The Business of Show Biz: Child Wants to Act
Friday, December 4, 2015
By Velina Brown
Q: I have an eleven-year-old daughter who wants to be an actor. She wants to have a TV show like the ones she sees on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. She has taken a four-week on-camera acting class and also done some plays and assemblies at school; she gets lots of good responses to her performances, and her on-camera teacher said she was good. But we don’t really know what to do next. It seems like we would have to relocate the family to Los Angeles for her to really have a chance at starring in a TV show. It’s an investment for the whole family to support this dream. And frankly, I’m worried about her going into a business where so many children end up totally crazy, on drugs, shoplifting, etc. by the time they are in their teens. Not everyone turns out that way, obviously, but how do I make sure that doesn’t happen to my child?
|Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: As parents of a child who acts as well, my husband Michael Gene Sullivan and I share your concern about how to keep our children safe, healthy and happy while working in the “biz.” It is an ongoing discussion for us. I also asked my friend and fellow actor Erin-Kate Whitcome, who likewise has two children who act, if she had some thoughts on your question as well. Together, the three of us came up with some tips we hope will be helpful.
First of all, moving to Los Angeles is a big step. If that sounds like something you and your family are excited to do because you are interested in living there anyway, then do it. But if the only reason you would be moving there is for your daughter’s career, then it seems a bit premature to uproot everyone at this point. So far she’s taken a class and done some school plays—and that’s a fine start. But to build a career, she will need marketing tools and relationships with casting directors. There’s plenty to do where you currently live, as long as you are in (or near) at least a mid-sized market. So let’s say, for example, you live in the San Francisco Bay Area. To get started, she will need to:
Get a good quality headshot.
Your marketing efforts begin with this step, no matter where you live. I can recommend:
Register on SF Casting.
You’ll use this great headshot on SF Casting’s website to find out about job opportunities. Many of these opportunities are for extra work on film, television and commercials. There’s also quite a bit of commercial print work as well. Michael points out, “These jobs will be a training ground not only for your child but also for you. The little jobs will help you learn what it’s like on set and how to be an advocate for your child when the stakes are lower.” (More on that later.)
Get a reputable SAG-AFTRA franchised agent.
An agent works to get your child principal roles, as opposed to the many extra gigs listed with the casting websites. This could be an agency that specializes in representing children, like Marla Dell Talent Agency, or agencies that are mostly adults but also have a children’s division. My son has been with the same agency as my husband and I—JE Talent— since he was a baby, and it has been great for us.
Finally - continue studying the craft of acting.
Once she's done these things, see how it goes. If, in a couple years, she is getting some traction—and she is still having fun and feeling passionate about the work—then evaluate again the idea of moving. Take some time to be sure, because what if, after she’s actually gotten some principal roles on projects shot locally, she realizes she’s not that excited about being an actor after all? Perhaps she’ll find that having to be on the set super early in the morning isn’t so glamorous. Maybe doing the same scene repeatedly for the long shot, the medium shot, the angles and the close-ups will turn out to be tedious for her, rather than exciting. It’d be a shame to have relocated your family only to find acting was a passing fancy. And you wouldn’t want her to feel pressure to continue with something she doesn’t like because the family has made such a big sacrifice for her.
While you are making the most of where you are, Erin-Kate offers the following list of suggestions for parents (and in italics I offer my additions):
1. Never fuss over her when she is auditioning for or working jobs.
2. Always help her prepare for auditions as a matter of having a work ethic so she can feel relaxed and know what to expect.
3. Don’t talk more about acting/performing/print work than other life matters. In fact, talk about those things quite a bit less.
4. Have a healthy dismissal of expectations after auditions or go-sees, moving on to the rest of life. In general, an actor auditions for far more projects than she’ll be cast in. So teach her to prepare and do her best in the moment, then let it go.
5. Never make an audition “important,” but make jobs important, as jobs are commitments and she is being paid to do good work. I love how Erin-Kate put this.
6. Never compare her to other kids in any way.
7. Never fuss over her in an audition wait room: Here Erin-Kate said, “No fixing hair, no talking about other kids or setting them up as competition, or telling your child who s/he can or can’t talk to.” I agree, however, I admit to fussing a bit over my son’s hair because he wears it in a large afro that can get pushed out of shape. So I have made sure it’s round before he’s gone into an audition. But it is best to avoid making your child feel that their looks are overly important or making them feel self-conscious.
8. Avoid engaging with stage mothers. Erin-Kate says, “That part is for me!” If you are dealing with a stage parent that is very competitive, it can make the time in the waiting room more stressful than it has to be, and you could inadvertently transfer some of that stress to your child.
The point is that the more emphasis there is on the normal aspects of your child’s life, such as going to school, having friends outside the business, doing chores just like everyone else, the easier it will be to keep her grounded.
And finally, I want to underline the importance of being there as an advocate for your child. When she is working, the producer, director and crew are looking out for the production. You must look out for your child. Most parents would say, “Well, of course I’ll look out for my child!” But sometimes the pressure of the situation, and fear of making the production people upset, can intimidate a parent into silence when they might need to speak up. For example, there was an incident on a television shoot involving children when the director was having difficulty getting a shot the way he wanted it. The difficulties that the director was encountering caused him to shoot more takes than usual of the same scene, until eventually one of the children in the scene needed to go to the bathroom. She told her mother, who was there on the set, that she needed to pee. But the mother didn’t tell the girl she could go. Instead, the mother deferred to the crew—who kept saying, in response to the girl’s request for a bathroom break, “In a minute.” Finally, she just couldn’t hold it any longer and wet her pants.
Obviously, this was a humiliating moment for the child. And the shooting had to stop anyway for the child’s costume to be laundered before work could continue. So, the production team lost time by not just letting her go to the bathroom when she first asked. They had gotten tunnel-visioned about trying to get the shot. Therefore, the mother who was right there needed to intervene on behalf of her daughter and tell her between shots to go ahead and pee, averting the traumatizing experience. But the mom was apparently overawed by the situation and left her daughter exposed.
I share this story because that’s the other question I have for you: do you feel up to the task of shielding your child from potentially harmful situations? Of course, you don’t want to be that crazy stage parent making all kinds of ridiculous, pompous demands. But as Michael points out, “Parents think that they will automatically be advocates for their kids, but when surrounded by the production team, the lights, the cameras, it’s easy to forget that your kid is looking to you to be the grown-up and take care of them.”
We teach our children by our behavior. I hope, anyway, that by supporting them, preparing them and advocating for them, we can role-model for them successfully—healthily navigating a business that can be both tough and a heck of a lot of fun. All the best.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.