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How to Succeed as a Child Actor: What Agents Want, What Parents Can Do

May 01, 1989|KATHRYN HARRIS

There is a surprising consensus among agents, casting directors and parents about which children are most likely succeed in acting--and where and when. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions.

What physical type? Child actors no longer need be beautiful, but typically they have some quality that turns heads in the shopping mall. Small is best, because an undersized child can accept a role designed for a younger child yet work longer hours under California labor laws. Agents prefer children who are no taller than 42 inches at age 6; 44 inches at 7, 46 inches at 8 and 48 inches at 9.

What personality? Very outgoing. Verbal.

Which age? "Six is the absolute gold age. They can work (longer hours) . . . and can read," says casting director Judy Savage. "Children under 6 are not predictable."

Which sex? Boys are believed to have an advantage. Some agents contend that 70% of the work in commercials goes to boys while 70% of the acting pool seems to be female. According to the Screen Actors Guild, however, membership is almost evenly divided between the sexes under age 19.

How about cute babies? They find more work in New York, where labor laws are less stringent.

Which cities offer the best opportunities? More commercials are made in New York because advertising agencies are concentrated there and child labor laws are less stringent. Los Angeles offers the best chance of working in television series or films.

How marketable are twins? Not very, after the age of 3, according to Savage, who notes that twins may be more preoccupied with each other and less extroverted than other children.

Are there situations where a child can audition without having an agent? Very rarely.

How does a family find a "kid agent?" The Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists will provide for $1 a list of "franchised," or approved, talent agents. Parents can mail snapshots of a child to agents without an introduction but should include a self-addressed envelope or post card if they want a response. Parents should include a child's date of birth, height and weight along with the photos mailed to agents.

What are the costs of starting out? Film developing costs and postage stamps. Once a child has an agent, the family must spend $100 to $300 on photos. The agent will charge 10% of the actor's gross income from union jobs once the child begins earning income.

Should parents also hire a manager? Only lawyers or agents are allowed to negotiate contracts, but managers handle fewer clients and can be helpful in coaching. Jodie Sweetin's and Nicole Huntington's parents dropped their managers after the first year or so. With the fee typically 15% or higher, a "manager is taking money out of your child's pocket," says Janice Sweetin.

Why should a child join SAG or AFTRA, and when? There is very little non-union work, and union jobs pay most. Regardless of age, a SAG member earns a daily minimum of $398 for television and films or $366 daily for commercials, with the prospect of earning much larger residuals (payment for reuse of their work). A child is not required to join SAG, however, until age 4. To be eligible, the child must have the promise of a union job or have completed one union job. Since 1981, SAG and AFTRA have jointly negotiated film, television and commercial contracts. The general rule is that an actor must join AFTRA as well as SAG if he appears in a videotaped production--such as talk shows, game shows or daytime soaps.

How much does it cost to join SAG or AFTRA? It costs $838.50 to join SAG, $600 (plus a sliding scale of dues) to join AFTRA.

What's the best and the worst part of child acting? The best part is "getting up there and pretending you're someone else," says 14-year-old Nicole Huntington. Auditions are the worst, she says, not because of stage jitters or possible rejection, but the ordeal of commuting in heavy traffic to and from Los Angeles. "Auditioning is really tough," agrees Janice Sweetin of Cypress. "We hate the traffic."

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