A star is born: What it takes to be a child actor

With children dreaming of starring in the Late Late Toy Show or pantos, it’s important to remember they need to have fun too, writes Arlene Harris.

IT’S that time of year again when children up and down the country will be displaying their talents in Nativity plays, Christmas concerts, pantos, and, of course, the Late Late Toy Show.

Eimear O’Mahony, producer of the annual toy fest, says hundreds of performers are selected each year and during auditions, she and her team look for something special and unique that showcases the best young performers Ireland has to offer.

“We love seeing children who might otherwise shy away from the limelight but who love to sing, play a musical instrument, dance, or perform,” she says.

“The performances are a key part of the show and add that extra bit of magic to the Toy Show each year, so we love when a truly unique performer comes our way. In fact, the Strypes were launched on the Toy Show back in 2010 and a young Imelda May appeared on the show in 1986.

“In the audition process, trad music is as strong as ever and it’s really encouraging to see so many fantastically talented Irish musicians coming to us time and time again. The only thing that really differs from year to year are the songs that kids are choosing to perform in their audition and that’s usually led by what’s popular in the charts at the time.”

Beyond the excitement of appearing in the Toy Show, being a child performer is a serious commitment.

Vincent Lambe of Young Artists Management in Dublin, who has clients involved in every major production in Ireland, says the majority of casting calls are for children aged from six to 15 but it’s not just a great singing voice or an ability to carry off the most convincing role — determination is also a big factor.

“It takes talent, but also a lot of dedication, patience and luck,” he says. “Directors often like children to have some drama experience so a good place to start would be by enrolling in a drama school, but it’s not necessarily a requirement as sometimes children with no experience whatsoever will take direction wonderfully and can be capable of a very subtle, natural performance.

“And for film and television, that’s very important — children should never try to act or do too much. The audience needs to be convinced by their performance and they should never feel as though they are being played.”

But putting on a performance and always striving to be the best can take its toll on children and Lambe says it’s important for parents not to put too much pressure on their would-be stars.

“It can be very disheartening when they don’t get cast in a role, especially if they have put in a lot of preparation and been called back several times,” he says. “It’s important that parents manage their child’s expectations and always prepare them for the possibility of not being cast.”

Fiona Brennan of Brennan Acting Agency in Kildare says a parent needs to know if their child is able to bounce back from hearing ‘No, sorry, not this time’. “And after the initial disappointment passes, they should assess if their child is happy and excited to audition again,” she advises.

“Hours on set are regulated for children but the reality of working on set is not as glamorous as many believe — so they need good stamina and discipline to work and enjoy the process. However, children who love acting and have the right aptitude for it have wonderful experiences on set.”

Child psychotherapist Joanna Fortune and author of 15-minute Parenting, says parents need to ensure they are not projecting their own ambitions onto their children and should ensure the experience is always positive. “The fun stuff in children’s lives is supposed to be exactly that, fun,” says the child and parent psychotherapist.

“If your child expresses interest in a specific type of extracurricular activity, their curiosity and desire should always be encouraged. Some children might show exceptional talent and parents will face the choice of monetising the hobby, if this is where you are at consider the impact on your child’s enjoyment of the activity. And if they can still draw pleasure from it then it is no harm.

“Always be aware of whose desire you are pursuing, is it your child who wants this or you who want this for your child — or perhaps even for yourself through your child as a way of fulfilling your own unmet desires.”

Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell says parents need to look at the big picture. “If a child dreams of being on the big screen, make sure their life is also filled with friends, age-appropriate activities such as sports, hobbies, and, of course, family.

“Keep your child grounded, don’t over emphasise looks, fame or fortune. Instead, encourage their talents and interests and remind your child that achieving in any sphere requires a range talents and a lot of hard work.”

There have been many memorable child stars over the years — Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin, Lindsey Lohan. 

However, children today are likely to experience a somewhat different route to stardom than the icons of yesteryear.

Lambe says the digital age has made auditions and the industry somewhat easier. “The casting process has changed a lot with technology and it’s very common these days for casting directors to request ‘self-tapes’ and ask parents to record the audition scene for the first round of casting.”

“They will always have limited audition slots so by accepting self-taped auditions, it means that they can consider a much wider range of candidates today than they could previously.

“In addition, for children aged under 16, the production company must apply for a child licence (granted by NERA, the National Employment Rights Agency) and adhere to the conditions of employment as set out by the licence. Also, a chaperone must be present on set at all times.”

Brennan, who only uses children’s first names on her website to protect their identity, says there are strict procedures in place and that the required licence ensures the production company follows guidelines for working with children. “All children under the age of 16 require a licence for their safe protection — including restrictions on working hours, having a chaperone on set, guidelines on breaks for the child, and a cap on the number of hours they can work,” she says.

“Also the child must be deemed healthy and fit to work and a doctor’s letter is sometimes required to confirm same.”

