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Exposing the Dark Side of Being a Child Actor Through 'Showbiz Kids,' a Documentary from a Former Child Actor
July 14, 2020  | By David Hinckley

The new HBO documentary Showbiz Kids starts by telling us that 20,000 children audition each year for entertainment gigs – TV, movies, commercials, and so on.

About 95% get no offers.

Showbiz Kids, which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, strongly implies they may be the real winners.

That's not likely to discourage a single starstruck child or aggressive showbiz parent from entering the queue next year. For many Americans – some might argue most Americans – becoming a famous showbiz star is the dream that dwarfs all others.

In Showbiz Kids, writer/director (and former child actor) Alex Winter in some ways is simply reiterating the old caution of being careful what one wishes for.

Winter calls a number of witnesses who offer personal testimony about the world of child stardom, from Evan Rachel Wood, Henry Thomas (top), and Wil Wheaton to Todd Bridges, Milla Jovovich, and the late Cameron Boyce.

Some of these subjects had always wanted to be actors and loved it. Others, including Thomas and Wheaton, say they were indifferent or disinterested, but were steered into the field and then it became their life.

Off-camera, almost everyone agrees that child stardom is a surreal and isolated life, best lived well apart from non-showbiz peers. The biggest consolation, several suggest, is that because showbiz is often a bubble, they didn't know what they were missing.

Jovovich says she became an actress because her mother had been an actress back in her native Russia. Jovovich says that when she was 11, she just wanted to "play with dolls," but that was not an option.

When she got her first big role in Return to the Blue Lagoon, at the age of 15, the merciless reviews made her want to quit all over again.

Bridges, whose life after his star-making role in Diff'rent Strokes included drug use and a string of well-publicized arrests, says he did have a semi-normal childhood, including Little League baseball, but that the more significant takeaway from those years included sexual abuse at the hands of a grownup.

Wood is blunter on that subject. Pedophilia is the in-house sport of the entertainment business, she says, and even child actors lucky enough to avoid that suffer some other form of severe abuse.

Showbiz Kids intersperses these recollections with the contemporary stories of two preteens, Marc and Demi, who are in the showbiz queue today.

Marc's mother drives him from New Orleans to L.A. to audition for roles during TV pilot season. Marc expressed interest in acting early, mimicking his favorite characters he saw on TV, so his parents see this as giving his dream a shot.

Demi, a New Yorker, spends her summer auditioning instead of going to camp. She's sad about that but says she'll stay focused because she wants to have a star one day on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Speaking of the Walk of Fame, Winter sticks almost entirely with his fresh interview subjects, not revisiting past child star stories like those of, say, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Natalie Wood, or Drew Barrymore.

The main exception is Diana Serra Cary, who was the biggest child star in the silent movies of the early 1920s as Baby Peggy.

In a 1982 interview, Cara recalls how she started her career at the age of 2 and was soon on the cover of magazines and having dolls made in her image.

More with humor than regret, she adds that her career ended when her father pulled her out of her movie deal in a financial dispute. She was 7.

A number of the subjects here talk about the difficulty transitioning from cute-kid roles to teenage or adult roles. In recent years that hurdle has left many a Disney or Nickelodeon performer in limbo, without necessarily having the skills or experience to slip back into the non-showbiz world.

But that's really another documentary, and for this one, Winter focuses on the child-actor experience itself.

That experience isn't portrayed as all bad. Fame and success have an upside, and then there's the money. But it's not money for nothing, these veterans of the game agree, and it comes at a point in life when it can be difficult to sort it all out.

One certainty: It looks a lot different on the other side of the camera.

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