July 15, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alex Winter
Culture Representation: The documentary “Showbiz Kids” interviews several white and African American current and former child actors (and a few of their parents) about what it’s like to be a child in the entertainment business.
Culture Clash: Several of the people interviewed discuss missing out on having a “normal” childhood; the pressures and down sides of fame; and rampant child abuse and exploitation in showbiz.
Culture Audience: “Showbiz Kids” will appeal primarily to people who like behind-the-scenes stories about the entertainment business, although almost all of these cautionary tales have already been told.
There are plenty of news exposés and tell-all books that have revealed the good, bad and ugly sides of being a famous child in the entertainment business. The documentary film “Showbiz Kids” doesn’t uncover anything new or shocking, but it’s a generally good compilation of personal stories from current and former child entertainers.
“Showbiz Kids” director Alex Winter, a former child actor who became famous as an adult—he’s best known for co-starring in the “Bill & Ted” movies with Keanu Reeves—keeps the film’s focus uncluttered by showing mainly the perspectives of actors. There’s the expected archival footage, but the only new interviews are with actors (some who are more famous than others) and a few parents of children who are trying to make it big in showbiz. (There are no agents interviewed in the film.)
The interviewees include famous former child actors Evan Rachel Wood, Cameron Boyce, Wil Wheaton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Milla Jovovich, Todd Bridges, Mara Wilson, Henry Thomas and Diana Serra Cary. Boyce died of a stroke in 2019, at the age of 20. Serra Cary, who was known as Baby Peggy in the 1920s, passed away in 2020, at the age of 101. An epilogue in the documentary announces that “Showbiz Kids” is dedicated to Boyce and Serra Cary.
One of the best things about “Showbiz Kids” is that it has a wide range of ages and experiences for the actors who are interviewed in the film. Some (such as Wood, Wheaton, Serra Cary and Jovovich) were pushed into acting by their parents. Others sort of fell into acting, such as Pinkett Smith and Thomas, who says that he only decided to become a professional actor as a way to get out of piano lessons. And some others (such as Bridges, Wilson and Boyce) say that they wanted to be entertainers from an early age but started so young that they didn’t know any other way of life when they were kids.
Also interviewed are two families who each have a child who’s trying to become famous in showbiz, with varying degrees of success. One family consists of Melanie Slater, Jeff Slater and their son Marc Slater from Orlando, Florida. The other family consists of Demi Singleton and her single mother Tricia Miranda, who are based in New York City. (The children in these families don’t appear to have any siblings.)
Melanie, Jeff and Marc Slater (who looks like he was about 9 to 11 years old when he was filmed for this documentary) represent the experience that’s most common: The child has not been able to find steady work as an actor. The Slaters say that Melanie and Jeff haven’t pushed Marc into showbiz, and they say that Marc doesn’t want to quit, despite the fact that he almost never gets work as an actor.
However, the documentary shows Marc in a one-on-one session with a female acting coach, who notices that Marc is yawning while she’s trying to teach him. Marc admits that he’s feeling tired (because he didn’t much sleep from the night before) and a little bored. When the acting coach asks him how he feels about the lessons, he makes a “so-so” indication.
The acting coach thanks Marc for being honest, but it’s pretty clear that this kid doesn’t have the passion to be an actor. And that lack of driving passion will probably affect his chances of continuing to pursue an acting career. There’s nothing in the documentary that indicates Marc has extraordinary talent. And, as it’s pointed out in the documentary, the entertainment business is notorious for chewing kids up and spitting them out when they get older and aren’t as “cute” anymore.
Meanwhile, the documentary shows Marc and his mother Melanie in the Los Angeles area, where they’ve traveled every year for the past few years, to audition for pilot season. Although it’s not mentioned in the documentary, pilot season is the peak time when people who don’t live in the Los Angeles area are most likely to bring their kids to Hollywood for auditions. There are plenty of reality TV shows that have chronicled this process.
Pilot season is the period of time (January to March) when TV studios and production companies are casting actors for pilot episodes of TV series that might or might not be ordered for a full season. After the pilot episodes are filmed, they’re shopped to various networks or streaming services. Most of the shows end of up not being sold to any outlets. The shows that are sold and picked up for a full season are usually announced in April or May and usually debut later that year or the following year.
