Acting, Sex and Childhood
In the lunch break of a soul-sapping temp job, I typed my own name into a search engine. Travelling back a few pages into the sticky ‘ooooo’ of Google, I found a review someone had written of a film I had acted in when I was a child. I was struck by the author’s tone. He singled my performance out for praise, and noted that the film (which is an adaptation of the Henry James short story ‘The Pupil’) is actually a love story of sorts between the frail child and his impoverished tutor. He seemed to know my filmography very well, citing two other not-in-the-least-famous films I had been in. He spoke about “the incomparable intensity” of my gaze. He said it was, “heartbreaking when a fleeting smile is born between his clenched lips.”
I Googled the writer of the blog.
The first result when you search for Bernard Alapetite is a BBC news story from the year 2000 with the headline: “Child Porn Ring Leader Jailed”. The article goes on to say, “The leader of a child porn ring has been jailed in France’s biggest paedophile trial. Bernard Alapetite, 47, who was charged with organising the paedophile ring, was sentenced to three years in jail by the court in Macon, south western France. He copied foreign child sex videos, featuring rapes of boys aged under 15, and sold them for 800 francs ($120) each.”
My biggest fan!
I have other admirers on the internet. For instance, there’s the fellow (I presume this person to be male, which may be wrong of me) who briefly uploaded a film of mine to YouTube. Looking at his YouTube profile, you could see he was also responsible for sharing footage of boys’ choirs and scenes from Grange Hill, amongst other material. There are people on forums called things like ‘Boy Actors’, sharing screen-grabs of me and other (prettier) child actors, and chatting to each other through avatars of Macaulay Culkin and Haley Joel Osment. It doesn’t bear looking into too closely. My unease now that I have established that one person who enjoyed my work was actively connected with the dissemination of illegal and abusive pornographic material makes me view these other fans with a degree of suspicion. ‘The Pupil’ was recently re-uploaded on YouTube and has been viewed a few thousand times – but I feel a little dirty looking at that number at the bottom of the screen, and can’t help wondering whether people are coming to it from some unsavoury forum or other.
Let’s retrace. Growing up in France, between the ages of 10 and 15, I acted in a handful of middling-to-decent films, miniseries and the like. Being tiny and a late developer, I got to play roles often a fair bit younger than myself, specialising in the waifish and vulnerable. In my first film role, I played a sad little boy whose mother has abandoned him to the care of his governess. For TV, I played a sensitive infant struck dumb by grief upon accidentally killing his parents in a housefire. Playing ‘The Boy’ in a production of Pinter’s ‘One For The Road’, I was nightly reduced to tears by the brutal interrogation of a tyrant who destroys my toy plane. My other film roles: a timorous boy who is bullied at boarding school before going on to become John Malkovich and abet the Nazis, and the aforementioned pupil in ‘The Pupil’ who is ignored by his parents and dies.
Here is Henry James’ description of his main character – a role I resembled so closely I was scarcely required to audition: “Morgan Moreen was somehow sickly without being “delicate,” and that he looked intelligent – it is true Pemberton [the tutor] wouldn’t have enjoyed his being stupid – only added to the suggestion that, as with his big mouth and big ears he really couldn’t be called pretty, he might too utterly fail to please.”
Go easy, Hezza. I landed that role when I was 15 and looked somewhere between 7 and 10. Not like a normal, goofy, immature 8-year-old as we have established, but the sort of 8-year-old who’s up for a chat and a drink. I say this because now, when I try to work out what the hell it is about the paedophilically-minded that was – or is – drawn to that creature, I wonder if it’s an odd combination of innocence and experience. I’m not trying to excuse the nonces, of course, and clearly it is never anyone’s fault when they are hit on by predators; it’s merely that now, as a grown-up, looking back on my childhood, it feels strange to pinpoint so many experiences tied in with these people. Why me?
Once, a man sat behind me on the bus as I went home from school – I would have been 12 or 13 – and stroked my hair until I got off at my stop. Hilariously, when he started petting me and I said, “Hey!” or something like it, he said, “Oh come on, don’t be so sensitive!” I was a little frightened so I didn’t say anything further. That one of my instincts in thinking about the story now is to laugh – I just kind of grudgingly love the sheer gall of his response – shouldn’t, I hope, diminish its awfulness. I must have looked about 6 at the time. On another occasion, as I was coming home after dark, a man sitting in his car in a lay-by near the local shops got out of his car, crossed the road and came over to ask me the time. I was 15. There was no-one around. I gave him the time and then he said, “Would you like to come and sit in my car? I’d love to paint your portrait.” I glanced over towards his car, which was conspicuously lacking an easel, and politely declined. “Why not?” he said. (Again, the effrontery of it all rather makes you catch your breath, doesn’t it?) I said I had to get home, at which point I was mercifully allowed to go on my way. Another time during a pause in shooting a camera operator sat me on his lap; which I would absolutely not have clocked as a wrong thing to do (I was ten), were it not for the look of panic I saw on the director’s face as he hurried over and asked me to go and, erm, “help block out a scene why don’t we?”
There’s more! One youngish-looking man turned up to two Q&As I did when one of my films was released and somehow managed to send a letter to my home address. All made extra creepy as during one of the Q&As, he had asked me if I knew what had become of the blanket I had wrapped around me in a scene, and then in his letter made reference to “your blanket” as if we were two bros who had a cool sexy in-joke relating to childhood and bedding. One writer I had met – I feel a little bad casting him in with this lot, but then again he did give me a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover before I had a hair on my body, so fuck it – sent me a bunch of letters inviting me to visit him at his house, “with your parents, if you like.”
