The Toronto Star - Arts Story: Acting's not child's play - July 8, 2000
Acting's not child's play
School may be out, but for pint-sized actors, summer's no time to slack off
By Jim Bawden
Toronto Star Television Columnist
A junior high corridor is jammed with chattering kids, loitering during the final day of this year's school term.
Then the doors at the far end open with a crash and several boys furiously
skateboard their way down the hall and out of sight.
What's so unusual about all this? Well, it could be the presence of a particularly fetching 14-year-old female alien complete with blue makeup and matching blue bouffant hairdo. Or it could be the normal-looking boy who is wearing a sparkly spacesuit.
And then there's the stern voice barking, ``Cut.''
A look around reveals that the hall is filled with a television crew. The kids are really eager young actors.
``We'll have to try harder,'' director Carl Goldstein says wearily. He's guiding an episode of the hit TV series I Was A Sixth Grade Alien (on YTV in Canada). The title of the Alliance Atlantis series says it all: A little blue-haired alien Pleskit (Ryan Cooley) comes to planet Earth with his diplomatic father and it's decided he should attend a ``normal'' school.
With real school out for the summer, I Was A Sixth Grade Alien is just one of many TV productions revving up across Toronto - shows that use a lot of young actors can shoot all summer long and avoid the mandatory two hours of schooling.
On the set of I Was A Sixth Grade Alien, over lunch, Goldstein says the first season of the show was a bit easier - the principal actors were 11 and still basically youngsters. Now that most have hit 12 or even 14, they're beginning to become self-conscious.
``Acting is lifting up that barrier,'' he says, smiling ruefully. As the kids mature, they put up barriers to acting naturally.
On this particular day, he has to get the skateboarders to tackle their scene with more energy and to get the actors perked up so they'll appear fresher, more enthusiastic.
The scene will get done, but there is a time crunch - the company is already behind in the day's schedule. It's just that whenever a TV series or movie calls for actors under 18, it's a whole new ball game in terms of time and money. There are union regulations about the number of hours a youngster can work and how many breaks he must get in a day.
On I Was A Sixth Grade Alien, the two big stars are Ryan Cooley, 12, and Daniel Clark, 14, and there are half a dozen supporting players around the same age. Leah Cudmore, 14, has just been added as a semi-regular - as the blue-haired female alien named Blur.
Ryan and Daniel are unusual compared to most child actors because they're in almost every scene. They're the big stars of this series, even if they are only kids. During this period of intense emotional and physical growth, they're being asked to handle adult responsibilities.
``The kids are fantastic, quite brilliant,'' enthuses Sixth Grade Alien co-creator and executive producer Daphne Ballon.
There is a huge pool of young competitors out there. The Alliance Of Canadian Cinema, Television And Radio Arts
(ACTRA) says there are more than 1,100 actors under age 18 registered in the Toronto region alone - that's one in eight ACTRA members. For a child to get an ACTRA membership she has to win an audition for a speaking part or have a part in a commercial.
There's also a huge pool of wannabe actors under 18 enrolled in drama schools, taking dance lessons or signed up with modelling agencies.
This is the season for them to obtain work - most TV series with a significant number of kids do most of their filming in the summer. During the school year, ACTRA regulations dictate each child must get at least two hours a day of schooling, and this can slow down filming. Actors under 12 can only work a total of eight hours a day (including schooling). Those 12 to 15 years old can work an additional two hours, but not every day.
Right now, there are 40 TV and movie productions shooting in Toronto using minors. ACTRA inspectors must visit the sites to monitor working conditions. But ACTRA spokesperson Alex Gill estimates at least 20 per cent of work on commercials is non-union. He cites a recent example of a young kid who was hired for a big-time commercial that had worldwide play and the child received only $500.
The ACTRA agreement says after the first $5,000 in salary at least 25 per cent must be banked in a fund the actor can't touch until he hits 18. A young lead actor in a series starts at a base salary of about $2,000 an episode, and it goes up from there (residuals come later). The Star's Sid Adilman said Sarah Polley earned $1.5 million for her six seasons on Road To Avonlea, which would make her the highest paid youngster ever on Canadian TV.
In the past, before tougher rules, there were stories of greedy parents spending every cent and leaving their children poor and uneducated.
