The Daily Mail and Everything After (Or, Why I Now Have a Creative Commons License)
“I’ve been a Daily Mail reader for years. I prefer it to a newspaper.” - A Bit of Fry and Laurie
In the past week hundreds of people have contacted me via Facebook and twitter to tell me they “liked my interview.” The problem is, I haven’t done an interview.
About a week and a half ago a current picture of me ended up on reddit as an attempt to make its current users wonder where the years went. I decided to post a few messages just to remind the redditors that they were talking about an actual human being with internet access. Their responses were generally friendly, and some of them followed me on Twitter. I went back to life as usual, though I noticed a slight increase in Tweets when Matilda The Musical swept at the Olivier Awards. (No, I haven’t seen it, though I would love to. I’ve heard nothing but great things and I think Tim Minchin is hilarious.) I’m not sure if it was solely that or if showbiz journalists [sic] follow trends on internet forums — I would not be surprised at all if they did — but not long after, one of my Twitter followers from the UK told me that there was an article about me on the Daily Mail‘s website.
I had read articles in the Daily Mail before, so I knew what to expect: something cheap and sensationalist. What I did not expect was an article composed almost entirely of out-of-context quotes from my blog. There were no citations and there was no link to the original post on my site. It didn’t even seem to have been proofread: it ended mid-quotation. Simple fact-checking escaped the author, as well: I was a Drama major at NYU, not an art major (I understand they’re both considered “useless” degrees, but the fact is easily verifiable); I was five, not four when I started acting and starred in Doubtfire (which is not a big deal, unless you either know a good deal about child development or take a second to realize that 1993 minus 1987 equals six and I would have had a birthday at some point that year); I’ve never had any “bit parts” in “low-budget films” (though I almost wish I had, as most of my favorite movies are low-budget movies. Blame my having dated an NYU film major for three years: film snobbery is contagious.) It was a mess, and it made me seem bitter and ungrateful. I was less than thrilled.
Most of my British Twitter followers told me immediately that no one takes the Daily Mail seriously (“The Daily Fail,” they call it, which is far too easy), and I know that the majority of Americans have no idea what the Daily Mail is. When I told my roommate “I’m in the Daily Mail,” she shrugged and then asked if I wanted to check out the giant bug she and her boyfriend had just killed. I went to work as usual and my boss said nothing. My friends who do know of it were supportive: a friend from NYU contacted a friend of his who writes for the Daily Mail to ask if he had anything to do with it. He said he hadn’t, but that if I was interested, they would give me the chance to write a piece for them. I declined, because they wanted it to be about child acting and I would have rather it been about the Daily Mail‘s lack of integrity.
The article has changed several times since then: there is now a link to my page, entire paragraphs have been shifted around or deleted. My description has also been updated from “the brunette” to “the young playwright,” which is nice: I prefer to be recognized for the things I do rather than what I look like. It still speaks of my “damning views” on child acting and implies that I am “bitter,” but the title no longer refers to my explanatory blog post as a “rant.” There is now an additional author’s name on the article. Some friends have suggested that I contact them to suggest they list me as a co-author. After all, I wrote half the article.
I figured that was the end of it. I should have known better. Us Weekly, that bastion of hard-hitting investigative journalism, picked up the story. Despite my frustration with aggregation, I enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude when I noticed that they had all but copied and pasted the Daily Mail article without any links or citations. Their article was followed by the Huffington Post. I’ve joked about the Huffington Post on Twitter before, calling them “the liberal New York Post” and linking to this Onion article. But their article, if derivative, was more respectful to my original point than the subsequent Yahoo article, in which Ms. Meriah Doty ended prompted commenters to answer “How likable is Wilson now?” (I was tempted to counter with “How relevant is Yahoo now?”) Newspapers in Brazil and Switzerland picked it up, Crushable and Bust wrote mostly positive responses, and of course, Oh No They Didn’t — the middle school bathroom wall of the internet — tore it apart. That’s partly my fault: ONTD has held a collective grudge against me since I suggested its members devote their time and energy to something besides alternately drooling over and bashing people they’ve never met.
I’ve tried to avoid the comments, but even when I was able to reign in my self-deprecating tendencies, people have been getting through on my Facebook page and my Twitter. While the overwhelming majority of the comments I got were positive, from people telling me they thought I was smart to quit and “follow [my] dreams,” some were nasty. Although, really, most of the nasty comments were things I’ve said to myself at one point. I don’t think I was that good of an actor, I consider myself of average attractiveness at best, and if I hadn’t acted in those movies I wouldn’t care about them one way or the other. This isn’t fishing for compliments, I’m being serious. I would win the hell out of this game. Still, I’d like to address some of the misconceptions and criticism.
1.) I’m ungrateful. No, I am very grateful for the opportunities that I have had. Having a film career allowed me to travel the world and meet wonderful people. (Incidentally, one question that came up a lot in the past few days is why I chose to act in Thomas and the Magic Railroad. My short answer is that Britt Allcroft is a very kind woman, the cast and crew were great people, I got to travel to the beautiful Isle of Man and Toronto, my parents always encouraged me to act in movies children could actually see, and if you’re a child actor, not every movie you take is going to be To Kill a Mockingbird. That wasn’t actually that short of an answer. Apologies.) Danny DeVito and his family were endlessly giving, especially when my mother was ill, and he always found a way to make the set a fun place for a kid. (I could write an entire essay about his throwing me the best birthday party of my life, or playing with his kids at his house, or making up songs and games with Rhea Perlman, but I’ll save that for the book.) Embeth Davidtz was elegant but also tremendously fun and funny, Pam Ferris was wise and kind and beautiful – the complete opposite of the Trunchbull. Elizabeth Perkins was and still is a sweetheart and Dylan McDermott is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I can’t remember much about filming Doubtfire, but I know that Robin Williams and Sally Field were always kind and that Lisa Jakub and Matt Lawrence actually did feel like siblings. There are hundreds of other people I could mention — studio teachers, assistant directors, stand-ins, drivers, crew members of all kinds — and while their names might not be recognizable, they changed my life. And, of course, I’m also grateful that I was able to pay for a boarding school I loved and a college education without having to take out loans.
