For director Alex Winter (Downloaded, Deep Web, The Panama Papers), there was a moment while interviewing a subject for his latest HBO documentary Showbiz Kids that the story he’d been trying to tell for seven years finally clicked into place.
Winter—whose previous documentaries lean more into tech and political spaces—wanted to dig into the world of child stars, having been one himself starting in the 1970s before his breakout role in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But it wasn’t until the momentum of the Me Too movement, plus the proliferation of kids becoming stars on social media, that he was able to sell his idea and start interviewing former child stars, including Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes) , Wil Wheaton (Stand by Me), Mara Wilson (Matilda), Henry Thomas (E.T.), and silent film legend Diana Serra Cary, aka Baby Peggy, who began her career at just 3 years old in 1921.
“I remember sitting across from Diana Serra Cary thinking, ‘Holy crap. She’s just telling my story,'” Winter says. “This woman’s 101 years old and her experiences are identical to mine in all of these fundamental ways. And that just kept happening interview after interview until I realized, Oh, that’s really the movie: Our experiences are really common and they have a similar trajectory. That was actually very moving for me, much more than I expected.”
Showbiz Kids spans from Cary to recent Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce to get the full spectrum of experiences. Even with 80 years between them, Winter was shocked at how similar their stories were. And, strangely enough, how they died within a year of each other.
“They finished each other’s sentences,” Winter says of their separate interviews. “We were in edit and going, ‘This is one conversation.’ That was conceptually what I had in mind. I didn’t realize that it would be so literal.”
Through candid interviews, Showbiz Kids thoughtfully unpacks a host of issues that many child stars have been subjected to, including sexual abuse, parasitic parents, and social isolation from their peers. But Winter was careful in not painting the kind of tabloid stories so often associated with child stars on a downward spiral. As turbulent as it can certainly be to try and navigate fame and expectations at such a young age, there are also stories of actors adjusting and finding their footing (and some semblance of peace) either in or outside Hollywood.
“My motive for making documentaries is taking a subject that has a very polarized, black-and-white narrative and digging into it and revealing the nuance,” Winter says. “And not for creating ambiguity for its own sake, but to try to get at the deeper human truths, which are often inherently contradictory or paradoxical.”
Although Winter surely has his own experiences as a child star, don’t expect him to make a cameo in his own doc.
“I’ve been wanting to tell the story of my childhood for a really long time, but I wanted to do it in a way that expressed the universality of it,” Winter says. “I didn’t want someone who was going to overtake the movie and that’s why I didn’t put myself in it, because it would have stopped the movie in its tracks. I didn’t want that. I really wanted to play an ensemble voice, not a singular voice.”