How to Get Your Child into Acting

Why would any intelligent, self-respecting parent consider acting as a reasonable way to go for their child? After all the horrible stories about how child actors were taken advantage of by their parents and the show business industry, children such as Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, Mickey Rooney, and Shirley Temple, many parents decline to consider acting as a viable talent area for their children. I wanted to sing on stage and movies and my parents decided together that this was not the way to go for their children. I called my dad just now to confirm this, and he admitted that he thought the whole family could have “made it” in show business but that the life of an actor would be too hard.

But, as my own children started school, I soon learned that they didn't “fit” very well. They already knew most of what was being presented during each school day, and it was especially upsetting and frustrating to one of them in particular. He asked if he couldn't give acting a try. As he said (at age 8 after watching a show being filmed in Los Angeles), “I could do this, Mom. Look into it.” So, his dad and I agreed that we would indeed look into it.

This was years ago, and none of my children is now a professional actor (that was never our goal), but I still tell some of my client families to try acting as a way to get their advanced learners into something more stimulating than elementary school. It did work quite well for my children (and one was actually a major character in 7 feature films) and they seemed to have “turned out” okay, too! And some acting jobs have the added benefit of earning the child money that can go toward other activities or college savings, too.

Why am I writing about this now? One client family recently emailed me and asked, “How do we do it?” So, as long as I was writing to them, I decided to share this information with you, too. Their child is a boy, so I’m using masculine pronouns here.

We live in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. The primary talent agency we used was Moore Creative Talent: It’s still there and I not only recommend it, I suggest that people who live elsewhere use its website and description as somewhat of a template for what to look for in our own area. We didn't move to Hollywood and yet my kids did projects that took them to many locations around the country. It was good to be able to come home to “normal” in between. Besides, there are many levels of what you can do to make this a great experience. As you get started, see how it goes!

Here is how to go about exploring acting possibilities while keeping your mind on how to still be a good parent, not a stage parent and not a parent who wishes to live through your child’s successes. Don't spend a lot of money on this and unless you think a class offered by the talent agency is something your child would enjoy, don't waste your time. It doesn't improve his chances of being used or discovered. If the class is taught by a major person in the agency, it might help a little if he does a class and "shows" well while in it. If he shows bad attitude, boredom, or otherwise poor behavior, though, it will seal his fate in the wrong direction.

He needs to “sparkle” when someone talks to him while remaining natural and polite enough. Being on task and cooperative is a huge factor when working with kids. Being very smart helps add the sparkle. Being smart also makes the child more enjoyable for the adults he will work with and being smart makes him already crave interaction with adults more than with age mates.

When the agency asks for "headshots" you can go to a professional or do it yourself. I got some wonderful photos of my kids over the years when I went to a professional, but that really isn't necessary unless your child is already getting sent out for auditions on a regular basis. It won't help to get him his first audition. Browse the Moore Creative site to see how the kids look. This will help you to know how to photograph your child for this.

People needing an actor browse the site and if they like the look of someone, they ask to see more. The truth is, though, that from what I can tell, very few booking and casting people browse the online photos; they ask directly of the agency, "Who do you recommend for this?" Then they describe what they are looking for and expect the agency to send the right kids for auditions. So, can you see that your child needs to get on their radar as cooperative, having that "certain something", and also fitting the description the caster is looking for?

The order of what you can earn starting with lowest is print, and "background" actors, also referred to as "extras." They can do "doubles" work, walk on and stand-in work, too, which is somewhat boring, no glory, no respect, and no free access to snacks compared with the actual actors on a set. Some people do enjoy this kind of work, just being there, but it isn't for everyone.

Voice work is easiest for most gifted kids and pays surprisingly well. This is an especially good fit for young, early readers. You do it near home, all you do is read the script out loud, and the naturally young, and often imperfect, way a young child speaks makes it adorable. My youngest son didn't want to travel for acting (he saw how often his brother was out of town and didn't want that for himself), so when he got a role, he'd ask, “What do I have to do?” And when I told him he just had to read, that was perfect in his mind. “Voice” is for voice-overs in radio and television ads. If your child is good at it, he’ll be called back without even having to audition. My youngest got a great deal of voice work and even did a number of “national” ads without leaving town. Half an hour of actual work can pay well over $20K if it goes national, and several hundred to a thousand dollars for local. You’ll know ahead of time which kind of voice work you’re being offered.

Then, at the top, there is actual acting. Locally they use actors for training films, called "industrials," which can be good exposure and experience within the industry but not any fame or outside recognition. Commercials, either local (cheaper pay) or national (big pay, often ongoing) lead to more exposure and familiarity within the talent agency (lots of kids to choose from!) and can lead to being sent to auditions for more commercials and even major films.

I would not risk staying out of the union to make yourself seem more affordable and attractive to casting people. It lowers your cache and some people will simply take advantage of you. Acting unions really are there for a reason. People who want to get into show business would sell their souls for the opportunity were it not for the rules and laws the unions have set up to protect them from being exploited. It’s a good deal; sign up the first time your child lands a job.

Finally, don't force this. If your child really doesn't seem to be "into" it, it won't work. No one wants to see a child who is too contrived, always looking at the camera, etc. As an example of bad child acting, I think of “Gone with the Wind” and how little Bonnie Blue practically destroyed the movie all by herself. I find it hard to believe they couldn't come up with someone better.

Theater, especially community theater, is a great place for bright children to try their acting chops and interact with other bright and talented people of different ages. Very enjoyable. You don't usually get paid but you do get the fun of an audience applauding. It's a different kind of acting than film, more "out there." It takes real talent to be able to do both film and stage. It is a wonderful venue for a gifted child to be among adults who are professional and kind and appropriate. Locally, here in the Twin Cities, I recommend auditioning for a child’s role at Children's theater, Chanhassen Dinner Theater, and so on. When you do any of these things, you will meet other parents who will tell you about even other options and opportunities.

Some schools have wonderful theater programs, too. All of these are great ways for bright children to get out of a school situation that really isn't working for him or her (because it's at grade level rather than at your child's level), and our state laws in Minnesota would call missing school for acting as falling under MN statute "Parental Curriculum Review", and qualify as a form of partial home schooling. Bright kids have no trouble making up missed school work until things finally get challenging by the high school years. Film acting requires that a school-aged child must have three hours of tutoring a day, and tutoring is always at the child’s level and pace --- not based on age or grade (which anyone who knows me knows that I'm all for teaching the child what he or she is ready for).

My kids did a lot of acting in their school programs all the way through college and loved it. But they made money on voice and commercials and films. There are many kids whose parents would never get their kids involved or push them into this sort of work, so the field of available child talent isn't as deep with talent as casters would like. If your child manages to catch their eye ... it could be a lot of fun. If he doesn't catch their eye (and casting and talent agents do have good eyes for talent), take it as a good hint that it probably isn't a good course of action for your family. Talent agents and casting agents will not artificially flatter; they don't have to. They don't want to get the hopes up of all these people who really aren't all that good.

I hope this is helpful. I do have several past clients who got into theater but if any one got truly far in voice or film, they didn't get back to me yet.

I think it's worth exploring.

Have fun!