Acting in Hollywood is no child's play

Actress Millie Bobby Brown (above), 13, at the premiere of Stranger Things 2 in Westwood, California, last year.
Actress Millie Bobby Brown (above), 13, at the premiere of Stranger Things 2 in Westwood, California, last year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Matilda (1996) star Mara Wilson learnt early on that looking herself up online was a mistake.

She was not yet a teenager the first time she searched for her name and found sites that falsely promised nude photos of her, not to mention people discussing her body in sickening detail.

Later, she found images of her feet floating around cyberspace, alongside those of other young actors.

"I came to laugh it off," Wilson, now 30, said over the telephone recently. "And it's sad, when you're 14 or 15, that you're laughing off that you're on a foot fetish website."

Wilson made the journey from child star to stable adult with relative ease, but that path is littered with cautionary tales.

Kids in Hollywood have always faced dangers and they historically came from within the industry.

Just think of Judy Garland's tales of being groped and harassed by a power player such as film producer Louis B. Mayer.

But the challenges for similar kids today are shifting and broadening with the rise of the Internet and the popularity of social media. Suddenly, child stars are being bombarded with praise and criticism from the media, blogs and anonymous strangers.

Children are not seen as children in show business. They've always been seen as a commodity, a worker: 'We pay you all this money, we expect you to behave like an adult.'

JULIE STEVENS, a director and former child actor who has worked as a studio teacher since the 1990s, on actors who grow up in show business

The problem is coming into focus with the kids from the Netflix hit series, Stranger Things.

The wardrobe choices of Millie Bobby Brown, 13, for example, were endlessly and, sometimes, uncomfortably scrutinised during the press tour for the show's second season.

When former NBCUniversal executive Mike Sington tweeted a red-carpet photo of Brown in a leather dress with the caption "Millie Bobby Brown just grew up in front of our eyes", Wilson, among others, hit back, accusing him of sexualising a girl.

"A 13-year-old's body is never your business unless you are that 13-year-old girl," Wilson said in an interview. "I don't understand why we don't see it as off-limits. It would be creepy if you were to talk about a 13-year-old girl down the street."

It would, but there is a double standard for youngsters in the public eye and boys are not immune. Just look at model Ali Michael, 27, who suggested, via Instagram, that Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard, 14, "hit me up in four years".

Meanwhile, fans have pined for a romantic relationship between Wolfhard and Brown, posting photoshopped art of the pair together.

Wolfhard, whose popularity has grown even more since he starred in It (2017) over the summer, was attacked on Twitter by people who called him "rude" because he did not stop to greet fans and sign autographs when a crowd assembled outside of his hotel.

His Stranger Things co-star Shannon Purser came to his defence, as did Game Of Thrones star Sophie Turner, who also came of age in the limelight.

Before the Internet was as big, it was easier to shield a child actor from everything. Wilson's parents and agent used to go through her fan mail and pick out the particularly weird stuff so she would not have to read it.

"But that doesn't mean they can protect you from everything," she said. "And that's something that's even more true with the advent of social media, which has democratised everything in a wonderful way, but also in a dangerous way."

These days, movie and television contracts might even stipulate social media activity as part of a publicity commitment and studio teachers - the people who protect and advocate for children on sets - are worried about what that means. Sometimes, with the especially young, a parent or employee will do the posting. But not always.

It is not just the trolls on the Internet who are using grown-up language to discuss young stars. It happens in the media and other more well-established forums.

Brown routinely shows up on Tom + Lorenzo, the take-no-prisoners fashion site, where the writers skewer the likes of actresses Gal Gadot, 32, and Jessica Chastain, 40.

During a San Diego Comic-Con panel, comedian Patton Oswalt introduced Wolfhard as the "actor born with the greatest porn name ever".

Some will argue that any child actor signed up for this. And they have a point: If a kid wants to be famous, then he has to take the bad with the good. But that is simplifying a situation that can often be murky.

Children in general do not have much agency, but child stars are especially strapped with expectations - from parents and producers as well as from agents and fans.

"Children are not seen as children in show business. They've always been seen as a commodity, a worker: 'We pay you all this money, we expect you to behave like an adult,'" said Julie Stevens, a director and former child actor who has worked as a studio teacher since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, some parents "just close their eyes and ears because they don't want to ruin an opportunity for their child. Or maybe their child's the breadwinner for the family - who knows?"

These days, some states, including California and Louisiana, require 15 per cent of a minor's income be deposited into a trust that cannot be touched until the actor turns 18.

However, parents have control of the remainder of that salary, which means it is not uncommon for a young star to reach adulthood and find that they do not have the money they thought they did.

Danny Tamberelli was one of the stars of Nickelodeon series The Adventures Of Pete & Pete. These days, the 35-year-old is a musician, stand-up comic and hosts a podcast with his Pete & Pete co-star Michael Maronna.

He feels he has to be on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms for publicity reasons, but he is glad those sites were not around when he was on a hit show.

During a convention recently, he met some of the Stranger Things kids and was struck by their need to "create content" by shooting fun videos to feed their fan base.

"And there's something about that that makes me feel sad," he said, even though he assumes the children enjoy doing it.

"I don't think they should have to be worrying about that. At 12, 13 or 14, they should be worrying about themselves and having fun.

"I don't think kids should have the responsibility of creating themselves and their brand," he said.

"It's an extra way for kids who grow up in this business to go down a bad path and be disconnected from reality because social media is whitewashing everybody's true selves with their perfect Instagram lives."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Acting in Hollywood is no child's play'. Subscribe