When our oldest daughter was nine, she sat us down in the living room to have “the talk”. With a speech to rival Clinton’s at the DNC, she orated a litany of supporting arguments as to why she should be allowed to act. To go on actual auditions. In the end, my husband asked her, “Would you like to be a washed up child actor, or would you rather take your time and be a movie star?” She paused for a moment, looked into his eyes with dramatic pause and said, “I’d like to be a washed up child actor.”
Once a child wants to act, it’s like wrestling a walrus out of a bikini to change her mind. So what do you do when there’s a little voice inside of you, as a parent, that says, Ok, I’m game. Let’s give this a try.
The following is advice I have given clients, having been on one end of the industry or another for 20 years.
Many clients have asked me whether they should spend the money to attend one of the commercialized conferences for actors or aspiring performers. It’s when a company brings together acting coaches, agents, photographers, casting agencies, etc. together in one place. They offer a schedule of workshops, headshots, resume building classes, a very enticing package of necessities for anyone wanting to get started on the right foot. These events can sometimes be helpful, bringing nuggets of information and are a fun experience IF you have the money to spend. Most actors do not. Especially parents with responsibilities and other children at home. Sometimes just one of these conferences can run in the thousands of dollars.
In cooking there is a woman named Sandra Lee. I love her because she creates fabulous gourmet dishes with short-cut ingredients that cost half as much. Consider this my Sandra Lee recipe for the young actor lurking in your living room.
- Get a decent headshot. Agents do not need ‘master-class’ headshots for kids! Your child’s headshot should be professional enough that the agent knows you are serious, but not so polished that the essence of your child is lost! Let your kid be a kid, and she will have a greater chance of getting called in for an audition. You don’t need the best or most expensive photographer in town. Just a professional your child is comfortable with. Let your child wear something that brings out their character rather than a new outfit that tries to define them. Most importantly, the headshot the agent or casting director receives with your submission better dang well be the same child that walks in that door. If your child has curly locks every day, don’t straighten them just for the pictures. Go with solid colored clothing without logos or designs. Jeans and a t-shirt for boys. The same for girls, maybe a casual longer skirt or dress but dear lord please stay out of the step-ford aisle at Sears. Oh and remember, your child will change drastically at times so be prepared that while adult actors may only need new headshots every few years, children may need them every 6-12 months. So find a reasonable photographer you like and stick with them.
- What is your child’s passion vs. talent? They don’t always coincide! Is it acting? Singing? Dancing? All of the above? Their love may not necessarily be what they’re good at, it’s your job to make sure you and your child are on the same page, but with an outsider’s perspective to back it up. It’s a lot easier to find out you can’t swim BEFORE you jump in the ocean. Get solid objective opinions from professionals in the field. Find a vocal coach, acting teacher, at your child’s school or high school nearby and ask if they can take some time to assess your child’s talent. You’d be surprised how much expertise you can find right in your own community which can help assess your child’s strengths before you hit the road, and do so in a loving and supportive environment.
- Instead of spending thousands of dollars you may mot have on many things at once, enroll her in a reputable class. An acting/auditioning class is always a good idea no matter what she wants to do. She will learn the process of getting up in front of people, of learning lines and breaking in the skin needed to be authentic yet strong in front of others who she will audition for no matter what field she chooses.
- After she has a class under her belt, submit her to an agency for representation. Sometimes classes have agents attend their class. Create a resume to include with her headshot. It doesn’t have to have a lot on it! Just be real and know this is a marathon, not a sprint! Too many parents go in expecting things to happen ASAP. Do this slowly and properly.
Do NOT EVER pay an up-front agency or management fee to be signed to their roster. EVER. These fees can sometimes be hidden in “headshot” fees where they get a kick back. Acting classes attached to an agency are another no-no. An agent can suggest an acting class or photographer but should not be financially associated with them in any way.
