'Showbiz Kids' director and child star Alex Winter dismisses the 'Glee' curse: 'It doesn't have any bearing on reality'

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Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·8 min read
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GLEE: (L-R) The cast of "Glee," Harry Shum Jr., Jenna Ushkowitz, Mark Salling, Heather Morris, Chord Overstreet, Amber Riley, Melissa Benoist, Jacob Artist, Kevin McHale, Jane Lynch, Matthew Morrison, Darren Criss, Becca Tobin, Chris Colfer, Naya Rivera, Cory Monteith, Lea Michele and Dean Geyeron on Season Four of GLEE airing on Thursdays (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)
The cast of Glee (l-r): Harry Shum Jr., Jenna Ushkowitz, Mark Salling, Heather Morris, Chord Overstreet, Amber Riley, Melissa Benoist, Jacob Artist, Kevin McHale, Jane Lynch, Matthew Morrison, Darren Criss, Becca Tobin, Chris Colfer, Naya Rivera, Cory Monteith, Lea Michele and Dean Geyeron. (Photo: FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)

Naya Rivera’s recent death has renewed intense internet speculation about the so-called “Glee curse,” which catalogues the various misfortunes and tragedies that have befallen the young cast of Fox’s hit musical series during and after its six-season run. Glee isn’t the only TV show that’s been followed by a purported curse: The iconic 1980s sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, also featured several child actors who experienced rough transitions into adulthood. One of those actors is Todd Bridges, who speaks openly about the financial and emotional turmoil he experienced at a young age in Alex Winter’s new documentary, Showbiz Kids. Premiering July 14 on HBO, the film features extended, and remarkably candid, interviews with a number of now-grown child stars, including Wil Wheaton, Milla Jovovich, Evan Rachel Wood and Cameron Boyce, who died last year.

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment on July 13 — the same day that Rivera’s body was found at California’s Lake Piru, and seven years to the day that her Glee co-star, Cory Monteith, passed away — Winter downplays the idea that certain shows, particularly those with young performers, are somehow cursed. “It’s just media hype,” the director says emphatically. “The internet just paints everything with the most cynical and salacious brush possible, because, out of fairness, that does attract viewers, right? People are going to gravitate towards some hyper-dramatic, salacious story. But from the perspective of someone who's been in that world, it's pretty nonsensical and it doesn't have any bearing on reality.”

'Showbiz Kids' director and former child star, Alex Winter (Photo: Stefan Radtke/HBO)
Showbiz Kids director and former child star, Alex Winter. (Photo: Stefan Radtke/HBO)

As he alludes to, Winter has firsthand experience with the world of child stars. In the 1970s, he was a self-described “Broadway kid,” performing in long-running productions like The King and I and Peter Pan. “I was in shows that ran for years, and performed day in, day out for eight shows a week,” he remembers. After taking a break from Broadway in the early 1980s to attend New York University, he re-entered the business as a movie actor, appearing in such iconic ‘80s favorites as The Lost Boys and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

“Most of the kids that I know that were child actors are actually really well-adjusted adults who don't regret their youth at all,” Winter says of the “curse” theories that can follow child stars. “Within that, you have people who didn't make it, but if you look at your elementary school graduating class, it's going to be the same statistics. You're going to have kids you went to fifth grade with and they were at the top of their class, and then they bottomed out in junior high school, had a drug problem by high school and were in rehab by college. You can look at the entertainment industry and say, ‘These kids don’t make it,’ but that’s statistically not correct. It's a societal problem — it’s not an institutional problem.”

One of the reasons that Winter wanted to make Showbiz Kids was to present an empathetic portrait of child stardom that acknowledges both the perils and privileges that await young actors. “I really loved being on Broadway, and I found the experience magical,” he recalls. “There were parts of doing it that are absolutely among the greatest memories that I have from my childhood. I got to be onstage and do things with amazing people who were lovely, and I don't regret that at all.” But that wasn’t a story shared by an actor like Wheaton, who recounts traumatic memories of abusive work environments and demanding parents. Those experiences eventually pushed him to leave acting behind after entering adulthood.

