Last week, we covered Issues Specific to Kid Actors in Regional Markets, Premature Moves, Child Labor Laws, and Avoiding Scams. And in the first week of this three-part series, we looked into The Basics, Classes, Type, Headshots, Resumés, Postcards, Demo Reels, and Websites for kid actors. This week, we close out the series with Mistakes Parents Make and a Parent’s Obligation to a Child Actor.
I know I’ve said this in each installment of this three-part series, but in case someone comes across ONE of these pieces in the archives and reads only that one column, I want to be sure this is very clear to parents of young actors: Choosing a career in show business is something to consider carefully. Only dive in after weighing the pros and cons. When it’s the parent making the career choice on behalf of the kid (and it’s that kid who will face most of the “tough stuff” that goes with this business), that up-front research and careful consideration becomes even more important.
This industry is, at best, challenging even for its adult participants. Please remember that you are choosing to subject your child to some high-pressure scenarios. Without your constant efforts to help provide balance — and sometimes even with such efforts — there could be all manner of issues down the line. Making good, responsible choices as a parent includes not only protecting your child from scams, exploitation, and danger, but also keeping a clear head when the whirlwind of fabulous offers and amazing opportunities starts up.
Mistakes Parents Make
Now, forgive me if I come off like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to parenting tips. I am a new stepmother with only summertime custody, so what do I know? Ah, but I did survive a child-actor-hood and emerged mostly unscathed (and definitely happy). As a casting director, I audition enough young actors to see which ones are coming in best-prepared (as actors) and best-balanced (as children), and I can almost always spot a parenting choice that has contributed to success or failure in either category. So, let’s forget that I know almost nothing about parenting and hope that I come off as someone who wants your child to be both successful as an actor and happy as a person, as I dole out a little advice, here. (I trust, if I’m flat-out wrong on any of this — as with any issue — you’ll write in and let me know!)
This project is perfect for my son. The producer hasn’t said anything about a work permit and, in our state, I don’t think he needs one. This would be a really big break for my son, but shouldn’t there be some sort of paperwork?
First, see last week’s column for more on Child Labor Laws. Next, know that it is the parents’ obligation to make sure the producers are working within the law. And, yes, there is ALWAYS paperwork for having a child on set. Producers have to get a state-granted Permit To Employ a Minor before they can hire children (and, no, money does not have to exchange hands for the word “hire” to mean “hire,” here). Whenever producers violate labor laws, their Permit To Employ a Minor can be pulled, and that could be why some producers try to work without them (y’know, since they’re already in trouble).
Believe me, if anyone gets wind of productions like that going on, they’ll be shut down so dang fast! And with good reason, often. I mean, if a producer has already been punished for violating labor laws, and now he’s employing minors without a permit to do so, that’s a producer who needs to be shut down. And in the end, it is the parents’ responsibility to be certain a producer’s paperwork is in order (and that means in terms of Child Labor Laws and SAG, when applicable). Parents should also always insist upon a copy of the performer contract. Especially with these shadier producers, you might have unwittingly signed away the rights to your child’s image (allowing stills to show up as stock footage, making someone else a ton of money; allowing footage to be recut into porno flicks someday), so you want to see a copy of that contract before it’s signed AND keep a copy in your files.
Obviously, if you have an agent, this should all be taken care of through him or her. But even so, YOU are the bottom line, and that means you are the one who needs to be sure everything is in order. An agent is a part of your team, not a reason to feel you needn’t worry about your parental obligations.
Over-prepared vs. under-prepared at an audition: What’s worse from a casting director’s perspective?
I’d prefer an under-prepared kid, simply because that’s a problem we can fix. I’ll take a few moments and work with the child, trying to pull out the performance we’re looking for. If, on the other hand, the child is over-prepared, it’s almost impossible to get him to “forget” what he’s been working on and become more natural about the scene. Obviously, I could fish out another scene from the script and have him do a total cold read, but that seems a little unfair (especially with the pre-reading-age kids). We can also do some improvisational work in character to see if we’re in the ballpark with this particular actor, but all of this is a lot of work that we’ll not even bother with, if we know there’s another child we’ve already seen for the role who was right for it, talented, prepared just enough, and natural.
