Children of Paradise
Hollywood is a tough town for anyone, but it can be positively brutal for kids. Once the fame ends and the fortune is spent, child actors frequently turn into cautionary tales. Movieline writer Michael Angeli caught up with three young actors in the March 1992 issue of Movieline. Poor Edward Furlong was in the middle of his tragic childhood, but tried his best to hide it. Sara Gilbert dodged questions about why she didn’t have a boyfriend. (That one kind of answered itself.) And Lukas Haas was in between jobs at the time.
Someone’s gotta play the kid. The casting call is out: We need 60 pounds of cute and a side order of sass. Haul in the mothers with their lambkins and let’s get this over with, pronto. There was a time, of course, when we wanted someone to play the kid–just ask our present U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia. From the first moment that Shirley Temple’s heliotropic, Christmas morning smile (and God, those sturdy little legs!) put the sunburn of unvarnished precocity on the cheeks of movie audiences, we were hopelessly hooked. Nothing short of Lassie was as irresistible as a kid in pictures. Spanky and Our Gang, The Dead End Kids, Dopey Opie, “The Brady Bunch,” Andy Hardy, “A Family Affair,” E.T.’s fervid little confederates–what Shirley hath wrought!
Someone’s gotta play the kid. But when you can line the number of child actor hospital wristbands end to end and span the distance between Disneyland and The EPCOT Center, well, now we’re not so sure. The Clearasil chronology of thespians in braces is spiked with suicide, substance abuse, criminal behavior, mishandled careers and bitterness. What we’ve learned is that kids not only say the darnedest things, they do them as well. The sentiment du jour proclaims the profession of child acting to be a one-way trip on the road to ruin, a form of child abuse. And when virtually the entire kid cast of “Diff’rent Strokes” winds up pregnant, in court or in jail, it’s hard to argue. But having gobs of money and toys up the wazoo, traveling to exotic shooting locations, receiving attention reserved for royalty, and not having to attend school while still netting a better education than 99 percent of the rest of the planet (child stars have full-time tutors) is hardly the most pernicious form of child endangerment. Does tinsel really stunt your growth?
An adjunct to the child abuse matrix is the speculation that, sure, Macaulay Culkin is the picture of youthful propriety now while he’s a big star. But when his first box-office flop comes along, or when he learns that facial hair doesn’t wash off as easily as chocolate, whichever comes first, he’s gonna look for a crack pipe and go for a highspeed chase through lower Brentwood. Still, for all the crash-and-burn victims, there are the Jodie Fosters and Ron Howards who’ve learned to live with their pubic hair.
With all due respect to the ruinous aspects of early fame, not to mention the tyranny of ambitious and controlling parents, my guess is that it’s something else that turns the kid who once charmed our socks off into the monster that now holds up a video store with a pellet gun. The children audiences love most are the ones who affect adult behavior. We coax the kids into on-screen maturity; and then when they’re offscreen, they’re expected to behave like adults in real life too. We are the doting relatives who one or two times a year hear the scripted quips, see the irresistible mugging; when the reports of drugs and nude arrests reach us, we are suitably shocked. Not that the moviegoing public can be held accountable for Corey Feldman’s alleged reliance on heroin. But would Mickey Rooney be the spouse-discarding warthog he is today if the responsibility for cheering up America during WWII hadn’t depended at least a little on the irascible spirit of a 40-year-old being locked in a 15-year-old’s body?
Someone, however, has got to play the kid. And if, indeed, the child acting profession is nothing more than a benign-looking environment for the growth of all things most foul, the theater of the cruel, we are left with two choices. We can harken back to the days of ancient Greece when males played all of the roles, and just let Steven Spielberg go ahead and slash his wrists. Or we can keep the kids and everybody else in business by telling ourselves that today’s youngsters are better informed about the real problems of showbiz. Judging from the attitudes of the three young actors I talked with, a more sophisticated atmosphere of caution has indeed begun to take shape.
“I start school on Thursday. It sucks,” Edward Furlong says in a voice that, like those of most 14-year-olds, understates the sensory overload roaring through his synaptic regions like The Blue Angels. We’re sitting on the porch of Eddie’s house like a couple of nearsighted, outlaw entomologists, watching the ants crawl over our shoes. The idea of going back to school has momentarily put his mood in a tailspin. To cheer him up a little, I ask him about the size of his new girlfriend’s breasts. He throws a shocked glance at my profile and lets out an aborted cackle of relief. Then, looking furtively back over his shoulder into the house where his uncle is sitting, he elects to pass on the breast inquiry.