- Beware of events for actors where they say “Invitation Only”. It is rare these events that charge thousands of dollars are just for selected young actors or individuals. The entire process of becoming a working actor is done more with sweat and tears with bursts of joy, rather than paying a few thousand dollars to realize in the end you still don’t have an agent. In this business the invitations you should get excited about are call-backs and meetings. Not opportunities to spend money you don’t have on something that isn’t a sure thing but looks sparkly in the ad.
- There is a documentary called “The Hollywood Complex”. This film should be required viewing for every parent considering a career in acting for their child.
It is as real as it gets. It’s actually educational for anyone entering the entertainment industry. If someone wants to act, there is little that will dissuade them. It’s the nature of the creative beast. But the greatest tool they will ever have is knowledge. An inside scoop of what to expect so that when it happens to them, the highs and the lows, they’ll know the most important thing of all. They are not alone.
- If a child would like to act or sing or dance, it’s a gift from above for them to share their gifts with the world. So this is not at all meant to deter anyone from following a dream. It’s simply a guide with pointers I’ve learned from having been a young actor myself, a photographer in the business for 15 years, and as a wife of a producer who sees it all from the production standpoint every single day.
Last, but by no means least, when you introduce your child to the industry, whether it’s a class at a time or a conference atmosphere, go in with the frame of mind that nothing is a one-stop-shop which will create a career. A career is built on many elements which come together over time. Most of all she should have FUN. If acting is not fun for a child, then it’s not worth doing. Period. End of story.
There is no easy ticket. It helps if you know someone. But it’s never the answer. So often, well-meaning people ask how to get onto my husband’s show. It pains him to answer that even at his level, there is no magic wand. There is a hierarchy in place on any legitimate production for a reason. There’s a protocol set to maintain what little sanity there is, in an already insane industry. It’s an industry built on people just like you. Parents raising families. That don’t always have the answers, and deep inside wish they could all make the dream happen for everyone, so everyone would just be ok. It’s a land of passionate individuals trying desperately to fit in a systematic machine of parts all struggling to function as a unit. With higher-ups yelling at them. To make it perfect. So forgive people in the industry if they seem cold, or on edge, or over-it. They’re tired. They worked 17 hours the day before, and you remind them of everything they were before they themselves ‘made it’. The short-tempered casting director, the agent who forgot your birthday, the development girl who never reads your script. They are not bad people. Jaded is not the word either. They are men and women who are in it all too deeply to walk away. It took too long, too many years of paying dues, to make a dream come true that in the end isn’t at all what they expected. The Grip who works too late to tuck in his son at night. The AD who missed his daughter’s play. The writer with ten pages of studio notes on a script that bares her soul. These are things no one will tell you, because in the industry you’re not allowed to complain. Because ultimately every one of them knows they are damn lucky to be there. This goes for actors too.
So on this road remember it’s not about making it big. Even the biggest stars wish things were different up there.
Remind your child and yourself that this is a journey of discovery. It’s a time to show kindness and respect to those you meet along the way. Even to casting directors who forget to smile. Because no matter how this ends up, the only way to truly be successful is to remember that at one time or another, every person in that room, sat on their couch in their living room. And had a dream.
Micaela Bensko is an award-winning photographer whose work has been seen in national publications such as Conde Naste as well as on Martha Stuart Living. She has been featured as a leader in her field by Professional Photographer Magazine and is currently writing a book on life behind the lens. She is the official spokesperson for the Ronald Reagan Library’s Guide Cam welcoming over a million visitors a year. Bensko is also the subject of the Emmy Award winning Fox News segment “Honoring the Wounds of War”. She proudly supports Iraq Star Foundation, providing free reconstructive surgery to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and The Tempered Steel Organization. Bensko is also an active member of the Grassroots Advisory Board for the Los Angeles Army Recruiting Battalion. She and her family currently live between Los Angeles and Nashville as her husband is in production on the hit show “Nashville” on ABC. She also has a very short dog named Reggie.