In Loco Parentis

Brad Renfro, Bryan Singer, and the Responsibilities of Working with Child Actors

I really wanted today’s letter to be a fun one. Instead, I read the Buzzfeed News article about Brad Renfro from a few months ago, in the wake of The Atlantic’s report on Bryan Singer’s alleged abuse of minors. I felt compelled to write this, instead.

When I was working on sets as a child, I’d sometimes hear stories about another child actress. She was four or five years older than I was, and talented and beautiful, but didn’t have the best reputation as far as behavior. “She’s… inappropriate,” people would say. “I hear she talks sex,” my mother said, more bluntly.

“There are some things a child just should not know,” I once heard a crew member say about her. I’d nodded, and we sat in silent judgment of this girl together.

A few years later, I met her. At first, I felt nervous, wondering if she’d say or do something that would make me uncomfortable. She didn’t: she seemed sweet and funny, attentive and intelligent, though there was a seriousness about her that felt a bit sad. But I liked her. I think it was then that I started to wonder about the unfair way adults talked about kids.

I don’t think I ever met Brad Renfro. I was friendly with other ‘90s teen heartthrobs, like Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Andrew Keegan, and Devon Sawa, but he seemed to move in different circles than us. Grown-up circles. He never would have crossed my mind as a crush, either: while I thought he was a good actor, and handsome, he felt like too much of a “bad boy” for me. That was his reputation: the bad boy. The second-to-last I heard of him was in an interview where he insisted that he didn’t do drugs anymore, that it was all in his past. The last I heard was of his death in 2008.

Reading the Buzzfeed article about his life and death, I found myself nodding. I can confirm, from personal experience, that a lot of it is true. Child actors are often asked to work overtime. Some unscrupulous producers would ask me, directly, if I wouldn’t mind doing it. Others had the decency to consult with the studio teachers, and then sigh deeply when they said no. It’s also true that studio teachers are often a child’s greatest advocate on a set. It’s also true there’s also a lot of interaction between children and adults that, while not necessarily dangerous, isn’t always appropriate. When I worked with children, we were taught the Rule of Three: never be alone one-on-one with a child. An adult and a child must always be in the company of another person, preferably another responsible adult, before going off separately for any reason. When I worked with teenagers, we were told not to contact them directly or add them on social media. “You are friendly,” my supervisor said, “But you are not their friend.” As far as I know, there is no such code of decorum on film sets.

In addition to Bryan Singer allegedly being inappropriate with him, Renfro is said to have had a much, much older girlfriend as a teenager. This also doesn’t surprise me at all. My first boyfriend, a child actor, broke up with 15-year-old me because he had started “dating” a twenty-eight year old woman. He was 16. I have been a twenty-eight year old who worked with teenagers, and I have no idea what she could have possibly seen in a teenage boy.

But I think many adults see child actors as, functionally, grown-ups. It’s how they can justify hanging out with them one-on-one, giving them cigarettes or drugs or alcohol, or at least looking the other way when they see the kids using them. And a lot of child actors feel like adults. I certainly did: I had a job like an adult, I spent all day with adults, I picked up on their vocabulary and mannerisms. I could keep up with their conversations, and often spent time one on one with them. But my parents, on-set guardians, and studio teachers made it clear that I was not an adult, I was a child. This felt condescending to me at the time, but in retrospect, I appreciate it. When they were insisting on seeing me as a child, they were actually advocating for me. They knew what was and wasn’t appropriate for a child. They were reinforcing boundaries and limitations.

Children need boundaries and limitations. I had them, and I had parents and siblings who loved me unconditionally, who saw me as a real person. It’s very clear that Renfro, who was abusing drugs and alcohol at a young age, did not have that. A lot of child actors don’t. A lot of child actors come from backgrounds full of upheaval, dysfunction, and addiction. I could sense the ones who did: their parents were usually a little too cool. They made grand speeches about how their child was their “best friend.” They flirted with crew members in full sight of their kids. They’d invite me over, bragging about their nice house with a giant pool, and the trampoline and ATVs they had in their backyard. I’d eventually put together that the reason they had all those things was because they used their kids’ money to buy it. They didn’t put any of it away for college or adulthood, let alone all of it, like my parents did. They’d shower me with attention, tipsily dance with me at parties, and make a big deal of how much they adored me. Then the shoot would wrap and I’d never hear from then again.

If I could sense, as a preteen, that a fellow child actor’s home life was unstable, there’s no reason an adult couldn’t sense it, too.

Six years of art school gave me little tolerance for people who justify harmful behavior for the sake of art. “Thou shalt not get hurt” was one of the mottos of my college studio, and that’s how it should be. The tales of Bertolucci and Kubrick and Hitchcock tormenting their actors and actresses are long past. We know now that behavior is unacceptable. We should have known it then. Is it so insensible to suggest that if you can’t make a movie without hurting a child, maybe you shouldn’t make a movie at all?

But just as bad, in my opinion, is enabling self-destructive behavior and ignoring cries for help. A former assistant director who worked with Renfro is quoted in the Buzzfeed News article explaining why he didn’t interfere after seeing him at an adult party: “It would have been out of place for me to say [anything]. I'm not going to stand in loco parentis for him.” My question is, why not? I would have. Like it or not, if a child is working on your film, they are your responsibility.

I’ve often wondered what I would do if I were to write, direct, or produce a film with children in it. Sometimes I think I should just avoid it entirely, and only work with adult actors. (My play Sheeple is about teenagers. When we did it at the New York International Fringe Festival, the youngest actor was 22.) If I had to, though? I would know that working with a child actor is not just about getting a good performance out of them. I would know that their physical and mental well-being is paramount. I would check in with them before, during, and especially after production. I’d stay in their life, doing what people like Michael Ritchie and Danny Devito and my wonderful studio teachers did for me: become a mentor figure.  

Granted, not everyone is cut out to be a mentor. Not everyone likes children as much as I do. But if you are a director, writer, or producer intending to work with children, I believe it is your duty to look out for them. You do not need to be a helicopter parent, but their well-being needs to be one of your top priorities. Don’t ask a child who’s eager to please if they’re OK with working overtime, or doing something that clearly makes them uncomfortable. Be friendly, but don’t try to be their best friend. Research the hell out of the studio teachers before you hire them, and defer to them after you do. Let them be a kid, and make sure no one is plying them with drugs or alcohol. When you’re auditioning the kids, audition the family, as well. See if they, too, have their child’s best interests at heart, and if they don’t, don’t work with them. You won’t be depriving some kind of their big break, you will be refusing to be an enabler. You might not be able to save them, but you can stop things from getting worse.

If someone told me today that a child was a bad boy, or was behaving inappropriately, I wouldn’t blame it on the child. I would see it as a red flag. Children don’t come up with these things on their own. Bad boys are made, not born. Don’t help create one.

Stuff I Did This Week: I had the privilege to be invited to jump in on Hbomberguy’s feed of his marathon live-play of Donkey Kong 64 to raise money for Mermaids! It’s amazing that this happened, and that I was invited to join. The stream is over, but you can still donate to Mermaids, to help trans kids and their families!

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Who’s Been in the Hermitage?