Child actors face pitfalls in transition
Delicate handling is needed to avoid Lindsay Lohan trajectory
Miley Cyrus' performance of "Party in the USA" at last year's Teen Choice Awards was not expected to be controversial. The 16-year-old was to ride across the stage atop an improvised ice cream cart while singing. But she needed help to keep from toppling off the vehicle -- so a pole was introduced. That part of the performance was seconds long, but by the end of it, the media was wondering: Had they just seen Hannah Montana do a pole dance?
TCA executive producer Bob Bain blames the press for blowing it out of proportion. But not-so-secretly, he delights in getting a "water-cooler moment," which boosts his show's presence. "Didn't expect it, got a lot of press for it -- we'll take it," he says.
Cyrus isn't the only one with a balancing act to maintain these days. Seen as part commodity and part grown-up, child actors are responsible for big numbers in the industry -- both ratings and revenues -- and once they grow up can be unprepared for the decisions they need to make in the long term. While such former child stars as Anna Paquin and Dakota Fanning seem to be making the transition with grace, some of the more notorious names on the paparazzi circuit include Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. And even when a former child star manages to stay on track, there's no guarantee they'll have success as an adult, as former Nickelodeon/WB star Amanda Bynes demonstrated this year by "retiring" at age 24.
But Cyrus has another hurdle to overcome -- she, like Spears and many others, are emerging from what some in the industry call the "Disney machine." Disney exerts firm control over its contracted young actors, shuttling them between film, television and music projects until they age out of their key demographic -- and suddenly, independence-minded teens can be left in a strange position in the industry.
"You become a 'Disney kid,' " says Susie Mains, co-owner of Trilogy Talent and manager for onetime child stars Tobey Maguire and Fergie. "When you're done with your contract, where do you stand in the acting community? Is a serious film going to (consider) you as a lead?"
Whether emerging from the machine or not, teens looking to shift into an adult career often rely on handlers to help them make the journey. A manager or agent who starts out with a young child can develop a bond of trust that can withstand challenging, rebellious teen years.
"You're like an older sibling, a parent, a teacher, and a general guide, all in one," says CAA motion picture talent agent Nick Styne. "The acting part, they're going to learn from coaches, teachers and on sets. Our job is to protect them and help them feel comfortable with their role choices, including which ones to decline."
Handlers have to watch out for others in the inner circle who may unintentionally endanger clients. Manager Diana Palmer's main client is 12-year-old musician Kyle Parks, who has traveled the world playing a youthful Michael Jackson in "ThrillerLive." Parks has allergies, and she says doctors on tour often over-prescribe medicine to make sure he can perform.
"I have to be the one who says to him, 'You don't have to medicate yourself every night of rehearsal,' " she explains. "Doctors get the kids thinking they can't perform without medication, and that's a gateway to drug abuse."
Mostly, though, control remains an issue for older clients: Who has it, and who gets to exercise it?
Carefully loosened reins can lead to a satisfied teen, as Mark Indelicato, who first appeared as Justin on "Ugly Betty" when he was 11, can attest: "I've never been pushed to do anything," he says. "My parents told me, 'Any time I want to quit or stop, that's fine.' That's why I really love it."
Yet even Indelicato admits he's pushing boundaries at age 15. "I want to make my own decisions. I definitely go through days where I don't want anyone's help."
But actors encased in a fully controlled environment seem to struggle more later. "If a person is constantly manipulated, managed and controlled, at some point there will be a price to pay -- and it will manifest itself in what may seem wanton, wild behavior," says former child actor Willie Aames. "For years, these kids have been told what to do, when to do it, and even 'normal' rebellious behavior becomes a potential weapon on manipulative threat."
Notes Trilogy's Mains, "It's important to look at a path that will take you somewhere. Sometimes the best way to (become independent) is to work with a director on a small role, rather than go full-blown and say, 'I'm edgy! I'm sexy! Look at me!' "
Attentive managers and agents bring adolescent clients into the creative process bit by bit -- giving them scripts to read or showing them there's more to the business than being on camera. Styne says part of his job is to help guide them into behind-the-scenes jobs as producers, writers and directors -- just in case.
"That's the best way, to set them up so they can do more than just act, if they so choose," he says. "That's the goal. Whatever the child wants to do, we should show them where they can go."
Still, no matter how well-intentioned the handlers, all agree the real key to long-term success lies in strong parenting. Parents, they say, are often as important as the clients early on -- and many consider them the clients, too.
"Young actors who have a strong family value system tend to do better than those who don't, in the long run," says Evolution Entertainment manager Margot Menzel.
Adds Mains: "Just because you have an agent and a publicist and a manager doesn't mean you need less parental guidance: It means you need more. Kids get their self-esteem and their sense of what is real and appropriate from significant others in their lives, not the strangers asking for autographs."
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