Hollywood Wanted An Edgy Child Actor. When He Spiraled, They Couldn’t Help.

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Posted on: 8th May 2018

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Brad Renfro looked different, but Fernando Altschul expected that — they hadn't seen each other in 10 years, when Renfro was 14 years old. The two had first met on the 1998 psychological thriller Apt Pupil, Renfro as the film's star along with Ian McKellen, Altschul as its 34-year-old first assistant director, working with director Bryan Singer. Despite the fact that Renfro had a knack for making his job difficult — like sneaking cigarettes when union reps were visiting the set — Altschul still liked the kid, who at 11 had vaulted from obscurity to movie stardom when he was selected to star opposite Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 John Grisham thriller The Client.

It was now 2007. Renfro was an adult, playing a supporting role in the dark ensemble drama The Informers, and Altschul was again the first AD. When the two clapped eyes on each other for the first time in a decade, what Altschul saw shocked him. He was familiar with Renfro’s struggles with drug use, including an infamous 2005 arrest for attempting to buy heroin in Skid Row in Los Angeles. But he did not expect Renfro, who’d gained a considerable amount of weight, to reference his addiction quite so blithely.

"He jokingly told me he'd put down the spoon and picked up the fork," Altschul, now 55, told BuzzFeed News.

Just a few months later, on Jan. 15, 2008, Renfro's girlfriend found his body in his Los Angeles apartment; the coroner report stated he died from "acute heroin/morphine intoxication." He was 25.

Brad Renfro is arrested for allegedly buying what he thought was heroin from undercover police officers in downtown Los Angeles, 2005.

Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

It had been years since Renfro had delivered a performance that caught the public's attention, and at the time, he was treated as yet another addition to the mournful legacy of former child stars — Dana Plato, River Phoenix, Judy Garland — whose lives collapsed from Hollywood darling to death by overdose. One of the many consequences of the reckoning currently facing the entertainment industry, however, has been reassessing the lives and careers of actors who just seemed to fade away.

Before Renfro had turned 14, he’d become a Hollywood heartthrob, praised in the press by a director for his “sex appeal,” and filmed shirtless with a frequency that in hindsight feels at best disquieting, and at worst, exploitative. What is genuinely alarming, however — what suggests that Renfro had no business weathering the pressures of stardom no matter his preternatural talents — is that as an adult, Renfro told friends that he'd been born addicted to heroin and had started injecting the drug around age 12. One friend told BuzzFeed News that Renfro had said his mother enabled his heroin use. (Renfro’s mother and paternal grandmother — who served as his guardian for most of his childhood — have both died; despite repeated attempts, BuzzFeed News could not locate his father for comment.)

"How can you break the rules? I want to break the rules."

Renfro became an overnight star because he was a rowdy kid with natural talent who stood apart from more seasoned child actors. But 10 years after Renfro's death, interviews with Renfro's former colleagues make plain that the mechanisms in place to protect child actors — mechanisms compromised by conflicts of interest and a dependence on parents and guardians — were scarcely capable of protecting kids like Renfro, and largely remain so today.

As one person who worked with Renfro when he was a child told BuzzFeed News, "He just had an enormous amount of energy, and he looked for trouble. How can you break the rules? I want to break the rules."

Without anyone able, or willing, to enforce those rules, it appears Renfro broke, too.

Renfro with Anthony Edwards and Susan Sarandon in The Client.

Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

When Renfro was cast in The Client from a pool of 5,000 kids as Mark Sway — a foul-mouthed delinquent from a Tennessee trailer park — he was a 10-year-old from Knoxville with the same floppy bangs and youthfully handsome face of so many other popular child actors of the 1990s who funneled through Nickelodeon and Disney Channel shows. Renfro’s edge, however, was that he actually had an edge.

"In every city, we contacted sources like Jesuit priests, alternative schools, and police departments," the film's late casting director Mali Finn told the New York Times in 1994. "We asked, 'Do you know any tough kids?' Not that we were looking for a delinquent, but a tough boy."