But nowadays, education is enforced.
Last week, during the final days of school, Sixth Grade Alien star Ryan Cooley was still squeezing in some last-minute studying in a fully furnished school room run by veteran tutor Laurie Farrance. She's been tutoring young actors for 14 years on such series as Road To Avonlea and Wind At My Back.
ACTRA regulations dictate she gets a separate, quiet room on the set and a quiet corner if the company is on a location.
``(Child actors) memorize so quickly, and most are very smart,'' she says. If there's a special need in a subject she can't handle, she calls for reinforcements. She meets with the kids' regular teachers and faxes them the tests she administers.
Being a child star doesn't mean a life of limousines and autographs. Sixth Grade Alien's Ryan and Daniel face long days before the cameras, and they spend their nights memorizing the next day's dialogue - which can run from seven to 10 pages.
Plus, it takes 45 minutes to apply Ryan's blue makeup every morning. The first year he dyed his hair blue, but this year has opted for a wig.
Ryan, who scored a hit in community theatre in Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang before getting his first commercial at 9 for an insurance company, can talk knowingly about how to get a good agent and how to nail an audition.
About acting, he says, ``It's fun for me. I have fun on the set, it's like a second family.''
Co-star Daniel is even more of a veteran. He moved from South Florida with his parents and actor-brother Robert Clark. Mom Suzanne Clark had the two boys audition for roles in Ragtime and Beauty And The Beast. Daniel snagged the role of Chip in Beauty and played it for eight months before jumping to a lead in his first TV series, Eerie, Indiana.
At 14, he knows exactly what he wants to be when he grows up - an actor. And he's blasé about not getting every audition he goes to: ``It's nothing to be upset about.''
Today's hot, young actors say getting started is the hardest part of the game. Katie Boland, who nabbed the sole female stint on the new YTV series, The Zack Files, comes from a showbiz background - her mom is photographer-director Gail Harvey, dad is journalist Kevin Boland. But that didn't make things any easier for her.
She decided she had to act when she was 8. ``My mom didn't want me to start so early, but I pestered her.'' Boland eventually won the lead in the TV movie, The Third Twin, followed by leads in other TV movies and the film Striking Poses, directed by her mom.
She's only 12, mind you, but is already saying things like, ``It's amazing I can recreate human life. Acting is like self-discovery. For me, it's a true love.''
At 17, Dylan Provencher is already a veteran. He'll be seen this fall in the fifth and possibly last season of Sullivan Films' Wind At My Back, but he has a slew of credits in TV movies and other series as well.
`The biggest problem for (former child stars) still acting? The reruns. People want them to be that young forever'
|-Linda Schuyler, producer of the popular Degrassi series.
``My parents saw me mimicking at age 6,'' he says ``And they got me training. At 9, I tried for an agent, but it didn't work out. I got one at age 11. I'm home-schooled, and my mother is my tutor, and keeping up in school is not difficult. It really depends who you are. I have fantastic parents.''
Marc Donato has been acting since he was 4. He got his big break when he was hired to play John F. Kennedy as a boy in the TV flick JFK: Reckless Youth. At 11, he's already done 20 movies and was recently nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of a disturbed boy in the TV special Locked In Silence.
Because he's worked mostly on movies, which have much shorter shooting schedules, keeping up with schoolwork has ``not been hard at all.''
Corey Sevier, 16, who will star in the second and final season of Little Men on CTV this fall, was signed up at a modelling agency by his mother when he was a baby, and he's been acting ever since. By age 7, he was in TV commercials. Little Men has been one of his best gigs because the set is 20 minutes away from his home. He also starred in four seasons of Lassie.
``I missed the school parties, the trips, I missed my team's big soccer game,'' Sevier says, referring to the toll acting can take on a personal life. ``A big disappointment was recently losing a part to a 22-year-old who looked 16. The producers didn't want to make special arrangements for a minor.'' He'd like to go on to either Ryerson Polytechnic University or Sheridan College to study film.
Acting is only one part of a young actor's life. All speak about the need to get a really good agent to represent them. Some agents specialize in representing young clients. And the right agent can be a friend for life.
Agent Gayle Abrams, who is considered among the best, speaks of former client Andrew Bednarski who ``retired'' at the age of 18 to study - he's just about to start his Ph.D in archeology at Cambridge University.
