HBO documentary 'Showbiz Kids' depicts dark side of childhood fame, from abuse to self-doubt

Erin Jensen

Cutting the act. The new documentary "Showbiz Kids" examines the effects of childhood stardom on young celebs.

HBO's 90-minute film (Tuesday, 9 p.m. EDT/PDT) is directed by Alex Winter, known for his role of Bill in the "Bill & Ted" films. Subjects including Jada Pinkett Smith, “E.T." star Henry Thomas, actress Evan Rachel Wood ("Westworld"), Todd Bridges of "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Matilda" star Mara Wilson offer their takes on fame at a young age.

Their motives for becoming an actor differ. "Stand By Me" actor Wil Wheaton says he was encouraged by his mother, reasoning "I don't know a 7-year-old who's like, 'What I want to do is go to work!'"

But Bridges remembers he "always wanted to be in show business."

For some, work nudged out traditional childhood experiences. Wilson says she "never really learned how to ride a bike," and model/actress Milla Jovovich "hated" her early days in front of the camera. At 11, she was "really a little girl that wanted to play with dolls."

"Showbiz Kids", shot over the past two years, also follows two young actors as they chase their dreams of making it big. 

Some highlights from the documentary:

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The late actor Cameron Boyce appears in the documentary "Showbiz Kids" about child stars.

Cameron Boyce

The actor, who died at 20 last July after suffering a seizure, was among those interviewed for the documentary, which is dedicated to his memory and that of child actress Diana Serra Cary, who died in February. Boyce acted in Disney Channel's series "Jessie" and "Descendants" movie franchise, and he hesitates to say anything that might make Mickey's ears perk (further) up.   

"I was actually gonna ask if I could cuss in this thing," he innocently inquires. As "a Disney kid, I'm thinking about that."

He remembers wanting to excel at his acting job, and being "used" for his fame. Boyce, contemplating his future, pulls at the heartstrings in light of his early death. He debated if college was the right move, following his success. 

"What is it that I need to do to prepare myself for the real world?" he recalls asking himself. "Because I wasn't living in it. This is not real."

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Fame through a child's eyes

Thomas, who says he was teased by his young peers for his career, recalls being recognized after the success of 1982's "E.T." "People were like, 'Oh, my God, it's the kid from 'E.T.'! And I wasn't set up for that at 10 or 11." 

Wilson also felt overwhelmed. "It felt very out of control to have everybody know my name, and I didn't feel like I could trust anybody," she says, "and that's still a problem that I have now sometimes."

Wood remembers feeling herself disappear as her star rose. "The better I did, the more I felt like who I was wasn't acceptable," she says. "I don't think anybody did that on purpose, but suddenly I felt like I didn’t belong to myself anymore, I was a commodity that needed to be monitored and groomed. ... My voice just kept getting quieter and quieter."

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As a young actress, Mara Wilson acted in "Matilda," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and a remake of "Miracle on 34th Street."

Abuse in the industry

Child stars are not always treated with respect and tenderness. Wheaton remembers being berated by a director at age 8 or 9 while filming a commercial. Wilson recalls being on the receiving end of inappropriate attention. "It happened from a young age, I'd notice much older men being interested in me and knowing my name, which felt wrong to me," she says. "I remember Googling my own name, which was a terrible thing, and I saw people talking about photoshopped child porn for me."

Bridges, who wrote of being sexually abused by a publicist in his 2010 memoir, "Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted," revealed that his father's siding with his abuser upended his life. "When my dad took his side that crushed me," he says. "It ruined me actually, because then I was on a self-destruction course to destroy myself, just to hurt him." 

Wood says abuse is rampant. "I know a lot of kids that grew up in the industry, and what surprised me when I got older was finding out that pretty much all of the young men were abused in some way, sexually."

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Odd parent-kid dynamics 

The scales of power that typically tilt in parents' favor are thrown off when a child earns an income and stardom. Thomas says his mother resented being present on his film sets. "When you're a kid you don't really think about what everybody else has to do to accommodate your burgeoning film career," he admits. 

"My mom emancipated me so I could work adult hours," Jovovich says.  

Wood says as her career progressed, her mom and representatives rarely asked about her well-being. "My emotional state was equated with how well I was doing in my career," she says, "and so the better I did in my career, the more they just assumed I was fine."

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Lingering effects of childhood stardom

Wood's time in the industry left her with "no life skills," a realization that pummeled her in her early 20s. "It all kind of came crashing down on me at once, and I short-circuited," she says. "And I also was left with the question of, 'Is this even really who I am and what I want to do?' And, 'What happens if I walk away?'"

Footage from an interview with "Diff'rent Strokes" star Gary Coleman, who died in 2010, reveals his regrets. "If someone had told me that my life would've been like this, early enough where I could've got out, I would've got out," he says, adding he wanted "a normal life" with friends.

Thomas, now 48 and a father of three, says he wouldn't want his own life for his children. "I find it very scary, and I would not want my kids to pursue a career as a child," he says. "It's so disruptive."

Contributing: Jayme Deerwester

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