“I kinda want to go to school, because there’s kids there. I wanna have a normal life–sometimes. All the attention’s pretty weird, but worth the hassle. Most of my friends are friends I had from before. I have a friend or two I can trust. I have to be careful about who I hang out with and stuff.”
The subtext here, naturally, is drugs. Eddie is perceptive enough to spare me from forcing the issue, and, despite the obvious fact that the importance of his image has been impressed upon him the way asthmatics are warned to take it slow, he manages the subject with a halting degree of veracity: “I’m pretty aware of drugs. I try and keep away from that as much as possible. If I did hang out with somebody who does that stuff, I probably would start doing it, too. I’m not saying that I won’t hang out with them. I’m saying that I’ll try and stay away from it as much as possible.”
And now that he’s a big star, what about curfews? “Yeah,” he grins. “Yeah, I gotta be in. By usually eight or, if I’m going someplace special, 12.”
“Wow. You gotta be in by eight o’clock?”
“Well, not eight.” Eddie tries to revise his estimate but can’t come up with an exact time. Craning behind him, he shouts through the doorway to his uncle, who’s been eavesdropping.
“Sean? If I’m going out with friends, when do I have to be in?”
A diffident voice comes through the dark hole of the door: “Midnight.”
When a casting director for Terminator 2 spotted him hanging out in front of The Boys and Girls Club of Pasadena, about all Eddie had going for him were his looks–stark and epicene, the invulnerable insolence of a grievous angel–and a long gaze up the well of perspective: Things couldn’t get worse than he’d already seen. Growing up in an atmosphere of routine disappointment, he expected little when he was asked to audition for the part of Schwarzenegger’s pal in what would eventually play as a kind of cyberpunk Of Mice and Men. Even after discovering that the film was T2, Eddie accepted the prospect of starring opposite Hollywood’s biggest sauerbraten eater with the equanimity reserved for winning a two-dollar scratch-off game. “I wasn’t really worried for the first reading because I didn’t think I had a chance of getting the role.”
The extent of Eddie’s acting experience to that point was a fifth grade school play in which he carried a box onstage. But somebody saw something, because after three auditions he got the part. “After they told me, me and my aunt and uncle got in the car and we’re hitting on the roof and the doors, hollering like mad. We stopped at a gas station and we were holding hands in a circle and all these people were looking at us–I think they wanted to shoot us. We were jumping up and down, totally stoked, so … that’s my life story.”
Or at least the most recent chapter of it. Whatever victimization child stardom may visit on him, Eddie got more than his share growing up in the industrial obscurity of Glendale. He was raised by his mother until “personal difficulties” (in his uncle’s words) prompted her to surrender custody of him to her brother and sister, with whom he was living when he was spotted at the Pasadena club. “I got into a lot of fights… I don’t think I ever met my Dad,” Eddie acknowledges, bridging a vast expanse of rough emotional territory with very few words. But when the subject of his mother surfaces, there is a vegetables-on-the-plate quality to his reproach: “We, uh, just got finished with a court situation with my mother. Now we’re finished with that. If I could…could I stop talking about this?”
“We had been living together, all of us, including Eddie’s mother, from the December to April before T2,” Eddie’s uncle, Sean, explains. “His mom was having some problems. Eddie’s a really great kid–it had nothing to do with him. So she turned him over to us–me and my sister. That was a year and a half ago. Just after T2, things got real bad.” It seems that after Eddie was cast in T2, a custody battle followed between his aunt, his uncle and his mother. (It is not hard to imagine Mrs. Furlong in court, suddenly assuming the shape of a balanced, responsible mom, the way the liquidy cyborg cop in T2 suddenly became Linda Hamilton, but who can say?) “Eddie bounces back really well,” says Sean, recounting the vitriolic court battle with visible discomfort. “That’s one of the things that makes him a really good actor.”
Asked if the past ever puts Eddie in a funk, Sean is unconvincing in his denial, but sanguine about his methods. “Well, he really doesn’t get down that much. He stays very even. But we talk. We talk a lot. It’s really important to hear what kids have to say and treat them not like kids. Hormones don’t just affect your sex drive–they affect your emotions as well, how you respond to things. One of the things both Nancy and I try to do to keep things normal is we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that holding down regular jobs is just not practical. We both went to Seattle when Eddie had to shoot there. We cook dinner at the hotel instead of eating out all the time. It just helps to keep things normal.”