According to Lambe, the permitted hours of work vary depending on the age of the child; under-fives cannot work for more than five hours a day and must be given a rest every 30 minutes. Children aged seven to 13 can work a maximum of seven and a half hours a day, with rest every 45 minutes. Those aged over 13 can work a maximum of eight hours with an interval every hour.

“When filming takes place during school time, the production company must get special permission from the principal and make arrangements depending on the extent that they are required,” he says.

“And an on-set tutor would be provided in cases where their absence from school exceeds one week, but otherwise, their teachers would assign additional homework to ensure that their schoolwork is unaffected.”

If, after taking everything into consideration, your child is still interested in becoming an actor, Brennan has some advice on getting started in the industry. “A child needs strong natural acting ability, stamina, discipline, and good listening skills to be able to take direction,” she says.

“Many acting agents will take on young actors and their details are readily available online. Also, many well-established performing arts schools give their students the option of being represented.

“So if a child has an interest in acting, performing art classes are a wonderful way of nurturing their raw talent and building their confidence in a fun and safe environment.”

According to Lorraine Barry of Billy Barry Stage School, not every young performer needs to have Hollywood in their sights as the very act of being on a stage is hugely beneficial.

“There is no greater thrill and confidence boost than hearing the sound of applause and this can do so much for a child’s self-esteem,” she says.

“Not everyone is going to be hugely talented or gifted but I believe it’s very important for children to be able to express themselves — I have seen time and time again, children who were hesitant at first, slowly open up and lose their inhibitions in an environment which feels secure.

“Performing is open to everyone on every level and should always be encouraged.”

‘If she didn’t like being on set, she wouldn’t be there’

MOLLY MCCANN

Molly McCann, seven, plays the role of Madison in Roddy Doyle’s film ‘Rosie’. Her first acting job was in a McDonald’s advert aged five. Picture: Maura Hickey

Molly McCann from Maynooth is seven years old and plays the role of Madison in Roddy Doyle’s film Rosie. She also filmed this year alongside Emile Hirsch and John Cusack for a feature film Never Grow Old (due for release in 2019).

Since her first acting job in a McDonald’s advert aged five, the little girl has performed in numerous theatre and film productions. Both of her parents (actors Noella Brennan and Ronnie McCann) are in the industry and mum Noella explains how her daughter’s acting career came about.

“Molly never showed an interest in ‘stardom’ but always loved to sing and dance. We never had to encourage her to get involved as she loved playing drama games. She joined Brennan Performing Arts when she was three years old and also performed many times in school shows.

“Over the years, she has been fortunate to work with great production companies and if she didn’t like being on set, she wouldn’t be there. It would be like putting your child in a football team if they didn’t like football, there’s no point. It’s not for everyone but she loves it.

“She can be shy when meeting new people and she doesn’t talk about her work with friends or her teacher as the idea of fame or stardom would mean nothing to her, nor should it.

“Acting can be a difficult enough profession and you have to really love it and be able for the highs and the lows. At the moment, Molly is so young, if she gets more opportunities, that’s great because she does love it, but if she doesn’t, that’s grand too — she’ll be just as happy in school with her friends and doing all the things that young children love to do.”

GLEN NEE

Glen Nee, 17, loved drama from a young age but it is important not to take it too seriously or set out to become famous, his mother Tina says. Picture: Maura Hickey

Glen is originally from Galway but now lives in Kildare. He has been acting since he was seven years old. His parts have included numerous shots for DIT graduate films (including Groundless with Aoibhinn McGinnity which won best new short at Galway Film Fleadh 2017), a Vodafone commercial, Riper Street, Drop Dead Weird and his first full feature film role of Vernon (the baddie) in Zoo.

“My favourite things about performing are playing very different roles,” says Glenn who is now aged 17. “It’s always exciting to read a new script and become that character - and I love the actual filming - basically I really love being on set with the whole cast and crew. And what I’d really like to happen is to follow acting as a career and become very successful.”

His mother Tina (who is married to Dermot and also has a 19-year-old daughter called Laura) says Glen loved drama from a young age and it has been really beneficial to his development but says it is important not to take it too seriously or set out to become famous.

“The pros of having a child involved in acting are numerous. It has given Glen self-confidence, has taught him patience and helped him become articulate and polite and doesn’t let the word “no” knock him back. He has had amazing experiences and travelled to wonderful places and made very special friends.

“The cons are few but you do have to have a thick skin. He could do four auditions and be told he’s “on pencil” and then get the news that it didn’t go his way.

“But when the next audition comes along, I’ll ask if he wants to do it and the answer is always ‘yes’.”

ON THE MONEY

According to agent Vincent Lambe, the rate of pay will vary depending on the type of work undertaken.

“For feature films and TV shows, it would be a standard daily rate of around €250-€350 per day plus a chaperone fee of €100-€150 per day,” he says. “With TV commercials, in addition to the daily rate, there will always be a usage fee which can range from around €1,000-€3,000 (depending on how featured they are) allowing advertising agencies to screen the commercial for up to one year.

“If they decide to renew the commercial at the end of the licence period, the same usage fee would be payable for year two and so on.”


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