Caring Letter From A Child Star

Sarah and the Baron.

Sarah and the Baron.

This remarkable letter is old—2005—but I just became aware of it, and it is an important document in the ongoing problem of the mistreatment of child performers.

I am a fan of film director (and Monty Python member) Terry Gilliam, and a great admirer of Canadian actress/director/political activist Sarah Polley. So naturally I love “The Adventures Baron Munchausen,” Gilliam’s epic fantasy that starred Polley when she was the tender age of 9, and gave one of the most impressive performances of any juvenile actress, ever. In 2005, Gilliam was filming another movie with a young star, and 17 years after working with him, Polley felt obligated to write this letter, which speaks for itself, and eloquently too:

Hi there, Terry.

I hear you’re making a film in Saskatchewan this summer. I hope you have a great time — there are some great crew people you’ll probably be using from Winnipeg who got into making films because of you. (It’s actually pretty bizarre — I worked out there this winter and at least five people told me that “Baron Munchausen” was the film that made them choose to be in film.)

I guess I just wanted to touch base and share a few things about my experience working on that movie. I know you’ll be working with a young girl and I realize we’ve never had a chance to talk about that time — or I guess I mean I haven’t communicated to you what my experiences were, or how I remember them now, or how I feel they affected me. I know you’ve heard varying reports (I can’t remember who told me that) and I realize that it’s not really fair for me to not communicate it all to you directly. Especially since the only people who I hold responsible (and who, by definition were supposed to be responsible) are my parents.

Basically, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I felt incredibly unsafe. I remember a couple of trips to the hospital after being in freezing water for long periods of time, losing quite a bit of my hearing for days at a time due to explosives, having my heart monitored when one went off relatively close to me, etc. I remember running through this long sort of corridor where explosives went off every few feet, things were on fire, etc. I cried hysterically in my dad’s lap and begged him to make sure I wouldn’t have to do it again, but I did. I think I did it quite a few more times. I remember the terrifying scene where we were in the boat and the horse jumped out and ended up surfacing a plastic explosive that went off right under my face. I remember being half trampled by a mob of extras and then repeating the scene several times. I remember working very long hours.

I know I had some fun as well, but it’s pretty much obliterated by the sense of fear, and exhaustion, and of not being protected by the adults around me. And again, the adults who should have been there to protect me were my parents, not you. This, of course, took some time to arrive at. I admit I was pretty furious at you for a lot of years.

What I went through is nothing compared to what many kids in the world suffer. But it certainly was unusual for a middle-class kid in Toronto, and it hardened and isolated me for many years, I think. It also created a pretty substantial lack of trust in my parents (again, not your fault, but a by-product of the experience).

This, — contrary to how it may read, — is not meant to be a guilt trip. You were always fun and fascinating, and you gave me a ton of confidence. You’re a genius and it was a privilege (no matter what my age) to watch you make a great film. I think that film was hell for you, too, and you had enough responsibility just keeping it going without having to be a parent to someone else’s child. I believe that you felt that if there was something that was particularly traumatic to me, that my parents would have informed you and pulled the plug. Of course, this is what should have happened on many occasions. I don’t think my parents were monsters, by any stretch of the imagination. I do think, though, that you can’t underestimate how in awe of you people like them can be. I think they were so shocked and thrilled to have their daughter in a Terry Gilliam movie that they couldn’t see past that. They didn’t want to be an annoyance or an inconvenience to anyone, and it must have been daunting to imagine holding up 100 people for your kid.

So here’s my point: who knows whom you’ll cast and what their parents will be like. My suspicion is that you might need to be constantly analyzing whether you would put your own 9-year-old in the positions you’ll be putting this kid in. Because it’s entirely likely that the child’s own parents will be (for whatever reason) incapable of making the right call. This is a huge responsibility but I’m starting to think (from watching other kids and parents) that this is a fundamental part of the job when you’re working with kids who should really be in school anyway.

Here’s some unsolicited advice:

  • Try to keep a close eye on the mood of the kid, ask them a lot of questions about how they’re doing, if they want to stop doing what they’re doing, etc. if they seem uncomfortable, afraid, take it upon yourself to make the call as to whether or not it’s best to stop or keep going.
  • If there are water scenes in this one — make sure it’s warm!!!!
  • If there are explosions in this one —I really can’t emphasize enough how much better it would be if you could do reaction shots separate from the explosions themselves. I still duck when a car door slams too close or too loud. I know it’s probably a sucky way to shoot it — but it might save you another email like this one.

