In Alex Winter’s new documentary, Showbiz Kids (which premiered on HBO Tuesday night), Winter takes an often sobering look at the life of child actors. What makes Winter’s approach unique is, first, his own experiences, though not specifically discussed in the film, are used as a place of empathy with his interview subjects. There seems to be an inherent trust in what he’s doing here. And that leads to the second point, which is the subject of child actors is usually reserved for tabloid-type shows like E True Hollywood Stories, with suspect talking heads drowned out by ominous music. This is certainly not that.
Winter talks to a host of successful former child actors, including Evan Rachel Wood, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mara Wilson, Henry Thomas, Milla Jovovich, Wil Wheaton, Todd Bridges, and Cameron Boyce (who tragically passed away from a medical condition last year). Their stories differ, but the overarching theme seems to be, “this maybe isn’t a great thing for a child.” (Even though, as Winter makes clear, there are success stories.) All the while Winter juxtaposes their stories with the story of a family who just moved from Florida to L.A. so their son can start auditioning. (There are moments, as a viewer, you just want to tell them, please, no.)
As you’re probably aware, for the first time in 29 years Winter is reprising his role as Bill S. Preston, Esquire in Bill & Ted Face the Music – a movie that, when you think about it, it’s kind of insane it exists. The third Bill & Tedd movie has been gestating for around ten years now and even Winter pretty much gave up on it ever happening. Then, smashcut, there he is with Keanu Reeves on set. Winter also takes us through the whole process of how a third movie even came to be (the biggest hurdle seems to be the studios wanted a full reboot instead of a third movie), which is ready to go, but like most everything else delayed because of the pandemic. (Also, Winter has a well-earned reputation as one of the nicest people on Twitter, which sounds like an oxymoron, but is very much true. A true bright spot on a pretty depressing website.)
Alex Winter: Hey, man.
Oh you’re here already. Usually when I call one of these conference lines there’s a wait.
I’m sorry. I can hang up and call back and be fashionably late.
No, this is great.
I have a story. I can’t say who the director is, because it would just get me in hot water. It was a very famous director. I have a friend who was a dentist who used to be this director’s dentist. And he said that the director was treated with such grandiosity, that he would get a call saying, “The director is going to be calling you.” So he’d be like, “Great. I’m like a dentist. Why don’t you just call me when he’s ready?” And then like 20 minutes later, it’d be like, “Hello. This is the director.”
That’s like the Seinfeld episode when Elaine takes over J. Peterman’s company.
Yeah. I just love that. “I’m a dentist for fuck’s sake.”
You should start doing that.
Yeah, I know. It would be insufferably annoying,
But only with dentists.
[Laughs] Actually, that I should do.
I’ve watched three of your movies this week.
Oh, I’m sorry. I apologize eternally in advance.
The Lost Boys, and then I re-watched Bill & Ted this week, too. And of course Showbiz Kids.
Oh, very cool.
The first time I saw Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, they showed it to us in history class.
[Laughs] I’ve had teachers tell me that, and I admire the inexcusably laziness to actually show that movie in a history class. It shows a complete lack of willingness to do your job. Yeah, it’s kind of cool.
It was the Missouri Public School system, so who knows?
Well, that’s what I grew up in. I know it well. That was my childhood as well. University City, St. Louis.
When conducting interviews for Showbiz Kids, do you think your own experiences help people open up? These are some pretty candid interviews.
I think that it was instrumental in getting them, that I had experience as a child actor. But that I’d also already come forward with my own story and had been public with the challenge that I had dealt with coming up in the business. And it’s all pretty well-known and something that we were talking about when I was interviewing people. So, I think they felt safe and knowing that they weren’t saying anything I kind of hadn’t already said myself personally. They trusted that I had their back, and I wasn’t making a gotcha movie or doing something that was going to somehow be offensive or exploit their stories. I really just wanted an intimate conversation kind of spread across the history of entertainment, and I was pretty clear about what we were going for.
