Child Actors: The 'Mini Working Class'
Hollywood is notoriously tough -- a town that can put aspiring actors through a punishing gauntlet of auditions, criticism and then, if you're lucky enough to get work, hours of time on set. But imagine being, say, 10 years old and instead of just worrying about the swim team or a science quiz, working twice as hard to keep up in school so you can ditch class to attend auditions on demand.
"There is a whole world out there of child actors who most people aren't even aware of," says Lorena Mena, who along with partner Olivia Allen, recently founded the Web site backstagemom.com. "I like to call them the mini working class."
And some ("Harry Potter's" Daniel Radcliffe comes to mind) navigate that world better than others (Miley Cyrus and her hotly criticized Vanity Fair spread comes to mind). Stories of kid actors gone wrong -- Dana Plato, Dustin Diamond, River Phoenix -- are legion. But, as former "Brady Bunch" star Christopher Knight said last year in a Celebritology interview, not all are headed for a future of petty larceny, bankruptcy or substance abuse.
"So when you hear about all the failings of ex-child stars, you think every one is failing. I don't buy in. It isn't that way and there are quite a few who have made the transition into adulthood well."
Mena and Allen, both longtime kid actor coaches, mindful of the risks that go along with a child's exposure to the entertainment world -- missed school, swelled egos, bruised egos and a potentially mixed-up child -- launched their site to educate parents about how to best guide their kids through the industry.
"It is vital that they [parents] are prepared for what is ahead," said Allen. "We try to drill it into their heads that what happens in the future starts now."
I quizzed Mena and Allen via an e-mail interview last week. Read on to get a peek into the work-a-day world of child actors.
Full disclosure: I discovered the site via Facebook. Mena and I graduated from the same high school and are both members of a Facebook alumni group.)
Read the full Q & A after the jump...
Liz: How was Backstage Mom born and who should be checking the site?
Olivia: Lorena and I have been teaching kids acting together for 5 years. In this time, we have come across some of the most amazing, supportive and inspirational mothers. We designed this site with those mothers in mind. We wanted to offer a free place they could go to educate themselves, get guidance and support, and have all of their questions answered from not only us but also from the moms themselves. We give a peek behind the scenes through interviews with top talent agents, casting directors, actors, and moms, all giving sound advice. Our site is a must for any mom who has a child interested in acting or moms of performers already out there living it
Liz: How did you two get into the business of coaching kid actors (and their parents)?
Lorena: I began teaching kids commercial acting 10 years ago when a friend asked me to assist her in her acting class. I saw a little blonde 5-year-old girl dance and sing to "hit me baby one more time" in front of the class without an ounce of fear and I realized this was not a job, but pure entertainment. Olivia, who started as a child actor, often coached classmates from acting class on their auditions. She discovered she had a knack for teaching when friends began booking jobs. From these experiences, we got the idea to start an acting school for kids and opened "Little Red Door Entertainment." We began with a group of six kids and now have TV/film, commercial and business of acting classes in both Los Angeles and San Diego. The business classes are for the parents and we feel to be the most valuable.
Liz: Have you worked with any kids who we might recognize from films or TV?
Lorena: We do work with many kids whom you might recognize. We mainly work with them in one-on-one coaching. They are sent to us by the agents before they go on auditions. These kids usually prefer not to be in class since there is an expectation there from the other students who know their past work. The environment in class is very supportive but we find that kids who are well known are more willing to experiment in a closed setting so we keep it that way -- safe and confidential.
Liz: What is the first piece of advice you'd give to parents considering a career in entertainment for their kids?
Lorena: Know what you are getting into and be certain your child wants to do it. For starters, it should be initiated by the child and then explored. A school play and an acting class are great ways to get a glimpse into what it is all about. If the child is still interested after giving that a try then they should continue their studies and it is up to the parent to educate themselves on what it entails. Parents need to know that when the child gets an agent, they need to be available at the drop of a hat. I know a boy who was just starting out and the first job he booked was a film shot in Japan. Sure Japan may sound exciting when you first hear it, but to actually do it is something else. With one week notice, you are on your way to a far away country leaving dad, the siblings and the dogs at home to fend for themselves.
Liz: In Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, "Bruno," he interviews several parents about their children's' chances of appearing in a made-up photo shoot. While the situation was preposterous, Cohen's character had the parents (who were not in on the joke) agreeing to let their kids be mock-crucified, play with explosives and even consider liposuction.
Did you see the movie and, if so, how representative are those parents of the average stage mom and dad?