The pushy and domineering “stage mother” has become a showbiz cliché, because a lot of it is true. Almost all of the actors interviewed in the documentary say that their mothers had a more active role than their fathers did in guiding their children’s showbiz careers. Their mothers are also usually their managers when they are children. (Managers handle the day-to-day business, while agents are responsible for finding and booking work for their clients.)
When the image of a “stage mother” is brought up, Melanie Slater says with a horrified voice: “I don’t ever want to be one of those!” However, Melanie Slater is shown being very much a stage mother, as she (without her husband) is the one who accompanies Marc to Los Angeles for his pilot-season auditions. She’s the one who usually takes the photos that are posted on her son Marc’s social media.
And she’s the one who’s taught Marc to parrot her loopy way of comparing getting an acting job to the planet Saturn. According to Melanie and Marc, there are three main rings around the planet that they have to get through in order to reach the planet. The first ring is the audition, the second ring is the callback, the third ring is booking the job, and the final destination (the planet) is actually doing the job and getting paid for it. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.
On the other end of the wannabe star spectrum is Singleton, who looks like she was about 11 or 12 years old when this documentary was filmed. Singleton says that she and her mother are originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but they moved to New York City when she was 3 years old. Unlike the Slaters, they’ve been more successful in booking gigs for the child actor in the family. (Maybe that’s because Singleton and her mother don’t spend time sitting around talking about rings of Saturn as a way to break into showbiz.)
Singleton has been in the cast of Broadway musical productions, such as “The Lion King” and “School of Rock.” And she’s had a small supporting role in the Epix drama series “Godfather of Harlem,” starring Forest Whitaker. It’s clear that Singleton wants to be a “triple threat” entertainer (someone who can sing, dance and act), and she takes her craft seriously. She’s shown in ballet classes, which is a discipline that many kids with access to ballet don’t have the patience to commit to on a long-term basis.
Unlike Marc Slater, it’s obvious that Singleton has a passion for being an entertainer. And just as importantly, she’s ambitious. In the documentary, she unapologetically says that she wants to be so famous that she can change a lot of people’s lives for the better. It’s clear that she’s one of those kids that wasn’t forced to be in showbiz, because the documentary shows that when she has a choice between going to summer camp or working that summer, she seems happy that she ended up getting booked for a job for the summer.
The people interviewed in “Showbiz Kids” inevitably bring up the issue of having a “normal childhood” versus pursuing a career in showbiz. How and where you are raised make all the difference, say the interviewees. “Westworld” star Wood says that her parents, who run a theater company in North Carolina, were definite “snobs” about what kind of material she would do as an actor, which affected her choices then and now.
Pinkett Smith, who attended Baltimore School of the Arts, says that growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood prepared her for the cutthroat side of the entertainment business. When she started her Hollywood acting career in her late teens (her breakout role in her early 20s was in the 1991-1993 sitcom “A Different World”), she says that these “street smarts” helped prevent her from being conned and exploited. “I survived the streets of Baltimore, so as far as I was concerned, this [Hollywood] was kind of a Disneyland.”
Meanwhile, Wilson (who’s most famous for her 1990s movie roles in “Matilda” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”) grew up in the showbiz city of Burbank, California, so she says it was normal for her to go to school with kids who regularly auditioned for acting jobs. Thomas had the opposite experience. After he became world-famous as a star of the blockbuster 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” he says he still attended a regular school in his Texas hometown, where he was the only professional actor in his class. Thomas remembers his fame was a double-edged sword in that environment, because he got a lot of perks and adulation, but he also got a lot of bullying and teasing from some of his peers at school.
Getting an education is a tricky subject for showbiz kids, and it depends on how busy the child is as an entertainer. The busier the entertainer, the less likely the child will be attending a “normal” school. Homeschooling and on-set tutoring are how many famous child entertainers got most of their childhood education. But most still attend “regular” school at some point in their childhoods.
Boyce (a former Disney Channel star) had education experiences at a “regular” school and a home school. In the documentary, Boyce says that he preferred the regular school because he was able to do “normal” activities with kids his age. At his home school, he wasn’t around people in the same age group. And Boyce also says that being a busy entertainer meant that he didn’t really think about going to college, since going to college would no doubt put his career momentum on hold.
