In on the act
For acting coaches, working with kids is child's playTony Gonzalez
For the past four years, Gonzalez has run the Young Actors Voiceover Workshop out of studios in Hollywood, Studio City and Burbank. It's a gig he's particularly suited for considering he used to be a talent coordinator for Disney Television Animation.
"I wanted to work closely with the talent," he says of his time at Disney, adding that when he was there, "we were working on tons of pilots, and we'd have 900 to 1,200 auditions a week. I found myself sitting in my office thinking, 'If they'd just done this or that.' A couple of friends who are agents told me, 'It sounds like you should be teaching.' It was an epiphany."
Gonzalez says that what makes his work with kids stand out is the fact that he doesn't treat them like children.
"A lot of teachers condescend to kids," he says. "I treat them like professionals. I expect more out of them, to show up with their work done."
That's not to say that Gonzalez regards his charges as nothing more than little adults. He takes into account differences like their shorter attention spans -- to a point.
"If a client is under 6, I won't take them, or I'll teach them privately before I put them in a classroom," he says. "Their reading isn't strong. It's a massively different thing between 6 and 7. As soon as they hit 8, their attention span is longer, and they comprehend better and can sit in a class and watch other people and learn from watching."
Hummel didn't start her career as an acting coach. In fact, the way she got into it was pure serendipity. With a performing arts degree from USC and a track record as a commercial production company vp under her belt, she applied for an associate producer gig on a new sitcom back in the late 1980s. But the producers thought her background qualified her as an acting coach for their young star Chris Burke, who has Down syndrome and was the focal point of the family series "Life Goes On." She accepted the challenge, but when the producers wanted her to read Burke's lines in his ear, she balked.
"I said he'd be a puppet," Hummel says. "He didn't necessarily understand the material, but I got him to understand it. It was the greatest thing I'd ever done (and) the single best job I ever had. If I learned anything about being an acting coach, it was all through him." She ended up coaching Burke for five years.
Hummel, who works out of her Studio City home, says she has a reputation for being a straight-talking coach who prepares her students for the sometimes-tough world of Hollywood. "I'm pretty blunt, so great actors love me, not because I want to tear somebody down but because they can go from me to the reality of doing it," she says. "I'm not a feel-good acting coach who puts you on cloud nine, because if you're not great, you're going to find out 10 minutes from now anyway. I'm straight up and honest.
"It's great to get the part," adds Hummel, whose students find her by word-of-mouth, "but it's more important to do great when you get the part. If you're playing at this level of the game, you'd better be good because time is money and money is time on these sets."
Veteran acting coach Magarian says he likes to keep things simple for his young students.
"I do a lot of analogizing to sports and playing," he says. "Acting is playing and pretending. An actor is a professional pretender. You take over a character that's not you and find truth to relate to it so people believe you."
Acting may be playing, but Magarian also drives home the life lesson that "work can be fun, but it isn't always, and if this is something they want and they do the work, it's going to work out for everybody. The kids I train do well with people. Forget acting -- I've had kids come back and tell me how I've helped them with school presentations and oral reports. There are certain things that apply to communications, to getting your point across, that have a general application."
Magarian, whose students have included Dakota Fanning and Evan Rachel Wood, has logged a fair amount of hours coaching children on the sets of films like 2003's "Daddy Day Care" and 2005's "Dark Water" and "Flightplan." He also guided Miko Hughes in his role as an autistic child opposite Bruce Willis in 1998's "Mercury Rising." The part was unusually challenging, but Magarian, who works out of North Hollywood, brought to the table prior experience working with special ed kids. At 18, he volunteered in an after-school program and later taught a summer acting class for challenged children, a stint he calls "one of my favorite and most educational teaching experiences." "Everyone has something to offer," he says. "Everyone has a story to tell."
Kevin McDermott and Marcie Smolin
The coaches behind the Culver City-based Acting Circle acquired their expertise with kids in notable ways: McDermott spent 16 years as an elementary and special ed teacher who shepherded children with a wide range of disabilities and life challenges. Los Angeles native Smolin is herself a former child actor who worked in local television at the age of 7.
Not surprisingly, when Smolin works with her younger students, she's unusually sensitive to the kids'-eye view of show business.
"I'm not a fan of coaches who reduce people to tears and build them up again," she says. "I think they should build them up so they feel confident and secure and grow from there."
In teaching technique, Smolin takes care that her aspiring young stars don't get carried away with the task at hand.
"It's important that they know to have balance in their lives," she says. "A lot of my friends from childhood have had challenges as adults. Being a child actor, it was important to me that I teach because I wanted to show (young performers) how important it is to continue to grow as a person, as well as an actor. That makes your acting better; to not have acting be your whole world is really (key)."
Smolin notes that she only prepares kids to act in film and television, not the stage.
"I love doing theater, but unfortunately, it's not great training for kids in film and television," she says, adding that when students come to her with a theater background, "I have to undo a lot of that. Onstage, you're being taught to be big and do it to the back of the room. But the camera is so sensitive that the more natural the kids are, the better they'll read on camera."
Michael Woolson, also a former actor, helped shape one of Hollywood's highest-profile kids: the Oscar-nominated Abigail Breslin, whom he coached for her first film role in M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 "Signs." Breslin was only 6, so Woolson used very basic techniques to coax out her talent.
"We worked with what she had," he recalls. "I would say to her, 'What do you love more than anything in the world?'" "'I love my dolly.' "'What if someone took it away from you?' She'd get very emotional. She doesn't do coaching anymore; she just goes from film to film. Sometimes kids need to learn the technique, and once they know what to do, they learn from being on the set."
Woolson launched his coaching career as part of the teaching team at the Larry Moss Studio. He struck out on his own five years ago, founding his own eponymous acting studio, which now has a teaching staff of five.
As he did with Breslin, Woolson helps kids compensate for their lack of life experience by tapping their fecund imaginations.
"You say, 'It's as if your mother had cancer,'" he says. "You take their real life and say, 'What would that be like?' You get them very emotional and get them to go to the dialogue in the script. Eventually, you can get what's foreign, which is the script, to be more organic and authentic because they've learned to mesh it with their imagination and sometimes their life experience."
A potential minefield for child actors trained in drama is the crossover to comedy. "They'll book a show on Nickelodeon and do an over-the-top comedy, and it can hinder their ability to be authentic," says Woolson, who gives them a solid base in technique, so that they can fend off a director who pushes them to overdo it.
MORE SHOWBIZ KIDS COVERAGE:
UNDERAGE ADVANTAGE: Being under 18 has its perks
TOP 25: The hardest working biz kids
WATCH LIST: Young rising stars
TALENT SHOW: Directors' notes on young stars
IN ON THE ACT: Acting coaches on working with kids