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Brooke Shields on Her Sundance Doc ‘Pretty Baby’: “I’m a Conduit to a Bigger Conversation”

In the doc, directed by Lana Wilson and destined for Hulu, Shields talks about the sexualization of young girls, her relationship with her mother, and, for the first time, her experience with sexual assault.

Brooke Shields agreed to participate in a doc about her life and career not because of what it would say about her, but for what it could say through her — namely, a discussion about the sexualization of young girls.

By now, the celebrity bio-doc is well-trod territory, but Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, which premieres Jan. 20 at the Sundance Film Festival, aspires to be more than a career retrospective. “I’m not interested in famous-person problems. What I am interested in is how fame can amplify and supercharge relatable problems,” says director Lana Wilson, who most recently directed the Taylor Swift Netflix doc Miss Americana. “[Brooke’s] life has been extreme and utterly unique, but her experience of being a woman in America is horrifyingly relatable.”

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The doc, which sometime after its Sundance debut will be released in two parts on Hulu, draws its name from Louis Malle’s 1978 drama that, while critically acclaimed, was widely criticized for featuring child prostitution and a nude preteen Shields. The doc’s archival work includes magazine covers with headlines like, “I’m Shocked by the Child Who Drives Men Crazy” (Shields was 9 at the time) and a parade of clips of male late night hosts questioning a prepubescent Shields about her sexuality in the wake of Pretty Baby. This is intercut with talking-head academics and sociologists who offer historical and cultural context about the objectification of girls.

“To me, that felt like a much more intelligent, interesting way to approach a story — a person, a journey — through the lens of the changing climate and where we are today,” Shields says.

Of course, Pretty Baby, which counts Alexandra Wentworth and George Stephanopoulos as executive producers, does document Shields’ life, from her relationship with her mother, Teri Shields, to her friendship with Michael Jackson and a decades-spanning career that includes touchstones like 1980’s The Blue Lagoon, her iconic Calvin Klein ads and her later TV career with the sitcom Suddenly Susan. And, for the first time, she chooses to discuss a sexual assault by an unnamed Hollywood professional in a hotel room when she was in her 20s, after graduating from Princeton University, and experiencing a career lull.

“It was quite expanding to me to look at all of it, in its entirety, and be proud of who I am and how I’ve evolved,” says Shields, who talked to THR ahead of Pretty Baby’s Park City premiere.

Why was now the right time to make a documentary?

I have been approached multiple times, and it didn’t feel like the right entities for whatever the reason, and it also felt too soon, in many ways. On all the other situations, they either felt premature or they felt like they were coming at my story from the wrong direction. [This direction] took it out of the realm of just biopic.

Did you know what you wanted to relay to possible viewers heading into the doc?

Not at all. I went in extremely open. I am not the director of it, I’m not the producer. I trust the creative and the intellectual aspect of what that team brings to it. I got out of their way. I spent an extraordinary amount of time just talking and sharing the extensive archives that I had unbelievably finished the process of digitizing. My mother saved everything, so the material goes so far back. I’ve been around since quarter-inch, Beta[max], reel to reel. I figured, rather than it all disintegrating, I would go through the expense and the process of digitizing it. So when they came to me with a documentary, [I said] “I happen to have some materials.” (Laughs.)

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields relies on a wealth of archival material from the actress’ life and career, including the modeling and commercial work she did during the 1980s as a teen.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields relies on a wealth of archival material from the actress’ life and career, including the modeling and commercial work she did during the 1980s as a teen. Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Getty

Did you point Lana and the team in a certain direction when it came to the archival work?

I handed [Lana] the archives and walked away and said, “Your narrative and your point of view is a huge piece of this.” I’m a conduit to a bigger conversation. If I go in and say, “Show that interview!” then it’s all about me and my own ego. At the beginning of the process, I stepped very far away, ego-wise and emotionally. This was not going to be a retrospective of all the [career] highlights. This is actually something bigger. I wanted to hand over the archives and say, “The story will evolve from you watching this and from the narrative that you, as a director, are wanting to tell. It’s not for me to decide.”

