It seems like nearly everyone in 2001's cult favorite returned for the new Netflix prequel series — but not me. How I survived fake summer camp, a daunting first kiss, and a career as a child actor.
It would have been my first kiss. I was nervous about it and I hadn't even gone on the audition yet, let alone scored the part.
In the spring of 2000, when I was in sixth grade, a script popped out of my parents’ fax machine for a movie called Wet Hot American Summer. All I knew was that it was written by the guys behind something called The State, and that it would star a bunch of actors I’d never heard of, like Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Bradley Cooper. What was clear, even after reading just a handful of pages, was that the plot was unbelievably strange — no moment stranger than the scene in which my character, Aaron, a precocious kid who falls in love with his camp arts and crafts counselor, consummates his crush with a full-blown kiss.
I’d once pecked my fifth-grade girlfriend on the cheek 23 times in a single day — my friends declared it a New York Public School 6 record — but I’d never put my lips on another person’s. So the prospect of having my first real kiss be with Molly Shannon, the wild lady on Saturday Night Live, and having that kiss take place in front of a film crew and my mother, weighed heavy on my 12-year-old mind.
But I was a “professional.” I took some strange pride in getting called that on sets. When you’re a kid actor, the adults, especially those in charge, tend to treat you like a priceless vase that just may spontaneously shatter. I relished the moments when the crew expected me to complain or get cranky and I could prove them wrong, showing I wasn’t some prima donna Humpty Dumpty. I wanted to be recognized as a team player — a professional.
So, while I didn’t want to kiss Molly Shannon, part of me wanted to get cast in a role that would require me to do something like that. I think that my parents, who were both lovingly supportive and appropriately trepidatious when it came to my career, actually worried about the kiss more than I did. When they sat me down to talk about it, I said, with nonchalance, “It’s no big deal,” but they weren’t convinced. Then I said, with all the adultish seriousness I could muster, “Guys, it’s just acting.”
We called my agent and confirmed my appointment.
This one time, under the hot lights of a commercial set made to look like an Olive Garden, an actor playing my grandfather asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. We had been talking all day in between takes — sports, girls, school, books — which made me feel pretty cool. Here was this veteran of the business, the kind of guy who had hazy stories about a fistfight with De Niro, treating me like I was just another actor putting in a solid day’s work. Sure, we were both fresh out of the hair-and-makeup chair, but we quickly established a kind of masculine camaraderie that I thought formed only between firefighters, or maybe bricklayers in the same labor union.
So I felt a little pressure to answer his inquiry with an enthusiastic “This!” — I gestured to the fake Olive Garden — “Acting.”
But with that, his mood changed. Long gone was that sense that we were two comrades working in the well-catered trenches of Silvercup Studios.
The director asked us if we were ready to start filming again. We both nodded. I expected my fictional grandfather to ease the tension with a joke or a smile. Instead, just before shooting another scene, one in which we would both take a hearty bite out of cold fettuccine Alfredo (“It looks creamier when cold,” someone from the ad agency explained), he caught my eye and whispered with muzzled intensity, “Don’t act. Do something else.”
I tried my own tension-diffusing smile, scanning the room as if to draw a laugh from my would-be audience. He followed my eyes, possibly to make sure my mother wasn’t listening, and then turned back to me: “Do. Anything. Else.”
Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me. Nor should it surprise me that when I tell people I acted when I was young, their first question is often something like “Are you...OK?” And my gut reaction is to say something like “I didn’t act that much.”
Like the “high school quarterback,” the “child actor” is a stock cultural character with an implied rise and fall: early promise squandered by bad influences and even worse parents. You don’t need a subscription to Us Weekly to know details of Lindsay Lohan’s arrests and relapses. “Where Are They Now” tales like Gary Coleman’s — highlights include bankruptcy, divorce, and suicide attempts — have become common knowledge.
Of course, there are examples of child stars who managed to avoid the pitfalls and become successful adult actors. Jodie Foster went from being TV’s Coppertone girl to an award-winning actor and director, even if she once said, “It was very clear to me at a young age that I had to fight for my life and that if I didn't, my life would get gobbled up and taken away from me.” And, of course, there are also examples of child actors who have gone on to enjoy happy and healthy lives outside the business. Mara Wilson, who likely still gets called Matilda when she walks down the street, is a budding writer, another twentysomething, like me, building a career in a creative field.
