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June 19, 2010, at 1:27 am — Blogs / / / / / /

In Defense of the Child Actor

I’ve known a lot of child actors, some with significant careers, and yes they have problems and yes they grow up fast and yes some are troubled. I would argue though there are very few of us in this industry that don’t have some kind of struggle with our past, with who we are or where we come from – age has little to do with it.

Michael Winship wrote a blog over at the Huffington Post about Miley Cyrus’ recent appearance in the headlines. At one point he recounted a second hand account of a young actor “misbehaving” on set and had this to say about this young man and Miley Cyrus:

“like Cyrus, he was a star at 17 and it had ruined him as a human being.’”

No one is ruined. And a second hand account of what an actor did on set is not fair. I take it from what Winship wrote that he has little idea as to what it is to be an actor, what the job actually feels like, looks like, smells like. As a Director I’ve had actors yell at me, get silent, cry – and I do not take it personally – you see to the audience it’s all make believe – to the actor it has to be reality (at some level) and sometimes that means they’re a little raw in between takes. Not to mention it’s not nearly as easy a job as many, especially writers, think.

I would hardly call any of the actors I’ve worked with, no matter their age or behavior, “ruined”.

Ruined implies that they can be thrown away. And even young people have bad days.

I tend not to write about my child actor friends – I believe in protecting their privacy. But yes, some have struggled with coming of age after having great success, but they mostly work themselves out. Not every child actor has a bad stage parent and not every child actor has the bad luck of the “Different Strokes” cast. In fact most are okay. The few that do have hard struggles did not have good support around them when they were younger – and thanks to the tabloid mentality of some in our press they get shamed every time they slip. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when no one seems to like you anymore – that rejection burns deep into the soul and sparks a fire that can lead to depression, drug use or even death.

Who doesn’t have a hard time going from a child to an adult? The only reason we think child actors are any different from other kids is that we hear about them on a massive media scale. The problem is our perception of them – not them.

As to Miley Cyrus: I’ve heard a lot of grumbling from the older generations that she is being too risqué in her newest video and music. I’ve seen her video and her appearances on various shows to promote her new album and I see nothing risqué. She’s wearing a one piece dance costume with feathers dancing more tame than most high school dance teams. If she was at the beach in a bikini I’m sure Winship wouldn’t be nearly as upset. Yes she’s pushing limits, she’s a teenager. Yes she’s trying to find herself – she’s finally not tied solely to Hannah Montana. Miley might just have something to say for herself now and she’s finding her true voice.

Now why people find what she’s doing to be too sexual – that makes me more concerned with them than her.

I do wish there was better support for child actors. I think some feel abandoned as shows end and what had become their on set family moves on.

But the real pressures that do come from working as a child actor often have nothing to do with the work environment or content of the show – but rather at how badly other kids and adults treat them when they go out into the wider world, outside of the security and comfort of the studio walls. I’ve known more than one that took up martial arts simply to defend themselves from bullies.

As for adults – take the amateur video of Miley with Adam Shankman where she was dancing with him suggestively – first off – he’s gay – secondly why is no one concerned with who took the video? What kind of person would record an underage girl at a party and then sell it to the tabloids? If not for this person’s hunger to catch some cash, Miley would never have had to defend herself and maybe people would be listening to her music rather than her dance moves with a gay friend.

And Are there some stage parents that treat their children like trained animals? Yes. But don’t blame the kid and don’t assume this applies to all child actors. I knew one stage mom that came to an audition for a short I was casting back in film school who bribed her son with an apple. After he did one part of his audition he ran over to his mom as she handed him an apple to eat – acting like it was a treat (I’m not exaggerating). It was weird. But that was just one stage mom – I’ve met many who were fantastic.

So maybe can we support our child actors instead of looking for reasons to embarrass them or put undue pressure on them to be just so perfect? Instead let’s be supportive, and appreciative of the entertainment they bring us and the stories they are a part of that move us; and let’s keep a kind eye towards them so that if they should stumble as they grow, we can encourage them and help build them back up, rather than tear them down with our cynicism.

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