Alex Winter was born in in 1965 in London. After moving to the US aged five, he found fame in the Eighties with the films The Lost Boys and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He’s had a stellar career as an actor/director since. In his Letter to My Younger Self he explains how he wasn’t prepared for fame, but he’s made it work for him and has stayed grounded. And yes, he’s also still big pals with Ted (Keanu Reeves).
When I was 16, I was working on Broadway in Peter Pan. I was a high-school kid during the day, at a regular public high school. I was on the soccer team. Then every single day I would take the bus into the city and do a show that night. I’d do a matinee on Wednesday, and four shows on the weekend. I was leading a kind of double life.
I was trying to figure out how I was going to navigate my life, like a lot of 16-year-olds. What is this world? And how am I going to function in it? I had a lot of varied interests and it was sometimes confusing as to how to balance them. I wanted to act and I wanted to direct and I wanted to write. The advice I give other kids, if I go into film school now, is probably the same advice I would have given myself, which is: just keep working, don’t try to control or manage that… just to do all of it.
If you don’t come from money, or you don’t come from a family with a lot of connections, it doesn’t mean you won’t get ahead. It just means you have to work really hard and not quit. Most people that I know who have survived in this business and have done the things they wanted to do, they honestly just work a little bit harder than other people. That really does seem to be the secret sauce for the most part.
My experience of child sexual abuse, and specifically the abuse of boys, is something that I’ve been able to turn around and help others navigate. That stuff was a little bit earlier in my childhood. But at 16, it was going to be something I didn’t talk about for decades. In the post-#MeToo era, there’s more of an ability to talk about these things openly. At the time I was coming up, it was very taboo. There was a lot of silencing going on. I’m grateful to see that’s ending. I think it would have been extremely comforting to know that there would come a time that I would be able to express this stuff more openly. But I think it would also have been somewhat dismaying to know how long that would be. [Alex didn’t talk publicly about the abuse he suffered until 2018. He has not named the perpetrator, who he says is now deceased.]
I quit acting to go to film school when I was 17. I really didn’t think I was going to act again. I got The Lost Boys while I was at NYU film school. I really was acting in those movies largely to earn money to pay my way through school.
When I got the script for Bill & Ted [1989 hit movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure], I thought it was really funny and really sweet. But it wasn’t a particularly big-budget movie. When we were making the film, we were having a really good time. But I don’t think either of us [Winter and co-star Keanu Reeves] thought it was ever going to be a big movie. We just thought it was going to be, like, a movie you would catch on cable at two o’clock in the morning and have a laugh about.
When I did The Lost Boys, it was a relatively small part, but there was a sense that the film was going to be a hit while we were making it.Bill & Ted was the opposite. In a way that was a sweeter victory, because we really had no expectations for it. I didn’t earn a lot of money on Bill & Ted. It paid for me to make films and to pay my rent, but it wasn’t like it changed my life very much. While I was waiting for that film to come out, I was shooting music videos and doing all kinds of other stuff and not really thinking about it. And then suddenly, there was this giant hit. It was kind of jarring. Suddenly I was everywhere. It was a little disorienting, to be honest.
I’d tell my younger self, while the industry and the adult world in general can seem kind of daunting, you end up forming communities that last. It’s not as isolated as you fear at that age. The life I was living was very similar to the life [Keanu Reeves] was living, when we made Bill & Ted. We were two young guys from the East Coast, mostly from a theatre background. We both rode motorcycles, we both played bass, and neither of us were famous at that point. It was really just a friendship of two scrappy people who’d hit LA at the same time, trying to navigate young adulthood on our own. He had a similar background to mine, he was paying his own way. We were really close friends, even before the film came out. I formed friendships on that movie that I’ve had my whole life. Same with The Lost Boys. Those are really strong bonds.
The late ’70s, going into the early ’80s, was an interesting time in America. Reagan became president in the US and things got very, very conservative very quickly. Even at 16, I was interested in politics. I was really into punk rock. I’d go to the CBGBs matinee shows. Music was a way for people to become active and aware of what was going on – and plugged into a community. Looking back, I’m grateful young me was engaged.
My parents were both artists, so I always had support from my family to go make stuff and lead a creative life. Watching them showed me that if you really cared enough about your work, you could carve a path for yourself. They were also politically active, so that inspired me to accept the possibility that I could lead a creative life and a politically active life at the same time. A lot of people in the creative arts don’t do that. Which is completely their prerogative. I don’t think just doing your art is enough.
My mother’s side of the family is all from Ukraine. My family left during Tsarist Russia, but a lot of the same persecution that’s going on there now was going on there then. It’s just a very sad history. But as we’re seeing, they’re pretty fierce. I’m very attuned to my ancestry, which is fiercely independent on both sides. My dad’s side, they’re Australian, by way of Glencoe in Scotland. They left and literally created towns in Australia, like dragged tractors over mountains. They were very, very tough people, and very independent. I like that, on both sides.
I lost my dad pretty young and abruptly. He died in a car accident. My dad didn’t get to meet my kids. He was a really interesting artist. He had gone to architecture school, and then he joined my mother’s dance company, then he formed his own dance company, but he kept doing architecture. He really did not worry about whether people put him in a box, he just did things that interested him. I would like to express gratitude to him, for carving a path that was so sincerely maverick.
I don’t think being a parent is for everybody. That’s my advice. You have to genuinely want it and want to do it, because it’s work. I happen to really like the work. I’m a director, which is largely a managerial job. It really is kind of parenting in a way, all day long. The other piece of parenting advice is: you have to want to be of service. You always hear parents complaining, like, ‘Oh, my kids are so ungrateful.’ Well, A: they didn’t ask to be brought into this world, and B: it’s kind of your job to take care of them. That’s why you had them.
The last piece of advice I’d give is to have faith that everything is going to be OK. There was a lot going on in the early ’80s. There were a lot of conflicts around the world. There was this feeling that the world was just this terrifying place. I’d tell my 16-year-old self, just calm the F down and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s gonna be OK.
Alex Winter will be in London for a retrospective of his films at The Prince Charles Cinema from April 1-3 princecharlescinema.com
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