Child Actors, Adult Themes
May 10, 2005 11:20 PM   Subscribe

I've seen a lot of movies and TV shows in which child actors play characters who, among other things, discuss sexual abuse, point and shoot guns, speak swear words, and witness violence, drug use and miscellaneous depravity. Do these kids suffer any ill effects from this kind of acting?

(I'm fully familiar with the washed-up child actor meme - I want to know only if there are any documented psychological consequences from acting in scenes involving disturbing subject matter.)
posted by Saucy Intruder to Media & Arts (16 answers total)
Sorry to disappoint you, Sauce-meister, but psychology isn't as ridgidly scientifically sound as, oh, say, Intelligent Design.

The impact of anything is liable to play a role in the matrix of influences that make-up a person's mind.

Are you looking for a case where a psychologist emerges from an examination room, snapping off his rubber gloves, and announces that the type 1134-B personality disorder has been successfully traced to experience set 89-PRP-1988?

Not likely. Happy hunting, though.
posted by squirrel at 11:41 PM on May 10, 2005

Anecdotal, semi-related "evidence": A good friend, when he was about 6 or 7, was a child actor, and his parents brought him to the call for The Shining, for the role of Danny. He was a pretty decent child actor, apparently, because he made it to the point where it was just him and the kid who eventually got the part, whatever his name is. My friend likes to tell the story of how, to get the desired look of horror on his young prospective actor's face, Stanley Kubrick leaned over and whispered all kinds of horrible, frightening things in his ear. It was either ineffective or all too effective, because he didn't get the part.

Anyway, he's fine now. Getting married in a few months. No ill effects, but a damn good story.

And, then, for every such unscathed child actor, there's a Dana Plato. So, really, who knows for sure? I'd bet that child actors are exposed to more "adult" things like drugs and sex (viz. Drew Barrymore) earlier than other kids, and that may lead them down the Path to Ruin, but lots of non-thespian kids find plenty of ways to fuck up, too. We just don't hear about them. I don't think you'll get much more than anecdotal evidence on this one.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:25 AM on May 11, 2005

You know, I think I've seen Linda Blair discussing this. I can't find anything in a quick search, but she might be a place to start....
posted by mr_roboto at 12:35 AM on May 11, 2005

Often in Hollywood, when a child actor is dealing with difficult subject matter, the production will have a psychologist on set to discuss the subject matter and make sure the kid knows that this is imagination and not reality. The level of involvement decreases as the child actor grows up. You'd be surprised how much kids can differentiate, and frequently they're better at it than adults. The parents also play a big role, and they or a guardian is always on set with the child. It's actually not that big a deal. Also, don't forget that when you see a child witness violence or something else nasty, that can just be camera trickery. And when you get up close to a bloody set, it's almost always amazingly unbelievable in person. The couple of times I've seen kids on a horror film set, they've thought it's all really cool. I think one of 'em was no older than 8.
posted by incessant at 12:45 AM on May 11, 2005

I saw something on TV about the making of a film using child actors. To do the swearing, they'd get the kid to say "funny clowns" or something then cut the audio to make a word.

I'd imagine there are other tricks with the way scenes are shot and cut.
posted by lunkfish at 2:26 AM on May 11, 2005

To be able to act you need to be a pretty mature, bright and capable child anyway, and those would probably tend to handle these issues better.
posted by fire&wings at 2:31 AM on May 11, 2005

Rather off-topic, but I wanted to share this anecdote that was related to me by Bill Mumy, a (relatively) well-adjusted former child actor. When Mumy was very young, he was cast in an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," but being an impatient child, he kept squirming and moving around. Eventually, Hitchcock walked onto the set, bent over and whispered into Mumy's ear, "If you take one more step off your mark, I will nail your feet to the floor, and the blood will come pouring out... like milk."

Mumy remained rooted to the spot for the remainder of the scene.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:26 AM on May 11, 2005

One of my favorite (true) stories about child actors concerns Hugh Edwards, the young boy who played Piggy in the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies (ie, the only good one).


On the days leading up to the shooting of Piggy's demise he began to give his possessions to his fellow cast mates as he thought that they were really going to kill him and he therefore had no other use for the items. Edwards recounts this story on the commentary of the Criterion version of the film and I found it rather interesting. Of note is that Edwards never acted in anything again.


As to another part of your question, you should also understand that often the children are not witnessing what you're seeing and that your brain often thinks they are due to the "magic of moviemaking". For instance, the province of Ontario at one time banned the film The Tin Drum because there is a scene in it in which a child witnesses two people having sex. Unfortunately, the Ontario Film Review Board was made up of morons and not filmmakers as they failed to notice that the child and the lovemaking couple were never in the same shot and, according to the filmmakers, not even on set on the same days.
posted by dobbs at 7:06 AM on May 11, 2005

Another anecdote about "the magic of filmmaking". This article about Anna Paquin (who won an Oscar, you may recall, for her work in the very adult themed film The Piano at the age of 11) notes that:
" Ironically, the youthful actor hasn't even seen her own movie in its entirety because of its nude scenes. Anna's grandmother from Winnipeg, Agnes Tuckwell - who's seen the film four times - says the crew used some tricks in the filming and editing to protect Anna's youthful sensibilities. One scene, for example, shows Anna peeking in on the movie's stars, Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, in bed. But in reality, Anna is looking in on nothing - the steamy scene was shot when she wasn't around."
I also recall her in an interview (Inside the Actors Studio, maybe?) saying that Campion had done a special "G Rated" cut of the film for her so she could more-or-less see the entire film, but in an age appropriate way.
posted by anastasiav at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2005

also, dobbs, the actor playing the child in the tin drum was a dwarf, and had come to the age of consent before shooting started.
posted by pxe2000 at 7:39 AM on May 11, 2005

Similar to anastasiav's comment, I recall seeing an interview with someone (Lance Henriksen, I think, but it's been awhile) involved with the TV show Millennium. Regarding the Brittany Tiplady playing Henriksen's young daughter in a sometimes quite disturbing show, he mentioned that she only got to see the scenes she appeared in, and not the entire episodes.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:09 AM on May 11, 2005

I always wondered about the little kid they have harrasing celebs on Punk'd.
posted by delmoi at 12:07 PM on May 11, 2005

I was surprised that all the child actors came to the Palindromes (T. Solondz) premiere last month. Their parents had been given full scripts before agreeing to have their children perform, and now it's a full two and a half years later, but I'm surprised all their parents felt comfortable talking with them about sex and abortion (and anal sex and pedophilia and multiple actors playing the same role and etc.). They all looked happy. No psychological consequences to report yet. . .
posted by nobody at 12:36 PM on May 11, 2005

dobbs, I've read that the kids in that LotF got waaay into the movie characters in general, and pretty much turned on the kid playing Piggy. It wasn't just that he was scared because of the script, but that the other actors did start ganging up on him and threatening him even when they weren't filming.
posted by occhiblu at 1:05 PM on May 11, 2005

the actor playing the child in the tin drum was a dwarf, and had come to the age of consent before shooting started.

Actually, neither of those points are true. He was born in '66 and was 11 when the film started shooting. In addition, he's not a dwarf (he currently stands 5'9") but has a rare disease (I forget what it's called) which makes him appear "childlike". Much of this is mentioned on the DVD and the IMDB backs it up.
posted by dobbs at 2:32 PM on May 11, 2005

The boy in The Shining, according to Kubrick, didn't know he was starring in a horror movie until the whole thing was in the can.
posted by NickDouglas at 8:55 PM on May 11, 2005

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