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Before Alex Winter became famous as good-vibes goofball Bill in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure at age 24, he was a successful child actor, appearing in Broadway productions of such shows as The King and I and Peter Pan. It was a lifestyle that exposed Winter to acting methods, creative people — and sexual abuse.
Winter’s new documentary, Showbiz Kids, due July 14 on HBO and produced by Bill Simmons and Glen Zipper, examines the extraordinarily vulnerable life of child performers like him. Through interviews with Diana Serra Cary (silent film’s “Baby Peggy”), Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett Smith, Wil Wheaton, Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce, E.T.’s Henry Thomas, Matilda‘s Mara Wilson and others, Winter, now 54, explores themes like the impact of the stage parent, the discomfort of sudden fame and what is lost when a child works.
Though not wholly about sexual abuse, the movie addresses what many former child actors have come to think of as a kind of occupational hazard. “Our stories are really the same — the highs and lows you go through as children and the risks that you face if you’re vulnerable,” says Winter, who directs but does not appear in the film.
In midlife, Winter has carved out a career directing documentaries, including 2013’s Downloaded, about the impact of Napster, and a new film about Frank Zappa that was to have premiered in March at South by Southwest before COVID-19 caused the festival to be canceled. He began trying to make Showbiz Kids a decade ago but found potential buyers “more interested in a salacious, tabloid approach to the story, which I did not want to do.”
In February 2018, as the #MeToo movement was roiling, Winter revealed in a BBC interview that he had been sexually abused at age 13 by an adult he met while on Broadway. “I was prepubescent,” Winter says. “It was a prolonged experience. It was really scary. At the same time, I was in this adultified world of entertainment. I had responsibilities and the incredible positives of that experience. I was living in this hellish double world.”
Inspired by the candor the #MeToo movement had engendered in the entertainment industry, Winter redoubled his efforts to get Showbiz Kids made. “Now we have the ability to touch on this stuff,” he says. “That film would have been really, really different had I made it before I came forward. It would have still felt like this elephant in the room that you’re dancing around.”
In January 2019, the film became one of the first projects backed by Simmons’ just-launched Ringer Films. Winter finished the documentary during the coronavirus lockdown and delivered it to HBO in late May. “I’ve done dozens of docs, and Alex stands out for a simple reason,” Simmons says. “He had a distinct vision for this idea, then he executed that vision exactly how he told us he would.” Showbiz Kids includes one of the last major interviews with Serra, who died in February at age 101, and Boyce, who died in July at age 20. “To have this sense of an intimate collective of people from across time whose stories are so entwined, that was my aim,” Winter says, “that we’ll have some value going through generations and crossing the painful boundaries in terms of discussing this kind of stuff.”
This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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