But, in the great attention arms race, we just don’t hear many of those stories — NASCAR fans tune in for the wrecks, after all. And even if we do hear them, they don’t take root in our cultural consciousness — the cliché remains intact. This makes the fall of a child star always simultaneously tragic and satisfying: There is a fundamental gratification to be had in “seeing it coming,” even if the “it” is pretty goddamn brutal.
This isn’t a bad thing or mean thing. It’s just a human thing.
I got out of school early in order to make it to the Wet Hot American Summer audition on time.
We had a system: My mom would ring the main office once she was parked outside in our family minivan; the office secretary would figure out what classroom I was in and call that room’s phone; when I heard the ring, I’d sneak away without ceremony and walk down a corridor that avoided the principal's office, as it was pretty clear that she thought my career, and the charades it sometimes required, were total bullshit.
We established this protocol in part so that my regular early departures didn’t disrupt educational activities. Moreover, I desperately didn’t want anyone to know where I was going or that I’d even left. I lived a double life of sorts. My friends found out that I had spent a summer in South Africa filming Home Alone 4 only because they stumbled upon it on TV later that year.
I had no grand ambitions for my career, didn’t idolize the greats, never saw the whole thing as anything more than a hobby. No matter how much work I was doing, I simply never identified as an actor and, frankly, didn’t like most of the kids who did.
So walking into my audition for Wet Hot American Summer, I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous — the stakes were lower than low. For most of my competitors, some of whom had driven hundreds of miles for five minutes in a room with the director-writer team of David Wain and Michael Showalter, this audition was a pressure-packed event. For me, it was weightless. It’s possible that my lack of investment in acting may have been my greatest asset as an actor. How little I wanted or needed success was my secret to it.
I read the sides, quickly realizing that the more seriously I played the scenes, the more laughs I was getting. So I switched my approach, trying to act with the sort of earnestness I’d normally bring into an audition for Law & Order: SVU. David and Michael gave me notes for adjustments I had no problem incorporating, and later that night we got a call letting us know that I got the part. I was, of course, excited and grateful, but I had homework due the next day.
Far more worrisome: My first kiss was now scheduled, written into a production calendar. We were weeks away from my shoot dates, but I remember hitting the pillow and feeling, for the very first time that day, nervous.
It’s possible that the look of wide-eyed concern strangers give me when I tell them I acted as a kid has more to do with their assumptions about my parents than anything else. It’s a concern that goes all the way back to early 20th-century child star Jackie Coogan.
Fourteen years before Shirley Temple tap-danced with Bojangles, Coogan was America’s "it" prodigy — the original wearer of that anvil-heavy cultural crown. He was discovered by Charlie Chaplin, who cast him as the kid in the 1921 box office hit The Kid, the role that launched Coogan’s meteoric rise to stardom. MGM signed Coogan to an enormous contract, and with film after film, he truly became that kid for an entire country.
But his story doesn’t become Hollywood fable until months before his 21st birthday, when his father died in a car accident while on vacation in Mexico. Coogan’s widowed mother quickly married the family lawyer. Then, in dramatic, tabloid-fodder fashion, the newlyweds publicly declared, “The law is on our side, and Jackie Coogan will not get a cent from his past earnings.” The pair proceeded to squander the boy’s fortune in a manner that sounds as if it would be best illustrated by a cartoonish montage full of minks and diamonds, cars, booze, and villainous laughs.
Finally, at the age of 24, Coogan sued his mother and stepfather for his earnings. The trial was a pricey spectacle, and when all was said and done, Coogan received just about half of what was left — a sum that represented approximately 3% of his estimated fortune. With all the attention the legal battle garnered, a year later, the California Child Actor’s Bill was passed, requiring studios to place 15% of a minor’s wages into a type of untouchable trust that is, to this day, referred to as a “Coogan account.”
Every contract my parents and I ever signed, including the one for Wet Hot American Summer, had a little section where Coogan’s name appeared, not just as a legal stipulation to set some funds aside for later, but also as a cautionary marker, a strike against my parents before I even stepped on set. Call it the last of a long string of robberies: We’ve taken Coogan’s name and made it about us.
My mom and I arrived at Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania — called Camp Firewood in the film — and were set up with a bedroom in the infirmary. This lodging situation was one of many quirks that reflected what a low-budget, labor-of-love production we’d just jumped into. I was totally unfazed, though: There was a basketball court directly outside the infirmary and a ridiculously cute blonde actress, around my age, Whitney, bunked next door. Things were looking up.
