Spurred by the phenomenal appeal of Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone,” Hollywood is searching for small children it can turn into big stars.
Text by Zoe F. Carter
Photographs and captions by Mary Ellen Mark
EDWARD FURLONG, 14
“TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY”, THE UPCOMING “AMERICAN HEART”
“Besides being a wonderful-looking boy, he’s very focused. I think he’s going to be a big star. He has that instinct, that intuition about acting.”
CHRISTINA RICCI, 11
"MERMAIDS"; "THE HARD WAY"; "THE ADDAMS FAMILY"
"Child actors have this kind of concentration that other kids don't. She's incredibly serious. She has a beautiful, almost sensual quality."
DANIEL AND JOSHUA SHALIKAR, 3
THE UPCOMING "HONEY, I BLEW UP THE BABY"
"They were, like, all over the place. The first thing they said when they saw the camera was 'No!'And I thought, 'Uh-oh, this isn't going to be easy."
ROBERT OLIVERI, 13
"HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS"; "EDWARD SCISSORHANDS" THE UPCOMING "HONEY, I BLEW UP THE BABY"
With his mother and brother Christopher, 5. "His mother was very proud of him. He was about to go off to work-he was all packed. His younger brother was vying for attention-he wanted to be an actor, too."
Employment opportunities for minors have never looked so good. All across America, armies of casting directors are combing shopping malls, infiltrating elementary schools, even going to summer camps in search of fresh and adorable young faces to turn into box office gold. Not since Shirley Temple pouted her way into America's heart in films like Little Miss Marker and Dimples have child actors been in such demand -thanks in large part to last Christmas's smash hit Home Alone. Not only is it the third-highest-grossing film of all time, it spawned the first bona fide child star this country has seen in 50 years: the then-ten-year-old Macaulay Culkin.
In proving that a child can carry a film single-handedly, Home Alone uncovered a giant audience of moviegoers hungry for what used to be known as family entertainment. Films featuring winsome toddlers and precocious pubescents are fast becoming the trend of the '90s. According to Brian Reilly, the forty-something dad who was one of the producers of Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, "We baby boomers are always looking for entertainment to take kids to, and I think you'd have to have your head in the sand not to realize that there is a huge interest in these projects with kids in them."
But finding lovable children who can handle major roles is no easy task. Casting directors usually begin by looking at kids "in the business"-the ones who already have an agent and some work experience. But many film people say they actually prefer to cast nonprofessional children. They claim that a child who has acted before, especially in commercials or on sitcoms, no longer has the unadulterated childlike quality from which a pure and naturalistic performance can be carved. "They're still fresh at five or six," says Michael Gross, producer of the upcoming Beethoven, "but you get a lot of ruined ten-year-olds in this business."
As a result, scores of children who have never hit a mark or memorized a "side" (page of script) are getting cast in lead roles. It seems the old "discovered at a soda fountain" routine is alive and well when it comes to minors. But what happens to these paragons of youth and innocence once they are "found"? Many of them only work once or twice and move on to more important things, like Little League or piano lessons. But as anyone who watches talk shows or reads the tabloids knows, the more successful ones don't always fare so well.
This thought can make even hardened casting directors pause and consider. “When a child doesn't have an agent, I feel very responsible," says David Rubin, who cast the then-unknown Charlie Korsmo in Men Don't Leave. "I've plucked them out of obscurity, out of their normal lives."
"I always have mixed emotions when I cast a child in a movie, " agrees New York casting director Billy Hopkins, who launched Mac Culkin's career. "I want to find a real kid, but there's this one little part of me that thinks, 'Do I really want to do this to someone?' I mean, it does change your life."
Realizing that "real kids" have an advantage when it comes to film, managers, agents, and parents will often put a lid on children's TV work. When Alisan Porter, the ten-year-old star of John Hughes's latest, Curly Sue, was offered a role on a sitcom last summer, her mother, Laura Klein Weiner, reluctantly turned it down. "I was just very afraid that after she'd done her first leading role in a film, doing a TV Series would blow it," she says.
Finding an unpolished gem also has its bottom-line advantages for a studio. As producer Dale Pollock says, "Everyone is out looking for the next Macaulay Culkin, because who can afford Macaulay anymore?" (Mac's salary for the Home Alone sequel is rumored to be close to $5 million; first-timers generally get paid scale -$1,558 a week plus 10 percent for the agent and a per diem.)
But hiring an established child actor can sometimes make good business sense. After all, the Home Alone sequel may yet be a flop, but without Mac, its failure would be all but guaranteed. And there are a few child actors -Mac, Charlie, and Alisan included- who are perceived as being bankable but not "ruined."
