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Being a child actor on set is a lot like being the kid at the grown-up party. It’s exciting and novel; you have crossed a border into the world of adults, and here, the rules are different and there’s food everywhere. But after a while, you’re tired. You realize grown-ups are boring and their parties go on forever, and it’s time to go home. The difference on a film or TV set is that you can’t. There, you are expected to do an adult’s job and fulfill the responsibilities of being a kid. First and foremost, you have to go to school.
When it comes to being a child actor’s teacher, the parallels are much the same. It’s like trying to teach math in the middle of a big, loud, 10-hour cocktail party. And as with any party, things don’t always go as planned. Kids often find themselves in situations where perhaps they shouldn’t be — seeing, hearing, or even doing things they normally wouldn’t, outside of a film studio. In those situations, it’s not the parent, but the teacher whose job it is to protect their health, safety, and — as SAG-AFTRA bylaws put it — “morals.” And, make sure they’re up to date in geometry.
Most of us in the general public have some vague understanding that young actors aren’t educated in a traditional classroom. But few know just how many roles a teacher plays on set, or how vital they are in a child’s life. “They literally work in la-la land,” one teacher put it. “But kids, whether they want to or not, need the ability to be kids. And the business is not kids. Even Nickelodeon, even Disney — the kids are outnumbered.” Just like at a party, he said, “They want to find the back room where they can go and play and be who they want to be. That’s my world.”
1. There’s a major difference between a studio teacher and an on-set tutor.
An on-set tutor is exactly what it sounds like: Someone hired to teach, usually working with a child who’s on a homeschool curriculum. A studio teacher, is different. This role was born out of California child-labor laws, and it requires that a teacher not only have certain education credentials, but also be trained as a child welfare worker. This is a crucial difference to note, not just because only studio teachers have this dual role — but because California is the only state whose laws require it. Child-labor laws vary widely from state to state, but only California mandates that a teacher must also be an advocate.
“Although we are there to service production, we're licensed by the state, so our responsibility is to the minor. We didn't have anything like that when I was doing theater,” says studio teacher Julie Stevens, who was once a child performer herself, having been cast in the Broadway production of Annie at the age of nine. “We ran all over the place and we were exposed to naked men and women.” She adds that things are different on Broadway now, but, “there [still] isn’t anything like that in New York. We hope that, eventually, they will jump on that bandwagon, but it hasn't happened yet. Certainly not legally.”
Does that mean that production companies in New York and other states routinely leave child actors unprotected? No, of course not. Furthermore, many companies follow California’s protocol and hire studio teachers, even if they’re not required to. But it does mean that, in much of the US, there’s a lot of legal wiggle room when it comes to a child actor’s protection and their education. All those interviewed for this piece are licensed studio teachers, and most of the films and television shows they reference were shot under California law (even if not in the state itself). For the sake of brevity, that fact won’t be restated. But bear in mind that nearly every regulation mentioned hereafter is only required by California.
2. The school day lasts for three (non-consecutive) hours.
Any performer aged two to 17 is required to have three hours of education per day. It doesn’t have to be consecutive, and may mean grabbing 25 minutes here and there between takes. Sharon Sacks has taught the cast of Modern Family for five years (“I just graduated my third kid in May, and that was very exciting.”). She points out that, if a child is on a homeschool program, things can often be flexible.
“Rico [Rodriguez], who plays Manny, was in a homeschool that was through a regular school district in California. There were teachers and advisors I could call and say, 'Look, he knows all this, can we just skip to the test?' or 'This book isn't really appropriate for him. He'd rather read this book.' I was able to change it up a little.”
Ariel Winter, however, was in, “a very tough private school,” says Sacks. In that case, her job was to keep Winter on track, administering the school’s rigorous curriculum on set. “It's really great because this particular private school worked with me. The deans, the teachers — we emailed everyday. They sent me tests, so I was able to procter them.” Over the years, Sacks became close to Winter, taking pride as the young actress excelled academically. “Actually, on Monday, I went to UCLA with her, and she's registered for the Fall.”
Depending on their age, child actors can be kept on set for up to 10 ½ hours. That includes shooting and school, but also meals, mandatory rest breaks, and a lot of waiting around. Among other things, it’s a studio teacher’s job to make sure the child is properly fed, hydrated, rested, and that they remain physically and psychologically unharmed.
“It's our job to make sure that they're not in contact with any firearms or fire or anything dangerous. That they're not being dangled from something where they need a harness,” says Julie Stevens. “If the child is allergic to an animal or afraid of an animal, we want to make sure that they're safe. There’s a lot of animals used on set for child projects and family movies.”
A studio teacher has to make sure there are safety meetings when things like fake rain or snow are being used, and they need to know what the fake rain or snow is made of. They are the ones responsible for knowing if a child has a peanut allergy or asthma, and they are the ones required to stop a director from putting that child in a scene with peanut butter or smoke.