Out in an arroyo near Eddie’s house, I’m making motorcycle noises because Eddie can’t remember if the bike he just bought with some of the money he made doing Terminator 2 is a two-stroker or a four.
“Must be a two-stroker,” he maintains. While the thrill of riding the motorbike occupies his imagination these days, the pedal-powered bicycle we’re wheeling through a gully in the arroyo is a reminder of the way things were. “Mainly I have to try not to be big-headed,” Eddie reasons, relieving me of the bicycle, which has a flat tire. “And I admit, sometimes I get that way. I don’t express it–but I’ll feel like a hundred bucks.”
“You mean a million?”
“Yeah–I mean a million bucks, yeah. It’s like, Jesus this is great, but I try not to express it. When I do start to feel that way, I try to remember who I am, where I came from, what I was before. I mean, I was like a kid who just got found, you know? And I just did a couple of movies–and movies are just that–movies. Who cares? You go out and see them and then they come out on video so fast you don’t know what happened.”
In what has to be the most disposable, albeit topical, of ironies, the loneliness and disenfranchisement that set Eddie’s emotional gyroscope into play very early seem to be the very qualities that landed him his role in T2. And they have ended up providing him with a story he’s willing to applaud: “I had it kind of handed to me–pretty weird. I’m lucky. And if I become big-headed or something, it could backfire on me. I just have to go back to where I was before–and I’m sure I could do it. But right now, it’s fun and I want to enjoy it. It can be hard work, and stressful at times. But to me, it’s the best job you can get. I wanna act till I die. It’s like I won the lottery. It doesn’t make me any smarter, bigger or better than anyone else. I’m just a lucky person.”
When he was five years old, my son caught the acting bug from his best friend, a veteran of TV commercials. Not willing to bear the weight of a stifled acting career on my conscience, I got my boy (who resembles his mother) an agent easily enough, and began the cattle call schlep. I have a small confession to make here. What kept me going was the pleasing idea of a trust fund for an Ivy League education or, at the very least, a new set of tires. Alas, the bubble burst at an audition for an Oscar Mayer baloney commercial that involved a father/son vignette in which the little boy asks his dad what’s in the baloney. When my son saw how easily the actor paired to be his father slipped into character, the alarm of common sense rang in his little ears. Phony fathers are full of baloney. “It was creepy,” he told me later. “I think I’ll just play professional baseball.”
With a show business pedigree, Sara Gilbert has considerably more to fuel her passion to act than my son. Grandfather Harry Crane wrote and created “The Honeymooners”; half sister Melissa was the endearing Half Pint in Michael Landon’s “Little House On The Prairie,” on which her brother Jonathan also appeared. “My mom had a short-lived career as an actress when she was younger. Now she’s a manager–she manages me,” says Sara, 17, who looks like an extra from an Oliver Stone film. Sara lives in Encino with her mother. Just now she is busy doodling with a pen. She draws on her jeans, her shoes, her socks. And she continues to draw on everything in sight for the next hour.
“I was just at Cafe Luna on Melrose. They give you crayons to draw while you’re waiting for food. Well, I can’t draw a thing, but they’re gonna put what I drew up in the bathroom,” she confides, in a voice that hints at more than a passing acquaintance with attention. The doodling fixation and the droopy, flower child aspect, however, can’t hide the savvy that the actress who plays Roseanne’s TV daughter “Darlene” possesses. Apologizing without a hint of remorse, Sara sets her own tape recorder next to mine on the table as the interview begins. (The last person who did this to me was that pussycat Jerry Lewis.)
“I’ve been an actress–I love it–on and off for about 11 years. I think that the main thing is that when you see people around you in the entertainment industry, it becomes a reality, as opposed to others who aren’t as exposed to it. If I had not been in a family of actors and other creative people, I would’ve never thought of it. I would’ve said, oh, yeah, there’s TV.”
