I'm pawing through a wardrobe of matching caps and booties, jumpers and nightshirts to find outfits that will make my 2-month-old twin boys look more, well, infantile. This on the advice of their Hollywood manager, who counsels me to lie about their weight and to dress them to look younger. Hollywood is famously cruel about age and beauty, but things reach a whole new level when you are heading off to a baby casting call. My conscience squawks, but I obediently trick out my sleeping talents in baby-blue ensembles so sweet it hurts my teeth to look at them.
The competition appears fierce at the audition. There's a set of triplets in tiny pink outfits with matching lace socks and ankle bracelets. Another set of twin boys is tooled out in Baby Gap glory. My mother, who accompanies me, hisses, "Ours are the cutest!" I nod and hope for a small miracle: a winning smile or perhaps even a gurgle for the director.
A director explains to the packed room that the babies chosen to play a newborn will be swathed in cream cheese and jam to simulate a birth. Is everyone OK with this? A dozen eager parents nod.
I am one of them.
Two days later, I'm still waiting for the call from central casting. The phone never rings. Rejection stings, but that October 2002 audition for "Strong Medicine," Lifetime's medical drama, only whets my appetite for a personal Hollywood success story.
In succeeding months, we trudge through studio lots to try out for cameo appearances on NBC's "Scrubs" and an ABC pilot called "Regular Joe." We don't truly arrive, though, until the twins, Daniel and Aaron, land a recurring role on the smash Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle." From then on, I got quickly caught up in a strange Hollywood subculture in which infants have managers, top-billed babies occupy the most luxurious trailers, and parents compete in sometimes brutal casting calls. The rare baby star is cosseted in first-class hotels, shuttled to premieres in limousines, and primped by his own makeup artists and hairstylists.
About 4,500 infants and toddlers in the Los Angeles area between the ages of 15 days and 6 years have entertainment work permits, according to state labor statistics. Directors prefer to use twins and triplets to play a single baby because it gives them double or triple the time to film without violating strict labor laws that limit how long babies spend on camera. A mini-industry has sprung up to scout for and cast these tiny stars. Its tentacles reach into the outlying suburbs of Los Angeles, where most twins are recruited. Most mothers learn of opportunities through twins clubs formed by parents interested in swapping child-rearing tips, arranging play dates and, in Los Angeles, gossiping about Hollywood deals.
But the baby business also has its aggressive side. Some expectant mothers sign up with managers shortly after their twins are born, tracked down in maternity wards by recruiters known as "baby bird dogs." Once they sign up, ambitious mothers from Orange and Riverside counties make long pilgrimages to the film sets of Studio City for the chance to have their children in pictures.
I, too, was seduced by this easy opportunity. The experience exposed a vein of raw ambition that might otherwise have lurked undetected until my twins were old enough for their first T-ball game.
How did I sink so low? In the last year, I have become one of the bottom feeders of Hollywood lore: a stage mother. I wince as I confess this, but my babies had work permits before they were 3 months old.
A Hollywood set can be a confusing place for an amateur. I was fortunate to have Diana Infante as a guide. Her 16-month-old twins, Rio and Zoe, were veteran actresses when we arrived on the "Malcolm" stage, and Infante, a former model, generously showed me the ropes.
A baby can legally launch his Hollywood career when he is 15 days old, assuming his pediatrician approves. But if he's looking to play a newborn role, he may be washed up as soon as he reaches 2 months and weighs more than 10 pounds--unless he looks young for his age. My chubby babies were arguably past their prime when they auditioned at 2 months for a newborn role.
Twins are considered full term if they are born at 38 weeks, Infante explained to me. That's how her twins ended up working their first gig one week after their due date, playing a drug baby on "ER." In their first weeks on planet Earth, Zoe and Rio also played a newborn in four birth scenes: on "Malcolm in the Middle," two episodes of "Strong Medicine" and on a now-canceled Fox space western called "Firefly."
There may be a few surprises when you have your babies in pictures, Infante counseled. She told me about how an actor would place one of her daughters lovingly in a bassinet. Only when the program aired did she learn the entire plot line. Her twins' roles have included playing a brain-dead baby, a baby with lung problems, a foundling and an addicted newborn. Soon, Infante told me, her mom stopped telling relatives to tune in.