Today my sister directed me to a video in which Dylan Sprouse, one of the twins who starred in Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody as well as its spin-off The Suite Life on Deck, explains why he and his brother quit working for Disney in favor of pursuing degrees at NYU. I’m not sure if the Sprouse twins have quit acting for good like I did, but I’m always glad to see stories of other actors deciding to stop working on a project that no longer makes them happy.
It was especially nice to see this from someone my age who worked on a Disney show similar to the one I was in (though, of course, my role was very different from theirs–I was only in 11 episodes of Hannah Montana while they starred in both their shows as the main characters). I recommend watching the video because it provides excellent insight into how the show business industry can mistreat its workers, even high-profile actors like Cole and Dylan Sprouse.
However, I’m mostly here to talk about the title of the article: “Former Disney Superstar Reveals Why He Walked Away from Being Rich.”
Before I even clicked the link, I thought, “Oh boy, here we go.”
When you stop acting, one thing a lot of people like to talk about is money. “Why would you give all that up?” “Do you know how many people would kill for that kind of money?” When I was 17, my freaking therapist brought it up. I told him about my recent decision, based on the negative emotional toll it was taking on me, to quit acting. He said I’d “basically given up the lottery” and should reconsider my decision.
Needless to say, I never went back to that therapist, and it gets on my last nerve when people make similar comments nowadays. Isn’t “do it for love, not for money” a commonly taught after-school-special-type value? Like, why are people baffled by this?
I’m pretty sure it’s because when most people imagine a Hollywood actor’s life, they think of the glamorous bits. They think of people all over the world knowing your face and being interested in your life. They think of the money, of your hair and make-up always looking perfect, of getting to portray interesting characters that millions of viewers will enjoy and possibly connect to.
I can understand wanting these things, sort of. I have never been interested in the world knowing my face, but that might be because the world has known my face in some capacity since I was 10, so I didn’t have much of an opportunity to hope it would happen. I don’t like wearing make-up–I don’t feel like myself when I wear it and it’s physically uncomfortable. I guess having perfect hair all the time would be nice, but it would probably mean having to get up earlier and sit in a chair for hours, so I’m fine without it.
The last part about portraying characters is something I definitely understand, especially as a writer. Providing the world with characters it can relate to is something I still want to do, and the reason I got into acting in the first place. I think the most successful actors hold this value close to their hearts, and it’s what keeps a lot of them going in this difficult business. If it had been important enough to me, I would have continued, but I discovered writing offered a medium for characters that I preferred (I talked more about this a few years ago).
The money has definitely been helpful. I never want to understate how thankful I am for the money I made. Without it, I would be knee-deep in student loan debt right now instead of never having to worry about tuition money again. I wouldn’t currently be on vacation in Europe. I wouldn’t have gotten to attend the Midwest Writers Workshop in Indiana for the past two years, where I have made incredible writer friends. The exposure has also been amazing. If I hadn’t acted, barely anyone would be reading this right now, and I certainly wouldn’t have thousands of amazing Twitter followers.
But show business is very, very difficult. The hard parts factor heavily into every actor’s decision about whether or not to stay in the industry. It’s important that people be aware of how tough it can get, especially when those people want to criticize someone for leaving acting behind.
I’m going to limit these points to acting as a child, since that’s the only experience I can speak to on this topic.
For one thing, you have to spend a lot of time away from home, family, and friends. I was lucky that, when I wanted to start acting, I already lived in Los Angeles. That’s where most auditions happen and where a lot of the production studios are. I was also lucky that my first acting project (Cheaper by the Dozen) was filmed in Los Angeles. After a day of work, I got to come home, sleep in my own bed, and see my friends on the weekends.
However, with The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, it was a different story. Both required going to Toronto, Canada for three months because filming in Canada is cheaper, and fairly common. For Pacifier, which filmed March-July of 2004, this meant leaving my elementary school three months early and never coming back, because I was in fifth grade and would switch to middle school in the fall (I finished my schooling on set). It meant seeing the disappointed look on my best friend’s face when I told her I would be spending the rest of the school year thousands of miles away from her.
The worst part, though, was being separated from my mom. Up until Pacifier, I hadn’t been apart from my mother for longer than the two-week periods my siblings and I spent visiting family with my dad (my parents divorced when I was 9). It’s not as if she could up and leave her job to join me in Canada for three months.
She visited once, for a week or so, but that didn’t feel like enough to an 11-year-old craving her mother’s comfort. Every time I watch the scene where Lulu opens the door and screams in Vin Diesel’s face, I cringe a little, because my mom left to catch her flight minutes before I filmed that scene and I’d just spent time crying.
I also remember crying over my mom in the hair-and-make-up trailer a few times. One of the make-up artists, Katie, was so sweet about it. I had trouble keeping my eyes open whenever she put make-up under them, so she offered to tape pictures of my mom above the make-up mirror for me to look at while I tried not to blink.
I can’t imagine doing this now, as an adult. It would have been impossible to graduate from college in a timely manner, since I would have had to keep taking semesters off. I admire those who can do both at once, like Emma Watson, who graduated from Brown University last year. But I’m nowhere near as high profile as she is. She had a lot more agency when it came to things like negotiating with her university and picking-and-choosing which roles she wanted to play, and when.