Olivia: I did see "Bruno" and was so disturbed by what I saw in the film that I was nauseous. The fact that a mother would agree to let her child undergo liposuction was unlike anything I've ever seen. I think that what the parents were agreeing to is child abuse. I do not think that represents an "average" stage parent by any means. At least not in my experience. We only work with parents that have their children's best interest in mind. It was very hard for me to watch being someone who works in that particular field but I am glad that those people were exposed.
I hope it sheds some light for anyone out there that condones that kind of behavior because it is unacceptable. I would also like to point out that it was clearly edited for shock value. They focused on a few parents but they did not show all of the other parents that did not agree to such hideous things. I find that is the case with most programs that are focusing on stage parents. They never include the positive stories because for some reason people tend to be more entertained by the drama.
Liz: How often do you see parents who are more enthused about the idea of their kid being a working actor than the kid him or herself?
Lorena: I see it all the time. I think we all see it all the time -- in acting, football, basketball, karate etc. We even see it in parents guiding their kids education. I, unfortunately, only get to address the actors. I do my best to keep the parent informed of the child's interest, progress and motivation. I try to be honest without insulting anyone. You get to know kids and their talents pretty quickly when you have them in class. I also use acting as a tool to prepare kids for life experiences. I recently had a teen who wasn't so sure he wanted to be an actor but did know he loved football and maybe one day would play professionally. In class, we did exercises to better his interviewing skills so he would be prepared to be interviewed by reporters after a big game.
Liz: We see many young celebrities who aren't able to make an easy transition into adult life. In fact, I spoke with "The Brady Bunch's" Christopher Knight last year and he said that the amount of attention child stars get can tend to "go off the deep end" when no longer surrounded by adoring fans, managers, agents. How do you counsel parents to keep their kids grounded?
Olivia: I think at any age the amount of attention that actors get can be very overwhelming. When they first start to get recognition for their success it can be out of control, especially in a day and age that is so celebrity obsessed. So if all that attention is then taken away it can take a toll on one's self-esteem. This is one of the reasons we started to teach parents. It is vital that they are prepared for what is ahead. We try to drill it into their heads that what happens in the future starts now. We recommend they do their best to not let their child's acting become their identity. Parents need to act as an example to outsiders as far as how their child should be treated and what is discussed in front of them.
I always recommend that money is not negotiated with the child present because this can become a pressure that no kid should be part of. The business should be kept amongst adults. Grades, chores and other interests play a huge role in keeping a child grounded. Parents shouldn't let people kiss their little booties! They need to put their foot down and bring them back down to earth.
Liz: Which young stars do you point to as examples of good career choices and products of good parenting?
Olivia: I'm a huge fan of Dakota Fanning, Natalie Portman and Elijah Wood. These are all actors who started really young and have maintained tremendous careers. I respect their film choices and admire their ability to stay grounded. Reese Witherspoon is my all-time favorite example. Her father was a military surgeon and her mother had a Ph.D in nursing. Reese began modeling at the age of seven which led to several commercials. In 1990 she landed her first big role [in] "The Man in the Moon." That is when her career took off. After graduating high school, Reese put her acting career on hold and attended Stanford University. She did end up putting that aside to continue making blockbuster films.
Liz: Is it possible for a kid to be a working actor and still be a normal kid?
Lorena: Absolutely. First let me start by telling you that there is a whole world out there of child actors who most people aren't even aware of. I like to call them "the mini working class." There are tons of child actors who go to acting class once a week, audition regularly and go to school just like everyone else. Annually, they shoot 3-4 commercials, work on a couple of print jobs and film maybe two guest spots on television. These kids end up working a total of maybe three weeks out of the year and maybe earn $45,000. The child stars that the media focuses on are the exception, not the norm.
With that said, I do believe that if you set limits and do your best to have the child involved in normal day to day activities with responsibilities and rules, then yes they can be normal. The parent sets the example for what behavior is acceptable. This applies to the child I just mentioned, to the child just starting and to the child who works five days a week on a series. I have met plenty of both.
Liz: Are either of you moms and, if so, would you encourage your kids to try their hand at show business?
Lorena: I have a three-and-a-half year old boy. If my child wants to be an actor when he's old enough to decide on his own then sure I would support it. I would try my best to help him and make sure he has other activities and interests. With that said, my son has already done a couple of modeling jobs. I find modeling to be pretty easy on the kids. He's at the age where they mostly hire twins and triplets for jobs so he gets auditions no more than once per month and modeling jobs are usually completed in a couple of hours. Now if he wants to be in film and TV, then it will have to be when he is a little older and he is able to make that decision. By the way, I do have a baby girl on the way and I hear it tends to run in the family so, who knows, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.
| July 22, 2009; 11:20 AM ET
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