For the agents who represent this elite, there is serious money to be made, a fact that is not lost on adult talent agencies. ICM currently has two of the top child actors: Mac and Adam Hann-Byrd (Little Man Tate). "The big agencies used to ignore the children's agencies because they just didn't see kids as a good investment," ' says child agent Judy Savage. "But now they're on the set trying to grab these kids away from us."
Child actors face some very tricky realities: with puberty breathing down their necks, there is tremendous pressure to choose projects wisely. "It's one of the real drawbacks to working with kids," says New York young people's agent Nancy Carson. "Just as the child becomes bankable, suddenly nature has its way, they pube, and there you are."
With age also comes a larger talent pool. "Every year after six becomes more difficult," explains Savage. "There may only be ten incredible six-year-olds, but later the competition is much more fierce. At eighteen or nineteen, suddenly you're competing with kids from all over the world."
While the child stars of the '30s and '40s made as many as nine films a year, children today are lucky to make one, giving them less of an opportunity to develop box office clout. "Child actors have one good film that makes a lot of money, and then they price themselves out of the market," ' says Pollock. "If their next film is a flop, that can be the end of their career."
As Tarquin Gotch, senior vice president of Hughes Entertainment, points out, "The very characteristics that make them bankable are so short-lived. Often what you like about them is their childishness and charm. That all changes when they grow a beard and start hanging out on street corners and smoking cigarettes."
The hallway of Manhattan's Mayflower Hotel reverberates with the tinny notes of Nintendo Game Boys -the portable computer games that are a staple of show-biz kids, who routinely wait long hours for auditions. Boys with neatly combed hair and pressed blue jeans slouch against the wall, and girls of all ages and sizes stand quietly next to their mothers. One Botticelli-like child model-featured in a Revlon "Most Unforgettable Women" ad- clutches a stack of eight-by-ten glossies and continually pushes her waist-length hair back over her shoulders.
Inside her suite, casting director Mali Finn is holding auditions for the role of Alice, the ten-year-old who will narrate the film That Night, based on the Alice McDermott novel. The previous day, Finn ran an open casting call in the cavernous basement of a church on Ninth Avenue; today, she is seeing callbacks and "agency kids"; and for the next two weeks, she will visit schools in the city and on Long Island.
Finn opens the door to let out a small redhead in a black shirt and leopard-print leggings and waves in the next group of young hopefuls. Lining them up against the wall, she takes a Polaroid of each. Many of them bring their own head shots, but Finn says the photos are so glamorized -sometimes even airbrushed- that they are of little use in helping her remember the children.
As the afternoon wears on, it becomes clear that many of these kids have been "taught" how to audition by well-meaning parents or agents. The results are not to Finn's liking. After one girl makes a showstopping entrance in a top hat, with a Carol Channing voice and manner to match, Finn is clearly upset. "It's so grating, and you don't want to take it out on the child," she says. "But the saddest thing is to have a child come in with a big, fake, impersonal smile plastered on their face. I call it the selling-Wheaties syndrome. Sometimes, if I have the time and I think the child has possibilities, I'll take the parent aside and say, 'That was a little embarrassing. She is just coming on too strong.”
In fact, most casting directors can relate horror stories about children auditioning with some noxious gimmick to make them memorable. Hopkins remembers one little girl whose shtick was to haul out her pet ferret. "It was frightening that this child would bring an animal to an audition so you would remember her for having, like, this thing," he says. "I wanted nothing to do with this child. Ever."
The qualities that make a child perfect for a part are usually not something that can be "acted." Instead, casting directors try to find a child who has the right look and personality for the role. "When I worked with John Schlesinger, he used to say the key to casting is to determine the essence of the character and then find the actor who embodies that essence, " says Finn. "Children don't usually know how to develop a character, so you're looking for a child who is the character."
When Finn first saw Edward Furlong learning against a wall at a Pasadena boys' club, he seemed to her the embodiment of Linda Hamilton's troubled son in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. "He was standing in a corner with his hair flopped over his eyes," she says. "I asked him if he'd like to audition for a movie, and he said, 'Yeah,' totally nonchalant. He'd had a difficult past, and he was somewhat hardened, and this was the type of kid we were looking for. He also had the sensitivity and vulnerability to handle a full range of feeling."
Casting director Avy Kaufman says she knew immediately that she wanted Adam Hann-Byrd for the part of Jodie Foster's son in Little Man Tate. "Adam not only looked like Jodie, he had this pure, deep, innocent quality that was needed for the role," she says. "There's usually really only one child that's right for a part."
