I spent the summer between junior and senior year of college splitting time between two showbiz internships — one in Burbank, the other in West Hollywood. I had no car, so I had to live in the perfect spot, and that spot was the Oakwood Apartments in Toluca Hills, which is famous for housing child actors and their families.
As beautiful as it was, there was always something kind of heartbreaking about that apartment complex, mainly because, as exciting as it may have seemed to 10-year-old Jeff to be a child star, I imagine it requires a certain sacrifice I never would’ve been able to make at that age. Hollywood treats children like little adults, and they seem to grow up real quick in this business. That’s because when you’re running lines or worried about auditions instead of having fun as a kid, there’s an inherent loss of innocence, even if it’s by choice.
These are the kinds of themes that Alex Winter aims to explore with his new documentary Showbiz Kids, which will debut on HBO and HBO Max on Tuesday, July 14 at 9 p.m. Highlighting the shared experiences of prominent former child stars, the documentary features a wealth of intimate, revealing interviews with Henry Thomas (11 years old in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial); Mara Wilson (6 in Mrs. Doubtfire); Todd Bridges (13 in Diff’rent Strokes); Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood (14 in Thirteen); Wil Wheaton (14 in Stand by Me); veteran actresses Milla Jovovich (The Night Train To Kathmandu) and Jada Pinkett Smith (A Different World), the latter of whom is also a mother to young child actors; Diana Serra Cary, who became a huge silent film star at the age of 2 back in 1920, when she became famous as Baby Peggy; and finally, the late Cameron Boyce, who was 12 when he became the star of Disney TV’s Jessie.
Per HBO, Showbiz Kids “offers an unvarnished look at the high risk, high reward business of working as a child actor in the entertainment industry. The film chronicles the personal and professional price of fame and failure on a child. Those who know the industry best, including several successful child actors and two aspiring hopefuls, unpack their own complicated experiences as they reconcile the hardships they’ve faced and sacrifices they’ve made on their way to finding success in show business.
Showbiz Kids is written and directed by Winter, who is better known as Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and it may be because he was a child actor himself that his peers felt comfortable offering their perspectives regarding the complexities of growing up under the glare of Hollywood’s spotlight. Winter’s commitment to an honest examination of difficult truths about a complicated, competitive industry stems from his own childhood in show business, beginning as a child actor on Broadway at the age of ten.
“This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for many years,” said Winter. “Having grown up in the business I’ve never seen the experiences of a child actor, from their early career through to the transition into adulthood, told from the perspective of those involved. I’m honored that these talented actors trusted me with their very personal stories.”
In contrast to the celebrity actors listed above, the film also follows two aspiring young hopefuls — Demi Singleton, an up-and-coming teenage performer looking to book her next big Broadway show; and Marc Slater, a young unknown from Florida who moved to Los Angeles with his mother for pilot season. The young actors and their parents work tirelessly to break into the highly competitive business while struggling to balance the demands of auditioning, working, and maintaining a healthy childhood with friends and family.
The documentary promises to look beneath the red carpet that covers Hollywood’s problems by taking a sobering look on the toll that early success can take on young professionals. All the actors discuss the challenges of navigating the industry at such a young age and the lasting effect that the public’s gaze has on self-esteem and feelings of isolation. Many also speak to the complicated relationships they have with their parents, the pressures of balancing grueling work schedules with life beyond set, and the disturbing prevalence of abuse and exploitation in the industry.
Showbiz Kids is a Ringer Films production that was executive produced by Bill Simmons, and co-produced by Sean Fennessey, Noah Malale and Devorah Devries. Winter and Glen Zipper produced the project, which was also executive produced by Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller for HBO, which landed Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame to do the music with Spencer and Sammy Tweedy. I was a big fan of Ringer Films’ Andre the Giant documentary, so I’m confident the company can deliver something compelling with Showbiz Kids.
Speaking of… one of the great child performances I’ve ever seen was that of Brad Renfro in The Client. Joel Schumacher directed that film and he died this week, so click here to read our remembrance. I can only imagine what Renfro himself might have thought about a documentary like Showbiz Kids had he’d lived to see it. Watch the trailer below and let me know what you think in the comments section.