One of my least favorite things that kid actors do (and I blame the parents, usually, because a kid actor’s instincts typically don’t send them in a “mugging” direction without encouragement) is that oh-so-precious, smug, “aren’t I cute” crap that gets turned on for the camera. It’s as though the kids have been taught that when a camera comes out, it’s time to be “on” and that behavior is rewarded with oohs and aahs at home (it had better not be rewarded in places like professional acting classes).
I’ve had young actors come in for an audition, and during the chitchat portion of the audition (when we’re getting to know the young actors, getting a vibe for how shy they might be when interacting with adults on set, meeting strangers who will have to work with them, etc.), they’ll be just fine. And then the INSTANT we start the audition sides, as the camera rolls, the kids affect a lisp or do some overly-precious baby-talk, blink repeatedly like they want us to see how cute their long eyelashes are. It’s disgusting. And I don’t know any casting director who wants to see this sort of thing (or who would reward such a thing with a booking, without forcing some major redirection).
Look, we know they’re cute. That’s why they got called in for an audition for “the cute kid” role. So, there’s no need to acknowledge the cuteness during the audition. It’s an over-playing of things, an “in on the joke” quality, rather than a natural sense of being in character, being in the moment. That’s what we’re looking for, most of the time!
My daughter is 12 and she loves performing (in particular, musical theatre). She sings beautifully, however I am not sure about her acting skills. She has tremendous memorization ability and passion for her craft and has landed a lot of lead parts. My concern is that she doesn’t always convey the high energy of some of the other actors. She doesn’t like being “over the top” as a lot of musical theatre actors are, however I think it is a necessity in the theatre. I’ve gently spoken to her about it, and surprisingly, her next performance seems to be so much better. The directors don’t seem to point out areas she should emphasize or how to deliver certain lines. I see the shows the first night, mentally take notes, let her know, and boom, she takes the info and processes it immediately and makes a 360-degree turnaround which is amazing. I wonder why the directors don’t seem to “direct’ in some of these performances.
Oh my God, you MUST stop. If your daughter has already been cast, let the director do his job. Do NOT interfere. Parental interference (trying to redirect the kid actor after the director has already done his job) is a really horrible habit to get into. Unless you too are a paid, professional director with credits at the level of the director who is already doing that job, stop! This “gentle conversation” you’re having with your daughter and her subsequent shift in performance (away from the way the director has already sent her) will get your kid blacklisted before too long. We all know that with every kid we cast comes along the parent, and if you’re causing the director to have to go back and redirect to fix your interference, you’re going to find your kid no longer getting cast (through no fault of her own).
After being at a callback with my daughter with kids hacking all over the place and mothers admitting that their kids had fevers, sore throats, etc., of course my daughter came down with the flu. She has now missed out on two large auditions and one job all because some mothers out there care more about auditions than their children’s health. How do CDs really feel? I can’t imagine they like seeing every hacking kid coming through their doors, but they also don’t do anything about it. It’s absolute lunacy to allow a sick child to audition. Even if they don’t get the part, they probably came in contact with the child who did, so now that child could be sick on the set.
Believe me, we’d rather everyone be healthy, prepared, and on time for every single auditions (kids, adults, seniors, whatever). But we don’t live in a world where that is possible, it seems. So, we do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt, each session day. Absolutely, we’d rather an actor “call in sick” than show up while contagious, getting our whole staff and the other actors sick too. But it does seem that some folks get so enthusiastic about the role that they figure they can “act” healthy and it won’t make a difference in the long run. Problem is, their enthusiasm is absent, their energy is low, and their performance is off. Some might book (on a fluke) in spite of that, and that’s exactly why people will push through and show up anyway. I totally agree with you, though, that parents should make the tough decision to say no to the opportunity and yes to some bed-rest, when that’s what the child really needs.
Someone recently accused me of TMI. What does this mean and what have I done?
Ah! Well, TMI relates to one of the biggest mistakes I see parents make. TMI stands for “Too Much Information,” and one of the leading message boards for parents of young actors (PARF) actually has a policy against it. See, some parents will let their enthusiasm for helping their kids become public figures totally eclipse their common sense about their family’s safety. They give out Too Much Information.