But in addition to their own natural qualities, child actors also need to be able to memorize lines, take direction, and feel comfortable around adults. "A child has to be on a set with 25 adults, mostly men, and do the same thing over and over again,” says casting director Pat McCorkle. "Some children are frightened. They may seem perfect, but they get in front of the camera and freeze."
Children are not always able to produce an emotion on schedule, and stories abound of directors telling child actors their mothers are sick or their pets have died in order to elicit the appropriate response. Hopkins says when eleven-year-old Ellen Hamilton Latzen, the little girl in Fatal Attraction, was supposed to cry, director Adrian Lyne asked Michael Douglas and Anne Archer to stage a mock fight. "She got upset, because she thought they were really mad at each other," says Hopkins. "They also took away her stuffed animal, her little pet unicorn."
To guard against abuse, the Screen Actors Guild requires that children under age sixteen have a parent or guardian with them on the set at all times. In California, children are also required to have a teacher/ social worker present to keep them up with their schoolwork (if they are over age six) and to make sure they are not kept in front of the cameras longer than SAG regulations stipulate (from twenty minutes per day for fifteen-week-olds to six hours for sixteen-year-olds). "We remind the director that they have to take a break or that the child's day is done at a certain time," ' says California studio teacher Elise Ganz. "A lot of times, parents aren't that assertive, so it's up to the studio teacher to step forward. The parent thinks if they put up a fuss, it will hurt the kid's career."
In fact, while the cooperation of one or both parents is of critical importance for a child actor, a pushy or overprotective parent can be a major liability. "If the mom is really horrible, people won't hire the kid anymore," says child agent Robert McCarthy. "There's this thing we say here: If we can't take the mom, we don't want the kid."
And while agents complain about overzealous mothers bugging them to get their kids more work, casting directors tell of parents yelling at and even hitting their children after a poor audition. Worse yet are the stories of kids lying about their age and/or begging for a job. "Last week, this five-year-old girl said to me, 'I have to get this job,' " says casting director Deborah Aquila. "I said, 'Why, what do you mean?' She said, 'My mommy and daddy said I had to.' I tell you, the emotion that welled up in me, I thought my heart would break."
Robert Zuckerman is a Los Angeles-based psychologist who treats children in the entertainment business and is himself the father of a child actor. "The parents lose distance on where they stop and the child begins," he says. "There's this delicate balance between being invested in your children so they are confident and sparkle but not so invested that you forget who you are and who they are. Some parents don’t really hear their kids saying, 'I'm not interested in this anymore.' One mother of a seven-year-old Mac Culkin look-alike, "Jay," admits that she started taking her son to auditions when he was two and a half. She went on 34 "go-sees" the first year without getting a job. Undiscouraged, she took him on 51 interviews the next year, finally snagging two commercials and a print job. This year, he has gone on 95 interviews and gotten two commercials, three print ads, and a regular role on a soap opera. “That was the good one," his mother beams.
Jay's schedule includes dance class on Mondays, auditions on Tuesdays, piano lessons on Wednesdays, gifted-child classes on Thursdays, and -if there aren't any auditions- "basically free" Fridays. So what does he want to be when he grows up?
"I'm going to be a bus driver, an architect and airplane driver, and maybe an astronaut," he lisps.
Not an actor?
"No. I don't think so. It's kinda boring."
"Parents get involved in this orgasmic foray through the casting agencies, " says Zuckerman. "The parents' fantasy is that the child will have everything they didn't. They start pouring this energy into the kid, and they can forget to say, “Shut up, you re misbehaving.' It can be wonderful chemistry, but there are some definite risks."
CHARLIE KORSMO, 13
“MEN DON’T LEAVE”; “DICK TRACY”; “WHAT ABOUT BOB?”; “THE DOCTOR”; “HOOK”
“He’d just come back from the set. He’s very intellectual and emotional. There he was on the road, and the room was so lonely and empty –no toys.”
0ne risk is getting embroiled in a financial or business dispute. Shirley Temple Black was dismayed to discover that out of the $3 million she had made in nineteen years, only $44,000 in cash remained. "My rate of salvage was less than 3 percent," she wrote in her 1988 autobiography, Child Star. "Whether siphoned as expense or investment, my salary checks had ended up in other purses." Fortunately, California now has a "Coogan Law," named after child star Jackie Coogan, who sued his mother in 1938 for spending his entire earnings -a cool $4 million. The law stipulates that parents must put up to 50 percent of their children's earnings into a trust for them. But the fate of the other 50 percent is left to the parents' discretion, and many states don't even offer this minimal protection. So, although most parents claim to put their children's money into trust funds for college, the opportunity for financial exploitation is there.
