When you have a child who catches acting fever, there is no cure. So strap yourself in for a long, strange roller-coaster ride!
Recently, our resident 12-year-old actor attended a workshop taught by 20-year-old actress Jennifer Stone. You probably know her best as “Harper” on Wizards of Waverly Place. The young actors in her workshop spent the day working on audition techniques. At the end of the day, parents gathered for a Q&A with Jennifer’s mom, who moved to LA to be with her daughter when she was 10, and stayed until earlier this year when her daughter decided she was ready to be on her own.
One of the parents asked her what she wished she’d known before that first trip to Los Angeles, and she said that she wished she’d known how important it was to have meetings and auditions set up in advance. She also said that she wished she’d known how strong the pressure for on-screen nudity would be the instant her daughter turned 18 — a good reminder for us all.
For me, with a youngster who’s far from Hollywood success just yet, there are five things I wish I’d known earlier.
Not Every Child Will Succeed
I have an adult son, now in his 40’s, who has been performing in films, live shows, and TV shows since he was about 19. He’s done it all: headlined a show in Las Vegas, been on a reality TV series, performed live on three continents, and traveled the world in pursuit of his dreams. So long before my grandson announced his intention of becoming a movie star, I knew it was a hard business.
Here’s what I didn’t know. There are scammers out there who prey on children’s dreams. Some children are completely unsuited to the life of a child actor. Some parents/grandparents are completely unsuited to the life of being the personal valet and chauffeur to a child actor.
I also didn’t know just how disruptive our child’s acting ambitions would be to our lives. My schedule and plans don’t matter. Casting directors schedule auditions at their convenience. The child actor shows up on time, or misses the chance. The fact that the adults in the family had a meeting, or planned to celebrate something, or even that they might be sick doesn’t mean anything. The phrase “plan ahead” doesn’t seem to exist in most casting director’s vocabulary — and why should it?
It’s the casting director’s job to find “the one” — the one actor for a particular part. It isn’t their job to give an actor a break, or accommodate their schedule. They aren’t always given much advance notice. Scenes and characters get added at the last minute, or someone gets sick (or fired), and the casting director has to come through.
Taping Auditions Can be Costly
Your iPad, iPhone or hand-held consumer video camera probably won’t cut it for most taped auditions. And unless you have a professional backdrop and studio lighting, you probably can’t film most taped auditions at home regardless of what kind of camera you have.
Here’s a “typical” set of instructions for a taped audition. “Lighting and audio are very important. If we can’t see or hear you clearly, your audition tape will be discarded. Studio lighting and backdrops are mandatory.
“Send all self-tapes in a DOWNLOADABLE FORMAT — no taping on iPhones, iPads or other portable devices. NO YouTube or NowCasting tapes, please. Include a pan/zoom full body shot in the slate and then zoom back into the close-up.”
Taped auditions usually cost between $40 and $100 each, plus the cost of using Hightail (formerly YouSendIt) or one of the other online FTP services to deliver the large file to the casting director. I know parents who have spent $400 in a single week taping auditions for one or two kids with the acting bug. (That’s good — a lot of auditions means your child is getting a lot of opportunities. But most of the taped auditions you submit will result in absolutely zero work, or even feedback.)
It’s not unusual to get a request for a taped audition at 3 p.m. on Wednesday with a submission deadline of noon on Thursday or Friday. Last week, I had less than 2 hours in a business day to find an available videographer, find time for the child actor to memorize a four-page script, get the tape made, and get the footage uploaded to the FTP service.
Child Actors are Kids First
Being an actor is my child’s choice. (It certainly isn’t mine!) But he’s a kid first, an actor second.
His best friend (who is NOT an actor) grew his hair quite long this summer, and another friend added blue tips. Kameron invented excuses to avoid haircuts for most of the summer. So he was looking pretty shaggy the week before school started when he got a callback from an earlier audition.
I had a meeting, so my husband offered to take him to the audition. Before I left, I spent nearly half an hour with the “super stick” hair spray to get his hair in shape.