Parents sometimes get very excited and want to share, share, share all of this wonderfully detailed information about their children. They will basically draw a map to their doorstep, to a child’s schoolyard, into the very private personal life of their kid during crucial decision-making moments of adolescence, right there on the Internet for everyone to see. Feeling that they’re in a community of “friends” who have given them advice and guided them through some career choices, they want to share… but do you know what types of people LOVE to lurk at message boards — even private-membership ones — where information is freely shared about kids? Pedophiles. Perverts. Predators.
I am not a fan of living ones life “scared” (and God knows, I am more open than my family might be comfortable with seeing me be sometimes), but there are things you will NEVER learn about my stepson, no matter how close we’ve become in our online friendship. Nope. No way. You don’t get to know where he goes to school, what street he lives on, what his teacher’s name is, what his team’s mascot is, none of it. And if he were an actor, you also wouldn’t get to know what he booked before it was announced in the trades or made public through a verifiable source such as IMDb. Heck, you wouldn’t even get to know what he came CLOSE on. That is nobody’s business. Just like you don’t put your child’s name in large letters on his backpack (because it would allow strangers to call out to him as if they know him), you shouldn’t lead the bad guys to your child online.
And I am baffled by how much over-sharing I see going on, on the part of some parents… followed by shock that someone has created a MySpace page as if they are the child. Or astonishment that some guy on the Sex Offender Registry has created a “tribute website” featuring information about kids he’s been stalking online (and not having to work very hard to get the photos and info he’s putting on his site). It’s creepy. It’s sometimes disgusting. And it is almost ALWAYS preventable. Safety first, mom and dad. You’ll never regret having been overly-cautious on the TMI issue. Splashing your child all over the Internet is not going to help him or her get cast. There are very specific, proper channels we go through, when looking for actors for our projects. Having a profile on Actors Access for us to find you through our Breakdown Services account (theatrically) and another on LA Casting (commercially) is more than enough coverage in Hollywood. If you have a website, keep it professional and clean.
If as a parent, you find the acting/auditioning experience horrible, how do you keep from passing that negative vibe to the kid? I want to support her dreams, but it’s very hard for me. I don’t know if my case is unusual or not. My daughter embraces an audition as a total adventure. I, on the other hand, feel like I am torturing my kid.
You just have to re-learn what it is your daughter already knows: This is all fun. There is no rejection. There is only opportunity to play in front of others and get the only validation she seeks from the experience (having people smile and say thank you). It is the adult baggage we bring to the experience that makes us feel like we might be putting kids through a ruthless, awful bit of scrutiny after which they will probably never win the role. But when you understand that, for kids, it’s not at all about the “win,” you’ll begin to relax a little bit about that “torture.” It IS an adventure. Let your child be right about that. The best way to remove your negativity from the equation is to reprogram yourself. If you can’t do that, then learn how to fake it really well. The quickest way to end your child’s enjoyment of the process is to attach negativity to it (for any reason). The fact that you know this is an issue is a step in the right direction!
A Parent’s Obligation
The support and love of family is probably the most monumentally-important element to a child actor’s success and endurance in this industry. Your best chance for surviving and thriving in a showbiz career begins with laying the groundwork — starting right now — for all of the hurdles you may face. That means issues of time-management, driving long distances to get to the work, keeping grades up while pursuing acting work, setting up and maintaining a Coogan account, investments of classes and headshots, shaking off negative experiences, impact on siblings, paying attention to the long haul goals rather than the short-term results, investing in relationships, and being a part of a team that CDs will want to put on a set again and again.
See, in casting young actors, we are never ONLY looking at the child actor. We know that we’re casting a “kid plus one” at the bare minimum. And that means we have to know whether we have a smart, savvy business partner of a parent or a scary, creepy, notorious stage parent joining us. I would imagine this issue is even more important for agents and managers signing young actors. If a CD misjudges a family situation and casts a young actor whose parent is a nightmare on the set, it’s an investment of just a day or so, hopefully. (And if it’s really bad news, we can always recast.) But an agent or manager is looking to create a relationship that will span years (perhaps even decades) and that means it’s crucial that the entire family be considered, before signing the young actor.