Boyce says in the documentary that one of the biggest problems of being a famous entertainer as a kid is that people are expecting you to be someone that you’re not. Finding an identity outside of showbiz can be difficult. Adolescent mistakes and the natural process of physically looking different while growing into adulthood are issues that get blown out of proportion when a child is famous, compared to when a child is not famous.
Most of the people interviewed in the documentary express having complicated emotional relationships with their parents, who usually controlled their careers as children. Although they express gratitude over having supportive families who sacrificed a lot so that they could become successful entertainers, there are some lingering resentments.
Wheaton says that his parents, especially his mother, at times seemed to care more about him being famous and successful than his emotional well-being. He says of becoming an actor: “It was never my idea.” Wheaton states that he has a “great family,” but he also expresses anger that his mother didn’t adequately protect him from an abusive situation that he experienced on a job. (He doesn’t go into details about the abuse.)
Thomas describes his parents as not being prepared for the worldwide fame that came his way because of “E.T.,” because they initially thought acting was just going to be a hobby for him. Thomas says that his mother, who accompanied him on every job he had as a child, was highly suspicious and paranoid that people were trying to abuse or exploit him. Therefore, she was labeled as “difficult.” And, in hindsight, he believes that his mother cost him a lot of acting jobs.
Serra Cary says her father didn’t just cost her some acting jobs. She says he ruined her entire acting career. In the documentary interview, she claims that her father hated that he wasn’t going to get a cut of the money that was in her work contract, so he terminated the contract. “My [acting] career was over [when I was] 7,” Serra Cary says.
Wood says that the entire time that she was becoming a successful young actor, no one close to her bothered to ask her how she was feeling. She says that the assumption was that the more successful she became, the happier she was expected to be. And she says that her parents instilled in her the idea that because she had the talent to be an actor, she would be ungrateful and foolish if she didn’t pursue an acting career.
Jovovich, who grew up as the child of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, says that her mother was a “brilliant” actress who had to give up her dreams to be a famous actress in order to help make money for the family. Jovovich’s mother ended up being a servant to rich and famous people, and she pushed Jovovich into a showbiz career, as a way to vicariously live through Jovovich. Although Jovovich is mainly known as an actress and former supermodel, she says that she really wanted to become a singer, but that career didn’t really work out for her because she was pigeonholed as being a model/actress. Jovovich is now best known for starring in the “Resident Evil” action-horror movie franchise, written and directed by her husband Paul W.S. Anderson.
Pinkett Smith, who’s married to superstar Will Smith, offers her perspective as a famous mother of kids who are also in the entertainment business. She says that their son Jaden and daughter Willow were not pushed into showbiz, but she’s well-aware that her kids have the privilege of not having to struggle financially, like other kids who don’t have any family wealth or connections. (Willow and Jaden were not interviewed for this documentary.)
Pinkett Smith also mentions that she’s glad that social media didn’t exist when she started her own showbiz career because she’s not sure how social media would’ve affected her as a child or teenager growing up. Boyce, who is one of the few actors interviewed in the documentary who grew up with social media, comments that social media just amplifies insecurities that kids already have in their real lives. It’s obviously why Wood (who has a son with her actor ex-husband Jamie Bell) says it’s a conscious choice as a parent that her son is not on social media.
Trust issues and isolation are also common with child entertainers, say many of the people interviewed in the documentary. Wheaton expresses bitterness over people treating him differently only because he’s famous, which causes him to question people’s sincerity. He says that he was bullied by cousins when he was growing up, but after he became famous (his breakout role was in the 1986 movie “Stand by Me”), they became extra-nice to him. He comments that this experience was his beginning of not being able to trust anyone. Wheaton also says he hated being marketed as a “teen idol,” and he was pressured into doing “teen idol” things that he really didn’t want to do.
Wilson and Boyce also talk about how much it can mess with a child star’s mind to not know how much fame is the reason for why people are being nice to them and want to become their friends. It gets even more complicated when the star is old enough to date. And Boyce says that social media puts famous people under pressure to document a lot of their personal lives on their social media.
“It’s a very fulfilling but lonely experience,” Wood says of being a successful child entertainer. Wood quips that you know you’re in the presence of a child star when they know how to do a lot of things that children normally don’t do. She says that’s because child entertainers often spend a lot of time alone in trailers and in hotels, and they pick up unusual hobbies out of sheer boredom and loneliness.