The fact that Sara’s mother manages her career invites speculation that Sara may have received an extra nudge, especially in light of her mother’s unremarkable career as an actress, not to mention her half sister’s long run on prime time. Sara blithely denies that there’s any vicarious living going on here: “From the very beginning my mother said if you ever want to stop doing it, then you don’t have to do it anymore. My mom didn’t even necessarily want me to do it. She knew ahead of time how long the hours are and all that. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and if you were to look back on my life then you’d see times where I stopped acting. It’s been my decision all along–start, stop. And anyone who says oh, you’re being shoved into this–well, that’s just a complete misconception.”
And although her acting career has, by her own admission, deprived her of not only her privacy, but the normalities that many of her non-acting friends take for granted, she is philosophical–almost to a fault, were it not commensurate with her overall Earth Day perspective. “I think it’s important to ask yourself not ‘What could I have changed in the past, but what I can do in the future.'” Still, she admits, “the hardest part for me is typical, I guess. Giving up your privacy. Going out with friends and their having to wait while you sign autographs. But in other ways it’s cool because you realize that people do appreciate you. It’s nice to make someone feel better by obliging them.”
Sara is a good deal less philosophical on other topics, such as the existence of a boyfriend. No flower child babble on this one: “Oh, I don’t know…” She rolls her eyes dismissively. “Avoiding personal questions …” she says ambiguously, dangling a gerund as if she is reciting from a manual on interview do’s and don’ts.
We are alone, except for Sara’s woefully overweight beagle. “Don’t pet the dog!” she cautions. “He doesn’t like anybody but me and he bites.” Though the dog seems to me to be committed to slothfulness rather than aggression, she turns out to be right; he later gets a second wind and takes a throwaway swipe at my palm. When Sara talks about the inequities younger actors face, I swear I can hear the Catherine of Russia of sitcom TV in her nasal, indictment mode. You don’t, after all, spend two years on the set of “Roseanne” without picking up a few pointers. “It’s always the case with kid actors–the kids on the show are grouped together, as opposed to being separate actors. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. People are gonna see you as a kid, instead of an actor. And up to a certain point you have to fight it. But, like, you don’t want to, like, lose your job by saying I want the same size trailer as so-and-so.”
Sara just acted with Drew Barrymore in the feature film Poison Ivy. In one particularly provocative sequence, Drew’s character runs her tongue seductively over the lips of Sara’s character. The acting, however, wasn’t the uncomfortable part for Sara. “The thing that made it really difficult was that I would be in a hospital gown completely naked underneath and, like, it was really late at night with these fake rain machines going,” she moans, the Maynard G. Krebs syndrome that, like, afflicts her speech sounding all the more humorous. “I’m, like, freezing, and having to do 10 takes–it was a lot of physical work–a lot of working late–but getting through it was worth it. You’re really there for the art, anyway. You’re not there for the size of your trailer or the size of your paycheck. If you’re very passionate about acting, then it really doesn’t matter.”
“That’s a mature attitude for–”
“–someone that’s drawing on her shoe?”
“I really don’t have any projects to speak of, right now,” Lukas Haas confesses in the spirit of someone lacking quarters for a parking meter. But after some 20 projects, including his idiosyncratic portrayal of the sexually curious Buddy in Rambling Rose, he appears unhurried and peaceful, the kind of person who, short of change, would be content to drive around and find a meter with time on it. Of the three kids I’ve seen, Lukas appears the most at ease with his profession, a condition that seems to be related to the distance you live from Los Angeles. Lukas lives in Austin, Texas with his father, an artist, and mother, a screenwriter. As both Edward Furlong and Sara Gilbert did, he defines his age by giving the number of months to his next birthday (“I’ll be 16 in four months”). He has twin brothers, age 7, one of whom has acted in a TV movie with him. “He played my brother, so it was fun. But we’ve asked the twins if they want to be in movies, and they don’t seem to take it too seriously. They say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to miss my birthday.'”
If you toast your marshmallows in the child abuse camp, and you’re looking for an easy target to blame for the preponderance of dysfunctional child stars, past and present, you might want to start with the ubiquitous casting director. “When I was five,” Lukas recounts, “a casting director called up my school in Austin and asked who was the best actor in all the school plays. They said it was me. I got an audition and got the part in Testament.” What followed was another biblically titled film, Witness, perhaps his most memorable role to date, although he blanches at being identified as “Lukas Haas … the kid from Witness.” Other film credits include Music Box, Solarbabies, and Lady In White; he’s also appeared in TV’s “The Twilight Zone” and Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories.”
