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Would E.T. have been the wildly successful Steven Spielberg smash without Henry Thomas cast as the lonely, lovable 10-year-old Elliot who befriends the extraterrestrial? Can you imagine The Wizard of Oz without Judy Garland belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from a Kansas barnyard? Or The Black Stallion without Kelly Reno galloping across Arabian sand, clinging to the Black’s mane?
A talented child actor—believable, engaging, cute—can add the “wow!” factor that makes a movie a blockbuster. What happens behind the scenes may be no surprise but still is disheartening. HBO’s Showbiz Kids, through interviews with former child stars and others trying to become stars, reveals the seamy side of the business, without sensationalism (rated TV-MA for adult content and bad language).
Former young celebs, including Thomas, Mara Wilson, Todd Bridges, Milla Jovovich, and Cameron Boyce, reveal negative aspects of childhood stardom, like constant pressure from pushy parents. Some no longer trust people. Others lost earnings to cheats. Several say older people abused them. Evan Rachel Miller comments, “No one ever asked how I was doing.” They just asked about her career. Jovovich talks about being sexually objectified on film.
Many wonder what they missed in a “real” childhood. Wilson, star of Matilda, says she never learned to ride a bike or play kickball. She didn’t know how to schedule days or develop a work ethic because she knew only how to follow directions.
Wil Wheaton, whose teen role in Stand by Me vaulted him to fame, resentfully concludes acting was all about his mom’s needs. Once, he says, she pushed him to do a horror movie: “It was phenomenally abusive … a terrible experience.”
But when the roles stopped coming, Wheaton didn’t know what to do anymore. He would ruminate, “Please, someone pay attention to me because that’s the only way I know how to exist.”
But constant attention does not a good boy (or girl) make. Simply google some of the names to see what’s become of them. How difficult to think clearly when your identity depends on a critic’s review or a successful audition.
With nary a mention of faith, it’s not surprising these kids struggled into adulthood. Growing up, especially in the limelight, is tough enough. It’s odd, though, that filmmakers didn’t interview child stars Candace Cameron Bure or her brother Kirk, both committed Christians.
With the film’s focus on fewer than a dozen stars, we get a smattering of what the industry is like. But the focus is the sad stories about child celebrities. After watching, you may be glad your acting career ended with your church Nativity play.