Sorry for the babbling. I just realized I wasn’t doing either of us any favours by not letting you know this stuff. And I really think you’re a decent person so hearing this might have an impact without being too alienating (I hope).

Good luck with the film. I know it’ll be brilliant.

—Sarah Polley

Perhaps you can appreciate why I admire more than Polley’s talent. It would be hard to write such a letter any more ethically. She informs Gilliam without blaming him, placing the responsibility on her parents, who indeed failed her. She is not harsh or accusatory, and accepts blame herself for waiting so long to make her experiences known. It is a caring letter and a constructive one, prompted by concern for another young actress.

Gilliam responded, thanking Polley for her frankness while protesting that she was never in the danger she apparently thought she was. This is, of course, beside the point: it is not enough that a child be safe; she should also feel safe. The director also made a statement that is true, candid, and creepily accurate about how directors think about their casts: he said that he was very concerned about her safety, not because she was a vulnerable child, because she was so critical to the project. Sort of like an expensive prop.

Once again, I direct readers interested in the issue of child abuse in show business to visit Paul Petersen’s organization’s website, here, and send it a donation if you can. A Minor Consideration’s  work on behalf of children’s rights and against exploitation really is heroic. You can also find posts on the topic here, here ( a guest post by Paul) , here, here (a post about Miley Cyrus, and another one here that is interesting in light of where the ex-Disney star’s career has gone), here, where I argue that child stars should be banned (Paul does not agree, but then, he was one), here, and here (about now former “Two and a Half Men” star Angus Jones). This is a show business industry ethics problem that few want to acknowledge, and that keeps claiming victims.

Ethics Alarms is committed to helping responsible ex-victims like Petersen and Polley spread the message. Maybe some day enough people will care to start changing things.

16 thoughts on “Caring Letter From A Child Star

  1. I found Ethics Alarms through an entry you wrote that was copied on A Minor Consideration’s website about the Biking Vogels. Sarah’s letter certainly reflects the way bright lights blind parents when it comes to the welfare of the child.

  2. Jack, do your thoughts on this go so far as to ban all child performers? Acrobat families, musical prodigies, ice skaters and so on? The Vienna Boys Choir? I agree with very much of your thinking, and have witnessed and dealt with a bit of the fallout associated with child stardom, AND the failure to achieve it. At a certain point, some of these kids are working in the family business, (circus families for example), and not that different than the kid that rings up my dry-cleaning while Mom and Dad and Uncle work in the back.
    Very strict rules and regulations seem to only address some of the issues, and are inevitably relaxed or bent as circumstances demand, much like Child Labor Laws are generally ignored on family farms, or for immigrant harvest labor.
    Do you think that the psychological toll of fame is actually greater than other childhood circumstance such as long days of labor at a farm or auto repair shop? Or are we simply made aware of it more because, after all, these people are/were famous, and their struggles are public knowledge?
    I find this subject very interesting, and always appreciate your posts on it.

    • Posted this quickly and somehow missed your comment ABOUT child prodigies, ice skaters, etc. in the referenced post. Apologies.

  3. Sarah Polley is amazing! Paul Petersen…meh…not so much. It appears his compassion begins and ends with child stars. Children of regular families in need? Apparently not. 😦

    • WHAT? That’s like accusing a cancer research advocate of not caring about AIDS. Paul is the only prominent advocate for these abused and exploited kids, who most people assume are rich and happy. He is selfless and passionate, and has saved many lives, as well as achieved major reforms. That is idiotic criticism, specifically condemned here: “How dare you not focus on what I think is important!” Most “advocates of regular children in need”…whatever they are…just talk. They could learn a lot from Mr. Peterson, and so could you.

      • Check out his facebook pages. Check out his opinions of people who need social assistance. He tells them to “contribute or get out of the way”. Yeah…real compassionate man, there. 😛

        • I check out the Facebook page regularly, and that’s libel, plain and simple. His organization is not a general social welfare advocacy group, nor should it be, and those seeking help unrelated to its mission are properly so informed. You clearly do not comprehend the concept of a “mission,” which is essential. Paul has a vital and unique one, and pursues it with all his time, resources and passion.