I told a friend about some of these instances a couple of years back, and she said, “Hmm – I don’t know why they never went for me. I was gorgeous, with long blonde hair…”
What was extraordinary about my situation is that I was also lucky to find out about sexual ambiguity – the betrayals, compromises, difficulties and acts of rashness it can engender – before being sexual myself. A lot of people only get to see this when they themselves lose their childish certainties with the advent of their puberty – all that hormonal pulsation – or if their parents have an affair, or divorce. I was fortunate to work and live with grown-ups who merrily had affairs with each other; who acted sexually and inappropriately before me. Some transgressions are healthy; they jolt you out of your comfort.
One man I worked with embarked on two pretty flagrant affairs during a six week filming period: one with a camera operator, another with an actor. His wife came to visit the set at weekends with his children, who were a couple of years younger than me. During the week, he pretty much lived with these other women in their hotel rooms, as couples do. He spoke to me about what he thought his wife was getting up to back home while he was there on set with me; he supposed she was getting her share. My parents came to visit me on set once, and I heard about things he would like to do to my mother for a good ten days thereafter. He spoke brilliantly about his love of Visconti and Joseph Losey. He also told me about having sexual intercourse with his sister when they were my age. This is a person I thought of as a friend; a sort of older brother-father-mentor-drug dealer kind of figure. It was thrilling to see someone be such a wonderful colleague, loving father, and awful husband.
When I was ten or so, filming was delayed one day because two crew members were late on set – the hair stylist and one of the sound guys. They arrived on set together, on the sound guy’s motorbike. Everyone gave them a cheer. The sound guy revved his engine and honked his horn, and I blushed as I realised, like an idiot, that they had had sex last night. I had no idea the sound guy was gay! I’d never even seen the two of them talking together. They certainly weren’t boyfriends. It was a revelation.
An actor I worked with told me about the prostitutes he frequented when he was at film school. He had a nostalgic gleam in his eye when telling me about one who dressed up as a policewoman,
complete with handcuffs and truncheon. An older actor gossiped to me about a very famous French actor she worked with who once refused to go onstage on press night unless the play’s producer went to his dressing room to blow him. I was staggered. “And, so, what did she do?” I asked. The response, “She did what she had to do to make the play go ahead.”
Actors are like children. They are naturally creative, and sometimes functionally illiterate. Film sets are their playgrounds. Their minders drive them there, where they are expected to play, and then drive them back. Occasionally, the actors get tired and throw a tantrum. If you are an actual child on a film set, you find adult actors to be very much like you except that they have money and sexual partners. But very quickly they shed their veneer of adulthood – the inaccessible part of grown-ups that makes them feel so distant – with their secrets, particular exclusive language, and codes of behaviour. Soon, they draw you into their confidence; you are a part of their games and rants, and privy to their gossip. Actors are so like children that they often get gently told off for misbehaving: they make up songs, are loud, break things, and are sometimes completely disconnected from the real world. An actor, at least in my experience back then, would struggle to tell you if today was Monday or Friday.
This means that the whole world of film can be an ideal – and ideally sly – introduction to growing up, or is perhaps, a microcosm of it. Where some interactions with grown-ups, some up-close glimpses into their sex lives, can be a noxious form of transgression (see above), I benefitted greatly from observing grown-ups clowning about and having affairs around me.
Now, as a happily queer man, I look back and discern something in myself which could explain how I got those roles. Which might be what those most discerning of nonces now see. Something that was perhaps dormant back then, that may have been sitting in me, waiting to emerge. My cousin teased me about it a while back: “You wouldn’t say you were typecast, would you?” It hadn’t occurred to me – but certainly you wouldn’t have to dig very hard to find a gay subtext in a lot of my screen work. In one film, the departure of my beloved tutor makes me sicken and die; in another, there is an extended scene where a school bully makes me lick blood and grit from his wound after a playground fight; in yet another, an old man steals me from a park by baiting me with toys.
Was I projecting something, against my will and without my knowledge? It’s intriguing. Again I’m confronted with this idea that things were going on that I didn’t know about. That sex and sexuality were an open secret going on around me. That people had feelings and thoughts and understandings that I was not aware of, but yet somehow was taking part in however slightly, and however unconsciously. The idea that my sexuality might somehow, unbidden, have come out in my performance, I find faintly thrilling.
I’ve thought about this a little more recently, in light of Britain’s entire establishment being tried for underage assault. I have it easy: there are some people I have ever so vaguely heard of who are into kiddie stuff; I met a couple of dodgy people a couple of times; my degree of acquaintance with that whole world of molestation is slight-to-nonexistent and I have never been harmed. This allows me to adopt my jaunty tone, and speak casually of my belief that kids should be exposed to sex. Should be allowed sometimes to peak under the covers and discover the strange coded world of grown-ups and their libidos. The reverse of the coin is unconsensual horrors, sordid and deplorable; let’s briskly send the Alapetites and Saviles of this world to jail. But, here’s to the others – the gentle oversharers, the unrepentant pervs, the kindly louche sweethearts – and all that they have to impart.
Photograph by L'élève, 1996