The effort was driven by director Joel Schumacher’s desire for a sense of authenticity. "I wanted a kid who understood in the marrow of his psyche what it was like to grow up too soon," he said in the same story. Looking for a kid who is the role as much as they can perform it — especially one with no prior acting experience — remains common practice: It’s how the young boys in Moonlight and Lion were cast, and how Quvenzhané Wallis earned an Oscar nod for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Renfro’s parents divorced when he was 5; his mother remarried and moved to Michigan, and Renfro's paternal grandmother, Joanne Renfro, became the primary caregiver for an increasingly wayward child. Various interviews with Renfro over the years reported that he smoked pot for the first time when he was 9, first got drunk at 11, and was expelled from school after he lit up a joint in front of a school official.

Renfro with his grandmother, Joanne, at the premiere of Apt Pupil on Oct. 6, 1998.

Ron Galella / WireImage

Dennis Bowman — the retired Knoxville police officer who oversaw Renfro's D.A.R.E. program, and first recommended he audition for Finn — remembered Renfro as a "problem child" and "out of control" in a Los Angeles Times interview after Renfro's death. "He had these street smarts and the swagger of a 19- or 20-year-old," Bowman said; the idea that Renfro was older than his real age would be repeated about him in the press throughout his adolescence.

Renfro's ability to age up made him especially appealing for roles that required a world-wise maturity, be it the iconic Mark Twain vagabond Huckleberry Finn in 1995's Tom and Huck, a New York City tough kid scraping through a juvenile prison in 1996's Sleepers, or a high schooler obsessed with the Holocaust in Apt Pupil. But it also meant that it could be easy to forget just how young Renfro actually was.

"He was 15 or 16 or something I think when we were doing that job," Tom and Huck production designer Gemma Jackson told BuzzFeed News when asked about her immediate memories of Renfro. "He was sexually active. He had a girlfriend who was years older than him." Reminded that Renfro was actually just 13 while making the film, Jackson paused. "Thirteen," she said finally. "OK. He was very young. … I guess that would now be a problem, wouldn't it?”

This was not the first time Renfro had fielded this kind of pointedly ardent attention, either: In 1995, director Peter Horton told the Chicago Tribune that Renfro "has tremendous charisma and sex appeal," and that local girls would follow Renfro around during production of The Cure. (When reached by BuzzFeed News, a representative for Horton said he declined to comment.) "They had birthday cards for him," Horton said in 1995. "This was a little town in Minnesota, and I expected the cards to say, 'Happy Birthday, Brad. We think you're really cool.' But it was like, 'I dream of waking up next to you.'"

Renfro had just turned 12.

Brad Renfro in Apt Pupil.

Alamy Stock Photo

Despite having zero real acting experience before getting cast in The Client, Renfro took naturally to life on a major studio movie. He could memorize his lines with ease. While other child actors would spend more time in their trailers with their families, he'd wander and ask questions of department heads about set construction or costume design. Film sets can often feel like ad hoc families, but in Renfro’s case, it became almost literal. “This was a really emotionally abandoned person," his manager J.J. Harris told the LA Times. "He was just obviously screaming for someone to establish some kind of boundaries for him, something that never happened in his life." (Harris died in 2013.)

There are several authority figures on a movie set: the director, the producers, and the lead actors, of course, as well as the first assistant director, the person responsible for keeping the production moving and on schedule. "Somehow, I had a lot of credibility with [Brad]," said Altschul of his tenure as the first AD on Apt Pupil. "I took the role of the adult, like, 'Get your shit together, you need to know your lines for tomorrow, go to sleep,' kind of stuff."

Other than the parent or guardian, however, there is only one other person with genuine authority to set clear boundaries for and on behalf of an underage actor: the studio teacher. It's a little-known, seldom-discussed role, and yet it plays a critical function in the lives of child actors.

Laws protecting child actors date back as far as 1939, and the Screen Actors Guild contract with education requirements for minors on set was introduced in 1980. But statutes concerning the supervision of underage performers on set vary widely from state to state. In California — and on any studio production employing California residents — the studio teacher is responsible for the education of child actors, and they also have the authority to shut down a production if they feel it is endangering the health, safety, or morals of the underage performers in their charge. If a studio teacher believes a scene to be too unsafe, or pushing too many moral boundaries — most often uttering profanity, but especially anything that could be perceived as sexual — they can do everything from discussing alternatives with the film's producers to actively ceasing production until the issue is resolved.