Another risk is that the children will grow up resentful of having spent their childhood at work. Former child star Paul Petersen, who played Jeff on The Donna Reed Show, is still angry at his parents for getting him into show business. "My dad was a successful engineer,” he says. "We didn't need the money I made. If you ask me why I did it, the short answer is: my mother was a lot bigger than me.
"Parents who put their kids in show business are basically pimps," he adds bitterly. "They've sold their children into show biz. The system is also at fault, but the moment the parents drive their seven-year-old to an interview where he may get a part in a television series that lasts the next ten years of his life, they have relinquished their responsibility."
Not all parents see their child's career as a meal ticket or fulfillment of their own thwarted dreams, and many child actors insist that they love what they do. "If I wasn't acting right now, I think I'd be really bored," says Alisan Porter, who had small roles in Parenthood and I Love You to Death before winning the lead in Curly Sue. "And if it wasn't for my mother, I wouldn't be acting."
Everyone gives parents a bad rap, but most of them would not be doing it if their kids hadn't bugged them," says Kevin McDermott, who runs an acting workshop for kids in Los Angeles. "The stage mothers are the ones you hear about -they're the vocal ones. But I don't accept a child into my program unless he wants to be there."
"The good parents usually come in and say, 'I have no idea why I'm here, but my child just won't shut up about this,' " says Carson. "They say, 'Please tell me my child is totally untalented, so we can just go home and be normal."
Terri Pinto was perfectly content being "just a housewife with a nice part-time job” when a chance audition turned her life around. "Three years ago, my mother-in-law read in her local newspaper that Oliver Stone was coming to Long Island to look for kids to cast in his new movie," she says. "My daughter really wanted to go, so I decided to take her. But I had nowhere to leave my son. So we picked him up after playing ball and dragged him along."
Her son, Johnny Pinto, who was nine at the time, got a part in the movie -Born on the Fourth of July- and three years, one film, and two sitcoms later, he is still working. Although she is obviously proud, Pinto says she still regrets leaving her job at a community college and does not have fond memories of the four months she spent in Los Angeles during Johnny's short-lived stint on Chicken Soup. Of course, there have been some thrills, like the day she hung out in Warren Beatty's kitchen while her son auditioned for the part of Kid in Dick Tracy. But she is fully prepared for it all to end.
"This is a sideline," she says. "We let him know that it's exciting and fun for now, but next month, when your show is canceled, you're still the same Johnny Pinto with the same mother and father and the same life." But keeping things normal is difficult, especially on the set. One mother, Tina Hammond, was horrified when her son, John Bell, was filming Rocket Gibraltar and the crew wanted to put moleskin on the bottoms of his feet for a scene in which he walked barefoot on a lawn.
"They said, 'Oh, he might step on something sharp and cut his feet,' " says Hammond. "I said, 'No way. That's just a chance we'll have to take.' We are not playing any silly star turns here. The last thing I need is a ten-year-old kid who needs moleskin on his feet."
Sarah Rose? Sarah Rose? Sit back, honey."
It's twilight in downtown Los Angeles, and we are on the set of Beethoven, a comedy about a family with three kids and a lovable Saint Bernard. Director Steve Rash (later replaced by Brian Levant) is talking to his youngest actress, six-year-old Sarah Rose Karr. She is perched on the backseat of a station wagon with her two film siblings, thirteen-year-old Nicholle Tom and eleven-year-old Christopher Castile. It is getting late, and she is starting to fade.
Charles Grodin, who plays the father, starts the scene. "It's 9:15," he says, leaning into the car. "If I'm not back in fifteen minutes, call the police."
As he walks away, ostensibly to confront the evil veterinarian who has their dog, the camera focuses on the three kids. "Dad?" calls Nicholle forlornly. "Good luck!"
While Nicholle is remarkably consistent, Sarah Rose is getting squirmy, and several times she leans forward to talk to actress Bonnie Hunt, her "mom," just as the scene begins. Two takes are also ruined when she moves her head in front of Chris. Throughout, Rash is remarkably patient, and several minutes before 11 P.M., he yells "Cut and print" and praises the kids lavishly for their performance.
"Let's say good night to Sarah Rose,” he says as her mother swoops in to pick her up.
"Good night, Sarah Rose," the crew chimes.
"'Night," she responds casually, giving everyone a wave as she is carried off.
