Hayley Mills has starred in dozens of films, performed onstage throughout the world and won a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe and a Juvenile Oscar.
Now, more than 60 years into her career, she's also an author. In her candid new memoir, "Forever Young," Mills explores her early years and provides a unique view into her extraordinary upbringing.
The daughter of Academy Award-winning actor Sir John Mills and writer Mary Hayley Bell, Mills was already familiar with the entertainment industry when she starred in her first film, "Tiger Bay," at age 12.
Walt Disney personally signed her to a multi-film contract, which would last through her teens. Mills would star in six Disney films, including the classics "Pollyanna" and "The Parent Trap," becoming one of the most widely recognized actresses of the 1960s.
But as Mills describes in "Forever Young," spending her formative years in the spotlight was an enormous responsibility that she wasn't always equipped to handle. Going through puberty and growing older while being tied to a wholesome, youthful, Pollyanna-ish image led to crippling self-doubt, depression and an eating disorder. As she writes, "The image of a star is never the real person."
From her home in London, Mills spoke via Zoom about her memoir, her family life and what it was like to have Walt Disney himself as a mentor.
Q: As a child, your home life wasn't always pleasant. You write, for example, about your mother's alcoholism. Do you think if your parents were still alive that you would have been able to address those issues as openly as you did?
A: That's a very good question. I think the answer is no, out of respect and consideration for them. Both of them belonged to a generation where it was very important to maintain an image. I suppose you could say a facade. They didn't believe in airing their dirty linen in public, so to speak, and I understood that. But the world has changed, and people are much more prepared to be honest and open. It's very helpful for other people if we not only [talk] about one's addiction problems, but health problems, as well.
Q: So much of what you went through was typical for most young people. You were simply trying to figure out who you were and feel comfortable in your own skin. It just so happens that you were a world-renowned actress at the time.
A: I'm very glad you said that because that was really important to me that [the book is about] my growing up. Because my growing up in those circumstances, although they were extraordinary circumstances, peculiar in many ways and weird in lots of ways, [was] universal. All children are cute, all children are beautiful, all children are lovable. But then you get into adolescence and you feel you're none of those things, but you don't know what you are instead.
I've heard so many people say that growing up and being aware of the fact that they were growing up frightened them. It terrified the life out of them. We're all left with a legacy of our childhood for the rest of our lives. What kind of childhood we had impacts us as adults.
Q: You refer to Walt Disney as a 'surrogate father.' What does his name conjure up for you when you hear it?
A: His name conjures up a really warm, genuine human being who was actually, underneath all the success and power, shy. It was very endearing, and that quality is what attracted me to him.
Of course, I was tremendously impressed by what he stood for and everything that he'd done. I remember saying to him once, 'All your films have got a message. What is that message?' And he said, 'I just want to show people the best in themselves.' And that was real. That was genuine.
He had a tremendous sense of fun. He adored going on all the rides in Disneyland, and he'd done them umpteen times. He was 100% in touch with his inner child. He loved those rides. He loved getting soaked on the bobsleigh ride down the Matterhorn. He loved that horrible cup and saucer ride [laughs].
Q: You say that 'Pollyanna' was 'to prove both a blessing and a curse.' Can you share some of the ways it was those two things?
A: Well, it was the start of my career. And it was a very good film. It was beautifully cast with established Oscar-winning actors. Honestly, all I had to do was just learn my lines and not bump into the furniture and the adults around me totally carried the film. I was along for the ride.
Now, the thing is, that was a very powerful image. It stayed with me, as it did for Mary Pickford. Pickford made many, many, many fantastic films, but the fact that she played Pollyanna, and as a result was dubbed America's Sweetheart, stayed with her for the rest of her life. It almost defined her character. This happens with very strong roles. Many actors have found this, to their advantage and to their detriment.
Q: One of the reflections you shared in the book is that 'the Disney legacy affected every aspect of my life.' If you could go back, knowing what you know now, do you think you would agree to sign with Disney?
A: I would say yes. And hope because I was able to go back, I would be able to make different decisions. That's the thing — I allowed things to happen. As one does as a child, I believed that all the adults knew what was best and what was right. And I struggled on with that concept for much longer than I should have done.
I was surrounded by a lot of very talented, clever, powerful people, and it took me a while to say, 'No, hang on a minute, I hear what you're saying. But actually, I want to do this. I don't want to do that.'
Q: Another topic you address in the book is about being bulimic, and the years of social anxiety, shyness and isolation you experienced. Was that something that you hid well?
A: We didn't go to therapy in those days. It would have been very helpful to talk about what I was feeling and talk about my fears. I became morose and silent, and I think [my parents] put it down to just being a difficult adolescent.
I couldn't possibly live up to the [Hayley Mills] image. As the image and the fame grew, my sense of self shrunk. It couldn't keep up with that. When I had interviews or had to go to television shows it was excruciating because I knew they expected [sings] 'da da da da da!' You know, bing! This little girl who's going to light up the studio!
[But] I felt that I walked around like a big, boring, black cloud. I just didn't know what to do about it. It all felt as if I didn't deserve it. And then I began to doubt my ability as an actress, and then everything just seemed to just crumble away.
But you've got to get down into the absolute depths before you can rise up to the surface again, so that was probably a useful experience. I know a lot of people suffer from depression and I can empathize to a certain extent, because I know what it's like.
Q: If you could go back and give your younger self advice, what would you say?
A: Don't be so afraid of making a mistake. They teach us so much. And I would have turned down more work so I didn't have to leave my children.
Don't do something that means you have to go off to California and leave them behind or go on tour with a play. Say no to this and wait, something else will turn out. Have a bit more faith in the universe delivering what you need.
This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.