Renfro and Ian McKellen in a scene from Apt Pupil.

TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

"I've shut down the set for reasons for safety," said Jack Stern, a studio teacher who has worked since 1995 on films like The Nutty Professor, Bring It On, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. "We can stand in front of the camera to stop the filming. I've done it before many times."

The job is designed to be a firm, final safety net for child actors, to guard against filmmakers tempted to cut corners when faced with the unrelenting pressure to — in the industry parlance — “make their day” and stay on schedule. And that can happen with some frequency. On a production years ago, studio teacher Jo Ann Smith, who has also worked on films like Waterworld and American Pie, said she discovered with no notice that some of the kids she was overseeing on the set were working on stunts miles away from where she was tutoring others.

"They [had] told me it would be right by where we were doing school and I would be able to see everything," Smith said. After a pointed discussion with the producers, Smith said they hired another teacher for the day, so she could be on set to supervise the kids who were working.

"Studio teachers have always felt it was a conflict of interest for the production company to be paying [us]."

Confrontations between studio teachers and filmmakers expose a conflict of interest within the current system: Studio teachers are hired and paid by the production itself, rather than an outside authority. On another project involving several underage performers, Smith was hired after filming had already started because another teacher had been abruptly let go. "The teacher felt that [she was fired] because she was following the labor law, and insisting that the child leave when he was supposed to leave," said Smith. That teacher had already alerted the Divsion of Labor Standards Enforcement to the issue, which ultimately shut down the film for several hours until producers could straighten things out. But the original teacher was not rehired.

"The studio teachers I know, we have always felt it was a conflict of interest for the production company to be paying [us]," said Smith. "But that's just the way it's set up. That does not absolve us from doing our job."

Film and TV sets are rife with people paid by the production with responsibilities that could cost it valuable time and money, from location managers to fire safety officers. But studio teachers remain unique in their mandate to protect minors, and how often that mandate can collide with a production’s bottom line.

“These issues arise, I would say, almost every day that a studio teacher is working on a set,” said Doug Boney, a union representative for studio teachers in California.

Smith and Stern both said they've known of studio teachers who acquiesce to a filmmaker's desire to push past the number of hours allowed by law for a minor to work on a given day. According to Altschul, that happened on Apt Pupil.

"I basically left the movie because we were going over the allowable hours, and I didn't feel comfortable staying on set," he said. "I said, 'If you guys are going to keep shooting, I'm leaving the set.'"

Renfro and Bryan Singer at the Apt Pupil premiere in 1998.

BEI / REX / Shutterstock

Eventually, Altschul said he was persuaded to return to the Apt Pupil set by director Bryan Singer. (Through his lawyer, Singer denied Renfro ever went over his allowable hours, and said that Altschul never walked off the set.) At some point during the shoot, he was invited to a party for other people in the cast and crew. He was shocked to realize Renfro was there, too. While it was a casual, low-key gathering, there was alcohol, and no other children present. “It was not my crowd, so I left early,” he said. But while he felt “a 14-year-old had no business being” at the event, Altschul held back from persuading Renfro to leave.

“He was there of his own accord, as far as I could tell,” Altschul said. “And it would have been out of place for me to say [anything]. I'm not going to stand in loco parentis for him.”

When an underage actor is no longer on set for the day, their parent or guardian is supposed to assume all personal responsibility for them. For Renfro, that role fell to his grandmother, Joanne, and, according to multiple people who spoke with BuzzFeed News, she was not nearly capable of corralling him.

“He didn't really respect her, in the sense that he wouldn’t listen to her,” said Altschul. “I'm sure she did the best she could with him. But he was in such a rebellious mode that I don't think she could handle him.”

"He would come in tired," a film industry veteran who worked with Renfro as a minor, and asked to remain anonymous to protect their ongoing career, told BuzzFeed News. "I would try to find out what happened, and the grandmother was never straight with me. I came to realize later that she lied to me a lot. … That was the first inkling where I thought, Oh, this isn't just cigarettes. There could be more going on with this kid, and I don't have control over it."

Renfro and Diana Scarwid in The Cure.

Courtesy Everett Collection


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