Parenting Kid Stars



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From the perennially scandal-plagued Lindsay Lohan to the troubled young cast of the early ’80s series Diff’rent Strokes, children who enter show business seem to end up scarred by the experience. Actress Sarah Polley, who starred in TV and movies from a young age, has warned about Hollywood directors who come to the ‘Canadian talent trough’ in search of kids they can easily mould. Why risk putting your own child through that? Well, because the famous cases are by no means the norm – and the Canadian industry is very different from Hollywood. There are stringent industry protections for children, although they are unlikely to get rich from their efforts. Most important, acting, dancing and being on TV can be enormous fun for an outgoing, adventurous kid as long as parents stay vigilant about their welfare.

EVERY PARENT THINKS THEIR KID IS THE CUTEST
According to agent Yanick Landry, who handles kids through Newton Landry Management Inc. in Toronto, the most common misconception parents hold is that being a child actor is easy and everybody can do it. “It’s a job,” he says. “It usually starts as a hobby, but if the child shows potential, they have to make sacrifices.” There may be no time for sports teams and music classes, and the child may spend summers working long hours on a set instead of splashing in a lake at the cottage. What’s more, it can easily take a year or more of audition cattle calls before anything happens – if it ever does. And if a child’s career does take off, parents will have to make sacrifices too, from leisure time to potentially, their jobs. While every parent thinks they have the cutest, most talented child, to make it kids need strong, outgoing personalities. It may sound harsh, but blond, blue-eyed six-year-olds are a dime a dozen; it’s the children with unusual looks or skills, such as a tiny tot who can read, who get work. Landry suggests parents approach show business the way they would a new sport: try it out and see if the kids enjoy it.

“Ask them, ‘Do you want to go to the soccer game or do you want to audition for the McDonald’s commercial?’ If the kid says soccer, the answer should be soccer.”
Here is how two child stars and their families negotiated the fraught terrain of early career and fame:

DANIEL COOK AGE: 10
Resume: Star of This Is Daniel Cook and I Dare You! on various Canadian and foreign networks; commercials for CIBC, Jell-O, Bell Canada; in February he guest-hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show.

  • Starts the day: about 7 a.m.
  • Ends the day: 5 p.m.
  • Number of working days: four days a week
  • Favourite movie: “I really liked Transformers. It was exciting and funny and had good animation.”
  • Favourite dinner: “Anything that my parents make!” (Mom: “We didn’t even tell him to say that!”)
  • Favourite toy: “Star Wars action figure guys.”
  • Favourite subject in school: “Science.”
  • Most nerve-wracking experience: “Throwing the first pitch at a major-league baseball game.”
  • Most fun ever: “Filming This Is Daniel Cook. I got to go on really fun adventures like flying an airplane, digging for dinosaurs and going to Disney World.”

When Deborah and Murray Cook learned this past winter that Oprah Winfrey wanted their son, Daniel, to guest-host her show, their initial reaction was star-struck astonishment. They worried what that kind of global exposure would mean for their 10-year-old son. Would Hollywood agents start calling? Would he attract creepy fans? Daniel worried about something else – he thought he’d have to sing opera.

Being the centre of attention has always come easily to Daniel. When he was three, he performed The Night Before Christmas in front of a large family gathering. Still, the Cooks, who live in the Hamilton, Ontario area, hadn’t given show business a thought when an agent – who’d heard about the precocious redhead from a family friend – asked to meet with them. After talking with the boy, the agent told them, “Are you ready to commute to Toronto five days a week? Because I could have this kid working immediately.”

Daniel, then five, was thrilled at the prospect of being on TV, but his parents hesitated. “We also had a two-year-old. We have a life. I didn’t want to be going every day to auditions,” recalls Deborah. But they liked the agent, who reassured them he’d only send Daniel for jobs sanctioned by the ACTRA union, which has strict guidelines about child actors. “We didn’t see a real downside,” says Deborah. “It was a great opportunity for fun, and the minute Daniel wasn’t having fun anymore, it would be over.”

THE LIFE OF THIS PINT-SIZED CELEB IS LESS THAN ORDINARY
The parents figured he might do a few commercials – they certainly didn’t expect fame. They considered not using Daniel’s real name for This Is Daniel Cook, “but then we thought, c’mon, this is a kids’ show on Canadian TV . Who’s really going to know him?” says Murray with a laugh. “Within a week of the show going on air,” adds Deborah, “we went to a local restaurant and a lady turned around and asked if this little boy was Daniel Cook. We just about fell down!”

As Daniel’s career took off, the Cooks grew watchful of fame’s effect on their son. “If fame started to affect his sense of self-esteem, if it started to mean too much to him, we’d have to pull him from the business,” says Deborah. Except when he’s shooting, Daniel’s life remains ordinary: he goes to school in his neighbourhood, has swimming lessons and other activities with his friends. “In class and at home, he gets no special treatment,” says Deborah, though she admits that younger kids at school are ‘in awe’ of him, and some of the older ones are drawn to the celebrity he represents.

