A Former Child Star’s Odd Kinship with An Alcoholic Horse
Have you ever looked in the mirror and seen a drunken middle-aged horse staring back at you? As a relatively recent fan of the Netflix Original Series BoJack Horseman— which just released its fifth season— I find its wide appeal equal parts fascinating and chilling. The chronically depressed, self-destructive BoJack (brilliantly voiced by Will Arnett) is a problematic yet empathetic protagonist, one whose obnoxious attitude, debilitating drug problem and moral failings are counterbalanced by his desire to be better. The glimpses of BoJack’s past that are provided often offer context (though not justification) for his behaviors— a necessary element, as on the surface level he appears very privileged. You see, back in the 90’s, he was in a very famous TV show: a cheesy family sitcom called Horsin’ Around. Now the show is a dated relic, his career has stalled, and he’s paralyzed by self-doubt and fears of irrelevancy and inadequacy—fears I faced myself when walking through the Van Wickle gates two years ago.
For I too have a history with acting, and while BoJack would likely take offense if you didn’t know his name, I’d be surprised if you recognized me at first glance. Though my claim to fame, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films, proved enormously successful amongst preteen crowds (and has maintained some relevance through nostalgia as its audience has aged), the characters easily eclipse their actors in name recognition. I’m not Robert Capron, famous Hollywood personality or award-winning actor. Instead, I am Rowley: the innocent, fat best friend of the titular Wimpy Kid— a role complete with the kind of silly catchphrase necessary to garner the affections of children everywhere: “ZOO WEE MAMA!” To say this casting changed my life would be a gross understatement. For all intents and purposes, this role is my life–a feeling that has grown twisted with age. That I now feel such a strong connection to a fictional middle-aged horse suffering from depression is a testament to that.
And why shouldn’t I? It’s one thing to be a “child star,” regarded with awe and wonder by your friends, the world at your feet before you even knew what that means. It’s another to be a twenty-something who feels most confident around people half his age and whose star-power burns on dwindling embers from a decade-old role. With every passing day, I feel my personal connection to these films become more tenuous, their right to dominate my life passing with time. A compulsive need to prove to those around me that I was more than Rowley took hold even before I had even left middle school. Resting on laurels won at the age of thirteen didn’t appeal to me. My time at Brown would be more than Rowley–it would be me.
Except it wasn’t. Parties and coffee dates would turn into amateur interviews, new environments where I’d get the same-old questions and give the same-old bullshit answers to hide my festering anxieties. Allow me to present a little sampler:
Q: “Why aren’t you fat anymore?”
A: (Eating disorders, but I don’t know you, so…) “Exercise!”
Q: “Do you keep in touch with the rest of the cast?”
A: (They’ve all either totally eclipsed me or been sorely let down by my lack of communication, which has mostly been my own fault, because I’m often too busy with things I perceive to be more important but in actuality aren’t, so…) “We talk once in a while!”
Q: “Why don’t you act anymore?”
A: (Well, I haven’t booked a new project in quite some time, but to concede that would be to admit my crippling insecurities regarding my acting ability, so…) “I’m focusing on my education!”
Q: Are you depressed?
A: Is it that obvious?
Of course, I’m aware these complaints come off as privileged. Who am I to find issues in a life so wondrous, so full of opportunity? The places I’ve been, the people I’ve met— I wouldn’t, couldn’t change a thing. Still, it’s painful to think that I no longer occupy the platform I once —and that when I had it, I never recognized what it meant. I fear that this role will define me forever— as the former fat kid, the has-been, a gimmick who’s already had his fifteen seconds.
You probably understand now that watching BoJack Horseman was an out-of-body experience for me. BoJack drowning out the noise at a bar, a random woman in the back whispering about him being “the horse from Horsin’ Around,” laughing about how fat he looks; me, sprawled out in a half-drunken stupor, nodding along as I’m introduced as the “fat kid from the movie” and questioned as to why I quit acting. I saw a kindred spirit in this sad humanoid horse. For the first time, I began to see the issues I had been dealing with as actual issues, not just symptoms of ingratitude. My refusal to acknowledge the effect of my career on my mental health was now being contested before my eyes. And with every poor decision BoJack made came an understanding that, unless I properly addressed these issues, our fates could be quite similar. More anxieties began to arise: was this a sort of prophecy for my own path? Was I condemned to feel this way forever? If BoJack couldn’t escape his past, could I?
Only now, after many frank discussions with friends, family and professionals, can I see the dangers of such close identification. This show, more than anything I’ve seen recently, has the potential to dramatically affect how people like me see themselves. But there remains, I think, a point where viewers must separate from the show and interrogate how its message can best be interpreted in relation to his or her own lives. We tell stories not to define who we are, but to inform who we are, and shape ourselves accordingly. I can still keep Bojack Horseman around, but not too close. I’ll let it remind me that I still desperately wish to remain in filmmaking, and of the the steps I must now take to stand on my own.
In the most recent season’s stand-out episode, “Free Churro,” BoJack concludes that the truth about life is that “you never get a happy ending because there’s always more show.” Perhaps. But you also don’t have a group of writers dictating where that show goes from here. You’re the writer all on your own, not a passive character. In the end, it’s just you and the person you want to be. And I know, thanks to the wonderful community I have assembled here, that that person is not named Rowley or BoJack. He’s named Robert.