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This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
From Kyle Chandler‘s Emmy-winning role as Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights to Tina Fey‘s hilarious and award-winning Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, viewers have enjoyed so many incredible performances over the last few years, it’s easy to understand why child actors have been overlooked come Emmy time. But performances by young primetime talent such as, say, Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams are every bit as nuanced as the Oscar-winning turns of the past by Anna Paquin or Tatum O’Neal. And given the scope of a TV performance and our grueling production schedule, it should be harder to dismiss these arresting performances as merely the result of raw talent or clever direction.
Parenthood has been the beneficiary of wonderful performances by child actors. And while I’m far from objective, I would argue that 14-year-old Max Burkholder, in particular, who portrays a young man with Asperger’s syndrome (high-functioning autism), perfectly exemplifies the need for the academy to consider these actors more seriously.
Early in the series, I asked our show’s Asperger’s “consultant” — a therapist with 20 years of experience working with kids who struggle with the disease — if he felt he really understood what went on in the minds of kids with Asperger’s. He answered candidly, “No, I don’t.” I asked him that question because after 15 years, my son, who has Asperger’s, is still very much a mystery to me. There are moments where he can be lucid and expressive, but very often I am left guessing. It was so daunting for me to attempt to shed light on these mysteries in Parenthood, so much so that Max’s storyline floated in and out of the pilot episode. It was tempting to remove the challenges of exploring this intensely complicated and dark material and just make him a cute kid who’s simply a bit irascible. Must I burden the character, and viewers, with a lifelong, life-altering disorder?
In the end, I realized that if I were going to tell a real story about parenthood, there was no way I could do so and ignore what had become such a defining aspect of my own experience. So when we started casting sessions for the character of Max Braverman, I was filled with dread. It was difficult enough to find a child actor who was able to be natural and comfortable in his own skin, but to ask a then-11-year-old boy to be able to accurately portray a disorder that is so difficult for highly educated adults to understand seemed almost impossible. While the potential for bringing an accurate description of this disorder to light on a broadcast TV series was considerable, the notion of failing and adding to the world’s misunderstanding and misconceptions of autism plagued me.
From the beginning, I could see Max Burkholder was not only talented, he was a very serious actor. He read books on autism and was an eager participant in conversations about the character in ways that showed he was taking this role as seriously as any adult actor would.
Max mastered the physical manifestations of his character (also named Max): The lack of eye contact; the lack of expressiveness in his tone of voice; the slightly “off” quality in his interactions with others. Then there were his personality idiosyncrasies: his intolerance for the world around him; his intolerance for inconsistencies in his schedule; his impatience with others; his lack of empathy.
He was spot-on from the first episode. And as the series progressed, Max’s depiction of Max Braverman only deepened. One of the most inspiring aspects about being a television writer is watching an actor catch fire in a role. Seeing Max so locked in to the character, I felt inspired to push his stories even further.
At a very young age, Max has done more than just entertain (he does manage to find humor in the role): He has helped families understand kids like Max Braverman — families who, through watching Parenthood, have diagnosed and recognized their own child, grandchild, brother or nephew in the character.
A recent study showed that one in 88 children is born on the autism spectrum. Max’s portrayal has helped to destigmatize life for the many families dealing with autism. He also has embraced the public nature of his role, attending countless charity events to support this community. He gets the same question at every event: “Do you have Asperger’s syndrome?” And as good of an actor as he is, you can see for a moment that he’s a bit irked. In seconds, he recovers, smiles and says, “No, I don’t.”
Max likely doesn’t yet understand what a compliment this is for an actor. Hopefully the academy does.
Jason Katims is the executive producer of NBC’s Parenthood.
MORE EMMY-WORTHY YOUNG ACTORS
- Cameron Monaghan, Shameless (Showtime)
- Chandler Riggs, The Walking Dead (AMC)
- Rico Rodriguez, Modern Family (ABC)
- Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men (AMC)
- Ruby Jerins, Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
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