The Toronto Star – Arts Story: Acting’s not child’s play – July 8, 2000
Acting’s not child’s play
School may be out, but for pint-sized actors, summer’s no time to slack off
By Jim Bawden
Toronto Star Television Columnist
A junior high corridor is jammed with chattering kids, loitering during the final day of this year’s school term.
Then the doors at the far end open with a crash and several boys furiously
skateboard their way down the hall and out of sight.
What’s so unusual about all this? Well, it could be the presence of a particularly fetching 14-year-old female alien complete with blue makeup and matching blue bouffant hairdo. Or it could be the normal-looking boy who is wearing a sparkly spacesuit.
And then there’s the stern voice barking, “Cut.”
A look around reveals that the hall is filled with a television crew. The kids are really eager young actors.
“We’ll have to try harder,” director Carl Goldstein says wearily. He’s guiding an episode of the hit TV series I Was A Sixth Grade Alien (on YTV in Canada). The title of the Alliance Atlantis series says it all: A little blue-haired alien Pleskit (Ryan Cooley) comes to planet Earth with his diplomatic father and it’s decided he should attend a “normal” school.
With real school out for the summer, I Was A Sixth Grade Alien is just one of many TV productions revving up across Toronto – shows that use a lot of young actors can shoot all summer long and avoid the mandatory two hours of schooling.
On the set of I Was A Sixth Grade Alien, over lunch, Goldstein says the first season of the show was a bit easier – the principal actors were 11 and still basically youngsters. Now that most have hit 12 or even 14, they’re beginning to become self-conscious.
“Acting is lifting up that barrier,” he says, smiling ruefully. As the kids mature, they put up barriers to acting naturally.
On this particular day, he has to get the skateboarders to tackle their scene with more energy and to get the actors perked up so they’ll appear fresher, more enthusiastic.
The scene will get done, but there is a time crunch – the company is already behind in the day’s schedule. It’s just that whenever a TV series or movie calls for actors under 18, it’s a whole new ball game in terms of time and money. There are union regulations about the number of hours a youngster can work and how many breaks he must get in a day.
On I Was A Sixth Grade Alien, the two big stars are Ryan Cooley, 12, and Daniel Clark, 14, and there are half a dozen supporting players around the same age. Leah Cudmore, 14, has just been added as a semi-regular – as the blue-haired female alien named Blur.
Ryan and Daniel are unusual compared to most child actors because they’re in almost every scene. They’re the big stars of this series, even if they are only kids. During this period of intense emotional and physical growth, they’re being asked to handle adult responsibilities.
“The kids are fantastic, quite brilliant,” enthuses Sixth Grade Alien co-creator and executive producer Daphne Ballon.
There is a huge pool of young competitors out there. The Alliance Of Canadian Cinema, Television And Radio Arts
(ACTRA) says there are more than 1,100 actors under age 18 registered in the Toronto region alone – that’s one in eight ACTRA members. For a child to get an ACTRA membership she has to win an audition for a speaking part or have a part in a commercial.
There’s also a huge pool of wannabe actors under 18 enrolled in drama schools, taking dance lessons or signed up with modelling agencies.
This is the season for them to obtain work – most TV series with a significant number of kids do most of their filming in the summer. During the school year, ACTRA regulations dictate each child must get at least two hours a day of schooling, and this can slow down filming. Actors under 12 can only work a total of eight hours a day (including schooling). Those 12 to 15 years old can work an additional two hours, but not every day.
Right now, there are 40 TV and movie productions shooting in Toronto using minors. ACTRA inspectors must visit the sites to monitor working conditions. But ACTRA spokesperson Alex Gill estimates at least 20 per cent of work on commercials is non-union. He cites a recent example of a young kid who was hired for a big-time commercial that had worldwide play and the child received only $500.
The ACTRA agreement says after the first $5,000 in salary at least 25 per cent must be banked in a fund the actor can’t touch until he hits 18. A young lead actor in a series starts at a base salary of about $2,000 an episode, and it goes up from there (residuals come later). The Star’s Sid Adilman said Sarah Polley earned $1.5 million for her six seasons on Road To Avonlea, which would make her the highest paid youngster ever on Canadian TV.
In the past, before tougher rules, there were stories of greedy parents spending every cent and leaving their children poor and uneducated.
But nowadays, education is enforced.
Last week, during the final days of school, Sixth Grade Alien star Ryan Cooley was still squeezing in some last-minute studying in a fully furnished school room run by veteran tutor Laurie Farrance. She’s been tutoring young actors for 14 years on such series as Road To Avonlea and Wind At My Back.
ACTRA regulations dictate she gets a separate, quiet room on the set and a quiet corner if the company is on a location.
“(Child actors) memorize so quickly, and most are very smart,” she says. If there’s a special need in a subject she can’t handle, she calls for reinforcements. She meets with the kids’ regular teachers and faxes them the tests she administers.
Being a child star doesn’t mean a life of limousines and autographs. Sixth Grade Alien’s Ryan and Daniel face long days before the cameras, and they spend their nights memorizing the next day’s dialogue – which can run from seven to 10 pages.
Plus, it takes 45 minutes to apply Ryan’s blue makeup every morning. The first year he dyed his hair blue, but this year has opted for a wig.
Ryan, who scored a hit in community theatre in Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang before getting his first commercial at 9 for an insurance company, can talk knowingly about how to get a good agent and how to nail an audition.
About acting, he says, “It’s fun for me. I have fun on the set, it’s like a second family.”
Co-star Daniel is even more of a veteran. He moved from South Florida with his parents and actor-brother Robert Clark. Mom Suzanne Clark had the two boys audition for roles in Ragtime and Beauty And The Beast. Daniel snagged the role of Chip in Beauty and played it for eight months before jumping to a lead in his first TV series, Eerie, Indiana.
At 14, he knows exactly what he wants to be when he grows up – an actor. And he’s blas