Evan Rachel Wood says in the new HBO documentary Showbiz Kids that there’s an easy way to spot a child actor. Just look for anyone who’s good at juggling, or at Hacky Sack—as she puts it, “any kind of weird skill that you had to master by yourself.” Not because child actors are antisocial or friendless, but simply because actors on film sets spend so much time alone, and if you spend a lot of time alone as a kid, these are the kinds of things you teach yourself. It’s one insight among many to be found in this strong new film. (And don’t be fooled by the sort of cheesy-sounding title.)
It’s really hard to talk about child actors in a fresh way, because there’s such lore around them. Legend typically has it that they’re all miserable, spoiled, self-destructive, exploited—and some are. What this film sets out to do is weave a number of interview subjects’ stories together to find themes within them, while respecting the fact that they’re all really different. Showbiz Kids was made by Alex Winter, who you might know best as Bill in the Bill and Ted movies, but who was also a child actor, mostly in theater. What he’s made here is a perceptive, sensitive film in which actors tell their own stories—some sad, many simply complicated.
All these stories start in different ways. Wil Wheaton says his mother was a little too eager for him to act, because of her own frustrated ambitions. But Mara Wilson says she was the one who told her parents she wanted to act, and that it genuinely came from her. Todd Bridges says the same thing. Milla Jovovich’s mother was a Russian movie star in the 1970s, and when the family came to California, Jovovich felt the focus shift to her. Evan Rachel Wood came from an artsy family that treated acting as a lofty profession where it was important to do only “great work.” You hear from Jada Pinkett Smith about starting young but also parenting kids who started young; you hear from Cameron Boyce, a self-described “Disney kid” (from Jessie) who realizes he’s so well-trained that he’s still hesitant to swear, years after Disney. (One of the sad footnotes of the film is that Boyce, who had been in HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher and is one of Winter’s most appealing subjects, died in his sleep in mid-2019 following a seizure.)
You will certainly get some discussions of things that might seem familiar. There is financial exploitation, there are parents who fail to supervise enough, there are abusive directors. There is the experience of being recognized (Wilson compares it to when the staff sings “Happy Birthday” to you in a restaurant), there are the difficulties in knowing whose treatment of you is genuine and whose is opportunistic, and there are tensions between what parents want and what kids want.