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HBO Doc ‘Showbiz Kids’ Exposes the Dark Side of Child Stardom

In his HBO documentary “Showbiz Kids,” Alex Winter interviews former child stars about the pitfalls, pressures and price of fame.
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July 6, 2020
Photo courtesy of courtesy of Alex Winter

More than 20,000 child actors audition for roles in Hollywood every year. Ninety-five percent don’t book a single job. For the even smaller percentage that gets cast in a hit movie or TV show and become famous, life can change radically, and not always for the better. 

In his HBO documentary “Showbiz Kids,” Alex Winter interviews former child stars about the pitfalls, pressures and price of fame, which for some includes falling prey to exploitation and physical or psychological abuse. It’s a subject that Winter, the award-winning documentary filmmaker (“Deep Web,” “The Panama Papers”) who is most recognized as Bill from the “Bill & Ted” movies, knows a lot about. He appeared in Broadway and off-Broadway shows as a boy.

“I wanted to convey the full spectrum of childhood experience from the perspective of the performers — an intimate examination of this world and explore what it means to be a child in Western culture,” Winter told the Journal. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while.”

Winter spent two years researching, acquiring unique footage and photos and talking to former child actors and a couple of young hopefuls who had relatable stories to tell. His subjects — Henry Thomas (“E.T.”), Evan Rachel Wood (“Thirteen”), Wil Wheaton (“Stand by Me”) and Mara Wilson (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) among them — express regret and resentment as they discuss the trust issues, family strife, the self-destructive behavior that can come with fame and the difficulties of coping once stardom fades. 

Milla Jovovich (“The Fifth Element”), talks about being objectified as a young model and actress and Todd Bridges (“Diff’rent Strokes”) shares that he was molested by an older man. At 13, Winter himself was a victim of a predator, but he chose not to include that in the film. “Early on, I tried to slip myself in there, but it was glaring and distracting. It didn’t work,” he said. “When a filmmaker inserts himself into his own work, I don’t have a problem with it provided it’s relevant, but it becomes about their story. And that’s not the film I wanted to make.”

Winter noted that overcoming the trauma “took time and a lot of work. In my adulthood, I discovered that I was suffering from some pretty severe PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder) and I got to work on dealing with it in therapy.”

Ironically, one of the more positive childhood experiences portrayed in the film is that of Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce, who died suddenly of an epileptic seizure in July 2019. Winter was shocked and devastated by the news. “He had a great family, a good head on his shoulders,” he said.

 Born in London to a Jewish American mother of Ukrainian descent and an Australian father who were working there as modern dancers, Winter was first introduced to the theater when the family moved to St. Louis when he was 5. His mother taught dance at Washington University there, and “whenever they needed a kid, they threw me on stage,” he said. “I loved it.” 

“I wanted to convey the full spectrum of childhood experience from the perspective of the performers — an intimate examination of this world and explore what it means to be a child in Western culture.” — Alex Winter

He grew up attending Jewish summer camps and speaking Yiddish with his grandmother, but was not observant. Married to a non-Jew, his Judaism is secular, but he has raised his children “to be aware and embrace their Jewish heritage. Cultural Jewish identity was a really important part of my upbringing and it was always interwoven with socio-politics,” he said. “Being aware of my part in history is part of why I like making docs.” 

Interested in writing and directing in high school, Winter studied filmmaking at NYU and was directing commercials and videos when he booked “The Lost Boys” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Three decades later, he and Keanu Reeves will reprise their roles in “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” 

“Keanu and I have remained very close friends and have been through a lot together. We looked at each other and realized how great it was to be back in the acting playground together again. The experience was very joyful and very familiar,” Winter said. “We finish each other sentences; have an instinct for who is doing what next.” Saving the world in the pair’s “Bogus Journey” didn’t stick, “so we go on this Dickensian journey to the past and the future to figure out what went wrong. You also get to see us as older dads. It’s a fun, lighthearted meditation on middle age and destiny and expectations,” he said. “I hope it comes out in the summer. I think we need it when things are so dour in the world.”

The film’s tentative Aug. 28 release is contingent on COVID-19, which also has derailed plans to take his documentary about musician Frank Zappa to film festivals. “He was a very serious archivist of his own life,” Winter said. “I had access to his entire life work going back to his childhood, many hours of never-before-heard interviews with him telling his life story in a very irreverent way. I only use a small handful of interviews with people in his life who could speak to who he was. It’s not your standard music biopic. I love telling stories about paradoxical characters who are engaged with their times, the duality of a multifaceted individual either at odds, in conflict or engaged with very charged times in history. Zappa fits perfectly in that.”

Going forward, Winter envisions making both documentaries and narrative films. “I love crafting stories with some reality, history and with real people who are engaged with the stories they’re telling,” he said. “I love this process and would like to continue doing more.”

“Showbiz Kids” premieres July 14 on HBO and HBO Max. 

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