“Every year, over 20,000 child actors audition for roles in Hollywood. 95% of them don’t book a single job.” This quote from HBO’s documentary “Showbiz Kids”, focuses on the perils of being a child actor: From the point of view of former child stars themselves. Stories shared by the likes of Christopher Walken, Rachel Evan Wood, Jada Pinkett-Smith peel back the curtain of assumed glamour to shed light on the darker side of Hollywood.
Children can start careers while still in infancy, essentially living their entire lives in the spotlight, never able to develop authentically. Hollywood has always been a difficult and dangerous world: Racism, drugs, sexual assault, power struggles and lawsuits, all of which children as young as two have to navigate while keeping on a good face and remaining “professional”. The result is people like Michael Jackson, who penned a song in 1994 entitled, ‘Have You Seen My Childhood’. Although we all have movies we know and love featuring a child actor, it seems their experience is dysfunctional at best, outright abusive at worst.
Every state (in the U.S) has its own set of laws intending to protect children in this industry, but most seem to be centred around child labor laws, not protecting the kids on a personal level. California law states both how long child actors can act per day and how long they can be at the place of employment. For example, CareerTrend.com states:
- Infants <6 months: can be at work 2 hours maximum, acting 20 minutes/day maximum and only between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Age 6 months to 2 years: can be at work 4 hours maximum, acting 2 hours/day maximum
- 2 to 6 years: can be at work 6 hours maximum, acting 3 hours/day maximum
- 6 to 9 years: can be at work 8 hours maximum, acting 4 hours/day maximum during the school year and 6 hours/day maximum during school breaks
- 9 to 16 years: can be at work 9 hours maximum, acting 5 hours/day maximum during the school year and 7 hours/day maximum during school breaks
- 16 to 18 years: can be at work 10 hours maximum, acting 6 hours/day maximum during the school year and 8 hours/day maximum during school breaks
As great as it is that these children have protections in place to keep their labor from being exploited, they seem to have little or no protection against the predatory manipulations of agents, producers, directors, even parents.
Some young performers (like Lindsey Lohan) are the primary breadwinners in their families, which can create an unnatural power dynamic between them and their parents. Sometimes parents quit their jobs, and travel around the country to audition their children, many times leaving spouses and other children at home. This can be isolating and guilt-inducing to the child, who many times feel as if they are commodities, and unable to quit. They also have to deal with the resentment of the rest of their family, who may not understand why they lost a parent/sibling to this new lifestyle.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Although there are a few great examples of child stars that made it through relatively unscathed, for every hard-won success are ten more tragedies. Some of the lucky ones are Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mila Kunis, Tia & Tamera Mowry, and Brandy Norwood; I’m sure they have their own stories, as all performers do, but they seem to have traversed the minefield of stardom relatively well.
Not everyone is so fortunate. Hollywood darlings like the Olsen Twins, River Phoenix, Drew Barrymore, and Macaulay Culkin have pasts riddled with alcohol and drug abuse, a self-destructive side effect of growing up too fast, too soon.
In addition are those who have come out as advocates for survivors of sexual abuse, such as “Matilda” star Mara Wilson, who was constantly sent “rape fantasy fanmail”; Todd Bridges of “Different Strokes” fame, who was molested by his publicist; Gabrielle Union from “Bring It On”, who was raped at a young age, and “Bill & Ted” star Alex Winter who says he left with ‘extreme PTSD’ after surviving sexual abuse as a child.
On an even darker path are those who died by suicide, like “Talledaga Nights” star Houston Tumlin.
All in all, the general consensus is, child actors are placed in many dangerous situations with no guidance, no protection, and many times, zero support. As Rachel Evan Wood (Westworld) states, “being an actor in Hollywood just becomes a contest of who can take the most abuse… because there’s always someone ready to take your place if you don’t.” With that being the case, although this is definitely against the grain, I think it would be best for everyone involved to just let children be children, and leave the work to the adults.