It's classic Americana, a vintage image of can-do ambition brushing against gosh-gee naivete: the farm-fed Midwestern dreamer climbing from a cross-country bus into the harsh glare of Hollywood, suitcase in hand. Swap the suitcase for a portfolio of modeling stills. Replace the bus with a 1991 Mazda pushing 250,000 miles, towing a U-Haul.
But very little has changed.
Including the flip side of that image - the anxious parents back home, waiting for word of a successful audition before bedrooms start getting remodeled. They come in two types: stage parents, who dragged their miniature meal tickets to Los Angeles in the first place, and hand-wringers, who primarily fret, phone, and offer support.
If you know some hand-wringers, give them a hug. They need it. Their child, hoping to break into show biz, has essentially set out to win the lottery. The odds are against them in a very big way. The Screen Actors Guild, which claims about 5,500 adolescent members, has an unemployment rate of more than 85 percent - and that's only if your child was lucky enough to act in something and earn a SAG card.
Where to turn for advice?
Toledoan Nancy Palicki turned to Kathy Holmes, the mother of Katie, when her daughter Adrianne, now 23, began landing television roles, including the new NBC series Friday Night Lights. "She was very gracious," Palicki said. "My daughter thought it would be as easy for her to get work as it was for Katie, and of course it wasn't, but she did have an easier time than most. Kathy didn't know us but she gave us great advice: 'Get her an apartment, find her an agent you trust, and make sure she lands a lawyer.' "
Adds Palicki's husband, Jeff:
"We had absolutely no affiliation with the entertainment industry. It felt like we were throwing our little girl to the wolves."
Tom Roemer, vice chairman of Toledo-based Roemer Insurance, turned somewhat to his own experience as a child entertainer when his daughter Tracey, 29, headed for Los Angeles five years ago. She's had bit roles on Gilmore Girls and the Rob Lowe flop Dr. Vegas, and works as a waitress between auditions. "But the only thing I was worried about was that she understand this is not a business for the faint of heart. When I was doing TV [such as The Perry Como Show] there was less competition, and today the kids are so seasoned."
Both sets of parents admit, however, to the hard reality, or as Jeff Palicki put it: "Our daughter is extremely motivated, she believes in her heart it's going to happen for her, and she's pretty and very talented, and there's no question about that - but there are 100,000 others just like her."
Well, now that you've been warned, it's still an actor's life for your child? You're going to need advice. With that in mind, we spoke recently to Nancy Carson, a children's talent agent who represented Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Britney Spears, and Mischa Barton, among others. She's been an agent since 1978, and is author of Raising a Star: The Parents' Guide to Helping Kids Break into Theater, Film, Television, or Music (St. Martin's, 225 pages, $13.95).
Q: Have you ever represented a child who's being pushed into show business by a parent?
A: Almost never. It really has to be a child-motivated situation for me. You want the child pulling the parent through the door. You can force a child to do this briefly, like you can force them to play the violin or soccer. But ultimately it has to be the child who is motivated because it's just too difficult otherwise. The flip side of that is, I have parents who absolutely don't want to do this, and they're hoping I'll tell their child this is a pipe dream and it won't happen, quit now.
Q: Does that mean the day of the manipulative stage mother has been replaced with the day of the manipulative star child?
A: I hope not. I think this is when the parent has to be the parent. Kids who have had success will try to manipulate. They start to say things like "I'm making all this money, I don't have to make my bed." At that point, the parent has to point out there are rules in their house, and you're on television, but you're on television because you want to be. You have to continue to be the parent. I remember when Tempestt Bledsoe was on The Cosby Show. She was my client and her mother told me she would walk into the house and ask "What's for dinner?" Her mother would say, "This isn't Cosby right now. The refrigerator is over there."
Q: If I brought my child to you and had no experience with show business, how much should I expect to spend before my child is a mini-industry?
A: Here's what I say: It should cost you the transportation to go to and from auditions. The cost of having pictures of your child done. The cost of the resumes. That's it. It shouldn't cost more than that. If they pay your child, I take 10 percent, but I don't make anything until they make money. The whole idea that this will cost a fortune is simply not correct.
Q: But just in terms of time alone - do you see pressure put on the kid to make back the cost of the time and money spent?
A: I don't see it as often as you would think. I try to make sure it's cost effective. I try to explain it like a hobby. Your child wants a horse. It will cost a lot to own a horse, to train a horse, to run a horse, to feed a horse, to maintain a horse. Now think of it as a hobby where there's a chance to earn back what is put in. And if you don't, you have that hobby.
Q: Sure, but by the time they make it to you, it's far from a hobby anymore, right?
A: True. It needs to be an addition to the child's regular life.
Q: You started in the late '70s, and since the child-star train wreck has become such a cliche during that time, do you find parents more savvy about pitfalls and scams than before?
A: Definitely. Anybody who says, "I can make you a star, but it's going to cost $1,000 or this much for a portfolio and you'll go here to do this, and if you want to be in this television show, it'll cost you money..." - parents are more aware that if someone tells them those things, it's a scam.
Q: Do the more famous clients you've had show signs of their talent when they're kids?
A: Yes. Matt Damon was very nice. Ben Affleck brought him to me, said he has this friend who's very talented. I remember they had especially good manners. Very smart, even as teenagers.
Q: Britney Spears?
A: She was unique. She walked through the door and she was shy but the moment she was asked to perform, this amazing little performer just started up. I still get a lot of people who want to be clients because of Britney.
Q: She's a good example of something else, too. What if a parent doesn't feel comfortable with the material a child is being offered? What do you say?
A: Parents have the right to say no. I was just working on an episode of The Sopranos and frankly the material was very, you know, Sopranos. They had 13 and 14-year-old kids saying some things that I was uncomfortable with. When they were casting Interview With a Vampire, this thing came up, too. I try hard to make sure the kids who come through my agency come out OK.
Q: My guess is that the kids would be more willing to take on edgy material than the parent would.
A: Depends on the child. I had a little girl who was cast in Con Air. She played opposite Steve Buscemi, who played a pedophile. There's a scene where she's in a swimming pool and he's in the pool, and the audience knows the threat. But that little girl, she didn't know there was anything wrong about the scene at all. She didn't see the movie until recently, now that she's 17.
Q: A last bit of advice for the stressed-out parent whose kid has stepped off the bus in L.A.?
A: Well, first, why do they feel they have to go to Los Angeles? My advice is that they find good representation before they uproot their life. Find someone who will get you auditions before you move. It's a hard dream, and kids are only kids for a short time. Do you want them to waste their childhood on that dream?
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.50.50099 4.47677