With two hours to kill before the audition, our child actor acted like a kid, goofing around the house with a cousin. By the time he arrived at audition, he looked like a disheveled rock star trying to impersonate Alfalfa from the Little Rascals show. He didn’t get the part. I’m not blaming him or his hairstyle — but I’d have felt better if he’d had a haircut or at least kept the smooth style I had created with hairspray.
Then there’s the issue of working weekends when his friends are having fun. So we have a “I want to be a kid” rule at our house. As long as he says “no” before an audition, he can block out a weekend to spend with his friends, but if he commits to the audition and gets the part, he has to work.
He had blocked out the last weekend before school started for a sleepover when a horror film asked if he’d work for the third weekend in a row. Originally hired for a single day’s work, he would up working 7 days before that last call. (That’s good: extra days usually mean that they like you, or your role is expanding.) We let him turn down the extra day’s work, because he’d been looking forward to the sleepover for weeks.
A kid who doesn’t want to work isn’t going to do a good job. And an actor who shows up on set with a bad attitude won’t get invited back.
A Child’s Job is to Audition
Recently, while waiting in the lobby at Nancy Chartier’s Film Acting Studio in Dallas, some of the parents were talking about how their children handle the inevitable rejection that’s part of this business. Dixie Buchanan, mother of the amazing acting brothers Dakota and Corey Buchanan, put it best.
“Look, I tell my kids that their job is to show up prepared, and do their best in an audition. And then we forget about it. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you wonder what went wrong with this role or that role. I always reward the boys with some little something — a drink or snack on the way home from an audition, lunch before we go — just something to let them know that I’m proud of them for doing their job.”
She’s right. It’s not a child actor’s job to actually get hired for a role. And it certainly isn’t a child actor’s job to earn money for his/her family. So teach them early in the process that every actor goes on a lot of auditions to get a few roles — and that showing up and auditioning never hurts, because even if you don’t get one job, the casting director might remember you for another role later on.
Long before our future star decided that he wanted to be an actor, he learned that not everything works out, and that fretting about things beyond your control is useless. Some of those lessons came from juggling. Jugglers drop things. So you learn to shrug, laugh, get your audience to laugh with you, and move on quickly.
It’s the same with auditions. You have no idea what the director wants, or what factors go into picking one actor over another. Kameron often auditions for parts that his friends are also auditioning for. Sometimes he gets hired, sometimes they do. But the ones who succeed in getting hired most often seem to have an innate sense that tells them that once they’ve done their job — showing up prepared and doing their best — it’s completely out of their hands.
The ones who stress about it — or have mothers who stress about it — don’t last long.
Agents Get Paid When Actors Work
One of the most common scams out there is a marketing company that advertises for talent they will “market” for auditions or to help them get an agent. Don’t fall for it — and don’t pay to audition.
We have a fantastic agent (Linda McAlister, of Linda McAlister Talent — and no, we aren’t related.) She gets paid when the actors on her roster work.
That means that it’s in her best interest to submit her actors for as many roles as possible. She doesn’t play favorites, but she does match the role to the actor’s skill level. There are some roles that come across her desk that call for a 12-year-old boy that we’ll never hear about. Why? Because the role is for someone with skills that our child doesn’t have, or someone who has a specific look, or is taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, or just different from our child.
It also means that, sometimes, she will submit my child for a role that I don’t think is right for him for one reason or another. You don’t want to turn down jobs right and left, or be so picky that it’s not worth the agent’s time to work with you. But as a parent, you do need to screen roles and let your agent know if there are particular topics that are off-limits for your kids.
I know one child actor who lost a father in a roadside IED bombing in Iraq; her agent has been told not to submit her for any role that calls for her to deal with the death of her on-screen parents, or any role that deals with explosions.
My child does not like bugs. He passed on a film role awhile back because there were multiple scenes that called for his character to handle insects. (During the audition process, you may see only a small part of the script, and there was nothing in the audition scene that warned us that the character would be called on to handle bugs.)
So, when you are interviewing agents, make sure that the agent you’ll be working with knows of any restrictions on your child’s on-screen roles, and if you discover something later, be open and honest with the agent about your concerns. Sometimes, they can negotiate a change in a scene — and sometimes protecting your child means turning down a role.