Drugs and sexuality, which people discover as they are growing up, are inevitably mentioned in the documentary. “Showbiz Kids” includes examples of former child stars who have histories of personal problems that became very public, including Drew Barrymore, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Shia LaBeouf, Corey Haim (who died of pneumonia complications in 2010) and Corey Feldman. On the flip side, the documentary also includes examples of former child stars who went on to have successful showbiz careers as adults and reputations for being emotionally stable, such as Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Brooke Shields and Scarlett Johansson.
Sexism and sexual exploitation are also discussed. Wood says that she felt most exploited not on film sets but on photo shoots, where she was forced to wear outfits that didn’t really reflect who she is. Wood comments, “I didn’t want to wear dresses. I didn’t want to wear heels. I was a tomboy.” Wood, who is the only openly LGBTQ person interviewed in the documentary (she identifies as bisexual), also mentions that she knew she was bisexual as a pre-teen, but there was pressure for her not to go public about her sexual orientation until much later in her life.
Jovovich says that when she was an underage teen model made to look like an adult, it was both horrifying and embarrassing for her. She thought the hair and makeup that she had for photo shoots looked “hideous” on her. And she says that the constant push to make her look like a sexy adult when she was still a kid wouldn’t be as acceptable today as it was when it happened to her in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Although Jovovich’s parents allowed her to be emancipated at the age of 16, Jovovich admits in hindsight that she was still too young to go through many of the things that she experienced—even though she thought at the time that she was mature enough to handle these situations. She makes a vague reference to getting into “messes” with older men when she was underage. Looking back on these experiences, she now says that these older men were “schmucks” for taking advantage of her.
The documentary points out the obvious fact that girls in the entertainment business are made to look sexual at a much earlier age than boys are. “Showbiz Kids” includes clips and/or photos from controversial movies, such as 1962’s “Lolita” (about a middle-age man who commits statutory rape when he becomes sexually obsessed with an underage teenage girl), as well as 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 1978’s “Pretty Baby,” which each featured an underage girl prostitute as one of the main characters. The 1994 movie “Léon: The Professional” (which had the title “The Professional” in the U.S.) is also mentioned as a movie that portrayed sexual undertones/sexual tension between the two main characters: a professional hit man and a 12-year-old girl.
The #MeToo movement is mentioned as important progress for people speaking up and getting justice for sexual harassment/abuse, but the people who talk about it say that despite this progress, sexual harassment/abuse is still a major problem. People in the documentary reiterate that even though most of the showbiz #MeToo stories that people hear about are about experiences that happened to adults, that doesn’t mean that there’s a low percentage of children in showbiz with #MeToo stories. Children are just as likely to be harassed/abused as adults but are more likely to keep it a secret.
Wood states that sexual abuse happens to boys much more than what’s being reported. She says that most male actors have been sexually harassed or sexually abused by powerful men in the industry. And she remembers attending a recent Golden Globes ceremony where she had to temporarily go outside because she was nauseated that a man who’s known to sexually abuse boys had won a Golden Globe award at the show. (She doesn’t name names.)
Bridges, who’s best known for co-starring in the 1978-1986 sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” went public years ago about his own childhood abuse. He was sexually abused by his male publicist for years. And when he told his parents, Bridges’ father sided with the publicist. Bridges, who claims that his father was physically and emotionally abusive to him when he was growing up, says that all this trauma led him on a downward spiral of drug addiction and suicidal thoughts.
Fortunately, Bridges recovered, but his “Diff’rent Strokes” co-star Dana Plato (who went public with similar problems) did not. She died of a drug overdose in 1999, at the age of 34. Meanwhile, “Diff’rent Stokes” co-star Gary Coleman (the most famous member of the cast) struggled with health problems and being typecast as a child star for the rest of his life. In 2010, Coleman died of a subdural hematoma at the age 42.
In the documentary, Bridges says that of the three actors who played the kids on “Diff’rent Strokes” (Bridges, Plato and Coleman), Bridges was the one who most people predicted would die first. Bridges marvels that he’s now “the last one standing.” He also expresses sorrow over his “Diff’rent Strokes” co-stars’ untimely deaths and gratitude that he was able to come out of his personal ordeals alive and able to help other abuse survivors.
