By the age of 12, Alex Winter knew both the highs and horrors of life as a child actor. Three years into his career, he was sharing a Broadway stage with Yul Brynner in The King and I. “But at the same time,” he says, “I was dealing with really intense and prolonged abuse.
“There was The King and I – eight shows a week, happy face – feeling genuinely happy in that role. Great relationship with my mom and dad; great relationship with the co-workers around me; doing interviews, signing autographs, living this amazing … and then this nightmarish other existence.” He has not named his abuser, who he says is dead.
The experience left lasting scars. “I had extreme PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] for many, many years, and that will wreak havoc on you. It’s a way in which you relate to the world around you and to yourself, and it’s very nuanced, but you can become very fractured. So you slowly compartmentalise. You keep this thing over here, you keep that thing over there, and you don’t have any natural equilibrium. That fracturing just gets worse and worse and worse.”
By 1993 he needed a break from performing. “By your mid-20s, it’s like you’re holding those different selves together with duct tape. That’s when you see kids overdosing or blowing their heads off. In my case, I was just like, I need to stop doing this thing where these eyes are on me all the time and I don’t feel safe or comfortable … I just want to go ride the subway and help raise a family and do my writing and directing.”
He didn’t quit acting entirely – you can see him opposite Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third instalment in the franchise that made him famous more than three decades ago. But he has mostly worked on the other side of the camera. As a director, his documentary subjects have included the Panama Papers, the leaked documents that revealed offshore tax havens, and Napster, the digital service that shook up the music industry.
Now the two halves of his career have come together in Showbiz Kids, an HBO documentary Winter has directed that presents a bittersweet portrait of what it means to trade your childhood for stardom. The actors interviewed include Evan Rachel Wood, who recalls: “I was at the Golden Globes. I watched a paedophile win. I knew – not a lot of people know – but I know that he’s molested boys in the industry and I watched him get up and accept an award and I walked out and just started sobbing.”
Winter, 55, seems at ease toggling between his acting and directing projects, in a Zoom interview from his home in Pasadena, California, with a whiteboard above his right shoulder and a striking self-portrait by his wife, the film producer Ramsey Ann Naito, on a bookshelf above his left. One of his children is doing schoolwork nearby; another is practising jazz trumpet in the background.
The worst fires in California’s history are burning outside. “I see them all night every night right now,” says Winter, who was born in the UK and has dual citizenship. “It’s like sitting next to a cosy winter British fire at Christmas time. It’s literally a billowing of smoke and embers. And I’m not near the fires, I’m not in danger, but it’s all day, every day. The sun is blocked by a cloud of smoke and has been for weeks.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Showbiz Kids is that it is not a blanket indictment of Hollywood as the robber of its subjects’ innocence. There are grace notes as well as costs, and not until 63 minutes in does the documentary address child sex abuse, noting high-profile victims as well as alleged perpetrators such as the actor Kevin Spacey and director Bryan Singer.
Winter, whose mother and father worked in modern dance, started acting at nine. “I wasn’t shoved into it by my parents,” he recalls. “I was obsessed with film and theatre the way some kids are obsessed with baseball.” And he has some happy memories of his time in The King and I. “To end up on Broadway and walk out on a stage and open a show with a duet was magic, and the people in that show were unbelievably supportive of me. Yul Brynner was unbelievably helpful and influential for me as a mentor, and very compassionate.”
He did not publicly reveal the abuse until two years ago, having felt liberated to speak out by the #MeToo movement that gave a voice to survivors of sexual assault and harassment. “For those of us who have experienced these issues, it is a watershed,” he says. “It is a world that we never thought we would see.
“It doesn’t mean that suddenly it’s utopia, because obviously this behaviour goes on, but I was silent because I didn’t live in a culture where I felt safe to not be silent, and that went on until I was well into adulthood. These movements are already changing the language and it’s really helpful, if you experience these things, to feel that you can go and talk to someone.
“If what happened to me then had happened to me now, I would have walked right up to a stage manager or anybody and just said: ‘Hey, you know what? This is happening; what do I do?’ Those words didn’t come out of my mouth until I was in my 40s.”
This month, the actor Anthony Rapp and another man filed a lawsuit against Spacey, accusing him of sexual assaults in the 80s, when they were teenagers. Rapp alleges that Spacey made a sexual advance at a party, while the other, unnamed plaintiff claims that, after an acting class, the Oscar winner invited him to his apartment and engaged in sexual acts with him. In a statement in 2017, Spacey said he did not recall the encounter with Rapp.
