The Vancouver Province – July 30, 2006
by David Spaner
Thanks to Brianna for sending this in and for sending us the photo from her newspaper! 🙂
When a child star is born
The urge to act hit early for Josh Jackson and Alexia Fast, and their moms weren’t thrilled — at first
Josh Jackson always wanted to act. His casting director mom, however, had mixed feelings.
“He saw me casting kids and asked about it, and I discouraged him,” says Fiona Jackson. “But I didn’t want him to think it was because I didn’t think he could do it.”
Still, Josh was insistent, so she relented part way, allowing him to work as an extra on MacGyver and a child-actor’s double in The Fly 2.
“During Fly 2 he said, ‘If ever I become a real actor, you wouldn’t let them treat me like that, would you? They tie his shoes, bring him a glass of water.’ That’s when I decided I’d let him go ahead. It showed character. He didn’t want to be treated like a little prince.”
There are plenty of bad reasons to want to be an actor: Maybe you want access to the Sundance filmfest’s free stores that ply movie stars with everything from the latest computers to entire wardrobes.
There is also one very good reason to be an actor: Maybe you’re exhilarated by the act of acting.
Vancouver’s Josh Jackson and Alexia Fast knew early on that they had that passion for acting, which meant their parents were faced with a troubling question: What to do when your child’s pursuit of an acting career means immersion in an often ugly business?
Spurred by Josh’s insights during The Fly 2 shoot, Fiona decided to let him, at 11, audition for the shot-in-Vancouver drama Crooked Hearts. He would go on to co-star in the Mighty Ducks films and portray Pacey in TV’s Dawson’s Creek. Now he lives in Los Angeles, with several projects in the works, including the impending releases Aurora Borealis and Bobby.
For Fiona, who now divides her year between Gibsons and Los Angeles, it started with Josh when he was four years old and watching a Hot Wheels commercial.
“I said, ‘Those children are getting paid for that.’ And he said, ‘I could do that.’ I always saw myself as a non-consuming lefty, and I guess I was expecting some political epiphany from him,” she says.
As a young immigrant from Ireland in the late 1960s, Fiona fell into the casting-director role for, among other things, two of the earliest Vancouver movies: the classics Carnal Knowledge (directed by Mike Nichols) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman).
“I had always cast children,” says Fiona, who works as a career coach conducting workshops with actors. “The last movie I cast before Joshua was born was called Who Will Save Our Children?”
Fiona’s personal and professional experiences with child actors, including her own children, resulted in her new self-published book, Child Actors: A Parent’s Survival Guide (available at Vancouver’s Biz Books or on the Web at www.fionajacksoncoaching.com).
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Parents aren’t the only ones rushing to anoint their offspring a “great” actor. Everyone from critics to publicists are wont to proclaim, after one movie, the genius talent of, say, Haley Joel Osment or Macaulay Culkin. Problem is, a sensitive director can coax a believable performance out of a sensitive child. That doesn’t mean the virtually untrained child has the craft or talent to become a good adult actor.
“When you’re casting a child for a role of any size, you’re not looking for acting,” says Fiona. “You’re looking for being. You want a child who’s comfortable, so the audience believes the actor is the character.”
If the child isn’t later let down by their own aging talent, there is a world to blame for their downfall. Thus, the seeming infinite parade of onetime child actors convinced that being a pampered child actor, to the tune of some $20,000 a week, ruined their entire lives. Take, for instance, Danny Bonaduce. I recently caught a moment of his reality TV show, Breaking Bonaduce, just long enough to know he’s a red-faced, vein-bulging psycho which, I suppose, is all because he was a Partridge Family child.
But in a world with children in war zones and single moms on welfare, how sorry should we feel for the circumstance of former child stars?
“Nonetheless, you are looking at child labourers and they deserve some respect,” Fiona says. “If it [child stardom] does happen to you and it stops, it’s a challenge to your character.”
Children have been movie stars since the early days of silent pictures — from Jackie Googan to Mickey Rooney to Shirley Temple to Natalie Wood to Kurt Russell to Macaulay Culkin to Dakota Fanning. We know why the studios want to turn children into stars, but what is the appeal to the child?
In Vancouver recently, hundreds of 10-something boys lined up for an open casting call for a role in the movie adaptation of the book Where the Wild Things Are.
There are 193 child actors (those under 17) in the Union of B.C. Performers. Union spokesperson Mercedes Watson urges parents to speak up for their child and be aware of provisions for children in the collective agreement. “In our society, children aren’t the ones with authority. So when they’re on set, we need parents and the union to provide that for them.”
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“When they finally told me Joshua had the part in Crooked Hearts, he was just ecstatic. He just leapt in the air,” says Fiona Jackson. “And when I saw the rushes, and he was good, he was talented, I thought, OK, I can get behind this. Before that, as his mother, I was worried about him.”
In her work, she had seen what the industry can do to a child. “I remember one girl, at nine, who came into my office and said, ‘Hi Sweetie, have you got anything for me?'” As Fiona notes in her book, she warned her son: “Many actors are a–holes, but it’s not necessary to be an a–hole to be an actor.”
The ones who are, though, can be terrible role models for child actors.
“It’s a real temptation. You can be just an idiot when you’re an actor and you’re surrounded by people who are getting paid to accept your idiocy. That would be my biggest fear as a parent — the indiscriminate approval given to actors.”
Despite these concerns, Fiona found Josh had a balanced approach to the profession, even taking audition rejections in stride. “He didn’t go home depressed.”
Still, Fiona wasn’t thrilled when her daughter Aisleagh, five years younger than Josh, wanted to pursue acting.
“My daughter is so talented, but I worried about flattery on a young girl’s head, about temptation, about sexualizing a young girl too early. So I said, ‘No.’ She was furious with me.”
Since graduating from New York University last May, Aisleagh has pursued acting in L.A.
“When she first got there, she stayed with Joshua for six months, then she got her own place. They’re extremely close. Early on, after [my] divorce, he took on the role of the man of the family. He’s more than a brother to her. He used the Pacey money to get her through NYU.”
Still, even with Josh’s level-headed instincts, there are times when she’s had to reign him in.
“Occasionally, I’ll say to him, ‘Joshua, you’re being an actor,'” she says with a laugh.
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VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
Five Fiona Jackson observations from Child Actors: A Parent’s Survival Guide, her guidebook for raising little stars.
- 1 Since the film business operates on a hierarchically abusive system, the further down you go, the more it will be heaped on your head. And stage moms [and dads] rate lower than extras.
- 2 Agents and managers will want them to . . . be seen at the parties, maintain a presence. Those activities keep the commercial wheels turning and can be literally fatal to the growing young person.
- 3 If your child has developed actual acting skills, that will help. If “cuteness” was their only talent, it may be the end.
- 4 Producers can be admirable, creative, ethical people. OR NOT. Find out before you sign any contracts or make binding verbal agreements.
- 5 Having a midlife crisis in his/her mid-twenties is not the desired goal of acting for a child.