What it's really like to be a child star—and grow out of it
Lisa Jakub, who you might remember as Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire, or Independence Day‘s Alicia Casse, has long ago left LA behind her. Jakub went back to school and got her bachelor’s. She moved and made a home in Virginia. She got married. And she finally figured out what truly made her happy: writing.
I had the opportunity to chat with Jakub, who recently published her memoir You Look Like That Girl: A Child Actor Stops Pretending and Finally Grows Up. We talked about her book, which is unlike any celebrity memoir I’ve ever read —it deals with avoiding the perils of growing up in the industry, and growing out of an industry so many other people want to be in. But You Look Like That Girl did something more important than unveil the life of an ex-actress. It showed us that it’s OK to not to have your sh-t together. That whoever you are, you are allowed second, third, fourth chances, you are allowed to reinvent yourself, to bury what you know and start over again.
HelloGiggles: So you’ve had quite an odyssey. You’ve starred in over 40 movies, you got your degree in sociology from University of Virginia, wrote a memoir, and have written for like, every website. That’s incredible. Do you have any advice for young writers and young women who are just starting out on their career path?
Lisa Jakub: I think for writing, for really any creative process it can be really challenging because it is such an emotional investment to be a writer or artist. For me, I find it really helpful to have really strict boundaries, so I set time limits. I write everyday from 8 to noon. That’s something I find helpful —it’s really easy to get distracted or to want to wait until you’re inspired. What I really found with writing is that the inspiration shows up after you do. I just have to sit down at my desk and I have to not distract myself with laundry or Bravo marathons. I just sit down and write —that’s when you can really focus on creating, and not editing. That’s the big thing. I can be a bit of a perfectionist, I want my first draft to be brilliant. And, it very rarely happens that way. You have to get stuff down on paper and go back and work with it. But that initial stage you can’t be judging it.
HG: Totally. I think so many of us who write face those same challenges —overthinking your own writing, and being disciplined with your craft.
HG: So, a lot of child stars have a bad rep –they get really messed up by Hollywood and end up making some bad decisions, both personal and career-wise. But you really stayed away from the drama and stayed put on your path. How did you do that?
LJ: It’s interesting, I don’t know if I have a really good answer for that. I think that for me, I just got to a point where I realized I wasn’t passionate about being an actor anymore, and I think I had seen a lot of examples of it going badly. I did not want to do that. And I think I was pretty clear that I, I knew there was something out there that could make me happy. I had no clue what that was. All I knew was that it wasn’t LA and it wasn’t being an actor at that time. So, I knew that I really needed to get out of that situation and just try something new. And I just really hoped I would eventually stumble upon what was going to make me happy.
And I think it can be difficult when you feel trapped in a situation. And I don’t know for sure if that’s what some child actors have felt, but I know it can be really difficult and I know a lot of people who are NOT actors who feel trapped in a certain life, or like, there are things expected of them that might not feel real to them or feel authentic and true and like the things they really want to be doing. And so that can be a really big challenge for everyone, regardless of what your job is to find within yourself that passion to go out and do what is authentic to you and not worry so much about what looks impressive to other people.
HG: Yeah, for sure. We see a LOT of people changing gears after they start out in one career, and discover oh my god this isn’t for me. So, I think that’s so applicable and relatable to a lot of people.
LJ: And it’s scary to try something new! It’s easy to stay along that path that feels safer. And that can be a really big challenge.
HG: Totally. In an article you wrote for us awhile back, you describe how hard it actually was to switch gears —it’s not easy to be like, “Well, Hollywood, I think I’m done. On to the next.” What was the most challenging thing you faced while transitioning from acting to writing?
LJ: Gosh, there were so many of them! But I think the overarching problem for me is that I didn’t know what else I was going to do. I didn’t know what else I could be good at, I didn’t know what options existed for me. And so, I had to try things out. And I didn’t go directly from acting to writing. Writing was always really important to me, but I didn’t think I could actually be a writer. I didn’t think I was good enough, I didn’t think I could handle the rejection. So, there were a lot of thing I tried. I tried being a radio DJ, I tried designing website, I did communications for a non-profit. I tried doing all these things, and for one reason or another they just didn’t work out, they didn’t feel like the right thing for me.
I eventually got to the point where I realized I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy if I don’t give this writing thing a try. It is my passion, it is the thing I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. It is the thing that has always helped me make sense of the world. I realized I wanted to jump in to see if it could be right for me. It took me awhile to land on the thing I was really passionate about. And so not knowing what I was going to do when I left LA was very scary because I did kind of have something that felt normal to me. It felt normal to be an actor and live in LA and do that LA thing so trying something new felt completely foreign.