Were the Spacey allegations, like those against the producer Harvey Weinstein, an open secret? “I don’t want to get into naming names of people who haven’t been officially successfully indicted,” Winter says. “I will only say that nothing that has happened has been a surprise … All of these names are people within the industry you have always known to stay away from.” And he’s been hearing about them “for decades and decades”.
Winter worries that the burden still falls upon child actors’ personal tutors to be their protectors on set. He advocates for a dedicated person “whose job is only to make sure that they’re safe, to make sure the protocols are being followed, to make sure that they’re being listened to”. He draws a comparison with the intimacy experts who are now brought on sets to ensure that sex scenes are handled properly.
“I think it will get done. I’m pretty pollyanna-ish that the train has left the station. Most people in the industry are good and don’t want kids to get hurt, and if they understand the mechanics of this stuff will actually do the right thing generally.”
Henry Thomas, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s ET aged 11, and the other former child stars interviewed in Showbiz Kids, appear as well-adjusted and often successful adults, but also betray a note of ruefulness, a pang for something not lost so much as never lived. No one, it seems, emerges from the fame-industrial complex entirely unscathed.
“Statistically,” Winter says, “putting a child into a high-pressure, adultified environment, there are going to be psychological repercussions and family dynamic repercussions for all of the members of the family involved in that experience, not just the kid.
“It’s unavoidable. If you put your kid in the business or you allow your kid to enter the business, you have to understand that there will 100% be consequences. Those could be incredibly severe; they could be fatal; they could be minor. But absolutely there will be consequences.”
At 13, Winter was cast as John Darling in a Broadway production of Peter Pan. In his 20s, he appeared in the vampire film The Lost Boys, then in 1989 as Bill S Preston Esq in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which afforded cult status to air guitar, a time-travelling phone booth and exclamations such as “Excellent!”. A sequel for the hapless dudes, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, followed in 1991.
Like Laurel and Hardy, Bill and Ted are babes in the woods, fast friends in an incomprehensible world. Winter says: “The films are not self-serious. They’re not self-reflective. The scripts are very funny, and the weird dichotomy between how childlike and innocent and not particularly bright we are on the one hand, and how ornate our language is on the other, is infectious from a performance standpoint. It’s fun to play these guys.
“But the notion of the sincere idea of representing close friendship against the craziness of the world is a large part of what’s carried them. The films are written by two very close friends [Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon], are performed by two very close friends, and there’s a sincerity to this that people enjoy.”
If acting can be such fun, doesn’t he regret doing less of it? “It’s pretty common for child actors to need to stop,” he says. “I’d been doing it since I was nine. I’d been on Broadway my whole childhood. It would not have been good for me mentally to keep going, so I’m very happy that I had the foresight to get out when I did.”
He does not envy Reeves his place in the limelight. “Oh God, no. That is not the life path I set myself out on … I love what I do. I’ve been making films for decades and I love that so much. I was never looking to be a leading man. I’m really proud of Reeves. We’ve been close our whole lives, but I never look at that career and ask: ‘What if that was me?’”
That doesn’t mean he shuns publicity entirely. He is active on Twitter, where he makes no secret of his political convictions. He is backing Joe Biden in November’s presidential election. “I think that a rhododendron would be a better vote than Trump. We are unfortunately not in a place where we can nitpick over the very important issues that have always been at play in America: neoliberalism, globalism, corporate cronyism.
“Is Biden the person to create that change? He could be shoved in that direction, but we face a global catastrophe with Trump. It comes from a place of staggering privilege, and often white male privilege, to say you’re not going to vote for Biden because of whatever policies of his you don’t like and instead let that vote go to Trump. Even me, in my middle-class acting and movies privilege, am not that privileged; I can’t afford that. It will be devastating to my little class. We have to vote for Biden, we have to get rid of Trump – that’s all-important.”
He keeps a lower profile over Black Lives Matter, though not because he doesn’t care. Like many white liberals, he has thought a lot about how to show solidarity without putting himself centre stage.
“I think a little goes a long way,” he says. “For me personally, I tend to try to act silently. I don’t need to broadcast everything I do on Twitter. That is virtue signalling. A lot of performers do that. They may have the best intentions, but I think that hearing from white guys less is also a form of helping. If you’re a woman or a person of colour or trans, maybe I’m not the guy you need to hear from right now. Maybe just me being a better human being and taking action is better.”
It is a perspective that suggests a man who had to grow up fast, but is still learning from life. There is a time to speak up, a time to remain silent – and a time to get away from it all in a magic phone booth.
Bill & Ted Face the Music is in cinemas now.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk
• In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org