Child Actors

Earlier tonight I saw the first twenty minutes of a Spanish subtitled movie called Valentin. It’s an endearing story about a precocious eight year old boy named – you guessed it -- Valentin. Growing up in 1960s Buenos Aires with a caustic, widowed grandmother has given the boy an unusually mature outlook on life, which he uses to understand and help those around him. One such effort involves asking his uncle for girl advice; not because Valentin needs new pick up lines – his "crush" is made up -- but because he thinks such “manly” discussions help his uncle feel useful.

Cute kid

While watching Valentin, I was continuously impressed by Rodrigo Noya’s ability to portray such a complete character while (presumably) never having experienced the same situations in his own life. Older actors may be able to train themselves or draw upon similar life experiences, but what do child actors do?

Was Rodrigo simply mimicking how he imagined an adult would act in each situation and the resulting display of maturity coupled with his naturally childlike mannerisms created the impression of precociousness? Or did he actually “become” an eight year old boy who also happens to act like an adult? Linda Blair has demonstrated how this may be possible.

I am so frightened of doing a Google image search for The Exorcist that I'd rather look at a naked Burt Reynolds

Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin, and Haley Joel Osment are (or rather, were) some more remarkably skilled child actors (say what you will about Home Alones 1-34 but Macaulay forever proved himself beyond reproach in Uncle Buck). They too were able to channel more intelligence and charisma into their film roles than most children display in all the years preceding high school (during childhood, I was too busy exploring my own nostrils to be anything other than disgusting). Yet no child star that I know of has proven him or herself to be an equally successful big person actor.

Macaulay Culkin, you poor bastard

Does this mean that the child actor’s instincts, which work so well in little person roles, do not prepare them to play more physically (but not necessarily emotionally) mature characters?

If I were forced to answer my own questions, I’d say that two major reasons prevent child actors from enjoying a successful career as an adult.

The first reason deals with development. A child’s acting ability can be likened to certain kinds of athleticism. Some youthful runners have blazing speed relative to other members of their age group but peak before they reach adulthood. They may still grow up to be fast adults but some of their previously slower rivals will pass them by. Child actors may similarly outgrow their talent.

The second setback for child actors is marketing. Shirley Temple is now an old, haggard looking ex-diplomat but if I were to mention “Shirley Temple” to you, chances are you’d think of an adorable, tap-dancing little girl, or, if you were an alcoholic, a really, really slow way to get drunk. My point is that once an actor’s persona gets burned into the public eye, it’s very difficult to change that image. I think Vanessa Hudgens is going to learn this the hard way.

Still, I imagine that if child actors worked at their craft as hard as four-fifths of all waiters in Los Angeles do, then they’d have a legitimate shot at maintaining a successful acting career. The odds would still be against them, but the odds are against anyone who wants to act for a living. An acting career is like an eighty year old man trying to get it on with a prostitute; sure you might get lucky once or twice, but good luck trying to keep it up for a while.

Natalie, if you're reading this, I want you inside me

I just thought of an exception to the Logan’s Run principle of child acting: Natalie Portman. I think Natalie has broken the mold partially because she started out older (she was 13 in Leon), partially because she’s an extremely talented and intelligent young woman, and mostly because she’s hot.

What do you think?


~*SilverNeurotic*~ said...

A lot of times when I see a child actor, I feel sad because so many of them run into problems as they get older...it's a shame as I think most of them have more talent than many of their adult counterparts.

VE said...

Mickey Rooney was a successful child actor and grown up actor. So was Kurt Russell. How about Jodie Foster? Leonardo DiCaprio? Most aren't, but there are a lot that are!

Matt said...

silver - You're right, I think fame can be a dangerous accessory for any young actor or actress. For every child actor that makes the jump there are hundreds if not thousands more who fall by the wayside.

ve - You are right on. I guess I just figured Mickey Rooney was always a creepy looking older guy. And I'm not sure if I count Leo as a child actor since he didn't appear in a film until he was already 16. Kurt Russell was likewise a little bit older, but boy was I surprised to see that Snake Pliskin was in a Disney movie all those years ago.

Sarah said...

I think the child actors of yesteryear - Jodie Foster - didn't have as much attention as these famous young kids do now - club hopping, papparazzi, etc. Perhapas that is part of it, but maybe it is all just luck!
Donde esta Jonathan Lipnicki?!

Matt said...

sarah - I figured that temptations have always existed for celebrities. I tend to think of the Fitzgeralds of the Roaring 20s as the equivalent of modern celebrities enjoying life to excess. But I think you raise an excellent point; today's child celebrities are probably surrounded by any number of temptations that are so much more convenient now than at anytime in the past. And those temptations are just as harmful to their career as they are to their health.

Anonymous said...

Example of succesful child star who became acclaimed actors: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Christian Bale, Jodie Foster, Mickey Rooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Dano (With the sucess of LMS and TWBB), Emile Hirsch (ITW and AD) and Kurt Russell

Anonymous said...

I forgot Ryan Gosling and Joseph Gordon-Levitt another big actors

ed said...



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