An investigator questions a 5-year-old boy about a middle-aged man charged with sexually abusing him.
"What were you and Joseph playing?" the investigator asks.
"Doctor," responds the boy.
"And where did Joseph touch you?"
"On my private parts."
The little boy is actually an actor playing a molestation victim in a trial reenactment for a Discovery Channel documentary called "Guilty or Innocent?," which aired earlier this year.
Another actor of about the same age repeatedly grabs at the breasts of his babysitter on the CBS sitcom "King of Queens." Then there's Dakota Fanning, who stars in this summer's "War of the Worlds" remake and who, at 11, has starred in a number of adult-themed movies, including "Man on Fire," in which she plays a kidnap victim, and this year's "Hide and Seek," where her lines included saying how her mother "slit her wrists with a razor." The young actress has said in interviews that she was allowed to watch the latter film in its entirety.
Meanwhile, in the 2004 movie "Birth," a 10-year-old boy gets into a bathtub naked with Nicole Kidman. French filmmaker Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell" has three young boys watch a little girl take off her underwear. And on CNN, four children do voice-over translations of young tsunami victims' recalling their harrowing experiences.
Child actors increasingly star in what the industry calls "risky" roles; sexual, violent or traumatic parts most parents wouldn't even let their kids watch -- let alone play. Psychologist Jenn Berman treats more and more of them in her Beverly Hills office and sees the heavy emotional toll such roles can take. "These children get exposed to things they're really not ready for," says Berman, who describes their symptoms as ranging from nightmares to premature sexual activity and severe separation anxiety. She says some young performers get terribly confused, forcing parents into discussions they're not ready for either. "One child played out a rape scene and was really traumatized by it. [Rape] was something she wasn't even aware of before," says Berman.
Concerns that show business exploits children for adult entertainment are nothing new. But they usually focus on long work hours and money-grubbing stage parents -- as in Bravo's sensational "Show Biz Moms and Dads." Little attention, however, has been paid to the potentially damaging effects of acting in risky roles. There was the infamous director who "motivated" 9-year-old actor Jackie Cooper to cry in a film by threatening to shoot his dog. And a few eyebrows were raised when Martin Scorsese cast Jodie Foster as a 12-year-old prostitute in 1976's "Taxi Driver." But Paul Petersen, who runs the child actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration, says the number and the risky nature of such roles have escalated.
"The whole threshold within our culture of what we expect of children has lowered dramatically," says Petersen, a former child actor best known for his role as the son on the "Donna Reed Show." He worries that "great damage is being done," not only by the roles but also from the frequent teasing these kids get on the playground, especially if there is nudity involved.
Petersen says the damage can last well into adulthood, resulting in addictions and emotional breakdowns. "As an advocate, I want to know what kind of protections before, during and after production are being taken," he says.
There are U.S. laws governing the use of children in pornographic materials, but Petersen would like to impose such restrictions on the mainstream media. For example, he'd like to prevent kids from acting in NC-17 material. "If you're going to have a 12-year-old street walker, find an 18-year-old actress who looks 12."
Berman doesn't put all the onus on the industry. "A producer or a director's job is not to look out for the well-being of children. Their job is to make a good movie or a TV show," she says. "It's the parent's job to look after the well-being of their children." It was watching a child act in a disturbing "Law & Order" episode that first made Berman wonder: "What choice did this parent make?"
Petersen agrees it's up to the parents to turn down troubling roles, and adds the emotional fallout can come later, when the child may feel betrayed by the parent who gave the green light to play the part.
Indeed, what was Anne Henry thinking when she allowed her 8-year-old daughter, Jillian, to play a girl having a flashback of her mother getting raped in HBO's "Carnivale"? Nothing, actually. Henry says she had not known the content of the role until they arrived on the set. "We had already accepted the job . . . but when we got there and saw what the scene was, I said 'This is not okay.' "
Henry agreed to let her daughter do the part after the producers assured her Jillian wouldn't see the flashback -- only react to it.
Henry says parents often accept unsuitable roles out of ignorance because agents won't give them the "breakdown" -- or description -- of the part for fear they won't accept it.
Berman and Petersen agree most stage parents have their kids' best interests at heart. Berman says they aren't usually motivated by money or fame, but just become desensitized. "They go to audition after audition and they go, 'Oh, there are hundreds of other parents lined up for this, so it must be okay.' "
Some of that ignorance is fading thanks to Internet chat rooms on sites such as the Professional Actors Resource Forum and the Young Star News, where parents can warn each other off troubling roles. Henry, who also has two sons in the acting business, was able to get enough information to turn down a role she didn't think her 14-year-old son was ready for: a "Law & Order" episode in which a boy played a "girl," the victim of botched circumcision.
The chat rooms and the BizParentz.com site Henry runs can also give parents tips, such as thoroughly discussing any discomfort the child may have had with the role and preventing the kids from seeing any adults-only material that might be in the larger work (beyond the scenes they've played in). They also suggest parents compel producers to protect their kids by making the scenes as unrealistic as possible, shooting them out of sequence or keeping them in the dark about the actual content of the role, as with the rape flashback in "Carnivale."
"[Jillian] understands that people get beat up, so we told her that someone was going to beat up on her pretend mom. So you'll hear some 'Ow! Ow!' like they do on cartoons," says Henry.
And the role of the boy/girl on "Law & Order"? Neal Baer, executive director of the franchise's "Special Victim's Unit" series and a pediatrician, says he had no qualms about casting a 15-year-old in the role.
"He's an actor that's had a lot of experience and he has a certain maturity" to handle the role, Baer says. "He knows it's pretend."
Baer and other producers stress that all the make-believe, such as fake blood and other devices, can prevent emotional trauma to the children even in what audiences may perceive as the most realistically horrifying scenes. "A viewer has a very different perception from the actor because the viewer has not seen all the machinery."
But some scenes may be just too explicit for these devices to work, like those in "Anatomy of Hell" and "Birth." How does one talk to that 5-year-old in the Discovery reenactment about why he's being asked about his "private parts"? Discovery declined to comment for this article, saying the case that was reenacted in the documentary "Guilty or Innocent?" is under appeal in the courts.
Despite his concerns, Petersen agrees that youngsters with more acting experience are better equipped to play such roles. "I have a lot of confidence in the sturdiness of child actors," he says.
Petersen points to Haley Joel Osment, who at 11 co-starred in "The Sixth Sense." "He was in on the joke," says Petersen, who himself at 10 had a role in an episode of "The Ford Television Theatre" in which he watched his father being hanged.
The 10-to-14-year-old children CNN used in the tsunami interviews, however, were not professional actors. CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney says they were friends of the series' producer, and the tragic tales they recounted didn't disturb them. "The children were keen to help and saw it as a positive thing," she says.
And the ongoing Michael Jackson molestation trial reenactments on the E! channel? The production has used only actors older than 18 (Jackson's now-15-year-old accuser is played by a 25-year-old), according to a spokesman for the network.
Nevertheless, with the explosion in popularity of crime shows, trial reenactments, news programs about child victims and horror movies starring children, critics worry protective efforts will fall by the wayside as the industry goes for bigger and bigger sensations. "You know how you see the message: 'No animals were injured in the making of this film'? They should say the same for children," Petersen says. Henry is concerned about the increasing number of homosexual roles -- particularly in auditions or pilots the public never sees -- for young performers who have not yet come to grips with their own sexuality. Berman says she hears a lot of concerns about kids in reality shows; ones that have routinely and prominently feature kids include "Supernanny," "Nanny 911," "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses." It's not that unlike having those pictures your parents took of you naked in the bathtub out there for all the world to see, far into rerun future.