Whatever horrors may lie ahead, these three kids are clearly having the time of their lives. "It's really cool being in a movie," giggles Nicholle as she gets her hair touched up in the makeup trailer. "I love the dressing room and everything. I love the dog, and I love the food. It's kind of embarrassing to look at yourself on the monitor, though. You look at yourself and go, jeez Louise."
Attention from the adults on the set is nonstop; everyone jokes about the circles under Sarah Rose's eyes after a "hard weekend,"’ and the security guard gives the two older kids a ride on his motorcycle in the parking lot during a break. "Sometimes I have to yell at them just to break that cycle of giggles that can occur," admits Rash. "They might be upset with me for a minute, but they don't mistrust me.
"One difference between working with kids and working with adults is the issue of trust," he continues. "I try not to deceive the kids as much as I do the grown-up actors. With an adult, you might want to throw them a curve or give them a surprise that allows them to react in a more pure way. But children tend to be a little more delicate in their feelings."
Of course, adult actors working with children can also have delicate feelings. "When I first met Sarah Rose, we were driving in a car together, " remembers Hunt. "I asked her to come up into the front seat, and she said, 'Oh, you sound so fake.' It ruined my whole day. I can just see her on some talk show saying, 'The only person I could never work with was Bonnie Hunt. I could just never believe that she was my mother.
SARAH ROSE KARR, 6
"KINDERGARTEN Cop"; "BEETHOVEN"
"Very smart, with a hint of mischief. She was dressed up like this perfect little girl, but with a glint in her eye. She's seen 'Home Alone,' and Macaulay Culkin is one of her favorites. She likes to imitate him."
Ask almost any producer, casting director, agent, or parent what happens to former child stars, and they'll say, "Look at Ron Howard. Look at Jodie Foster. " But while Howard and Foster did make the transition remarkably smoothly, they are only two among thousands. So what's become of the others?
Petersen thinks he knows. They either committed suicide, got arrested for drugs, live on the street, or come to his support group of more than 30 grown child actors, "A Minor Consideration." One of the biggest pitfalls to being a child celebrity, he says, is that you grow up believing that the world owes you a living. But when a child's star descends, it can do so with startling rapidity.
"Most of these people can't even get their phone calls returned," says Petersen. "And fifteen years from now, when you have forgotten about the kids who are popular now and PREMIERE doesn't care about them, I'll be here answering my phone."
There is also pain in having your celebrity outlive your employment. Although Petersen says he's written sixteen books and feels "worth more today as an adult author than as a bubble-gum star on a television sitcom," fame has been hard to live down. "I'm 46 years old, and Donna Reed is still in syndication," he says. "I receive not a penny, and I'm still famous. A friend called the other day and said, 'Guess what, Paul? I just got your name on a Trivial Pursuit card.' That's an unpleasant notion."
While child manager Shirley Grant dismisses Petersen's complaints as sour grapes "because he didn't make it," others are more sympathetic. "It's very sad when you feel that the peak of your life has already happened," says Gotch. "I'm always concerned about anyone who achieves tremendous success at a very young age. It's very depressing to think that your moment has already come and gone and there's nothing greater to look forward to."
Gloria Hoffman, the veteran studio teacher who was in charge of the three kids on Beethoven, says she also worries about what happens to her charges once filming is over and they have to go back to their regular lives. "These kids are riding very high, but when the project comes to a close, they have to join the real world again," she says. "A lot of these kids only do one or two things, and that hot-air balloon, that marvelous ride in the clouds, just doesn't last forever."
REMY RYAN, 10, AND SEAN RYAN, 7
REMY: THE UPCOMING "ROBOCOP 3"; SEAN: "PUPPET MASTER II"
"All the children in the family are actors. When I arrived, they all created their own costumes and were really into the event of being photographed. It was like a self-contained acting troupe."
LAYLA SUMMERS, 12
"A beautiful and intelligent child with a real serenity about her. I felt like I was talking to someone who was at least twenty. She's a violinist, and she comes from an extremely talented musical family -her mother, Kate, plays the cello, and her father, Andy Summers, is a guitarist."
COURTNEY PELDON, 10, AND ASHLEY PELDON, 7
COURTNEY: "ANGEL HEART"; "LA FAMIGLIA"; "WELCOME TO BUZZSAW"; ASHLEY: "STELLA"; "THE LEMON SISTERS"; "DROP DEAD FRED"; "DECEIVED"
"They're the quintessential theatrical family. Courtney said, 'Would you like me to cry? Because if you would, I have to prepare first. ' So I said okay, and after a minute she said, 'I'm ready. ' Then Ashley sort of upstaged her."
Zoe F. Carter profiled actor John Turturro for the September issue of PREMIERE.