On the pitfalls endured by his contemporaries, Lukas is well-informed. “At this point, I’m pretty used to everything. Since I’ve had so much experience–I mean, I’ve had the ups and downs. I’ve worked with good people and bad people, so I’m pretty aware of what’s going on around me. Drugs–you just have to be smart enough to stay away from that stuff.”
But even the vastness of Texas can’t contain the sense of failure and emptiness brought on by a box-office bomb. Lukas takes a Kennedyesque swipe at his bangs and nods. “You gotta take the failures as lightly as possible because there’s usually another deal that’ll come along. And if you carry your failure into the next project with you it becomes a self-fulfilling thing. You just have to keep going, stay focused. What was that line in Cool Hand Luke? ‘Get your mind right, Luke.’ The business is riddled with stuff like that–I’m sure you know all about it–I’ve had plenty of movies that have bombed. If I let it drag me down every time I had a movie that didn’t do so well, I’d be in a pit somewhere near the center of the earth.”
Despite his near veteran status, Lukas still has the sense that he’s not taken entirely seriously. Young actors, he maintains, are “segregated in all sorts of ways. Even now I’m not treated equally and it bothers me. I mean, just in general, I can understand why I wouldn’t be treated the same. It’s hard enough for an adult to relate to another adult. So, what can I expect? I mean, I feel like I’m an adult and I think pretty much every kid my age feels like they’re an adult.. . but I guess I’m … still a child.
“The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of people have a prejudice against younger actors, in thinking that they have a natural ability to do what they do. Kids don’t have to think or do anything. But it’s just as hard for us to act as it is for an adult. And there are good young actors out there that are doing just as much work to make a good character out of a role as the adults–and then they have school on top of that which makes it very hard… It’d be nice if people realized that,” he adds, thoughtfully. I suddenly feel 150 years old and have the impression that as nice a boy–young man–as Lukas is, he sees me as being no less than half that. What’s intriguing here is how much Lukas, who, incidentally, played opposite Robin Williams and Steve Martin in Mike Nichols’s stage production of Waiting for Godot, has momentarily strayed from the poise of his Richard Gere-as-the-Dalai Lama meditation to Jack Reed, working class hero: “I mean, it’s no big deal, but look at the awards,” he continues, pursuing the discriminated young actor issue. “There’ve been a couple of people who’ve been honored –Tatum O’Neal, Jodie Foster, Shirley Temple. Very few. And I don’t think there’s been a male in the bunch. So as far as that goes, they don’t think about younger kids.” While most people are still trying to forget about, say, Brooke Shields’s performance in The Blue Lagoon, Lukas might have a point. River Phoenix got nominated at 18, but where were they when the 12-year-old Anton Glanzelius did My Life as a Dog?
If a fool and his money will soon be parted, Lukas Haas must wear boxer shorts made out of hundred dollar bills. “My money…” he considers, with the offhanded confidence of a poker player sitting on a colorful full house. “I have a trust fund. My mother and father don’t manage my money. I have different people who work for me. I could buy myself a car, rent myself an apartment, if I needed to. But I don’t have full access to it–I couldn’t go and buy myself a boat.” Neither could I, Lukas, neither could I. “I’m glad that I have some restrictions on it. When I’m 18, I won’t. What’s really hard about it is with the money sitting around like that, I kinda want to use it to make more money. I can do money market things, but I’d like to do more riskier things with a higher yield.”
The money, however, is not the thing. There is a serene joyfulness in Lukas when he sums up his prospects; if there are any Alamos in his future, so be it. “I’m in it for the experience right now. I’ve had a wonderful time with just that, met great people and I love to work. My advice? Take it lightly. If you take it too seriously, it’ll jump up and bite you on the ass. There are plenty of times when you audition for a role, you don’t get it and you think, oh, I’m such a bad actor. I can’t do this, I can’t do that–you just have to keep on trying. The movie business is a tricky business. It can be a real pain. Shit happens.”
There is the inclination to conclude that these three kids made the first cut; the Grim Reaper swaddled in Gap clothes and Reebok pumps has passed them over in favor of a wild boy more willing to party, a darling deceiver with a chip on her shoulder as big as her mama’s plans for her to be the next Judy Garland. But even though a string of failures or a three-day wrap party could put their lives in the toilet, one other thing is certain. If someone’s gotta play the kid, you’d be hard pressed to convince any one of these three that they’d be better off not getting the part.
Michael Angeli interviewed River Phoenix for our September cover story.