Tales From A Hollywood Child Wrangler
A movie set is a strange place. With so many moving parts, one hiccup can screw up everything. And as any parent / teacher / coach airline passenger can tell you, one kid acting up can do a LOT of damage. Since not every child actor can be a good little Ronnie Howard or Mara Wilson, someone has to take charge of them on set so that Unbreakable 2: Breakable isn't delayed until 2029. We talked with Jody, one of these aptly named "child wranglers."
Movies Keep Spare Babies On Set, And That's Still Not Enough
American Sniper was a big-budget blockbuster (and the top-grossing film of 2014 in America), but when it came time for them to film a baby, this is what they went with:
Yep, they used a plastic doll. Audiences were baffled, and so was the cast -- especially since the film had hired multiple real human babies for that scene. (If you're wondering, yes, studios do casting calls for infants.) But one of the babies reportedly got a fever, and another didn't show up on the day of shooting. "That's why many other movies have baby dolls or go digital now for babies," says Jody, who has seen situations like this come up repeatedly. "They may actually be cheaper, and they're probably better actors."
The problem with babies is that they have a bad habit of failing when you need them most. It's probably the reason we don't employ them in other jobs. One diaper commercial she handled hired three babies, even though only one would appear in the ad. While that may seem like more babies than anyone would want, one for the shot plus two spares is more like the bare minimum. They should have hired even more, but the law says that studios need a nurse for every three babies at that age, so hiring one more would have doubled nursing costs.
"Baby 1 got a rash on its face," says Jody, "and the nurse couldn't make it go away fast enough, so they were out. Baby 2 was great, until the mother informed us at the last second that they were allergic to dogs." Baby 3? "Couldn't stop crying. The morning was ruined." The next time they tried, two of the babies again broke down. The third refused to crawl, and while it looked adorably badass sitting up on the sofa and squinting at everyone, the shoot was a total wash.
Thus is the life of a Hollywood child wrangler.
Yes, She Has To Deal With "Stage Moms" (But Most Of Them Are Fine)
Stage parents, so the stereotype goes, could never make it as actors themselves, and now live vicariously through their children's success. That image is ... sometimes accurate. One stage dad told Jody that he'd missed out on the role of Slater in Saved By The Bell because Mario Lopez "fucked him over." But parents come in all flavors. By law, parents must be present at all times during filming, so some are only there because they have to be. Some are fussy. Some aren't. And only occasionally are they total monsters.
One child Jody worked with had just a few lines and knew them perfectly, so after rehearsal, the two of them relaxed a bit with some Radio Disney. The girl's mother batted the radio off and insisted they do the lines again. Kind of a red flag. When the shoot began, Jody said, "You got this." The mother said, in a smiling singsong voice, "Be perfect. Nothing less." Buckling under pressure, the girl flubbed her lines, and the director called for a break.
The mother pulled the girl to another room, and Jody followed. (Part of her job is to never let a child out of her sight. She once lost track of one for a couple of minutes at a mall shoot and was surprised she wasn't fired.) "She looked dead in her eyes," says Jody, "and said in a gruff voice that came out of nowhere, 'You do this. You do this. Do you WANT to go back to our old shithole of a home? No? Then you do this.'" The girl was on the verge of tears. Then when they returned to set, the mother was bubbly again. "Oh, she's ready," she said. "Just needed a pep talk."
After more flubbed lines, they had to let that child go. Yep, if the kids don't perform, their asses get fired. The mother accepted the news with a smile, leaving Jody to only imagine what the car ride home would be like. Other times, she's seen stage moms react to firings by showering everyone in sight with F-bombs, child actors included. Either way, it's not the wrangler's place to criticize. "If there's any violence, you better believe we'd report that," she says, "but if we see a kid who obviously doesn't want to be here, and a stage mom pushing them into the audition, we can't do anything about it besides use it as a possible factor in not hiring them."
The best stage parents, says Jody, have had their own experiences in show business. That gives them more advice and knowledge to share, obviously, and also gives them perspective. They know child actors need balance. "Like, 'You can try some acting, but also play with your friends and go to school,'" says Jody. Parents in the business say I don't want him to be the next Macaulay Culkin or I don't want her to be the next Amanda Bynes. "One parent in particular carried around Natalie Wood's biography. I had to ask her once during a break, and she said, 'So I can keep myself from becoming that.'"
Natalie Wood's mother killed a butterfly in front of her to get her to cry.
The Laws Around Child Actors Are (Usually) Very Strict
... or that kid from Monk who'd be "away at camp" at seemingly random times?
Lots of times, that's due to legal limitations on when and how kids can be used.
Babies are only allowed to work for 20 minutes a day, for example, and they can only be in the studio at all for two hours per day, tops. That's the law in California. Things are looser elsewhere. In Louisiana, babies can act six hours a day, six days a week. But the epicenter of the entertainment industry has a whole lot of restrictions on how much you can wring out of child stars (and yes, those laws were passed after decades of horrific mistreatment).