All this to say, the more “normal” you are, the better. Parents who want it “too much” scare the bejeezus out of us. Parents who are hard on their kids for having off days, who scream at them for under-performing once in awhile, or who mouth their kids’ lines from the sidelines seriously cost their kids work. I can guarantee you that is true. Yes, you need to show a certain level of commitment to your child’s craft and the pursuit of the work (i.e.: willingness to travel to auditions, ability to act fast when given short notice of a callback or booking, motivation for keeping the agent well-stocked with updated headshots and resumés, etc.), but just like with dating, desperation stinks! And there’s no amount of perfume that covers that up.
I believe we all have a path to walk and it’s the parents’ job to guide the kids along the path. How do I know if I’m pushing my child? Our daughter could turn out equally screwed up because I didn’t support her gifts. I just keep thinking that she obviously has talent and desire. How can I keep her from following her path? On the other hand, how do I know I don’t have some secret desire to live my life through my child? I don’t think I do, but how many people do it and know that’s what they’re doing?
Ah, that’s gotta be a toughie. On the one hand, you want to support your child in whatever she wants to do. On the other hand, you don’t want to live your life through hers or push her when she’s finished. This really comes down to listening to what she says, picking up on her nonverbal cues (like “getting sick” on audition days), and taking her to task when she says she is ready to take a break.
There are many parents who will continue to push their children when they have made it clear they don’t want to do it anymore. I’ll never forget my summer at the Northside High School of Performing Arts camp. The school had just become famous as the “Fame school in the Coca-Cola commercial” and I, having been a kid actor for seven years by then, signed up for the summer intensive: Five days a week of acting, singing, dancing. And then one day I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was missing out on the summer all of my “normal school friends” were having. I was spending the summer with a bunch of highly driven PROS and I felt like a wannabe.
I decided I would rather have the summer off. Baby-sit. See movies with my friends. Doodle my secret crush’s name on my little notebook. Go to Six Flags and Lake Lanier. So, my mom made it very clear to me: “If you choose to back out of camp, you are backing out of acting for the summer. I’m not driving you to auditions or gigs if you’re choosing to stop acting for a while.” This meant I had to decide whether I wanted to quit camp but keep doing auditions and gigs OR really wanted to take a break from acting. Turns out it was the latter, and had it been the former, I’d have been required to stay in the program (which totally makes sense to me, looking back on it).
A few months later, I was offered a commercial that I really wanted to do. And again, my mom laid it out: “Are you ready to get back into this? All the way?” And I was. I really missed it. But I enjoyed my time off too. Obviously, this sort of thing will depend on the age and maturity level of your child as you check in with her about whether she’s IN or OUT, but in general, if you’re already concerned about knowing whether you’re in this for her or in this for you AND you’re willing to listen, you’ll both probably be just fine.
We moved to LA from Tennessee due to a job relocation for me. My seven-year-old son experienced a lot of acting success in Nashville and received his SAG-eligibility. He wanted to continue his career once here. He was already signed by one of the “big” agents before we moved out here, but we were never sent out on auditions and our phone calls and emails were never returned. We asked to be released from our contract and moved to another “big” agency where he was immediately signed and we received the same treatment. He was sent out on three auditions and then we were told never to contact them directly, they would call us when they needed us. By reading your columns and the advice you give about agents and the correct relationships that should be established, we have since signed with a new “smaller” agent who has been wonderful. She calls us with updates, submits my son constantly, and is always willing to answer questions. She is literally his biggest cheerleader and has his best interest at heart. He has been out on ten national commercial auditions in the past two months and has already received two callbacks. Thanks for the support and encouragement you give parents of child actors. Your information is invaluable.
I just wanted to say that I love this example of moving on from relationships (even with “big” agents) that aren’t working. Clearly, you found the right fit for your son’s representation and that’s awesome! So many people get tied up in the idea that having the “right” logo on a resumé is going to open doors when, if that logo is on resumés that never GO anywhere (because the agent isn’t pitching you), it isn’t important at all! Far better to be with a “smaller” agent who GETS you, is excited about you, and wants to share your gifts with the world. (And that goes for adult and kid actors alike.) But it takes having that trust and making that leap of faith, doesn’t it? I’m glad you’re happy that you did.