2.) I complained about what is an extremely easy job. Over and over commenters reminded me that most jobs aren’t “fun.” This is undoubtedly true, but I’m unsure about the source of their indignation: is it because I had a job that apparently paid too much for an ostensibly small amount effort, or that I walked away from it? They seem to be angry about both. I do agree that film actors are paid WAY too much money: I have friends and family members who work all through the night or save lives on a daily basis, and they deserve more money than I ever made sitting in front of a camera. (I hope someday there will be an invention that can measure exactly how much mental and physical exertion one’s job puts one through, and then society will decide to pay people based on that.) Some other commenters have pointed out that acting as a child can be physically and emotionally exhausting and these people likely didn’t have jobs when they were seven. This is also true, but I understand where the others are coming from. There is very little I can say here without being judged one way or another, but rest assured I have worked jobs other than acting that were less than fun. In the past, for example, I have stage managed for a tyrannical director, worked as a cashier and barista at a deli, tutored very young and often unruly children, taken complaints at a sports store at NYU (which, while not a bad job, was like working at a Radio Shack in Amish Country), painted a juvenile detention center, and taught at an overcrowded, underfunded public school in the South Bronx. Having done these, I would still say that given the opportunity, I would rather have a job that’s challenging and satisfying than one that’s simple and tedious but pays well. At the moment, I’m fortunate to have jobs I enjoy, and I understand that is a privilege, not a right.
3.) Many film actors do think film acting is fun. Jonathan Lipnicki, a fellow child actor, took me to task for this one, saying that he loved film acting and wanted to keep doing it. He is right, and I was wrong to generalize. Film acting can be fun and undoubtedly is for many, many people, or there wouldn’t be millions of people trying to do it. Mr. Lipnicki does, however have the benefit of being a conventionally attractive male actor: it is my belief that actresses, especially actresses who do not look like the typical Hollywood ideal, have it rougher than male actors in that aspect. Tabloid articles on women who dare to appear less than flawlessly beautiful far outnumber such articles on men. I know that I could not take that kind of pressure, and it’s one reason I don’t act anymore. But looks (lookism?) aside, there are a lot of people who have a lot of fun with filming, and I should have respected that.
4.) I’m talking about something no one cares about. It’s hard to stop talking about something when people keep asking you about it – and believe me, they do. Anyone who’s read my Twitter knows I would be perfectly happy to spend all day tweeting about neuroscience and feminism and cute small mammals. But when people ask me questions about my childhood, I feel I should answer them. While I didn’t use to like talking about my acting, in the past few years I’ve opened up: it isn’t my favorite subject, but I’ve recognized that it’s a source of interesting stories.
5.) It wasn’t that I rejected Hollywood, it was that Hollywood rejected me. There’s some truth here. Child actors always play a few years younger than their age, but that’s not possible after puberty (especially if you were as awkward-looking at that age as I was.) I went on a few auditions for parts I was too old for and parts I was too young for and didn’t get them. But even then, my heart wasn’t in it: I was far more interested in my school’s improv classes than any scripts I’d received. I had fallen in love with theater: in fact, I turned down the chance to audition for the part of Maeby in Arrested Development because it would have interfered with my time at Idyllwild. (Though I do remember reading the sides and thinking, “Damn, this is going to be good.”) I had always known I didn’t want to be a film actor when I grew up, and it was time to grow up.
6.) I haven’t changed my hairstyle. I’ve lost count of how many people have criticized me for having the “same” haircut I had when I was a child. (The Daily Mail added this to their New and Improved article once they saw commenters seize on it.) Most of these comments were in response to these pictures, which were taken two years ago. NYU film and photography students were taking headshots in exchange for donations for Haiti, and though by that time I had decided not to pursue an acting career, I decided on a whim to have my picture taken. A few months prior I had a razor bob, but by the time I had my picture taken, it had grown out and resembled my hairstyle from the mid-nineties. These days, my hair is past my shoulder blades, with waves and layers, and is much darker. The bangs (fringe) will likely be there for the rest of my life, as I have been cursed with what gossip bloggers might call a “five-head.” My point is that I do not have the exact same hairstyle. I intend to put up current pictures of myself as soon as I have some current pictures of myself taken. I’m not sure if it’s because so many pictures were taken of me as a child or because I’m just not a very photogenic adult (I’m always caught in the midst of a microexpression; expressiveness has a price) but when it comes to photography, I’m practically Amish.
What I like most about Web 2.0 (certainly not the asinine term) is that it has given people to opportunity to create and research by themselves. It’s also increased skepticism, which I think is a good thing. I would request that instead of, or at least in addition to, reading articles about people, research what they have said themselves. Sure, sometimes investigative journalists are more successful in uncovering the truth about someone, but it seems that many journalists care less about the truth and more about getting attention. Spin sells.
That said, what bothered me most was that I was not credited. Disrespectful comments about myself or what I did as a child I can deal with, and will be dealing with for the rest of my life. But I cannot abide disrespect and near plagiarism of what I’ve written. This is why I’ve chosen to get a Creative Commons license for my blog. I love when people enjoy my work and share it, but I would like people to know who it was that did it.
This was not the easiest week, but a lot of good has come of it. Besides, I know now that if writing plays doesn’t pan out, I can easily get a job at the Daily Mail. I am an expert copy-and-paster.