You said you see yourself as a conduit to a larger conversation. What is that conversation?

It’s a larger conversation on the sexualization of young women. Myself being at the eye of that storm on many different levels throughout the decades. I’ve been a part of the conversation — or maybe not even a part of the conversation, but part of the focus — and that narrative itself has changed over time, depending on outside influences and the era. I’m now a mother of two young women, and the conversation we have around sexuality is very different today than it was. There was hardly any conversation about it, to me personally, when I was a child.

Your relationship with your mother is a major throughline in Pretty Baby. Is that something you anticipated?

I had a feeling that my mother would be at the center of a lot of the conversations. That didn’t surprise me. [Shields’ mother died in 2012.] She has always been a very controversial figure as well as a very central figure in my life. Having been so enmeshed with my mother and writing a book about it and being constantly approached in the press, mostly negatively, as a young girl trying to advocate for my mother, it was such a throughline to much of my life. And the throughline continues to my relationship with my girls. I was glad that it wasn’t just brushed over. But what I was so relieved by is that the complexity of it and the love through that complexity and through the difficulty — the nature of how fraught that experience is under the best of circumstances — that a comment wasn’t made on it. It was presented authentically so that people could see it and feel the way they wanted to feel about it or use it as a vehicle to understand their own relationship with their mother. I was relieved because it wasn’t lowest common denominator.

What was behind your choice to speak out about your experience with sexual assault for the first time?

I did not know if or when or if at all I was ever going to bring this up. It has taken me many years of therapy to even be able to talk about it. I definitely have worked very hard through it, and I’ve learned to process it. And I’ve come to a place, and we’ve come to a time in our society, where we can talk about these things much more openly. I had no idea I was going to say it. I thought, I have arrived at this place, and I feel as a mother of two young girls that I hope that just by even hearing my incident that I can add myself to becoming an advocate. Because this is something that does happen every day, and it should not be happening. I felt that I had arrived at a place where I could talk about it. It’s taken me a long time.

Brooke Shields (left) and Susan Sarandon in 1978’s Pretty Baby
Brooke Shields (left) and Susan Sarandon in 1978’s Pretty Baby Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Is there anything you hope those in power in Hollywood take away from your sharing your experience?

I don’t really think it’s my job to try to affect those in Hollywood. Where I was coming from, it was as a woman, as a mother, as someone who has lived with the guilt of this for so long and had continuously tried to learn how to process it. I wanted to share this story with other men and women who might possibly be struggling or trying to survive this, hoping that at least if I share the incident and the story then it helps others to work through whatever they need to work through. I’m hoping to be that type of an advocate.

Toward the end of the doc, we see you with your two daughters (ages 16 and 19) at the dinner table talking about Pretty Baby and their thoughts about what you went through as a child actor. Much of your career has been documented, argued over and relitigated, and this documentary no doubt will lead to more discussions.

These conversations — I’ve been at the center of so many of them for so many decades. I have learned to maintain my truth and to deliver it. I’ve been ready my whole life, and I’ve had a lot of practice. Let me back up to the conversation at the dinner table. That shocked me. That was not the plan. But the things that my daughters said, I’m not sure I would’ve had that level of conversation had this documentary [not] come up. To hear their perspective and have them engage with me as young women and for them to talk about me as a child and me as a mother, and to be in that environment together was really touching. This feels like the time is right for [this conversation].

I’m so excited to start the new chapters in my life. And despite it all, I love to be in this industry. It’s a gift to be excited about what I do. I’m not really dreading any part of it because, to me, the story is so much bigger. The incident [assault] that will undoubtedly be focused on is five minutes [in the film], but there’s a whole other hour and 45 minutes. I’m so proud of looking at my body of work and saying, “I accomplished that and I kept learning and I kept growing.” I’m still here.

Christopher Atkins and Shields in the 1980 feature The Blue Lagoon.
Christopher Atkins and Shields in the 1980 feature The Blue Lagoon Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.