Working With Kid Actors: A Field Guide for the Uninitiated
Ever since I made my second film, In the Land of Moonstones — about a pre-teen girl and her first love — people have been asking me why I work with kids. It’s a fair question. Following that movie, I made two more films centered around teenagers. That has more or less earned me, among my circle of colleagues, a reputation as "the girl who makes kid films."
I don’t mind the label, but it’s also not really accurate. For me, it's never been about making content for kids — it’s been about telling good stories. And just by chance, that has meant — at least in the case of my last three films — telling stories about tweens and teens. It stands to reason, I think. So much of who we are, so many our most vivid experiences, are rooted in those messy years. Do we ever feel things more strongly than we did then?
Nicola Rose on set of In the Land of Moonstones with Natalie Keating, 11, and Rand McAvoy, 12, in 2017.
But it’s not just about telling young people's stories. It’s also about working with young actors. As a director, when you work with kids (teens, tweens, I’ll use “kids” to keep it simple), you get something more than a performance. Because of who they are, where they stand in life, young actors give you nothing less than a complete, raw portrait of what they’re like as people. For you, the director, this is the greatest gift possible. (Actually, no, large amounts of cash are better. But this is still good.) Speaking as someone who never went to film school, I think working with kids should be essential training for every director. Here are a few reasons why:
Kids are inexhaustible. I remember standing on set of Moonstones and watching an 11-year-old actress, Natalie Keating, deliver the same difficult, emotional scene something like 14 takes in a row. Oof. Of course, as a director, you caution your actor to pace him- or herself. But think back to being a kid — you didn't know how to pace yourself. The only thing the kid actor knows how to do is give his all, and it's astonishing to behold. All 14 takes were moving. It was a shame we could only use one. At the end of the day I watched my actress trotting down the sidewalk, chatting excitedly to her mom as if she had another 15 hours of energy left in her. I suspect she did.
Kids know themselves. At least as much as adults do. If there is one fundamental difference between kid and adult actors, it's this: adults ask why a character does something; kids just create the reason. Making my third film, Gabrielle, I was privately uneasy directing a scene where the lead character, played by then-14-year-old Adèle Marie-Alix, took emotional abuse from her ballet teacher. Part of my job was to make sure this scene, which affected the character, didn't also affect the real-life kid. But if anything, she was tougher than I was about it. When I spoke to her mom afterwards to debrief, it became clear that my actress understood, perhaps better than I did, that her character's story was about resilience more than anything else. As Adèle herself noted later, if she was going to have to tap into her own insecurities to play the part, that would only help her performance. She was unaffected; she knew herself well enough to navigate the territory with no problems.
Between takes of Gabrielle in 2018, with Adèle Marie-Alix, 14, as Gabrielle, and Valeriya Korennaya as her teacher Madame Oksana.
Kids are transformational — in ways adults sometimes don’t have the bravery to be. We’ve been around longer, and often hurt more times, I suppose. I don’t know all the factors that go into this. But I do know that when I did my fourth film, Biff & Me, my lead actor David Kaid — who had to play a boisterous, loud, over-the-top school bully — was quiet and reserved in rehearsal. I knew from his audition that he had it in him, but I didn’t know how Biff the character would manifest when it came time to call action. Then came game day. He didn’t just play the part; he demolished it. He found it in himself to play the role with so much comic aggression, it was hard to believe I was looking at the same person. It was the best moment..
Nicola Rose on wrap day of Biff & Me in 2019, with actors Sierra Blanco, 16, and David Kaid, 15.
And lastly: Kids are silly. This is the most important item of all. Kids (generally speaking) feel at liberty to be goofy and playful on set, and that’s what will get them their best performances. If you as a director try to subdue that energy, you — in my personal opinion — are only hurting your own product. (That's why, instead, you should let your AD subdue them. I am kidding, sort of.) My point is: left to their own devices, young actors will laugh and goof between takes. Then, when you roll camera, comes the magic: they change instantly into their characters, without missing a beat. There is no taking a moment to get into character; the character is already right there, instantly accessible and fully realized. I have yet to see an exception to this.
So why work with kid actors? Well, for me, it's because I’ve learned more from them than I have from anyone else. Sure, I’ve had to pay them for their services. But as I understand it, their day rate is a bargain compared to film school.