Henry Thomas, Evan Rachel Wood & More Share Stories of Being ‘Showbiz Kids’

Henry Thomas ET Showbiz Kids
Universal Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Long before she played a murderous robot on Westworld, Evan Rachel Wood was a child actress (Thirteen) who spent a lot of time by herself on set in the mid-’90s.

“You know somebody’s a child star when they’re really good at juggling [or] hacky sack—any kind of weird skill that you had to master by yourself,” she says in the new HBO documentary Showbiz Kids. “It’s a very fulfilling but lonely experience.”   

That’s just one of the many firsthand stories director Alex Winter features in the film, which examines how early Hollywood fame can impact young people’s lives. “I’d never seen a documentary that took a very intimate, collective look at this experience from the inside,” says Winter, who had his own Screen Actors Guild card by age 10 and went on to star in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Winter interviewed former child actors like Mara Wilson (Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda), Henry Thomas (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and even silent film star Diana Serra Cary, whose career as “Baby Peggy” supported her family in the 1920s. (Cary has since passed away, along with fellow interviewee Cameron Boyce, a onetime Disney Channel favorite who died in 2019, at 20, after suffering an epileptic seizure in his sleep. The film is dedicated to their memories.)

Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell in Stand by Me (Columbia Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Wil Wheaton (Stand by Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation) reveals his mother’s hand in his career. “She went maybe a little too far encouraging me to go into the industry that she wanted to go into. Because it was never really my idea,” he recalls. “I don’t know a 7-year-old who’s like, ‘What I want to do is go to work!'”

Winter doesn’t shy away from darker, more sensational tales. The film acknowledges the tabloid tragedies of Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes and the late Corey Haim, who all struggled with addiction. But the director purposely avoided interviewing actors who hadn’t overcome past issues. “I didn’t want to put someone under a spotlight who’s still in the thick of it,” he explains. “It’s just very unfair to them.”

Ultimately, Winter says, the documentary illustrates that being a child actor is a mixed bag — like life. “Wonderful things happen and terrible things happen. That’s what I don’t think has been conveyed very much.”

Showbiz Kids, Documentary Premiere, Tuesday, July 14, 9/8c, HBO