Everyone knows the rule: Never work with animals and never work with kids (well that was before Stranger Things).
Working with kids can be difficult, they often don’t have much experience, their attention spans are shorter, and it can be hard to give direction they’ll respond to.
So here I am to help you out a bit and give you some tips to get a stress-free great performance out of a child actor.
For this article, I’m going to be referencing Peter James Holt (P.J.) an incredibly professional young actor who’s won awards internationally for films he’s been in and has produced an award-winning film from an international film festival in L.A.
BE THEIR FRIEND: Look being on set all day can take a lot out of you, and people on set get used to talking directly and shortly with each other so everyone can do their job painlessly so we can all go home.
We can forget how intimidating a room full of busy grown-ups can be. Take time to get to know your child actors and go out of your way to be friendly and welcoming to them.
PJ loves working with us at The Initiative because we all make sure to make him feel at home. All of us try and at least give him a smile and wave if we’re too busy on set to go up and say hi. It might sound small, but it will go far in helping you build trust.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF NOTES: P.J. really appreciates the notes we give him, because I never tip-toe around anything, because he wants me to be honest with him so he can give me a good performance! You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings with notes, in fact, it’s just the opposite. Actors actually want to hear you give notes, it tells them you are actively engaging in their performance. Acting is a vulnerable craft as is, now turn that feeling up to eleven and you’re in a kid’s shoes.
After even the slightest bit of notes P.J.’s performance comes alive. It’s like a switch flips and he becomes someone else. The talent is already there, he just needs a reminder he’s in a safe place and that I’m invested in him.
FIND SOMEONE WHO’S PASSIONATE ABOUT ACTING: One thing that’s great about working with P.J. is he actually wants to work with you and wants to act. You don’t have to get him excited about shooting, he already wants to be there!
This is more of a casting tip, but if you have a kid in your script make sure you’re finding someone who is comfortable in front of the camera. I know you probably really love your nephew, but this is not the time to give him a cameo.
MAKE SURE YOU ASK HOW THEY’RE DOING: Working on film sets is anything but the glamorous cakewalk it’s portrayed to be. It’s long hours, monotonously shooting the same scene over and over again. And when working on a low budget, you’re probably in some uncomfortable locations. Make sure you and your A.D. are giving extra attention to your child actors, they’re not going to speak up and tell you something’s wrong, you’re a scary grown-up! P.J once did a student film that shot at an outdoor pool in the middle of the Australian summer.
Unbeknownst to anyone, (because the director and A.D. never checked on him) P.J’s bare feet were getting burned on the pool concrete. The crew only found out because the head of Craft Services bothered to ask him how he was doing when getting him water.
This is a HUGE NO NO for more than one reason, but you can’t expect a twelve-year-old kid to have the confidence of an adult actor who’s been working on set for a few years.
ROLL ON REHEARSAL: And finally make sure you’re planning for a scene to take a bit longer, while at the same time being ready to hit record at any time.
P.J. gives great performances, but he’s such a creative kid that sometimes his best stuff frustratingly comes when he’s just practicing his lines. Sneakily hitting record when he’s practicing was something I had to learn the hard way. Don’t even call out, “Rolling on rehearsal.” just do it.
Be patient and don’t rush anything, it goes miles towards making your actor more comfortable. It takes away the pressure so they won’t clam up, or rush through their lines. Have fun with them and remember that no matter how long they’ve worked as actors, kids are kids and they want to have fun.