Directing Children Part II: The Casting Process

Here are five basic things for every director to keep in mind when it comes to the casting process and

Haley Joel Osment
“The Sixth Sense”

child actors …

(1) Trained Child Actors. This is either a curse or a blessing and each depends on the training and on the child. Some children can be trained out of ‘being a child’ and their behavior, sadly, becomes more adult, adept, aware and controlled. And, sometimes these traits don’t appear in casting or even rehearsal, but rear their ugly heads in production when there is pressure. So, know what you want going in and play around with adjustments to see whether or not the child will deliver what you are looking for.
(2) Know The Age. The age of children makes an enormous difference. Up until about 5 years old or so, a child’s attention span is so short that you have to work with them totally in the moment and pray. In other words, they can comprehend the simplest direction and then, moments later when the cameras are rolling they may have completely forgotten it. A few years older and it’s a different child.

In the age categories 2-5 or 5-9 or 9-13, etc. they are developing as human beings and a part of this development is their ability to discern who they are as individuals. And in this individuation comes the ability to differentiate between themselves and the character they are playing. Some professional training (see above) actually forces this separation in the child before their normal growth process is ready. This results in the precocious and problematic child actor.

Jonathan Lipnicki
“Jerry Maguire”

3. The Parents. When you cast a child you cast the parents. The younger the child (generally) the more influence the parent is going to have over the work ethic, performance and characterization. Parents (usually) want the child to do well so frequently, with the best of intentions, they will ‘direct’ the child. Most of this direction is result direction or ‘do it like Mommy does it’. Although children usually respond well to result direction (not feeling the same conflict that adult actors feel with the approach) once they get a result in their head or a performance or a line reading, it’s hard to eradicate it and replace it with something else. So, it’s important to meet the parents first, before casting, and especially before rehearsals begin. Get to know them, take time to immerse yourself in their world so you know how the family system works. Get them to understand why it is so important that they not direct their child. Your job is to explain to the parents as well as you can how the rehearsal process works and how you will be developing the child’s character … and how their best intentions can be a deterrent to this process. You want them to be knowledgeable allies. Also explain the shooting process to them (where everyone is feeling the pressure) and how they can be supportive. It’s very important that the child is not using the parent as the barometer of success or failure.

4. Getting To the Character. This is the trickiest part of working with a child. And, besides the age factor I mentioned above, you need to discern for each child how well they can differentiate between themselves and the character.

5. It’s a game. Finally, the more you can make the world of acting a game they better the child actor will respond (especially the younger children). For more research and exploration of techniques read Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theatre”. Spolin uses theater games in order to access the characters and the world of the characters. For children, this is magical.

2 responses to “Directing Children Part II: The Casting Process”

  1. Rizo Santos Saverio

    Mark, I knew you’re a genius the first time I saw you at that workshop in Sta Monica yrs ago… I’ve seen you in action & it amazes me how much insight one can have that appears so easy and perfect for the job at hand. It seems like magic but I know it comes from experience and talent.

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