Well, speaking of not exploiting, the family you chose that you follow around as they go on auditions… I mean, there’s always going to be some inherent naivety, but I’m curious how you picked them and how delicate you wanted to be with them? Because they have a dream, and it seems very unlikely, but you also don’t want to put them in this movie and be like, “Get a load of these people.”
The thing is, I came up as a child actor and I knew a lot of kids coming up. And then obviously, as an adult, I’ve directed a lot of kids. And so I’ve met a lot of parents. It wasn’t like I was looking to choose parents that I could empathize with, and I know that’s not what you were asking. But I wasn’t really coming at it that way, as much as wanting to show the full spectrum of what it means to be a parent who has a kid in that world and without pronouncing judgment on them. And I didn’t. I really liked both of those kids’ parents. They’re really great, and I actually still talk to them quite a bit. And I think those kids are going to be just fine.
It does seem like the overarching theme here, without even coming out and saying it, is “don’t do this.” Wil Wheaton describes it as having his childhood taken away from him because he was working all the time. Obviously there are a lot of darker stories than even just that.
Yes, and no though. Wil is one type of kid. He doesn’t speak for every type of kid. I guarantee you, Cameron Boyce did not look at what he was doing as work. I didn’t look at what I was doing as work. Maura didn’t. I mean, the kids that weren’t shoved into it by their parents, which even in the course of our film is still the majority of them, they still had challenges. Absolutely. There were still stressors.
Cameron lived a very brief life, tragically. But his parents knew, rightly, when he was five or six, that kid 100 percent wanted to be onstage and in front of a camera, the way some kids are athletes at that age and don’t want to do anything other than play sports. That’s who Cameron, that’s how he was wired, and he would not have been as happy had he not done what he did. So it’s really a mixed bag.
I’m not going to be evasive and say that I don’t have an opinion on it. Because, of course, I do. I’m pretty open about that, which is you can’t put a child into that environment, whether they want to be there or not, with the lack of understanding that everyone involved is going to be fundamentally impacted by it: the kid, the parents, the family dynamic. It is 100 percent going to impact your life in a fundamental way that you may or may not want. And to your point, that is the best case. That’s the best you can hope for. The best you can hope for is that the kid loves it, you’re all over them, and they have a great time, and they come through it. But it’s still going to fundamentally change that child, who they become as an adult and who you guys are as a family and how that family functions together.
And you’re totally right about Cameron Boyce. But, I guess, unfairly, in my mind, just because I know where that was headed, even though it has nothing to do with his career, it just felt like there’s tragedy coming here, too. Even though it’s not related. If that makes sense.
Of course, it does. I mean, I was down in New Orleans shooting Bill & Ted when Cameron died. And it was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat, you know? And I can’t deny that I didn’t feel something similar. Like, goddammit, the one kid that was going to get away got clean. And, of course, I felt that on a certain level because he was so impressive, and he was so together, and his family was fantastic, and he had been so well-covered. But that isn’t to say that my film somehow poetically represents the fact that no one gets out alive, because, of course, I’m fine. Mara’s fine. Elijah Wood, who’s a friend of mine, is absolutely probably the most well-balanced human being I’ve ever met in my life.
Oh, yeah. He’s maybe the nicest guy in the world.
Yeah. He’s awesome. And it’s real, as you know. It’s not a bullshit act. It’s like, he’s just a super-decent guy. And there are many people like that.
Was there anyone who you wanted who didn’t want to do this?
There’s always the folks that get away. I’ve never really made a doc that didn’t work because of someone I couldn’t get. Just speaking bluntly, the biggest disappointment I ever had in all the docs I’ve made was Lars Ulrich deciding not to go on camera for Downloaded after telling me he would. That was pretty disappointing, because it’s Lars, and the movie’s about them versus the other guys. But with this one? Not really. I have to say that there were people that I went after that didn’t want to do it, but I’m asking people to revisit their childhood. A lot of people don’t want to do that. And a lot of people feel they’ve been through it once, and that was enough. I mean, there’s some really mundane things: like I really was hoping Chris Walken would do it. And I wanted someone like Dean Stockwell, but that’s kind of mundane. Like it’s just stuff that I thought would have been cool seasoning. I don’t think it would have changed the film in any way that significant.
