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Nickelodeon Child Star Bryan Hearne Says He Was Called 'Charcoal' While Working

A former Nickelodeon child star has opened up about what it was like to be one of the few black actors on All That in the early 2000s - claiming he had to portray 'drug dealers' and 'rappers,' was put into 'really uncomfortable situations,' and was once referred to as a 'piece of charcoal' by someone from the network.

via: People

Hearne is reflecting on his work experience as one of very few Black actors on the Nickelodeon sketch-comedy series, ahead of the release of a new docuseries.

Investigation Discovery’s four-part docuseries Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, premiering on March 17, uncovers the price many actors say they paid while working long hours in an emotionally manipulative and sometimes sexually charged environment.

In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Hearne, who is one of many former Nickelodeon child actors featured in the upcoming docuseries, cringes at the memory of being cast in racially stereotyped roles as a teen “drug dealer” and a rapper, is still haunted by his work at Nickelodeon in the early 2000s.

“I was referred to as a ‘piece of charcoal’ [by an adult],” he recalls. “Remarks like that are harmful. They stay with you.”

Referring to the All That sketch where he played a rapper named “Lil Fetus,” Hearne, 35, adds, “I was already in an uncomfortable position being in a leotard. That’s not something that I’m used to at all.”

Hearne was a cast member on All That for seasons 7 and 8, the former of which premiered in 2002. The series, one of more than a dozen TV shows created in the 1990s through the 2010s by Dan Schneider, first aired on Nickelodeon in 1994. In the early 2000s, On-Air Dare, an apparent kids’ version of Fear Factor, came to fruition featuring some All That cast members, who each week would be placed in a glass cylinder and one would be randomly chosen to participate in a dare.

“There was never any discussion,” says Hearne of his experience as a 13-year-old actor in demeaning stunts — including one where he was covered in peanut butter for dogs to lick off – on the gross out game show.

“We felt like we couldn’t say no,” Hearne adds. “It was a really uncomfortable situation, and after a while it felt like we were just part of this torture chamber.”

Hearne further reflected about his time on the network, telling PEOPLE that he felt like he was treated differently than some of the other non-Black child actors and that his relationship with Schneider — who left Nickelodeon in 2018 after an internal investigation into his allegedly verbally abusive and demanding behavior on set — was “non-existent.”

In a statement to PEOPLE, a spokesperson for Schneider said, “Nothing has been alleged about Dan other than him being a tough boss who got into disagreements with other adult executives at Nickelodeon and when Dan departed Nickelodeon a full investigation was done and again, that’s all that they found.”

Hearne also credits his longtime friendship with All That alum Giovonnie Samuels with helping him cope during that time.

“That was a highlight of my work day, to know that she would be there,” Hearne adds of Samuels who was a cast member on the sketch-comedy series from seasons 7 through 9.

Samuels shared the same sentiment, recently telling PEOPLE, “I didn’t realize the significance of the impact that I made on people being the only representation they had on television and going through, I hate to call it a trauma bond, but at least having somebody with me that I could talk to, not just as a child actor, but also culturally.”

Samuels landed a role on All That in 2002, and says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE that it felt like a dream come true for the then-16-year-old. But she says her experiences on set — such as being the sole Black actress not given a hairstylist or being trained to avoid choking during a sketch that required drinking enormous amounts of fake coffee sugar and felt like “waterboarding” — often proved traumatizing.

“You learn to walk that fine line,” says Samuels, now 38, who refers to herself and Hearne as being “the two token Black kids,” at the time.

“You’re always asking yourself, ‘Do I speak up?’ And if I do speak up, will I lose my job? Or do I just let it go?”

Samuels says she also didn’t have much of a relationship with Schneider.

“Dan Schneider was that guy that could, if he liked you, you would get a spinoff, you would get another show,” she tells PEOPLE. “I understood that reverence and I guess, I shied away from it.”

In a statement to PEOPLE regarding alleged behaviors on past production sets, Nickelodeon said, “Though we cannot corroborate or negate allegations of behaviors from productions decades ago, Nickelodeon as a matter of policy investigates all formal complaints as part of our commitment to fostering a safe and professional workplace environment free of harassment or other kinds of inappropriate conduct.”

The statement continued, “Our highest priorities are the well-being and best interests not just of our employees, casts and crew, but of all children, and we have adopted numerous safeguards over the years to help ensure we are living up to our own high standards and the expectations of our audience.”

One of the most shocking revelations in the docuseries is the presence of sexual predators on the set. In 2004, production assistant Jason Handy, 30, was sentenced to six years in prison for sex crimes involving minors, including an 11-year-old actress on The Amanda Show. For the first time, Drake Bell, the one time star of Drake & Josh, speaks of being repeatedly molested by dialogue coach Brian Peck (no relation to Bell’s co-star Josh Peck) when Bell was 15 and invited him to his house for acting lessons.

The former child stars told PEOPLE they were unaware of the sexual abuse involving both Handy and Peck, with Hearne saying, “to be separated from that environment and realize that it was a dangerous one, is mindblowing.”

Samuels adds, “We’re working 12 to 13 hour days and when you’re on there for seasons, you grow comfortable and you do let your guard down, and again, you’re also a child or a teenager where you’re looking to an adult like this is acceptable behavior and it’s not.”

Today, Samuels, who has also appeared in the films Bring it On: All or Nothing and Freedom Writers, is teaching acting classes and consults with parents of child actors on what to look out for in the industry. She also plans to debut The Tokens Podcast this year, where she goes more in depth about her personal experience and interviews other Black “token” child stars.

Similarly, Hearne works with parents of young creatives through his non-profit organization, the Urban Poets Society, to help them “realize their craft and support it in a way that I wasn’t supported.”

“I’ve never had [someone] on set, on any set, that was advocating for my mental health or was standing up for me in any realm” he tells PEOPLE, adding that therapy has been an important part of his healing process.

When asked what she hopes viewers would take away from the docuseries, Samuels says, “this dream costs and it shouldn’t for children as [much] as it does.”

“We need better laws to protect our kids on set. I really hope that with people watching this, that people will do better and not just look at children as a paycheck.”

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