Daniel’s relations with his brother, Spencer, are also smooth so far. The younger boy got a taste of Daniel’s career when he appeared in a This Is Daniel Cook episode and the brothers reviewed Shrek together for ET Canada. However, Spencer (to his parents’ relief) seems disinterested in following in Daniel’s footsteps. Canadian TV doesn’t match American earnings and the family had to make some adjustments for Daniel’s career.

During each of the two seasons of This Is Daniel Cook, he needed to be on the set every day for two months, so the Cooks rented a house in Toronto. Deborah, who’s been a stay-at-home mom since her younger son was born, has taken on most of the chaperoning duties. Her advice for other parents is, first, to do your homework: find a reputable agent, ideally through recommendations and don’t let anyone persuade you to invest in lots of expensive classes.

Child actors rarely get rich – while Daniel won’t have to worry about
paying for his post-secondary education, their lifestyle hasn’t changed
much. After the Oprah show, Daniel’s agent got a call form Forbes
magazine compiling a list of the richest child actors, all millionaires.
“We laughed,” says Murray. “Canadian TV doesn’t pay close to what
American kids make. It can be lucrative if the kids star in commercials
that play across North America, but there are a lot of full-time actors
in Canada who are barely making ends meet.”

REALITY CHECK
Most
important, Daniel’s parents say you should ask kids regularly whether
they want to stick with it. “Make sure you stay in the business because
your kid likes it, not because you like it,” Deborah cautions. Daniel,
taking a break from a new video game, says he wants to keep doing
television – as a sideline to a future career as a paleontologist – and
was disappointed when This Is Daniel Cook ended after two seasons. His
new show, I Dare You!, is into
its second season, but the Cooks know it could all suddenly end and
worry about how Daniel would experience the lack of spotlight.

“I
always liken us to hockey parents,” says Deborah. “There are people who
are super-talented as kids, but what if they don’t go on to the NHL?
All we can do as parents is help him develop his self-esteem in
different ways.”

MIRIAM McDONALD AGE: 20

Resume: long-time star of teen drama Degrassi; voice of YTV; voice-over work for animated series Englebert,
JoJo’s Circus and Cyberchase; lead in TV series
Naturally Sadie and movie of the week She’s Too Young.

  • Starts the day: 5:45 a.m. on work days; otherwise, around 9 a.m.
  • Ends the day: 7 p.m on work days
  • Number of working days: 5 days a week for half the year
  • Favourite actor: “Lately, Naomi Watts.”
  • Favourite movie: “I thought Blood Diamond was amazing.”
  • Favourite dinner: “Sushi.”
  • Favourite subject in school: “Creative writing.”
  • Most afraid of: “Getting stranded in the middle of the ocean.”
  • Most enjoys: “The beach.”

Although Miriam McDonald
showed a flair for the stage since she was a preschooler, at her first
open audition, at the age of 11, her mother, Silvia Pauksens, almost
balked. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, do you really want to bother?’” she
says. But, even then, Miriam was determined. “I’m stubborn,” says
Miriam. “Since then I wanted to keep my career my career.”

Her
mother agreed, but she moved carefully, seeking advice from respected
people in the industry. Her daughter’s first employer, YTV, put them in
touch with a good agent. She also credits The Agents Book by Peter
Messaline, published by Theatre Ontario, for invaluable early tips on
classes to take and scams to watch out for (such as agents who ask for
money up front).

As Miriam’s career took off, her mother, a
teacher, dropped to a part-time schedule in order to chaperone her
daughter to auditions and jobs, but she doesn’t see that as a sacrifice.
“I really enjoyed it. There’s so much to learn. You have to be willing
to give up certain other parts of your life.”

At 13, Miriam got
the part on Degrassi and was just starting high school. The family moved
to Toronto from Oakville, Ontario, to be closer to the set. Miriam
says, “People would know me as my character. That was pretty weird.” Her
life soon started diverging from that of her friends. When she wasn’t
shooting or at her dance studio, she was auditioning or going to
professional classes.

“My priorities changed from the goals of my
friends as it related to school and social life,” says Miriam. “You
have to be willing to give up certain other parts of your life.” Her
schooling was also increasingly done by tutors on the set: she’d follow
the same curriculum as her peers but in a condensed form.

Parents
need to keep a close eye on their kids’ level of enthusiasm for the
work, says her mother. “Kids may actually get parts because they’re
really cute, but if they have to be cajoled, it’s probably not for them.
We supported Miriam’s interest from the start, but one of the reasons
she’s still doing it, is that we always followed her lead.”

As
for money, Silvia says it shouldn’t even enter the equation. “If parents
have financial expectations, their child shouldn’t be in the business.”

There
are other rewards: the child learns life skills such as how to work
with adults and be on time. She gets to travel and if acting proves
unsatisfying, other show business professions, from producer to grip,
are open to them. Now 20 and living part-time in L.A., Miriam says that
both kids and their parents need to make sure the life is for them. “You
have to absolutely love what you’re doing and know in your heart it’s
more than a hobby, because you’re committing so much time to it. But I
don’t regret it. It’s been a phenomenal experience.” PC

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