Welfare concerns raised for child stars

A new generation of child actors may benefit from the lessons learnt by their predecessors, as steps are taken to grapple with the difficult issues involved in safeguarding the interests of children in the entertainment industry.
Willow Smith, the 10-year-old daughter of the actor Will Smith, is at the start of what promises to be a glittering career as a singer.
Willow Smith, the 10-year-old daughter of the actor Will Smith, is at the start of what promises to be a glittering career as a singer.

With famous parents Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith and a famous sibling, Jaden, who has just starred with Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid remake, life was never going to be boring for Willow Smith. While most other 10-year-olds would be content with playing with their mothers' make-up and watching Justin Bieber on MTV, the past week has seen Willow release 21st Century Girl, the follow-up to her hit song Whip My Hair and join Bieber as a support act on the European leg of his tour.

Willow joins a cohort of other child stars who are on the up and up this year. Elle Fanning, aged 12, also seems destined for the big time, having started acting at the age of two with her older sister, Dakota, in I am Sam. Elle's latest film, Somewhere, directed by the Oscar-winning Sofia Coppola, was awarded the Golden Lion award at last year's Venice Film Festival. Chloë Moretz, 13, rose to fame for her role as "Hit Girl" in the movie Kick Ass and for the vampire film Let Me In, which also starred 14-year-old Kodi Smit McPhee. She has just finished working with Martin Scorsese on his latest film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld might have just lost out on a best supporting actress Oscar, but the reviews she received for her role in True Grit suggest it won't be her last nomination.

Kiernan Shipka, aged 10, has also been receiving rave reviews for her performance as Don and Betty Draper's daughter, Sally, in the television series Mad Men.

While all these children and teenagers are probably having the times of their lives acting or singing with their heroes and dressing up in designer clothes for their red-carpet appearances, other child stars throughout history have not been so lucky. In fact, over the years hard lessons have been learnt about how to keep children working in creative industries from going off the rails.

Paul Petersen became a teenage idol when he starred as Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show in the US from 1958 to 1966. Watched by about 35 million people every week, Petersen spent his adolescence on the show. He got caught up with drugs and alcohol, and then, in his mid-twenties, the work started to dry up.

The trouble was, according to Petersen, that there were few safeguards to ensure that when their acting years were over, the child stars had something to fall back on.

"A great number of kids I grew up with in Hollywood came to their 18th birthdays with nothing to show for the experience," he says. "It's not the adventure itself that is so harmful, it's what comes after - after you've bought cars for everyone and homes for everyone and risked your education and been separated from your peer group."

Petersen escaped Hollywood and since 1990 he has devoted himself to providing guidance and support to child stars and their parents through his non-profit foundation, A Minor Consideration. The organisation is working to ensure there is protection at a national level for children employed in the film industry in the US, including the right to own the money they earn. Currently, children in entertainment are specifically exempted from federal child labour laws. Any protection varies depending on which state a film is being made in.

A child working on a film in, for example, Illinois, would have no requirements for maximum hours on set, and no safeguards for earnings or education. "It's like a great charade Hollywood plays," says Petersen. "You think every child you see on the screen is protected, which is just not the case. There are more rules for animals in the entertainment industry than there are for kids."

Elsewhere, the rules governing children working in the entertainment industry are different. The Harry Potter films were made at Leavesden Studios in the UK, where regulations go perhaps too far the other way, suggests Sally King, the director and co-owner of Ann Koska/Sally King Ltd, a children's casting agency that specialises in licensing and chaperoning child actors. The rules are complex and bureaucratic, explains King: "It doesn't bear any resemblance to the industry now in theatre, TV and film. It's a complete and utter farce. There has to be protection but it needs to be brought up to date and reflect how the industry actually works."

Wherever children work in film in the UK the regulations apply and the local authority for the area where filming is taking place ensures compliance through inspections. Time sheets noting down how many hours the children are working or studying have to be completed daily, and children must also be accompanied by a parent, guardian or licensed chaperone at all times. "We even have to accompany them to the toilet - they are not left alone for a minute," says King.

Her company provided many of the supporting child actors for the Harry Potter films. With up to 300 youngsters involved, compliance with the legal requirements for education on-set was a big undertaking. "After the first Harry Potter film, it ran like a well-oiled machine," says King. "They would all do the minimum three hours a day tutoring."

A head and a deputy head oversaw schooling in 28 portable cabins installed as classrooms for the duration of filming the entire franchise. It seems to have done the job. Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter, achieved three A grades in his A levels at 18, as did his co-star Emma Watson, who is now studying literature at the Ivy League Brown University in the US.

Something that concerns both King and Petersen are the largely unregulated but lucrative "reality" TV shows. The children involved receive no wages or protection. "The welfare of the children is not considered here," says Petersen, while King explains that in Britain "there's nothing in the Act that covers reality TV - that's a whole area we need to look at".

So as the next generation of child stars sing along to 21st-Century Girl, or practise their red carpet poses in the mirror, Petersen and his colleagues will be working hard to secure and implement legal safeguards to protect their futures. "There are 600 former kid stars in A Minor Consideration," he says, "and we are not doing this for ourselves - we will never get our childhoods back. But perhaps we can use the lessons of our childhood to help the next generation of children."

Published: March 6, 2011 04:00 AM


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