Studio teachers often act as the intermediary between director and child, simply to keep them from being frightened by a scary adult. And most adults are scary to a child of a certain age, particularly if that adult is a tired, frustrated director trying to set up his 60th take of the day. “There are many, many very big directors — very famous directors — who I've worked with, who just aren't good with kids,” says Stevens. “Sometimes they will bark out a direction to a very young child. 'Do it again! Do it this way!' They're using vocabulary that the child doesn't understand. Sometimes you may have to get down to the child's level and re-explain it in a way that they can understand it. Then, everybody's happy.”
Sharon Sacks, who has worked with transgender children, points out that even well-intentioned directors can easily overlook that child’s well-being in an effort to get the shot they want. “Let's say there's a child who’s transitioning and the director decides at the last minute they want the child to take off their top.” That’s where Sacks, as the child’s advocate, has to step in. “You just have to be aware of how the child is feeling. They could be sensitive about that.”
Even in situations like this, when it comes to protecting health and safety, the issues are pretty clear and the solutions obvious. But when it comes to protecting a child’s “morals?” That’s where things get complicated.
4. Morality is in the eye of the beholder.
And the beholder, in this scenario, is the studio teacher.
The simplest example is language. “If there's obscenities in the script,” says Sharon Sacks, “you make sure the kid is comfortable saying the words or hearing the words.” She adds that, these days, both kids and television networks seem a lot more comfortable with swear words. But even so, language can make things complicated.
Adam Bennett is a studio teacher whose credits include Gilmore Girls, The Dark Knight Rises, Parenthood, and Furious 7. He once worked on a primetime show, which included a storyline about a child (played by a black child actor) saying the n-word. This put Bennett in a difficult predicament. Normally, he asks parents if they want to have the swear-word chat, and usually the parents let Bennett handle it (just making sure the child is comfortable, and reminding him that swearing on set doesn’t mean he’s allowed to swear in real life). But with this word, Bennett says, “That's a parenting conversation...The parents said, 'No, we want to handle this. He's black and he's going to experience this anyway. He's heard it many times before, but this is the first time we're talking about the cultural problems with the word. So, we're going to have that conversation with him.'”
And that’s as it should be, of course. But unfortunately, that’s not always how it is.
5. Swearing is one thing. Sex or violence is another.
Bennett also worked on Boardwalk Empire, working with a 15-year-old actor whose character was shot. “That situation, the kid's older. The kid understands violence. You can talk to him. It's not that big of a deal.” But with a younger child, he says, “You really have to watch how it's presented to them, how it's talked about. And you have to have a conversation with the parents like, 'Hey, this may all be great and fine, but once this gets released, if the kid wants to see the movie, how's that reaction going to go?'” Many times, the parent will say, “'I'm never going to tell my kid they're in this movie. We're never going to show it to them. They'll never see it until they're at least 18 or 20, and then I'll tell them,' or something like that.”
In those cases, you deliberately keep the kid in the dark. You shoot the scene in such a way that they have no idea what’s going on — which is sometimes very easy. Scenes where a kid walks in on the parents having sex are simply shot twice: Once with the camera facing the adults, and once facing the child. For that setup, the child walks into an empty room, seeing nothing but a sign mounted over the bed that reads, “LOOK HERE.” Bennett worked on another series which included a scene where a group of children find a stash of dildos, and hilarity ensues. They solved that problem with some 9-inch water bottles and the magic of pixelation.
But what about storylines where the subject matter cannot be avoided? What about films like Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, which featured 14-year-old actress Dominique Swain in numerous rape and molestation scenes? “There's really no way to explain that to a child,” says Julie Stevens. “There's no way to explain the feelings that may be coming up..It's so complicated. It's so adult. It's not something that most children are exposed to unless it's something that's actually happening to them, personally, in their home.”
In these cases, Stevens lays responsibility on both the filmmakers producing these films, and the parents allowing their children to perform in them. “We wouldn't wish that on our worst enemy, but we're going to put our child in a situation like that, for play-pretend? It's a weird message to send to our children.” Stevens didn’t work on Lolita, but another film featuring the rape of a child, starring an actress who was just ten years old at the time. “It was really disturbing. I asked her mother how that scene was filmed. Was there a pillow between them?...and I didn't like any of the answers her mother gave me. It haunted me for years. It really did.”
6. All stage parents are stage parents.
Sadly, the old axiom about stage parents pushing, exploiting, or neglecting their children seems to be all too real. Unprovoked, every studio teacher mentioned the parents, typically as the most consistently difficult part of their jobs.
“It isn’t that the parents aren’t there, because they are there,” says Barbara Bass, who recently retired after working as a studio teacher for 43 years. “But they love the idea that someone else is taking care of their kids. Just like in regular life — parents like that their kids go off to school, and the teachers take care of them, and they forget about them. So that’s, not always, but very often, the case.”