I was killing some time that first afternoon, shooting hoops, when I saw Molly Shannon walking over to introduce herself. I think I must have just shook her hand and then resumed playing, because she ended up chatting with my mom for a while. But eventually she joined me on the court, taking a couple shots herself and asking me questions about my life. Something about the interaction had me convinced that, for her, the scheduled touching of our mouths was, in fact, not a big deal. And, somehow, that made me a bit more confident that maybe, for me, it would be the same.
When the day of the big scene finally arrived, I woke up resolute to smooch her good. I told myself, as I’d told my parents weeks before, that it was “just acting.” And throughout the day, in the moments when I could feel panic creeping in, I’d chase it into a corner of my mind, like you would a mouse too fast to catch, just stupid enough to be contained.
We rehearsed the scene, going through all the dialogue and blocking but leaving out the kiss. I suspected that David and Michael were worried about wasting it on a bad take. I thought that maybe they knew that I might have only a handful of kisses in the tank.
It was only with lights up and the camera good to roll that I realized I just couldn’t do it. It was only when cast and crew were ready for the “real thing” that I noticed that the fear I’d held captive all day had escaped and was now running furious victory laps inside the walls of my brain. It didn’t matter that I had fought admirably — the battle was over. The problem was that I was the only one who knew it.
But just then, as the scene was about to get underway, my mom told David and Michael that she wanted to talk with me privately for a minute. She walked me outside and we found a bench. She told me “You don’t have to kiss her” in a voice that said a whole lot more: Not only did I not have to kiss Molly, but we could actually go home right now if I wanted to because this whole thing was worth continuing only if it remained fun. We could hop in the car and return to our real life, where 12-year-olds generally experience their first kisses in dark movie theaters with other 12-year-olds.
We walked back to the set together and told the the crew that I couldn’t kiss Molly. Everyone understood completely, and we quickly got back to work, filming the scene without the big consummatory finale. Instead of the kiss, I simply brushed Molly’s hair behind her ear. Over the years, as the movie's reputation snowballed from critical and commercial bust to reverently worshipped cult classic, I’ve been told by a few people that this understated romantic gesture is one of their favorite little moments.
I am probably not the ideal test case for why some child actors crash and burn while others live reasonably happy and healthy lives. I say this because I left the business pretty early in order to go to college and study anything but acting. I almost dipped a toe back in when David offered me a cameo in the Wet Hot American Summer prequel series that's just launching on Netflix, but that ended up not working out: They were almost done filming, and I had a full-time job as a creative director at a photo agency in New York. I was disappointed, but also relieved — I’m not an actor, and in some ways, never was. I don't know if I'll feel weird because I always feel weird watching stuff I'm in (or in this case, almost in).
I achieved only a moderate level of industry success. While I did hundreds of commercials, I starred in just a handful of films and TV shows. The version of fame I’m most familiar with consists of strangers in the grocery store telling me that they’re certain we went to the same elementary school or, a bit closer to the mark, summer camp, even after I’ve assured them that we grew up in different parts of the country.
I don’t believe that my experience was any more developmentally significant for me than, say, chess tournaments are to a kid who devotes a large chunk of his childhood to the game. I tend to think that there are good kids and bad kids, good parents and bad parents, and that acting simply kicks whatever is already present into hyperdrive, like the hot halogen light above a petri dish.
Luckily, I had great parents. Luckily, I was pretty physically and emotionally healthy. But I’ve always had a suspicion that there was something else that saved me from living out any sort of clichéd wreckage or ruination. And I can’t help but think that it has something to do with the kiss that wasn’t.
See, sometimes I regret not just working up the courage to touch my lips to Molly Shannon’s. How cool of a first kiss story would that have been? (A few months later, I ended up having my first kiss with a girl named Annabelle in a haze of Truth or Dare and someone’s grandmother’s stash of port wine.)
But the thing is, I think my mom and dad totally knew that might happen. Just like they knew that, as an adult with a bit of perspective, I might regret turning down the lead role in a ABC series because it meant having to leave my definitively normal public school and attending the Professional Children’s School, which I dreaded. In the adult-oriented grand scheme of things, my priorities were very much out of whack, but my parents never tried to recalibrate them. Sure, I was a “professional,” but I was a child who was permitted and expected to act childish. I was playing while everyone else was working. Either nobody alerted me that what I was doing was weighty and important, or I didn’t believe them when they did.
In some way, I think that’s what made all the difference. And I regret none of it.