I have one of those kids who is a “born performer.” I have every confidence that no matter what she does in life as a career, she will be performing on some level. I’ve put my daughter in dance sporadically. It’s a huge commitment to do dance as the nearest studio is 80 miles away, so essentially you are committing to a day away from home or work, and as she has gotten older, coordinating it around the school schedule makes it even more difficult. How many classes do I put her in (I realize that like for any career training, it’s ongoing, especially where she has talent in music, dance, and acting — yikes!) before we start pursuing opportunities for professional or even community performances?
It’s tough when you don’t live anywhere near the opportunities you’re hoping to take advantage of. There will come a time when you’ll have to decide whether your child’s dream is realistic enough to make a move to a larger market (see last week’s column for more on that). Do you want to split the family up and get at least this one child closer to her dreams? Or do you just get her to embrace the school plays, church programs, and community theatre that are within reach?
Honestly, if you’re looking for an idea of when to pursue community opportunities, I’d say you can go right ahead and start now! No, she might not book the lead in the first play she auditions for, but she might be part of the chorus and that could be enough to get her started. The nice thing about community projects is that, just by living in the community, you have a shot at being a part of it! So, while your daughter may need classes in order to be ready to book the lead roles, you shouldn’t worry about what sort of classes she needs before attempting auditions at community theatre.
Let’s talk about the age appropriateness of scripts. Of course, this falls on the parent to make the correct choices for their child, but it seems that this could be the basis of some of the child actor inappropriate behavior that often is so visible in the media. My daughter was recently cast for her first film in a supporting role, but after reviewing the script, my husband and I couldn’t allow her to work in an FBI-type film in a scene where she would be tied and gagged only to be rescued by her father with lines saying she saw her mommy killed. She is much too innocent at this point in her life to handle that.
I think it’s great for you to be concerned with the age-appropriateness of a script. Some parents will agree to have their child perform in films that are R-rated as long as the scenes in which the child appears are not violent or sexually explicit. Others feel a blanket NO is easier than negotiating projects on a scene-by-scene basis. Still others will say yes to any opportunity, regardless of its adult content.
Whatever you, as the parent, decide about your child’s level of maturity when it comes to being able to “handle” certain content, be sure you are making a decision that your child will be happy you made on his or her behalf, down the line. It’s really easy to look back at roles young actors have had, see the now-adult actors acting out and getting in trouble, and say, “See, the parent wasn’t responsible enough to keep the child from growing up to be a drug-addicted, law-breaking mess. If that kid had had better parenting, this never would’ve happened.” But what you have to do is get good at predicting what that “look back” will feel like, as you’re making the decision.
Will your child resent you for having “sold her out” to do something inappropriate for her age? Will she feel that you broke your bond as her parent in order to say yes to an opportunity that you wanted her to have? Will he say, in his E! True Hollywood Story, that this role in which he had to kill a puppy caused his spiral into madness and ultimately landed him in jail for having killed three people? Of course you can’t know for sure, now. But you can make good, responsible choices. It is not UP TO THE CHILD. If it were up to the child, he or she would be free to live as an adult at the age of 10, vote, buy booze, see adult movies, drive, join the military, and go on that all-sugar diet everyone is raving about.
Hollywood is filled with horror stories of adults whose parents were too liberal with them, when they were kid actors. I can’t recall the last time I heard a well-balanced, successful adult actor say, “I only wish my parents had pimped me out more.” Structure, balance, and well-considered limits are a good thing for a child to have.
Your column on “The Let-Down” couldn’t have come at a better time for me. My nine-year-old daughter has been performing for the past two years in a regional theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. Well, this year’s auditions rolled around, she went in, calls have gone out, and it doesn’t look like she made the cut. This situation is particularly dicey when dealing with a young child, but I have to say she handled it pretty well. Got mad at first, then realized she hadn’t really prepared for the audition the way she should have and sort of took it for granted that she would be cast again. She has another A Christmas Carol audition coming up at a second regional theatre and is taking it much more seriously this time, vocalizing every day, as she should, and working on her monologue. As I reminded her, being prepared doesn’t guarantee you a role, but being unprepared pretty much guarantees you won’t get one. I guess what I’m trying to say, in a long-winded sort of way, is that where kids are concerned, it helps not only to have plenty of irons in the fire, as you said, but to have a kid with the right type of personality that can let the disappointments roll off, or even better yet, learn something from them. I’m lucky I have that kind of kid (she’s actually better at it than I am, which keeps me on my toes and makes me behave too). If I didn’t, I’d stop all this in a heartbeat.
