“Every year, over 20,000 child actors audition for roles in Hollywood. 95% of them don’t book a single job.” This astonishing statistic sets the stage for HBO’s newest documentary, Showbiz Kids. Speaking with child actors past, present, and hopeful future, the documentary peers into the lives of those who have pursued a career in Hollywood and what they've gained and given up to get there. In an industry that is known for its glamor, Showbiz Kids displays fame at its most unadorned to show it for what it really is – high risk, high reward, and never without its sacrifices.
Written and directed by former child actor Alex Winter, the gaze and guidance of the documentary could only be achieved by someone who shares the experiences of those whose story they are telling. Winter commits to an honest representation of a complicated industry from the opening quote and it does not shy away from its difficult truths. “This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for many years,” said Winter in a statement. “Having grown up in the business I’ve never seen the experiences of a child factory, from their early career through to the transition into adulthood, told from the perspective of those involved.”
Showbiz Kids includes present and former child actors from a litany of backgrounds, experiences, and eras of Hollywood. Henry Thomas, who starred in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Mara Wilson, who made her debut in Mrs. Doubtfire; Evan Rachel Wood, known for the film Thirteen; Cameron Boyce, the late star of Disney’s Jessie; Milla Jovovich, who began acting at 13 and went on to star in Resident Evil; Todd Bridges, who became a household name on Diff’rent Strokes; Jada Pinkett Smith, who not only was a child actor herself but is also a mother to child actors; Wil Wheaton, known for his breakout role in Stand by Me; and Diana Serra Cary, who became a huge silent film star at the age of two in 1920 all spoke about their experiences in the industry and didn’t worry about stripping away the glamorous exterior. The documentary also follows two aspiring hopefuls and their parents as they unpack the experiences they’ve had trying to break into the industry and the sacrifices they’re making to make it work.
Among a slew of recognizable actors, each with compelling and complicated stories of their experiences growing up in the spotlight, Wood and Boyce touch on various points in their lives when they began to grasp how much their families gave up for them to pursue their dream and the subsequent pressure and guilt that came with it.
“People have to sacrifice for you which I didn’t understand as a kid,” said Boyce. “Looking back on it now, I go ‘Wow.’ My dad quit his job. My Mom was letting me skip my last period in school so I could go to some stupid audition that I didn’t book. And when it really hit home for me was when my sister would come home from school and talk about how her classmates would just naturally associate her with me and that’s what she was. I hated that and that killed me. I didn’t want her to feel like she was in my shadow or that she was lesser than. So there are definitely things that, like, you think back on and you’re like, ‘That changed the entire fabric of my family and the way that we work as a unit.”
Wood, who came from a family of performers, felt a noticeable shift in her family’s dynamic as well as she began booking more and more projects.
“It just happened. And I think we all felt it. And I think I felt a lot of guilt for it that I never really vocalized or knew how to process,” she said. “And then very quickly felt like whatever struggles I was going through or whatever, I couldn’t talk about because I was where, I felt like, a lot of people in my family wanted to be and so I think I silenced my voice pretty quick and just felt like ‘Well I can’t complain about anything anymore.’”
As a result, many of the actors interviewed agreed that trust became a recurring problem in their lives. At such a young age, how can one surmise who is trustworthy and who isn’t? It led to complicated relationships with parents for some, balancing grueling work schedules with life beyond the set, and either being abused or witnessing abuse and exploitation in the industry.
“Any industry that has that much power and is that competitive, after a while it starts to become ‘Well who can take the most abuse?’ Because somebody is in line to take your place, so you just start to allow yourself to be abused in some form or another,” Wood says in the interview. “Every actor is guilty of that. They’re lying if they say they’re not because it’s just part of the deal at this point. Until things change, there’s always going to be somebody willing to take abuse and stay quiet.”
Multiple stories of child actors made headlines especially in light of the Me Too Movement gaining momentum in 2017. Still more went untold or told far after the damage and self-destruction had been done. Former child actors came forward to call attention to the rampant sexual abuse that goes on in an industry of grey areas. Attention was called to celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, and Gary Goddard among others whose alleged sexual misconduct included minors. (All three men have denied the accusations against them.)
It is a difficult story to tell, made even more difficult by the fact that for many this industry feels like a world away even if they see it every day. That is part of what makes Showbiz Kids as hard-hitting as it is. With a subject this intimate and unknown, it takes someone who really understands the story to tell it. It takes someone who understands the story to help tell it in a way so others can understand it more fully. The audience remains an outside observer, but the conversation is rarely this honest.
Showbiz Kids is now on demand and streaming on HBO Max.