School-age kids can work a total of 9.5 hours a day. That might sound like plenty, but that clock is ticking even if they're not on camera and are merely in the makeup chair texting. "There was a commercial I was working where a young girl needed her hair a certain way," says Jody. "When they finally got it right, the crew had gone out for a break, and by the time everyone was back, half of her allotted shooting schedule that night had passed. She literally got half of her pay by sitting and waiting."
That 9.5 hours also includes the three hours they spend in class. Child actors still have to get an education, in the extremely unlikely event that they don't continue to act into old age. This is often done with a "studio teacher," a private tutor who has to cram in lessons in between scenes, tweaking the class schedule around the director's whims and when the light is perfect. They might miss out on the social side of school (the Walking Dead prom is always a dull affair), but they learn fine, by most accounts. ( "A child I was watching went up to a member of the lighting crew for a science question," says Jody, "and he helped him nail it.")
If this is the case, it kind of makes us wonder what the other five hours of our school day was for.
Trained Child Actors Can Be Creepily Intense
A lot of the kids Jody works with don't have long acting resumes. They're there to do a commercial or a few lines for a show. With them, the biggest struggle is often keeping them from ruining a shot by looking directly into the camera and staring into the viewer's soul, and plenty of wrangling is getting rowdy kids to settle down. ("They're kids being kids," as she says.) But then there are the pros. These are the ones who've been training for this since toddlerhood ... and sometimes they're too good.
"They're going to sit or stand somewhere, not saying anything or smiling," says Jody. "They'll be by themselves in complete silence or going over lines, sometimes with their mom or dad right by. These 'professionals' try to get in the zone ... Ever see a M. Night Shyamalan movie? The kids in those don't act like real kids. It's because their parents push them on Stanislavski or method acting at an early age, so they act more like adults early on."
For a cereal commercial, Jody was filming a boy and girl reacting to a cartoon that hadn't been made yet. That's easier than it sounds. To get actors laughing at nothing, she tells them to imagine the person reading the script is a golden retriever puppy. This trick worked on the girl, who said her lines with glee. The boy -- a more polished actor -- struggled to express the pure childlike wonder that you'd think would come naturally.
"He's used to being in dramas!" said the boy's dad. "Give him time." But after several takes, this serious child actor still didn't get it. The next boy up for the part was no pro, but managed it right away. It's kind of like how Daniel Day-Lewis would probably suck in the role of a wacky bumbling husband in a yogurt commercial.
To Avoid Traumatizing Kids, You Need To Fool Them
One shoot of Jody's from around Christmastime was about a child lost in a store. A shopper would ask the little girl where her mother was, and the girl was supposed to look around and reply "Over there!" while pointing at a woman flirting with an actor in a Santa suit. The ad would have presumably been a sure hit with the Santaphilia community. But every time she was asked "Where's your Mommy?" the four-year-old actress pointed nowhere near Santa. She pointed at her actual mother, standing on the other side of the camera. Yes, it turns out filming is complicated when you're dealing with people too young to necessarily know what acting even is.
When the kid's real mom told her to pretend the actress beside Santa was her mother, the child looked hurt. "It wasn't said," says Jody, "but you could clearly see that she was thinking that Mom didn't want her." This is a recurring thing with actors that age, no matter how familiar you'd think kids are with playing make-believe. "They've never said anything like 'Are they my new mom?' but it's gotten close."
The crew solved that problem by getting the girl's real mother into the shot not far from Santa, so the kid ended up pointing in the correct general area. Other times, there's even more risk of messing a kid up because shoots can be terrifying. 13-year-old Jodie Foster needed psych tests to prove that she understood Taxi Driver was only a story.
And when kids are younger, they have to face an even scarier menace: incomplete special effects.
Jody worked on a TV pilot about a giant friendly monster, but since the monster was all CGI, its stand-in on set was an eyeless green mess of padding. The horrified parents of the young actress complained to the wardrobe department (wardrobe wasn't responsible and had no power to fix it, but the parents just really wanted to vent, apparently). Jody told the girl, "This is a nice man pretending to be a big kitty, but we haven't put the rest of him on yet ... He doesn't feel good about himself for not looking like the others. Can you make him feel better when you see him?" The girl ran to the homunculus, hugged him, and said, "You're pretty to me." The show never got picked up, but that take was gold.
At a non-professional level, acting can still be a fun activity for kids before they grow up and learn how dumb and gray the world can be sometimes. Here's a book of monologues for kids to try out.
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For more tales from the youth of Hollywood, check out 6 Ways Being A Child Star Is Way Darker Than You'd Think and 5 Things I Learned As A Child Star Of The Worst Movie Ever.
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