of clickbait discourse seems like the Wild West, but Winter is less concerned. He says there is less of a risk with social media stars like Charli D'Amelio receiving abuse because “you're not hurling yourself out into an adult business, you are the business. You are aiming the camera at yourself, and your mum and dad are filming you if you are seven years old. That being said, there are obvious perils, perils of branding yourself at that age, having that kind of responsibility, power, money, exposure, and vulnerability.”

And yet despite all of these pitfalls, Winter says that if kids really want to pursue acting, parents should allow them to follow their dreams but keep a close watch on them. The aim of the film is not to warn off parents but prepare them. “I don't think parents go into it with a thorough understanding of what the whole thing is, good, bad and in-between.”

The best way a parent can protect their child is by being present says Winter. However even that's not a guarantee. “The Todd Bridges story is a good example of the fact that attentive parents don't always work anyway. Todd's mum was in the industry, and he came up in a very solid family and he still got abused. That was my story too, my parents were attentive, but you can't keep an eye on that kid all the time. It's a risk factor.”

He also says it would be wrong to pinpoint one industry as being home to the problem. “I didn't want this movie to be all about children and sexual abuse. All that does is reinforce an inaccurate stereotype that children in the entertainment business get abused, that Hollywood has a paedophilia problem, the Catholic Church has a paedophilia problem. Of course, these institutions have problems because the entire global structure has a problem with abuse.”

By an odd quirk of fate, this cathartic documentary is coming out just as he is making a major return to acting. “I was thinking about that the other day,” says Winter. “I was able to make this film first, have it come out and reconnect with some of my fans and people who care what I’m up to and see the personal journey that I've had and then have Bill and Ted 3 come out on the heels of that. It's a happy accident.”

Showbiz Kids is on Sky from July 18

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