Hollywood's Child Stars and the Sketchy World of On-Set Tutors
From "trafficking in conspiracy theories" to hawking their own music, teachers hired for film and TV projects can sometimes short-change young actors' education: "I don't think anyone expects kids to actually learn."
In 2014, producer David Kaplan noticed that a child actor on his set was receiving a rather unconventional education.
"We found ourselves with a studio teacher who, among other things, trafficked in conspiracy theories — one of her favorites being that Hitler was still alive in a bunker somewhere in Argentina," Kaplan recalls.
The indie producer of such films as It Comes at Night began scrambling to find a replacement and zeroed in on a veteran named Marty Carlin. Hours away from making the switch, Kaplan learned from press reports that the man they thought they were about to hire was, in fact, an impostor, posing as Carlin. "Needless to say, it was a particularly grim day on that set," he says, declining to name the production for legal reasons.
Though Kaplan's predicament may have been extreme, producers concur that there's a disconcertingly wide spectrum of quality when it comes to on-set tutors, ranging from the good to the bad to the downright dubious. Given how difficult it is for child stars to get a decent education while shouldering the demands of an adult job like film and television acting, it's no surprise that so few wind up at Ivy League colleges (Natalie Portman, Claire Danes and now Harvard-bound Yara Shahidi are among the notable exceptions). Add to that the fact that the world of on-set tutors is rife with pitfalls — from unsettling characters to questionable practices.
Take the Carlin ruse. To this day, Kaplan isn't even sure of the true identity of the man he nearly hired. That's because two men, whose real names are Kent Linker and Fred Robbins, posed as Carlin for years, working on more than a dozen sets. Carlin, 88, told THR that he was never contacted by the police, which he found surprising. "They got away with impersonating me for a long time and even used my Social Security number," he says. The fact that Linker, now 65, and Robbins, 70 — neither of whom had any of the necessary credentials to teach on the set — were repeatedly entrusted with children and teens before being outed offers a chilling example of what can go wrong.
According to SAG-AFTRA, more than 5,000 of its 116,741 active members are under 18, most of whom require some form of on-set education to meet the terms of the union's agreement.
On a production heavy with kid actors, like Netflix's Stranger Things, the tutoring apparatus can be a well-oiled machine, with various educators tackling different grade levels and curricula, spanning British (for Millie Bobby Brown) to Canadian (for Finn Wolfhard, who attends a Catholic school in his native Vancouver); some stars, like New Yorker Caleb McLaughlin, are home-schooled.
During a recent visit to Stranger Things' Atlanta set, multiple tutors could be seen providing the mandatory daily three hours of academics, broken down into 20-minute blocks, to each student actor. Gaten Matarazzo, who attends public school in New Jersey, explained the juggling act of performing and learning. "When I'm not doing the show, I just go to school like any other kid, but when I'm here, it is much different because there's a lot less of a specific schedule," he says. "It's kind of hard to organize what you did [at home] and [knowing] what the progress is. It can be a lot more difficult when you're doing public school work in a tutoring environment, but I'm trying to make it work as well as I can, and I'm doing better than I thought."
With a cast dominated by tweens and teens, Stranger Things may take the education mandate more seriously than most, hiring seasoned educators, who, on average, earn about $40 an hour. But that's not always the case. One producer who worked on a kid-fronted film franchise says one of his tutors kept pitching his original music for the film's soundtrack and seemed barely vested in the academics.
"He kept saying, 'I know the perfect song for this scene,'" says the producer. "Finally, I was like, 'Let me guess — it's your song.'"
The producer adds that he doesn't expect much from on-set tutors, that hiring them is often "an afterthought," he adds. "You do it because you have to. I don't think anyone expects kids to actually learn."
But Alan Simon, who runs the New York-based On Location Education, argues that this kind of attitude toward tutors unfairly tarnishes their reputation. Simon, who started the company in 1982, two years after SAG created specific rules governing minors in entertainment, places teachers on set in every state as well as in Canada. He says the best way to avoid unqualified or nefarious players is to work with an established placement firm.
"There's a lot of [false claims] being made [by potential tutors]. The question becomes, Did these people get background checked?" says Simon, a former on-set tutor himself whose company has placed educators on such productions as John Krasinski's hit horror film A Quiet Place, FX's The Americans and the Broadway production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. "[You need to] look into who they are to see what kind of recommendations and credentials they have received."
There are no federal labor laws that protect showbiz minors. Instead, there are regulations on a state-by-state basis. About 40 states and territories have specific models dealing with the needs of young performers, and California is one of the strictest states in terms of on-set education requirements. According to California child labor law, all productions must provide a "studio teacher/welfare worker" on any set employing minors for entertainment or informational purposes. Furthermore, the worker must be licensed and certified in California in elementary education and have mastery of a secondary subject, like history, math or a foreign language.
A California production featuring kids can get around some of the education requirements by shooting during the summer and wrapping before mid-August, when most students return to school. That also allows the production more time on set with the actors and fewer interruptions, which can be a logistical headache.
Producer Jared Ian Goldman (Ingrid Goes West) was aware of the potential tutor hazards even though he has rarely worked with children. His latest film, All Day and a Night, starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jeffrey Wright, features three child actors and is shooting in Oakland. After enlisting The Studio Teachers, the union representing California-eligible tutors, he says he was impressed with the feedback he received from his crew.
"Our ADs tried to pull two kids out of tutoring to bring them back to set and the teacher stopped them and said that they still have 30 seconds of schooling remaining. I appreciate their steadfast dedication," Goldman says with a laugh.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.