Henry Thomas has a really heartbreaking story about how casting directors would just look at him and tell him to leave after they realized he doesn’t look like Elliott from E.T. anymore.
I’ve known him for years, and as an adult. I mean, I met him as a fully-grown adult. And I was a huge fan of his acting as an adult. That was, in a way, some of the criteria with who I chose. Because even if I knew people had really tough stories, like Todd Bridges, I was specifically going after people who had come out the other end, because I needed to be able to actually frame up their past. It’s hard to do that if you’re still totally entwined in it. But also, it felt like you’d get more compelling stories out of them. And Henry, I completely agree with you, it is a really painful piece of his story, but I know that he’s a great, successful, grownup actor with a fantastic family. And that makes it easier to swallow that. But it is brutal what he went through.
You mention Todd Bridges. His story really got to me. Was he hesitant at all? I know he’s talked about this before, but it looks pretty painful for him.
I’d followed his story closely. I knew how much work he had done on himself, and I knew the state of his present-day life and that he was in a good place. And I also told him flat out that I had no intention of interrogating him about the details of what happened to him because his story, Todd’s story, I’ve got to say, was primarily interesting to me because it completely debunks the myth that people who ended up in trouble like that just had god-awful parents, which he didn’t, he had great parents. His mom is in the industry and was all over him, and he still ended up falling prey to a predator. And then he debunked the other myth that you go through, that you have a big head at that age, you have drug problems, whatever, and you’re kind of done as a person. And he just isn’t. He’s a really compelling, intelligent, interesting guy who has a really good handle on what he went through. And that, to me, was important to show.
Before we go, I’m aware of how long Bill & Ted Face the Music had been in talks to happen. And now the release date is delayed because of the pandemic. But there had to be a point where you’re like, “This is never going to happen.”
Dude, literally a year before we were in pre-production, I did not think it was ever going to happen. Like that close to when we shot. I mean, that’s a whole other interview. The short version is: Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, they pitched me and Keanu this idea. We thought it was hilarious. None of us ever thought we were going to make one. We’re like, “This is great. You guys have a great idea. It’s going to be fun.” Like almost the longer it takes to make, the funnier it’s going to get, because the concept is funnier the older we are, in a way. And then they wrote a script, and they’re both really good writers, and it was really good. And then everyone in town said “no.”
That’s crazy. That makes no sense in the world of IP.
Because in the current era, I think the idea was like, well, why don’t we just reboot it with two Instagram stars?
Oh, I see.
Right? So everyone said, “no.” Yeah. So we kept moving and then and a whole lot of other stuff happened that I won’t burden you with, but the fans caught wind of it, and that helped a lot. And it was like a growing sort of groundswell of support from the fan base that really, clearly, wanted another one. Then we had a studio, and we’re in pre-production. And at the last minute, they fell out. Then we had another studio, and we were in pre-production. And then the last minute, they fell out. So, by the time it swung around to doing it the way we did it, personally, I was like, “This is never, ever going to see the light of day.”
I was planning productions for my dot company. My calendar, I was just booking up like the next two years, and I go and undo it all. I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s actually happening. We’re really going to go make this movie.” Even Keanu, I was on vacation, he came up to visit us at the end of August. And we went into pre-production, I guess, in May. I think one of my friends was like, “Hey, so you guys may make another Bill & Ted?” He was like, “We’re not making another Bill & Ted. There’s never going to be another Bill & Ted.” And 10 months later, we were in wardrobe. So yeah. It was insane. It was totally insane.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.