Why Emmy Snubs Kids
The academy says "it's a golden age" for young actors working in primetime. So why has there been a 26-year drought without a winner?
Playing a kid in primetime these days is anything but child's play.
The adult material tackled by young actors this year -- autism, homosexuality, alcoholism, deadbeat parents, cancer, just to name a few -- rival any plotlines traveled by three-time drama actor winner Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad or Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer, who took home the drama actress prize in 2010.
"They are no longer television's window dressing," says agent and owner of the Osbrink Agency, Cindy Osbrink, whose roster of young talent features sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning and Parenthood's 13-year-old star Max Burkholder, the first primetime series regular to play a character with Asperger's syndrome.
"Showrunners have realized that they don't have to hire brats anymore -- that kids can actually act," Osbrink says. "That all said, adults are still taken way more seriously as Emmy contenders, and I'm not really sure why."
One guess, posits the academy's vp awards John Leverence, who says there is a "golden age going on in terms of young talent in drama and comedy," is the proliferation of sprawling casts like those in ABC's Modern Family and NBC's Parenthood. "There isn't one 'star' in those shows," he says. "It's tough enough for adults to stand out. Kids are more easily lost in the shuffle."
Another strike against youngsters is that many simply make acting look easier. "If anything, it's harder!" says Parenthood's Mae Whitman, 23, who plays angst-ridden teen Amber Holt and started her career at age 6 as Meg Ryan's daughter in the film When a Man Loves a Woman.
"It's especially hard for me since I'm playing younger," Whitman says. "I have to strip away all the adult stuff I've learned and remember how it felt to be 16. I really do think kids get overlooked because we don't make it look like 'real work.' "
Adding to the rigorousness for kids in the business is the fact that most are also in school on the set -- imagine having to learn algebra in a trailer during a break in a 12-hour workday -- and constantly flanked by their parents or guardians.
"At least I can go to my trailer and take a nap if I want to," Whitman says. "I don't know how the kids on my show do it. I have such respect for them."
The youngest person to win a primetime Emmy was 14-year-old Roxana Zal in 1984 for the incest-themed, movie-of-the-week Something About Amelia. But the academy has never awarded an actor under 18 a statuette for series work. The last minor to receive a nomination was Claire Danes at 16 for lead actress in ABC's My So-Called Life in 1995.
Before Danes, nominations for young talent in primetime were sparse at best: Sara Gilbert at 18 (1993) for Roseanne; Fred Savage at 13 (1989) for The Wonder Years; Melissa Sue Anderson at 16 (1978) for Little House on the Prairie; and Patty Duke at 18 (1964) for The Patty Duke Show.
Compare this track record with that of the academy's Daytime Emmys, which in 1985 added two new categories to its then 12-year-old roster, Outstanding Younger Actor and Actress, to accommodate the glut of performers ages 25 and under working in daytime dramas. (The categories were later awkwardly renamed Outstanding Juvenile Male and Female in Drama Series.)
So why hasn't the academy done the same for primetime? Wouldn't it make more sense for Modern Family's 13-year-old Rico Rodriguez to face off with The Big C's Gabriel Basso, 17? And Parenthood's Burkholder to compete against, say Shameless' 17-year-old Cameron Monaghan?
Leverence says the precedent set by the Daytime Emmys could someday translate into adding a separate category. "If you have within the supporting actor and actress categories a clear critical mass of a distinctive kind of achievement, such as younger actors, that might be something we could discuss at the board level," he says. "But I haven't seen it come up yet."
Some young talent say they like things the way they are. "On my show, everyone is treated as adults; they have the same faith in us," says Monaghan, who, as gay teen Ian Gallagher, carries one of the edgy drama's grittier story lines.
"Cable is blurring the lines between 'adult actor' and 'kid actor' with all these meaty roles," he says. "The fact that the Emmys don't recognize kids in a separate category, I think, would make winning one that much more special."
Shameless executive producer John Wells says his young cast likely has plenty of pressure as it is without foisting on his actors the added strain of Emmy campaigning. It's simply too much, he says, especially for those who are newer to the business.
"It's difficult enough for any young actor to figure out where he or she fits into the world," Wells says.
Burkholder agrees. And while the Parenthood actor says it would be "really amazing to be nominated for an Emmy," his focus remains on his craft -- and homework.
"I really, really love acting, but my biggest pressure is how to portray someone with Asperger's," he says. "I have to do a lot of research. And it's not easy, especially since I started middle school this year and have a lot more tests to study for."