I’m sure production companies would have been more willing to work around Emma Watson’s schedule than they would be with someone like me. This is of course not meant to underestimate the incredible amount of work she put into acting and getting a degree at the same time. It just wouldn’t have been possible for me.
Then there’s being separated from loved ones. The only several-months-long block of time I spent away from all my loved ones since I stopped acting was when I studied abroad in Ireland (which JUST LEGALIZED GAY MARRIAGE, BY THE WAY!) in August-December of 2013. I was mostly fine and made wonderful friends while I was there.
But by December, I wanted to go home so much I started feeling guilty about it. Didn’t people always say that when you studied abroad, you’d “never want to leave?” I loved Dublin and couldn’t have chosen a better place to study, but I missed my family enough that I looked forward to it being over–even though two weeks into being home, I wished I was back in Dublin again. Being separated from your network of loved ones is hard, even when you’re crazy about what you’re doing during your time away from them. I’m not interested enough in acting to regularly put up with this kind of isolation.
Another problem is people like to criticize actors for how they look, especially when those actors are women. And when you’re a 12-year-old girl who’s only just starting to become physically aware of herself, this is devastating to your self-esteem.
I, unfortunately, used to frequent the message boards on my IMDb page. Sure, my parents warned me that people on there would probably say some not-so-nice things, but again, I was 12. Any kid that age who knew people were talking about them on the Internet would read it. After Cheaper by the Dozen 2 came out, I remember how I felt when I saw a thread titled something like, “Can you say FAT?” It was full of people commenting on how much weight I’d gained between Pacifier and Cheaper 2.
Now that I’m more educated about how the industry and Western society works, it makes me angry that “fat” was intended as an insult and that I was encouraged to see it that way. What if I had been larger than this? What if I had continued to gain weight? What if I was currently 300 pounds? It wouldn’t be anybody’s business and it wouldn’t be something to criticize.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Some more I remember: “Has anybody noticed her butt getting bigger?” “Well she looks…different here” “Someone told me she gained a lot of weight in Hannah Montana, does anyone have pictures?”
There are probably a lot more, but finding them would require combing through the IMDb message boards for them, and I’m afraid it would be too upsetting. Yes, I’m 22, it’s been 10 years, and it would still be too upsetting.
This is another aspect of acting that would be hard on me today. I’ve never worn make-up regularly. Very rarely, I wear it to special occasions, but even that has been dropping out of my life, mostly because I realized I was putting on make-up due to social pressure to appear more feminine. I enjoy the way I dress, but it usually isn’t up to “fashionable” standards, and I prefer comfort over style most of the time. So when I see tabloids bashing celebrity women for “daring” to leave the house in sweatpants and without make-up, I’m horrified. I’m angry. And I feel better about leaving the industry behind.
One more anecdote before I move on to my next point. When I was 15, I attended some event that involved getting interviewed at the end of a short red carpet after publicity photos. I had my mom do my make-up because I figured they’d expect me to wear it. I was wearing a cardigan and jeans, which, for me, was dressing up. In high school, I hated jeans, instead preferring to wear baggy clothes that hid as much of my body as possible.
At the end of the red carpet, I heard the people being interviewed before me answer a question about their favorite Christmas traditions. Socially anxious, 15-year-old me prepared to answer that question next. Instead, the question I got was, “Do you have any beauty tips?”
I stood there in stunned silence for a second, partially because my plan had gone awry, and also because I had no idea what the hell kind of beauty tip I was gonna give. Use shampoo? Brush your teeth? Bathe occasionally? I said, “Uhh, be yourself” and dashed out of there.
There are thousands of other reasons working in show business takes a toll on child actors, but I don’t want to make this post too much longer, so I’ll leave you with one final point: being a young person with this amount of exposure can be legitimately scary and not age-appropriate.
By scary, I don’t just mean “it’s creepy that so many people know my name and what my face looks like.” I mean scary like the time my sister got a text message from some guy asking if he could speak to me when I was 18. He’d somehow tracked down her phone number and used it to try to get in touch with me. Worse, I recognized his name. He’d been leaving weird, obsessive comments on anything I posted online starting from when I was 13 and onwards. And he still was fixated on me.
I spent the day terrified. I didn’t know what this guy was capable of. He’d found Wendy’s phone number, so for all I knew, the next step was figuring out where I lived. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
When I was a kid, I got fanmail from guys asking me to be their girlfriend. I remember someone telling me they’d printed out every picture they could find of me and put them up in their room (I must have been 13 or 14). Around the same age, I saw someone on the Internet ask if any nude pictures of me existed. I came across comments like “I can’t wait until she turns 16” and “counting down the days until she’s legal.”
This was disturbing enough as a child and a teenager, and relatively speaking, I was never a very well-known actress. I can’t begin to imagine the nightmares big-name celebrities have to deal with on a regular basis. No wonder they need bodyguards. If I continued acting and became more successful, I would have to readjust my life to make room for this nonsense. I am very happy keeping that stuff as far away from me as possible.
I hope this post provides some perspective on how the positive parts of show business can be overshadowed by the more detrimental ones. Really, I admire people who stay in this industry and put up with all this. It means they really love what they’re doing and they’re committed to their art. If writing involved all these things, would I still pursue it? Absolutely. But that’s because writing feels like my calling, and acting doesn’t.
I hope this helps people understand better.
*Avatar by Charlavail