"I want to go home," Thomas Robinson said as he climbed into his mother's arms, wrapped his tiny body around her torso and nuzzled his head against her neck.
The 8-year-old, who stars with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman in "The Switch," was experiencing his first big movie premiere. It was nearing 10 p.m. at Hollywood's nouveau W Hotel on Monday, where a party was being held to celebrate the film's release. Well-groomed industry types abounded, sipping martinis, delicately eating shrimp skewers, taking smoke breaks on a dimly lighted patio.
Thomas, meanwhile, smiled meekly and picked at a plate of pigs-in-a-blanket as scores of adults came by to tell him how cute he was. He even received a high-five from costar Patrick Wilson. But when the camera flashes got too relentless, he recoiled. His mom, Rachel, quickly gathered their things and headed for the exit.
Only hours before, Thomas' performance as Sebastian, the bright son of Aniston's character, had coaxed a chorus of "awws" from a full theater, the latest in a series of strikingly naturalistic and evocative child actors anchoring movies this summer. In July, there was "Ramona and Beezus," based upon author Beverly Cleary's book series, starring 11-year-old girl Joey King. That was followed by Rob Reiner's "Flipped," a 1960s tale of young love centered on 14-year-old Madeline Carroll and 15-year-old Callan McAuliffe. Upcoming in October is the vampire remake "Let Me In," with 13-year-old Chloe Moretz and 14-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee.
In "The Switch," Thomas has a kinship with a character played by Bateman, who himself was a child actor on television. Growing up in Hollywood has never been easy, as is evidenced by the complicated legacies of stars such as Judy Garland and Robert Blake. But in an era when kids submit their own auditions to casting directors via YouTube and reality television can instantly propel a precocious youngster from obscurity to fame, the pool has never been quite this competitive.
And, according to many in the industry, the wealth of opportunity on the big screen had led many aspiring young actors to "over-prepare" — rehearsing relentlessly with coaches or stage parents to hone their acting skills.
Trying to act professional when you're just a kid can be a lot to balance, said Bateman.
"I wasn't as young as [Thomas] is, but I can remember being around all these adults and trying to sort of accelerate my ability to be professional or deliver the goods," he said. "Kids at that age are really just thinking about executing their homework properly or putting the soccer ball in the net. They have a different set of pressures."
Rachel Robinson, Thomas' mom, said her son followed his older brother, 10-year-old Bryce, into movies after Bryce was cast in "Marley & Me" and "Valentine's Day."
"We're kind of just rolling with it," she said of her sons' success. "And if they ever don't want to put the work in and don't want to do it — they own the process. It's their hobby. If they'd rather be running around outside, fine."
North Hollywood resident Thomas, meanwhile, is grappling with how to handle his first movie role. Too shy to talk to a reporter directly, Thomas had his mother relay questions. Asked how he felt about the film's release, he replied: "Sort of freaked out."
A family business
Kodi Smit-McPhee, one of the stars of "Let Me In," said his father, Andy McPhee, also an actor, often accompanied him on the set, easing the pressure of filmmaking.
"My dad, he is always kind of my courage," said Kodi, who's from Australia. "He taught me everything I know, and the way we do it is to try to make it real — a whole life for the character, all the little things. He'll be there if I need help with a dramatic scene."
Madeline, the actress from "Flipped," said her mother serves a more strict role in her life — making sure she puts away the money she's making.
"I have an allowance, but I can't really spend my own money until I'm 18," she said. "I'm like, 'Oh, mom, can I get this?' But I can't spend my money. It stinks."
On the set of "Flipped," Madeline said, director Rob Reiner worked hard to kid-proof the environment, even implementing a "swear jar" for anyone who used unsavory language in front of the young cast.
"If you swore, you had to put 20 bucks into the jar," said Madeline, who lives in Simi Valley. "When I'm 14, I've noticed adults are starting to curse around me and stuff, like they don't care anymore, because they think I'm older. Me and my family, we're Christian, so when [adults] are talking about certain things, I just sit quietly."
Reiner praised Madeline's maturity on set. "It was none of that fake kind of cutesy acting that sometimes you see with young kids," he said. "A lot of times you have to do a lot of tricks to get things out of a young actor — spoon-feeding them line readings, telling them the way you want them to say something. But not with these kids."