HG: LA is scary! How did you navigate Hollywood at such a young age? What have you learned from your experiences?
LJ: Well, when I first starting going to LA I was 11 years old and my mom was with me, so that was very helpful to have Mom with me to help figure it out. And so part time I lived in LA and part time I would go back to Canada. So it always this balancing act between two worlds. Because when I was in Canada, life would be a little more normal than it was in LA. I would go to school, I would not work. I think I learned to be flexible in different situations in life. You never know where you’re going to end up. But, that was something I always tried to balance, I think like how many of us do. I learned to fit in wherever I was. I learned how to be adaptable!
HG: So, moving on to your memoir. What are some of the few message you want your readers to get from it? What was your goal when you wrote it?
LJ: I actually wrote the memoir with no intention to publish it. I just wrote it for myself. As I said, I’ve pretty much always been a writer since I could hold a crayon, I always wrote everything down. After I left LA and went to college and graduated I wanted to look back at my life in this linear way and figure out how I got here, figure out what happened. And, so in the process of doing that, I realized that there were some universal themes that were coming up. This wasn’t just a story of “hey look at me and my wacky childhood.” There were themes of identity and authenticity and the search for something purposeful in your life. And those things I think everyone deals with at some point or another in their lives. And I realized that other people might be comforted in realizing somebody else could be dealing with that. I know I certainly felt really alone with I was going through it.
People are always deciding to go back to school or switch jobs or move to a new town or change their lives hoping that it’s going to make them happier and that they’re going to make the contribution to the world that they want to make. And so I really wanted to open that up. And I wanted people to see a little more clearly that actors are just people. And I feel like our society tends to put the film industry into two different boxes. Either it’s really glorified as this big, sparkly, ideal life or it’s really demonized as “oh this is terrible and these people are awful and we can just laugh at them.” And there is a whole lot of gray area and that’s where most of us lived. That’s what life was like and I wanted to give a more clear vision of what it’s like to be a working actor.
HG: You’re totally right. Hollywood culture and celebrities do seem to get put into narrow categories and not many people understand it, so it sounds like your memoir is illuminating the truth, and talks about what it’s like to be a human living in Hollywood, living the Hollywood experience.
LJ: Yeah, it was very important to me to be very open and honest about all of that. I also talk about my anxiety, my panic attacks, how I dealt with depression. I talked about that stuff too because I feel like the more we are ashamed of those things and the more we try to hide them, the worse that stuff gets. I really wanted to be honest about life.
HG: Yeah, definitely. Did you face any difficulties or challenges from editor when you were writing your book?
LJ: I was really lucky in that my editors and my publishers and my agent were all wonderful. And they really understood the project, and they understood me, which was great. I also only started looking for an agent after the manuscript was done. So, that was really helpful that nobody got their hands in there while I was still creating it. I was just thrilled and a little bit surprised by how much creative control I had. And that was wonderful because that was something really important to me, because I was concerned that maybe someone might want to turn it into something different. Because when I had first started looking for an agent, I heard a lot of “no”s and I heard a lot of “no… because people want to hear about rehab and car crashes. A Hollywood story from a child actor, and your story wasn’t about that. So no one is going to read it.”
So I really was concerned about somebody trying to sensationalize what I had. Which was not at all the book I wanted to write or really that I could write. So I was very grateful I have a team who gets what we’re trying to do.
HG: Amazing. That’s really important you have that.
LJ: Yeah! It was kind of discouraging at the beginning hearing people say “No! there aren’t enough stories of partying with rock bands!”
HG: When you write, who do you look to for inspiration? Which authors, or websites, or magazines?
LJ: Oh, I am such an avid reader. It’s definitely books. There are SO many authors I love. David Sedaris, he’s just brilliant. Zadie Smith is wonderful. Elizabeth Gilbert, J.D. Salinger, Anne Lamott. The list goes on, but yeah, I’m definitely inspired by writers. Donna Tartt…I read The Goldfinch last year and I can’t stop talking about it.
HG: Awesome. Well, I have one last question for you, and we can open this up what you would like to talk about! So…do you miss LA?
LJ: Haha. I miss some people in LA…But LA and I had our romance, and now we’re done. We had a mutual breakup.
HG: Ha! “It’s not you, LA, it’s me,” right?
LJ: Oh yeah, totally. So, yeah it’ll be interesting, I start my book tour in about a week or so. My husband is coming with me to the West Coast, and I’m doing two readings in LA. And I’ve only been back to LA a few times, but I haven’t been back much. I’m so curious how it’s going to feel to go back.
(Images via Lisa Jakub)