Parents — not personal passion — are typically the driving force behind a child actor’s career. We see the glamour, but people like Bass know the reality of these children’s lives. They have no social life to speak of. They go to school in first-aid tents set up on location, or in motor homes. Not the fancy kind, either, says Bass. “When you think of a motor home, you probably think of one of those big old things that go traveling down the road? Uh-uh, forget it. That’s not where you go. You go in these little, portable, cramped things called honeywagons. And they don’t always clean the...whatever you call them.” Bass declines to get graphic, but it’s basically like going to school in a large port-o-potty.
Given all that, most kids would go running back to real life — if they didn’t feel some degree of pressure to keep working. Sometimes they start so early that it’s the only life they know, and by that point, the child may have become the family breadwinner. That kind of situation can turn an otherwise well-meaning parent into something more akin to a manager (or sometimes, literally, the manager).
“It's very easy to overwork a child. Sometimes the parent doesn't even realize.” says Julie Stevens. “While we may like to think that a parent will protect their child no matter what, unfortunately, in some cases parents are afraid to say something. They don't want the child to lose the job. They don't know if it's their place to say something. Or, they're just so starstruck that they don't want to open their mouth and protect their child.”
Sharon Sacks echoes this sentiment, saying, “If a parent says a child can swim, I always pull the kids aside and say, 'Do you know how to swim?' Many times they say no.” This is one of the studio teacher’s largest and least acknowledged responsibilities on set. “We're a mediator between the parent and the child, the parent and the producers, the child and the director.” She says parents are often willing to look the other way if a director wants to keep the child late, or even take risks with their safety. “Parents will say their kids can jump off a thirty-foot building.”
7. But not everyone is awful. In fact, some folks are great.
Here’s the good news: Tom Hanks is awesome!
During her four decades on set, Barbara Bass worked on some childhood classics, including Matilda, Rookie Of The Year, All I Want For Christmas, as well as Sleepless In Seattle. “And it was a wonderful shoot,” she says — thank god. “Tom Hanks was absolutely incredible. You know, you wait a lot in show business — in features, there’s a lot of waiting. You’ve got to wait for the lighting, and the camera’s moving, the location’s moving, so it’s a lot of down time. One day, I said to Tom, ‘How can you stand it? The waiting around so much?’ He said, ‘I wait for free. I get paid to act.’ He didn’t mind! I thought that was very cute.”
Some other great people? Elisabeth Moss and Michelle Williams, with whom Bass worked on the 1997 film, A Thousand Acres, which was shot in rural Illinois. “They were great girls, both of them. Really good girls.” Williams had her 16th birthday on set, and Bass recalls that her mother brought in pies for the three of them, recreating a tiny version of a classroom party. “She is a reader. Smart, smart girl. She read books that I, in my whole lifetime, have never read.”
Bass recalls both girls were strong, academically, but that shoot took place during the summer, so she wasn’t required to teach. (Summer still means summer vacation, even when you’re on set.) Instead, she took them to art museums and local historic sites. Some school subjects, like PE and lab science, are hard to replicate during a film shoot. But Bass points out that there are often great opportunities for field trips. “I did a film in Budapest, Hungary,” she says, for example. “Well, you can’t be in Budapest without investigating the history and the culture.” Even if it doesn’t line up with a child’s curriculum, Bass recognized these as great educational opportunities. “I was big on that, and I was always able to get the companies to pay for us to do things during the summer. They were glad to see that the kids were busy and having a good time.”
8. Child actors are not divas.
The archetype of a child star is that of a tiny tyrant — a rich, egomaniacal diva who gets what they want, whenever they want it. This, according to the teachers, could not be further from the truth.
“I’ve never had difficult disciplining problems at all,” says Bass. “Because, for one thing, they have to get work permits.” If a child doesn’t keep up with education requirements or get decent grades, those permits can be revoked. “So, it’s kind of like a threat over their heads — or more importantly, over their parents’ heads. They want them to work.” For that reason alone, says Bass, “The kids are very responsible.”
Remember that child actors are used to bearing responsibility and behaving professionally. Goofing off on set doesn’t get you sent to detention — it gets you fired. So, the teachers’ challenge isn’t so much about getting the to work hard, but helping them to relax and shift gears from the adult world of acting to the child’s world of learning. “[On set] you're expected to show up knowing what you need to know, and it's not good to make a mistake,” says Adam Bennett. “Education, by its nature, is a place where you make mistakes on purpose. Or at least, you’re okay with making mistakes. No one walks into a math lesson knowing everything.”
That’s the first, and perhaps most important lesson that a studio teacher imparts: You’re still a kid. “This is where you can be you,” Bennett reminds them. “You don't have to worry about social media, you don't have to worry about your lines, you don't have to worry about getting everything right. Kids welcome it wholeheartedly, if you do that.” Even if it’s only in this room, in this motor home, or under this classroom tent, young performers have a right to a childhood — for at least, three hours a day.
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