I have to say, this is a great mindset. I love it! Especially the fact you’re teaching her that being prepared doesn’t guarantee a role, but being ill-prepared makes it unlikely you’ll book. Great ownership of responsibility in the process, plus, the foundation for the kind of mindset that makes success in this business possible! Awesome.
Regarding “Rookie Orientation” and working the red carpet, how am I to be a parent of a kid that gets that break and disappear into the background but still get my scrapbook pics of that red carpet moment? How do we attend the red carpet event but leave because the film itself is not age-appropriate?
Ah, the leaving before the screening thing is easy. You’ve already had your red carpet moment and you’ve communicated with your contact who got you the tickets for the premiere (the film’s publicist or a representative or the filmmaker himself) that you’ll be there but won’t be staying for the film. So, no one will be surprised by your duck-out. As for the snagging of that snapshot, you may actually have better luck with WireImage.com or GettyImages.com after the fact. Sure, you can try to snap some photos from your vantage point, off to the side of your kid-star, but honestly those pros on the other side of the velvet rope will do a great job of it and you’ll have great scrapbook shots (with the company’s watermark across the images, of course) within hours. Save your candid moments for the drive over in the limo or in areas to which the press has no access.
How do I explain to the giggilion agents and managers that wouldn’t give my kid an appointment last week but are now just sure that my kid is the next best thing that we already have a manager and agent that believed in my kid and got them that part that’s causing these agents now to call us?
That’s easy! You make it very clear that you appreciate their attention, now that your child is booking like mad, but that you’re very happy with the representative you signed on with previously. There are frequently going to be standoffs between loyalty and opportunity in this business. It’s great that you have already assembled a team for your child that you will stick with, even after the big break. I’m sure they appreciate that acknowledgement of their early investment more than anyone!
I strongly believe that we should support our kids’ dreams and gifts, but how do you really know if they even have talent?
The industry will tell you if your child doesn’t have what it takes to make it. You’ll show up to auditions and not get the callbacks. And then you’ll stop getting auditions at all. No one is in this business just to be nice to everyone else. It just doesn’t work like that. (Now, you may happen to meet up with some folks who are truly, genuinely nice. But no one is performing charity in this business, so you can count on getting the scoop from someone, if he or she is sure your child has no shot at making it.)
Just like I mentioned in “When To Pack It In and Go Home,” there are going to be moments when you stop and take a look at the choices you’re making, in pursuit of a showbiz career, and sometimes the cons will outweigh the pros to such an extent that you’ll know it’s time to stop or at least take a break. And yeah, it’s tough for you, as a parent, to be objective about your child’s talents and potential for doing well in the pursuit of acting gigs. So, you give it a shot and see what happens. And if things go well, you show up and do it again.
Until it stops being fun. That’s when you stop. Worst-case scenario, you stopped sooner than your child really wanted to stop, and then he or she has the opportunity as an adult a few years down the line to give it a go “for real.” Plenty of former child actors come back around to it as adults and do just fine! Yeah, they may “what if” about the years they could’ve been working, but that’s pretty much human nature, that whole “what if” thing. So, as long as you’re making decisions with your child’s best interest at heart, you’re likely to do okay.
I hope this has been a good series for you! I’ve had a blast pulling it all together and I want to thank everyone who emailed questions and comments my way. Big thanks to the folks at BizParentz.org and the Professional Actors Resource Forum for helping with some of the heavy lifting! Make sure you head over to The Actors Voice: POV on January 1st and January 15th to get the inside scoop on the evolution of pilot season regarding young actors and more tips for parents (from BizParentz.org). Remember, readers, I’m happy to receive any follow-up questions you may have.
Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000812.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.