However, none of this information is new. And “Showbiz Kids” does have some noticeable omissions and blind spots. The film has no Asians and Latinos, the two fastest-growing racial groups in the United States. And although there are some African Americans in the documentary, there’s absolutely no discussion of how racism impacts opportunities that are given to child actors.
Also left out of the documentary is any coverage of children with disabilities and how they’re represented and treated in showbiz. The closest that the documentary comes to addressing this issue is when Bridges talks about how his “Diff’rent Strokes” star Coleman (who had lifelong kidney problems) had to go to work the day after having kidney surgery. According to Bridges, Coleman ended up resenting how the “Diff’rent Strokes” bosses didn’t seem to care about his health.
To its credit, “Showbiz Kids” responsibly brings up the important issues of sexism, sexual exploitation and abuse. However, the discussion is fairly superficial, since there’s no discussion about how these issues have trickle-down negative effects on how children, especially girls, feel about their body image. (It’s very obvious that girls who are famous entertainers are under more pressure than boys to not be overweight.)
You would think that a documentary called “Showbiz Kids” would have some discussion about eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. People who have these disorders are usually female, and they usually become afflicted with these disorders when they’re underage. But there’s no mention of eating disorders in “Showbiz Kids.”
The reasons why anorexics and bulimics get these disorders are usually the same: They want to look “thin and attractive.” And their unhealthy eating habits are their way to have control over their lives because they often don’t feel in control of their lives. Showbiz kids are textbook examples of being very vulnerable to getting eating disorders, because their physical appearance goes under much more scrutiny than kids who aren’t in showbiz.
There’s a large percentage of women who are former child stars who’ve gone public about having eating disorders when they were pre-teens or underage teens. (And it’s impossible to know many more have also had an eating disorder, but have kept it private.) Therefore, it’s disappointing that “Showbiz Kids” failed to even mention this rampant problem.
The movie predictably covers drug abuse/addiction, but sparingly. Bridges is the only one interviewed in “Showbiz Kids” who talks about his drug problems. And if it seems very unrealistic that he’s the only celebrity in the documentary who’s ever done illegal drugs, that’s because it is unrealistic. Pinkett Smith and Wood have been open in other interviews about their past drug use and other self-destructive behavior, but they don’t tell those stories in this documentary. (And if they did, those stories were cut out of the film.)
Wheaton says he was angry about the untimely death of his former “Stand by Me” co-star River Phoenix, who died of a cocaine and heroin overdose in 1993, at the age of 23. Wheaton says that he looked up to Phoenix as an older brother. Although he acknowledges that Phoenix made the choice to take the drugs that killed him, Wheaton also puts a lot of blame on the people who enabled Phoenix’s drug addiction.
Wheaton claims that no one in Phoenix’s life cared enough to help Phoenix quit doing dangerous drugs. But by his own admission, Wheaton hadn’t been in touch with Phoenix for about two years before Phoenix died, so Wheaton doesn’t really know the whole story about who might or might not have tried to help Phoenix get clean and sober.
Cutting one’s own skin, which is a form of self-harm that is not uncommon with showbiz types (especially young people), barely gets mentioned in the documentary. The only reference to cutting is when the documentary shows a brief 2018 clip from “Red Table Talk”—the Facebook talk show hosted by Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Jones (the mother of Pinkett Smith)—when Willow publicly confessed that she used to be a cutter, and her mother appears to be shocked.
Because the documentary primarily has viewpoints of former child actors, there’s little to no discussion of the crucial roles and responsibilities of people who aren’t these children’s parents but who have a lot of power in what happens to a child in showbiz, such as agents, managers, directors, producers, casting directors, talent coaches and other people who work behind the scenes. Labor unions are not mentioned at all. And except for a brief flash of a sexual-abuse hotline number at the end of the film, there’s really no reference to how people can recover or get justice for any abuse or harassment they’ve experienced or witnessed in the entertainment business.
Despite these gaping holes in the documentary, “Showbiz Kids” takes the interviews that it has and weaves them together into a concise narrative that’s very easy to follow. People certainly won’t get bored watching this documentary, but people will certainly wonder about all the information that wasn’t revealed.
HBO premiered “Showbiz Kids” on July 14, 2020.