          • How is it libel? I’m repeating what he said. I’m not misrepresenting his position in the slightest. “Today we have 100 million people on government assistance and NO space program. What’s wrong with this picture? No more free rides, my friends. You either work, contribute, or get out of the way.” – Paul Petersen
            I understand very well the mission of A Minor Consideration and have contributed monetarily in the past. I support it fully. I do not, however, think Paul Petersen AS A PERSON is a compassionate man when it comes to the average American family. He doesn’t extend to the them the same concern and understanding that he affords the former child star.
            What’s so hard to understand?

            • What you said was “Check out his opinions of people who need social assistance. He tells them to “contribute or get out of the way”.
              That is a gross mischaracterization of what HE said. HE said “Today we have 100 million people on government assistance and NO space program. What’s wrong with this picture? No more free rides, my friends. You either work, contribute, or get out of the way.” That is not an indictment of those who cannot work, and nobody who knows Paul or his own philosophy would interpret it that way. He is referencing “free rides,” meaning those who take government money as the easiest course. 50% of the country now doesn’t pay income taxes. If you really think there are 100 million people in the US who NEED government assistance, you are seriously deluded….or a communist.

              • Nope, not a mischaracterization. I’ve read and re-read all of his posts (plural) on the matter, and I stand by my statement. He doesn’t believe in “state” charity. I have to assume that includes foodstamps to military families, etc. You’re misrepresenting his position, in my opinion. So there we go. Stalemate.

                • Nina: The fate and status of children in the acting profession IS important. It’s not because they are inherently better than other children, either. The bodies, hearts and souls of all children are equally important. What gives them a closer look is a matter of what they represent. As I’ve told Paul Petersen and many other concerned parents, child actors belong to us all. They’re part of our families, as they come into our homes on a regular basis via TV and (now) other media. They are the living face of America’s children- to ourselves, to other children and to the world at large. When we desecrate and endanger them- before or behind the camera- we do it to all children through their proxy. When those kids turn into monsters from continual exposure to a toxic entertainment environment, their generational peers and supporters see this and, to a big degree, try to excuse it (aided by the slick words of professional publicists) and thus become infected by it. This is thereby a moral issue of the highest importance.

                  Paul has worked diligently with many of his own Hollywood peers with this in mind. When I was drawn into the issue by an incident that turned out to be the most stunningly depraved case of child sexual exploitation in the history of Hollywood (“Hounddog”- 2006), Paul sought me out after reading some of my columns based on my independent investigations and conclusions. He wrote me an email about how, for a time, he had thought that he was the only one who grasped the significance of this event. I had thought the same of myself! It was good to find out that he and other good, stalwart people were independently pursuing the “Hounddog” tragedy and, though it, the broader issue it had come to represent. That directly led to my personal association with a number of fine people- Jack Marshall being one.

                  The work continues to this day. I consider it the worthiest of the causes that I’ve been involved with.

  4. Jack: I read Sarah Polley’s letter to Terry Gilliam that you posted above a number of years ago. I also read more of their correspondences on the issue. (Sorry- I don’t have the source available.) Sarah also mentioned how, for years afterward, she was shellshocked as the result of that scene where she’s fleeing buildings being knocked down by the Turkish siege guns. Gilliam, however, was surprised and highly apologetic upon hearing of this. The two had kept contact with each other since the film, but Sarah had not revealed to him the extent of what she had endured in its making. Gilliam had honestly thought he’d protected her adequately.

    It’s amazing to me how often in the history of child acting directors and producers- even the good ones- can have a blind spot where kid actors are concerned. Children are not little adults! Nor are they “sexual beings”. (Both these concepts are rampant in modern Hollywood.) At least Gilliam understood the fallacy of the second factor, even if he underestimated the first. That puts him a giant leap above many of his colleagues.

    • I thought Gilliam’s response was OK—not great, but better than we would see from most directors. I agree with you: it is more cluelessness than malice or willful negligence. And Polley was such an un-naturally mature kid actress, I can see forgetting…except that there’s still no excuse for it. And she properly blames her parents.

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