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'Former child star' no longer a red flag

| Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 6:04 p.m.

For a growing group of entertainers, a stint as a child star is proving a mere opening act.

“Mickey Mouse Club” members have gone on to join the club of Grammy winners and Oscar nominees. Boys and girls who hit pay dirt on prime time have become men and women with prime roles ­— and Emmy trophies — on hit series.

One of those former Mouseketeers, Justin Timberlake, just released a follow-up album to the hugely successful 20/20 Experience. Claire Danes, erstwhile star of teen-angst-fest “My So-Called Life,” just nabbed her third Emmy, the last two for leading actress in a drama for “Homeland.” Two others — Mayim Bialik (“Blossom”) and Anna Chlumsky (the “My Girl” movies) — scored comedy supporting-actress Emmy nominations this year, for, respectively, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Veep.”

“Child star” is no longer a taboo term, a resume red flag. A generation ago, early Hollywood success often was a ticket to infamy, if not tragedy. (Think teen pop idol Leif Garrett, the “Diff'rent Strokes” kids, Macauley Culkin.)

Today, the roster of child stars-turned-grown-up stars is long and impressive: Another ex-Mouseketeer, Ryan Gosling, is a revered actor, as are Christian Bale (“Empire of the Sun”), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“3rd Rock From the Sun”), Daniel Radcliffe (the “Harry Potter” franchise), Natalie Portman (“Beautiful Girls”) and Scarlett Johansson (“The Horse Whisperer”). Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser, M.D.”) is everyone's favorite song-and-dance-and-host man. Fred Savage (“The Wonder Years”) is a respected TV director.

“You look at the list of who's hot in Hollywood right now, almost half seem to have started their careers as kids,” says Howard Bragman, veteran publicist and vice chairman of “That's entirely different than it used to be.”

Indeed, having been a child star is “perceived as a really good thing,” Bragman says. Studio executives “like products that are tried and true. They figure if it worked once, it's going to work again,” even, or especially, if the brand is a radical departure from its original incarnation. Think of Radcliffe, who went to Broadway “and stood naked on a stage with a horse in ‘Equus.' ” Now, the former Harry Potter is playing an entirely different bespectacled role: poet Allen Ginsberg in the movie “Kill Your Darlings.”

Dipping back into the same star well is “a way to cut risk in what's inherently a risky business,” Bragman says — as long, of course, as those stars keep “their noses clean.”

‘Kind of a wild time'

A generation ago, “people didn't know the dangers of drugs to the same extent, especially in young people,” says Bonnie Fuller, editor in chief of Parents were far more clueless. Consider Drew Barrymore snorting cocaine at 12 and making multiple detours through detox before reviving her career. In 1989, her mother, Jaid Barrymore, told People, “I had no idea what was going on.”

And “in some cases, the parents were involved (in illicit activities), too,” Fuller says. “It was kind of a wild time. Things were accepted that just aren't accepted today.”

Since the dawn of the movie industry, child stars have both publicly struggled — Judy Garland's teenage diet of amphetamines and barbiturates led to her eventual downfall — and succeeded — Jodie Foster became the poster child star for staying both relevant and renowned. More recently, the jagged, not-so-sanguine trajectories of former Mouseketeer Britney Spears, “Parent Trap” pixie Lindsay Lohan and onetime Nickelodeon mainstay Amanda Bynes have served as cautionary Tinseltown tales. And today, the world is waiting to see whether Miley Cyrus' story ends with a professional breakthrough — or personal meltdown.

Combining a genetically predisposed tendency toward addiction with the pressures of Hollywood is a strong cocktail. Malibu, Calif.-based addiction therapist Karen Khaleghi, who has treated child stars turned adult addicts, calls a person's inherent anxiety level their “hum.” When “your hum was high, your family's hum was high and you're in an industry who's hum was high, something's got to give.”

And when an insulating entourage of handlers constantly tends to a young star's needs, it “can create more isolation and less of an ability to regulate” or cope, Khaleghi says.

The success stories, the Leonardo DiCaprios of the industry, come from stable, relatively ordinary parental relationships. Khaleghi knows child stars “who are very healthy” and have “the loveliest, most grounded families. They keep as normal a world as possible for their children,” she says. “Everybody does the dishes, everybody has things to do.”

Joanne Savage, Fred's mother, often speaks to families enrolled with The Actors Fund Looking Ahead program, a free, decade-old resource for 250 to 300 performers ages 9 to 18. Fred Savage is the longtime chair of the program's advisory committee.

Joanne Savage's message? She and her husband never needed her son's income, “so it was never about money,” says Keith McNutt, Looking Ahead's Western Region director. “It was about a kid who loved acting. So when a kid is passionate about this, and the parents are supportive, it's great. When the parents need the income to survive, and the child's not so passionate about acting, that's when we sense there's a higher level of risk.”

Help is out there

Looking Ahead, which offers everything from counseling for substance abuse and eating disorders to laser-tag socializing, was formed to help fill a void in support networks for young actors. In the past 10 to 15 years, such infrastructure has grown, McNutt says, while the landmark California Child Actor's Bill, known as the Coogan Act in honor of financially exploited 1920s child star Jackie Coogan, has been broadened and strengthened. Another nonprofit group, BizParentz, helps families of performing children navigate the potential pitfalls of the industry. Kids With a Cause encourages young entertainers to engage in community service.

McNutt sees the second acts enjoyed by the likes of Fred Savage as helping his cause. Savage “went to Stanford. He wanted to get his education, and now he's made a transition.” The list of successful child stars who spent an acting sabbatical studying is robust — Danes (Yale), Portman (Harvard), Foster (Yale), Brooke Shields (Princeton). In fact, about half of Looking Ahead's alums are pursuing higher education, says the program's education counselor, Laura Campbell, thanks in part to the increasing ease of attending college online.

The program's participants are mostly pavement-pounding child actors, not paparazzi-trailed child stars, which experts say is another important distinction between those who become headliners on marquees vs. headliners on tabloids.

“A lot of these people have become stars, but the goal of most of these people” is to be a working actor, not necessarily a star, Bragman says. “Claire (Danes) is certainly a star, but she's really defined by her work.

“As opposed to people who keep aiming for home runs, these are people who hit singles and doubles consistently, and the home runs happen,” he says.

Suzanne Leonard, an associate professor of English at Boston's Simmons College, who specializes in cinema and media studies, sees a gender divide between men and women who have successfully transitioned from kiddie to grown-up fare.

The Timberlakes and Goslings of the industry have changed their image into “a brand that's multipronged,” she says. Timberlake is not just a musician but also an actor, a Twitter titan and a sketch-comedy savant. “He's a personality,” Leonard says. “He's transcending the traditional genres of entertainment.”

His female counterparts, on the other hand, such as Danes and Anna Paquin, who took home the supporting-actress Oscar for “The Piano” at age 11 and the drama-actress Golden Globe for “True Blood” 15 years later, are “well-known for being serious craftswomen.”

Olivia Barker is a staff writer for USA Today.

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