I don’t get approached as often as I once did, but for many years and every once in awhile now I am asked: “How do I get my child in television?” Sometimes “television” becomes “movies.” Rarer still is how to make it on Broadway. It seems that far too many parents want to see their kids on the silver (or small) screen.
I generally begin by gauging who is really interested in this venture. Is it a “stage mom” (sometimes it’s dad, but typcially mom) situation or someone with a highly romanticized notion about the business? If so, I generally say as little as possible to the former and slap down the latter with harsh reality (i.e. the average actor makes less than $5,000 per year, so how is your kid gonna support himself… blah blah blah). If it seems that the kid is driving the mom or the child has inherent talent, I always ask this question: “Does your child want to perform or does your child want to work?”
The overwhelming majority of kids who want “to act” really just want to perform. They want to be the center of attention, hear the applause, take a bow, have fun. This is normal child behavior. Please read the emphasized words again. Normal kids don’t want to go to work; they want to play and have fun. It is your job, as a parent, to make sure you understand the difference in motivation for your child.
My daughter first got involved in acting when she was six. It was not by design that she should become a professional actor. It was just another day of “spaghetti parenting.” As in, throw it at a wall and see if it sticks. By that point, she was already completing her third year of school (we had placed her in private school because there was no gifted option in our area school district; she could have grade skipped, but I didn’t think that was a good choice for our family). I had already put her in gymnastics (moderate interest), piano lessons (ditto), ice hockey (she was great at it but hated it), and dance (hated even more than hockey). When I saw there was a regional theater having open calls for the kids’ roles in The Sound of Music, I thought, “Okay, one more thing to try her out in.” It was the proverbial duck to water.
My daughter adored working. Not playing. In fact, she generally preferred to play alone, somewhat owing to the fact that she was (at that time) an only child. She took her work very seriously, and by the time she was eight, she was performing in as many as three professional productions at one time (okay, she was only performing in two—she was only in the first act of one show and the second of the other and the theaters were across the street from one another; the third production was in rehearsals, which were held before or between her performances). Yes, at eight years old, she was that disciplined. A parent cannot create that kind of desire in a child. No amount of cajoling will get a piano prodigy to sit at the keyboard for three hours a day or a math genius to devise new equations “for fun.”
My daughter is arguably a very successful actor. She gets dozens of auditions and worked steadily throughout her adolescence. She makes more than the “average” actor, but nowhere close to enough to fund her college (for which she got a full merit scholarship), let alone pay rent in a city like NYC. And money aside, this is a brutal business with no rhyme or reason to who succeeds, which projects get funding, and who is left out in the cold.
Thus, if after reading all of this, you still think your kid wants to be an actor, I want to make several recommendations:
- Educate yourself… and listen to what you hear!!! There’s this mentality that other actors or parents of actors won’t help you out because they’re worried about the competition. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. Successful actors are happy to help you learn from their mistakes, but you have to be willing to hear them when they say “the odds are against you.”
- Do not go broke over this venture. You may not need classes or headshots or—worst of all—”casting sessions” that guarantee you access to industry insiders. There is no way to guarantee you’ll make it in this business, but there are plenty of shysters who will happily separate an over eager parent with a precocious tyke from her money! Think about sports: You don’t sign your son up for little league with an eye on the MLB. If someone told you $20,000 would guarantee he’d make it to the big leagues, you’d never buy it, so don’t fall for the same trick in the entertainment world.
- Your job is to be the parent. You are not a manager or an agent or anything else; you are your kid’s mom/dad. Act like the parent and you’ll never go wrong.
- Set reasonable and realistic goals: Are you trying to get your shy kid to blossom? Looking to set up a college fund? Is it an older child interested in a future career as an adult actor? Depending on where you want to go, you will have a different set of goals.
- Be ready to let go when your child is unhappy. There may be days when your kid doesn’t want to practice her violin, and you’ll bribe/force her to practice. However, if your child were wetting herself in terror over a recital, you probably wouldn’t make her perform on stage. Or if a formerly happy child was suddenly forlorn, you’d want to address that. Same goes for your acting kid. Your kid has a finite number of years to be a child; don’t force them to go to work at the expense of that childhood.
Finally, here are some amazing resources for you. Before launching any effort for your child to “become an actor,” you need to understand the business and what roadblocks you will inevitably face.
- The best parenting resource is BizParentz (and if you like them, please donate $10; these two women have brought laws protecting child actors into the states and pedophiles working in the business to prison; they’re as good as it gets, and their own children are no longer in the business but they continue their good work).
- If you want to know everything there is to know about everything that could possibly happen with your child in this business at every possible level (from newbie to Oscar contender), go to PARF (Parents of Actors Resource Forum) and buy the DelphiPlus for searching back 10 years. Alternatively, pay nothing, read what you can (three months back for non-DelphiPlus), and then ask questions you haven’t found answers to. Chances are a moderator will bump the thread. Just be sure to read the rules and agree to them. This is the best moderated board in the business, and—again—they’re all volunteers.
- Finally, a great resource for trying to break into the business is Bonnie Gillespie’s Self Management for Actors (new edition just came out). Or read her columns for free here.