How are youngsters involved in grown-up movies safeguarded, asks Alex Godfrey.

In Good Boys, the new film from producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, boys on the brink of adolescence have comic encounters with sex aids, sex dolls and drugs. By his own admission, 12-year-old actor Jacob Tremblay swears "like in every single scene". It has an R rating — 15 in the UK (NZ rating TBC) — meaning its young stars are not legally allowed to see it. It is appropriately inappropriate.

In the film business, children are legally protected against anything obviously exploitative or sexual on productions. Labour laws regarding what child actors can do differ from country to country, state to state.

California, where the major studios are still clinging on, boasts the strictest, longest list of rules, including a ban of on-set cigarettes and a hard line on any nudity. Otherwise though, the morals and ethics are subjective.

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Creatively, filmmakers can gun for whatever they like, but the parents have the power.

At 12, Brooke Shields starred as a child prostitute in 1978's Pretty Baby. While the film caused some furore, her mother Teri — as has Brooke — defended the decision, and the content.

Script approval is a major factor. Chloë Grace Moretz began acting at 6, and her mother Teri and older brother Trevor — her acting coach — read all the scripts her agents sent to her.

Matthew Vaughn's 2010 action comedy Kick-Ass caused an outcry in some quarters, but the family was fully on board. Chloë was 11 when she starred in the film, her character Hit-Girl undertaking many a shooting spree, and her mother and brother constantly emphasised the actress/character boundaries to her.

Stephen King's It. Photo / Supplied
Stephen King's It. Photo / Supplied

Hit-Girl's infamous line, "OK, you c****, let's see what you can do now," was from Mark Millar's comic book source material, but not scripted for the film. On set, though, the scene wasn't working, and a joint decision was made with Moretz and her mother to try it out, Vaughn said.

"I said it in one take," said Moretz a couple of years later, batting away the controversy. "It wasn't like I was going to go around saying it all over, you know? There's no cursing in my household, but I knew what it meant to make a movie."

In the 1973 film The Exorcist, Linda Blair as the possessed Regan had to launch into several demonic tirades. Blair, who was 13 at the time of filming, said she "knew they were bad words", but would never have said them in any other situation.

She was, though, perfectly comfortable spouting them on set. Director William Friedkin hired her precisely because she seemed so breezy about inhabiting the character, laughing and joking off camera, instantly switching to full-blown, foul-mouthed possession as required. The first time veteran actor Max von Sydow heard her spew her obscenities, he was so startled that he forgot his lines.

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Requisite work is done to protect child actors from any actual trauma. If the crew are doing right by their young cast, the element of play is consistently emphasised. During the climactic bloodbath in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, 12-year-old Jodie Foster, playing child prostitute Iris, was meticulously taken through the special effects process.

Chandler Riggs as Carl and Andrew Lincoln as Rick in The Walking Dead. Photo / Supplied
Chandler Riggs as Carl and Andrew Lincoln as Rick in The Walking Dead. Photo / Supplied

Foster was also given psychological testing before the film, satisfying all that she would not be unduly affected by the material. Today, there is an increasing trend to give young actors on such productions access to a child psychologist (as is the case on zombie drama series The Walking Dead).

Not that it's obligatory. Bill Skarsgard, who played the terrifying clown Pennywise in 2017's Stephen King adaptation It, said that during one sequence, a group of young extras hadn't seen him until cameras rolled, causing some of them to shake with fear and some to cry. "I realised, 'Holy s***. What am I doing? What is this? This is horrible'," he later said.

Sometimes, such content goes over kids' heads. "Children do not understand the same things as adults," said Linda Blair in 2000, explaining how she was able to perform The Exorcist's more shocking scenes, particularly the crucifix masturbation. "I never knew what that was about," she said.

The cast of Good Boys have said similar of some of their racier moments. Brady Noon has said he didn't know what the sex toys in the film were. "My mom tells me what I need to know and that's it," he said.

Regardless of all the safeguards, and of all the parental protection, the final product can throw up surprises. Natalie Portman was 12 when she starred in Luc Besson's 1994 drama Léon. Portman's parents' concerns led to Besson removing or softening some content. However, her mother admitted she "squirmed a bit" when she saw the "little sexual twists and turns, which are different from what you read in the script". They turned down an offer for her to star in Adrian Lyne's 1997 Lolita.

Last January Portman said that as a result of some salacious remarks in reviews, as well as some fan-mail that included a rape fantasy, she decided to emphasise how "bookish" she was, and built a reputation for being prudish, covered her body and rejected films with kissing scenes.

"At 13 years old," she said, "the message from our culture was clear to me. I felt the need to cover my body and to inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world: that I'm someone worthy of safety and respect."

And despite their explanations of their experiences, when former child actors have children themselves, their viewpoints can differ from their own parents' decisions. In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, Brooke Shields was asked if she would allow her own daughter to star as a child prostitute, as she once did.

"In this environment," she said, "and with social media and with the dangers on that level and just being a mom now, looking at my 11-year-old, I would not facilitate it."