“It was interesting for me to learn that stuff about him,” Winter says, adding that he became acquainted with Wheaton’s Stand By Me co-stars, Kiefer Sutherland and Corey Feldman — as well as Corey Haim — on the set of The Lost Boys. “I was 19 or 20 and the Coreys were younger, so I felt somewhat protective of them. There was kind of an older brother, young brother vibe. I’d give them advice on how to navigate showbiz stuff, but it didn’t really get any more dramatic than that.”

Milla Jovovich in Alex Winter's documentary 'Showbiz Kids' (Photo: HBO)
Milla Jovovich in Alex Winter's documentary Showbiz Kids. (Photo: HBO)

Growing up, Winter was close to Jovovich, who experienced some personal dramas involving predatory older men that she describes in the film. “I was interested in having Milla convey that side of our world, because I knew she’d be really good at it,” he explains. “I watched her being adult-ified at a very young age, and I knew the world she was in, because I was in that same world: the chic, New York City world where people who were way too young were going to discos at 4 a.m. But I’ve also known her as an adult, and she’s a great mom who is really devoted to her family. So I knew she had come out on the other end really well.”

Jovovich’s clear-eyed accounts of her “messes with older guys” speaks directly to another one of Winter’s own experiences. In 2018, he revealed that he had been sexually abused by an older man while still a child star on Broadway. Although his abuser has since died, Winter says that he’ll likely never identify him by name. “There’s really no point. My interest in telling my story has always been to help other kids that are dealing with that issue. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, working with parents and kids who are victims of abuse.” Winter makes it clear that he doesn’t blame his own parents — or any of the other adults in his life — for not realizing what was happening to him at the time. “Even if your parents are present and protect you to the best of their ability, there’s no way in the world that they can constantly protect you. It’s just not possible. People understand that kids are in peril or can be in situations where they could be hurt. It's really important for people to be able to hear that, and I had parents who were willing to listen.”

Not surprisingly, parental involvement is a key topic in Showbiz Kids. In addition to speaking to former child stars, Winter’s camera also follows two present-day young actors, and the parents who are doing their best to support them. “I tell the parents of kids that are entering the business to have their eyes open, not just for bad things, but all the way around. Because it’s not always just the worst case scenario: You also have to ask, ‘How is my kid doing?’ ‘Is my kid happy?’ ‘Does my kid want to do this?’ Parents are important in a child’s life period, and [Hollywood] is heightened because it’s an adult-ified universe. So parents have to be hyper-present and make sacrifices, or their kid won’t be OK. And I would say that most of the parents I know who have kids in the business are great. They might make mistakes, but their kids end up just fine. And I would say that I’m an example of that: I went through about the darkest stuff that you can go through in this world, and I don’t regret any of what I did as a child.”

Former Disney star Cameron Boyce gave one of his last on-camera interviews in 'Showbiz Kids' (Photo: HBO)
Former Disney star Cameron Boyce gave one of his last on-camera interviews in Showbiz Kids. (Photo: HBO)

Perhaps the most moving interview in Showbiz Kids is given by former Disney star, Cameron Boyce, who grew up in the public eye, but credits his supportive family with keeping him grounded. Winter interviewed Boyce in the early summer of 2019, just before going off to film the third Bill & Ted movie, Bill & Ted Face the Music, with Keanu Reeves. (The film’s theatrical premiere is currently set for August 28, but could be pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We love the movie, and are trying to figure out how to get it out there safely,” he says about its release plan.) In July, Boyce passed away following an epileptic seizure, making Showbiz Kids one of his last on-camera appearances. “He was really going places,” Winter says now. “He was this really together guy that had navigated some incredibly complex and challenging things, and came out the other end in a really good place. And I got the sense that he was looking forward to the next year or two of his career as a big transition point. So it was absolutely heartbreaking.”

Showbiz Kids premieres Tuesday, July 14 at 9 p.m. on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

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