``He just phoned to say thank you, which is typical of that family,'' says Abrams. The Bednarskis had three boys in the business. Besides Andrew, there's Stephen and Robert. Andrew, who starred in the series Katts & Dog at age 12, says it was mostly a positive experience.
In the series' second season, he travelled to Paris to film episodes. On other assignments, he went to California. Both his parents are teachers and tutored him on sets and insisted he not work much overtime. (Some parents accept under-the-counter payments to allow their kids to work long and late.)
``I had two lives that I lived'' he says. Most of the time he went to a Catholic high school, but in Grade 9, he had 49 absences. Making friends was difficult. But his parents banked his considerable earnings, enabling him to go to Cambridge (at a cost of $40,000 a year).
His last acting job was a few years back as a guest on the TV series, Psi Factor. Brother Stephen, who's working on a Ph.D at University of Toronto, still does dubbing assignments.
Some child stars never make the leap into acting as an adult - one producer told me that on his latest show, he was startled to see a former kid star was one of the drivers - while others grow up haunted by their past.
``A few of my Degrassi regulars are still acting,'' says producer Linda Schuyler. On her popular Canadian series, which followed a group of kids through their school years to high school graduation, she used many first-time actors. ``Life (on the set) was as balanced as possible. I was very mindful of giving them the first two weeks of September off to adjust to their new schools.
``The biggest problem for those still acting? The reruns,'' says Schuyler. ``People want them to be that young forever.''
Some of the Degrassi kids were recently reunited on the CBC teen talk show, Jonovision. Many spoke wistfully of their years as hot teen stars.
Certainly the tabloids are always filled with lurid details of the latest ex-child star who has run amok, from the former Mouseketeer who took it all off to the latest one to enter rehab.
But there are some solid Canadian success stories. As a child, Megan Follows starred in Matt And Jenny and The Baxters for Canadian TV; she continues to act in her 30s. Sarah Polley, of Road To Avonlea, came from an acting family and has prospered in such movies as The Sweet Hereafter and Go. Jerry O'Connell, an American import, starred in My Secret Identity in Toronto for three seasons and left for a career in Hollywood.
The Vancouver series Madison produced Barry Pepper, Chad Willett and Jonathan Scarfe, all now successful in U.S. ventures. And there's Hayden Christensen who will jump from the new Canadian series Higher Ground to possible stardom in the next Star Wars flick.
Click. Production is revving up on The Zack Files, the latest pre-teen series debuting this fall on YTV (and on the Fox Family Channel in the U.S.). Made by Toronto's DECODE Entertainment, it's all about an affable 12-year-old, Zack
Greenburg, and his paranormal experiences.
On this warm afternoon, the production trucks are parked outside the University of Toronto's University College for a day of on-location filming.
Because this is a set with a lot of active kids, craft foods officer Gail Gritten has slapped a ban on junk food and caffeine. That means no doughnuts, no coffee and no Coke, much to the chagrin of the adult crew members.
Instead, she doles out trays of fresh fruit and vegetable platters. The kid get drowsy after lunch, so she serves them Ovaltine for a quick picker-upper.
In a university classroom, some of the kids in the cast are studying, while down the hall, three 13-year-old co-stars, Jake Epstein, Robert Clark and Michael Seater, sit uneasily for a Toronto Star photographer. Robert looks awfully familiar - older brother Dan is the star on I Was A Sixth Grade Alien.
The Zack Files' producer John Delmage has worked with enough kids on his previous series The Campbells and My Secret Identity to qualify as a child psychologist. He says the three Zack Files principals were hired for their acting ability and might well continue in the profession as adults.
Delmage has to finish each episode in four to five days, and in order to complete the season's 26 episodes, the company will be working well into the fall. The series goes on location, which can always be distracting for kids. Delmage knows he has to give the kids breaks or they'll wilt.
It'll be easier in the summer months with school out, he says. But making a series starring kids is a tricky, costly business.
The buzzers ring and the three co-stars trudge off to their next scene.
Well . . . they wanted to act, and that's what they'll be doing all summer long.
One adult remembers the other day the young actors stopped working to wistfully watch some regular kids playing baseball in a park. ``It is very difficult. Sometimes it's hard to motivate them.''