Bill and Ted star Alex Winter says directing his new documentary Showbiz Kids, about the often abusive experience of being a child actor, was a “cathartic experience.” For decades Winter kept the story of his own abuse private, until the #MeToo movement emboldened him to speak out. Now, through the testimonies of some of the best-known child stars, from the silent era’s Baby Peggy, to E.T.’s Henry Thomas, Stand By Me’s Wil Wheaton, Thirteens’ Evan Rachel Wood and Disney’s Cameron Boyce, Showbiz Kids offers a peek into the world of child stardom.
As a young teenager, Winter thought all of his Christmases had come at once: appearing in Broadway shows The King and I and Peter Pan. “I really wanted to perform at a very young age,” he says over Zoom. “I got to walk out onto the Broadway stage, and open a giant show, night after night, and sing a duet. It was magic.”
However, off-stage a hellish story was unfolding. An unnamed older actor, now dead, was sexually abusing him. “The PTSD from that is so intense,” he now recognises.
Winter was a movie star in the 80s and 90s, appearing in teen vampire comedy The Lost Boys, and playing Bill S. Preston, Esq in the Bill and Ted films. Throughout, he was concealing a deep pain. “My trajectory is similar to a lot of child actors. By the time they’re in their 20s they need to stop, regroup and reassess who they are. I very much needed to do that. Around Bill and Ted 2, I just needed a break. I co-directed a movie Freaked which I was in and then I quit acting.”
Winter moved to London, set up a production company and reinvented himself as a director, recently making documentaries about the Deep Web and The Panama Papers. He never thought that he would speak publicly about the abuse he suffered, let alone make a film. That changed following the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. “In the post #MeToo era, it is now much more public what is going on and who these people are. That is very helpful. People feel that they can talk,” he says.