What does it take to be a child actor?

While kids are growing up, often they have favourite TV shows they love, with kids their own age in them. Over the past decade, there have been some great Australian children’s television series produced – from Little Lunch, through to Hardball, First Day, The Nowhere Boys, and further back, series like Lochie Leonard and Dance Academy. But how did all those kids get to be on TV?
It’s a question that young actors and their parents often ask.

To get started as a professional (paid) child actor, you’ll need to make yourself available to audition for roles. An audition is like a job interview for actors – but it’s less about the conversation, and more about the demonstration of your skills as an actor.

Normally for an audition, you memorise and present some text from a script. Sometimes that script is given to you in advance by the company doing the casting, and sometimes you find your own script to work from. Through the demonstration of your skills, the casting director can see if you’re suitable for the role they have available. If it's a large or highly paid role, you might even want to get coaching ahead of your audition, to make sure you get your piece performance-ready.

While in the past auditions were often done face-to-face, more frequently now it’s done by making a self-tape at home. A self-tape can be filmed at home on a phone, or in a studio. It’s not so much the quality of the tape itself that counts – it’s about what they can see you do in the tape.

Sometimes you see auditions advertised on social media – and you can follow some of the leading Australian casting directors, such as Barrett Casting, Macgregor Casting, Mullinars or Ben Parkinson Casting – but more often than not, to access the better roles, you’ll need an agent. Unlike these public call-outs, talent agencies receive casting calls directly from industry, then find people within their agency to suit the descriptions provided. When they show their range of suitable actors to the casting directors, a self-tape or live audition may then be requested.

So how do you get an agent? Well, usually you need to have some actor training behind you, like acting classes. Those skills are important. Then, you need to apply to the agency, and go through their interview process. After that, if you’re accepted, they’ll instruct you to have some professional photographs taken, and to begin creating a self-tape library that reflects your range as an actor.

Not everyone who applies to an agency is accepted, however. The agent needs to feel like they can get you work – because the actors they accept make them money. An agent makes their money by taking a percentage of the fees you earn as an actor. In most cases, you can expect this to be anywhere from about 10-13%. Moreover, there are not as many roles available for children, generally speaking, as there are for adults, so not all agents are interested to take on children in the first place.

You never know what will come up, in terms of roles. It all depends what people are writing. So you may get a little work, or you may get a lot. You just don’t know. And it partly depends on your look. All shapes and sizes are needed for all kinds of characters – it’s not really about how gorgeous or handsome you are. Instead, you need to think about your ‘type’. Type is a word that applies to an actor’s look. Do you look like a school cheerleader? The schoolyard bully? The small and weedy kid who becomes a hero? The geek? The surfie? The smart girl?

Your ‘type’ is important because it reflects the kind of roles you’ll be cast in. Your type has no bearing on your actual personality, of course – it’s just about your look as a storytelling device. It makes it easier for the audience to pick your character type from the moment you appear on screen. Your agent can help you work out your type.

Beyond the mechanics of getting cast in roles, parents of child actors need to be aware of the implications of moving down this path… it can be quite a commitment. It may mean travelling to auditions when they’re face-to-face, or to locations for filming or voice recording. It means helping your child film their self-tapes, and submitting them on their behalf – sometimes with only a couple of days’ notice. It sometimes means taking time off work – if parents are required to be on set when their children are being filmed. It means schooling may be interrupted from time to time. It means liaison with agents and casting directors. It may even mean managing your child’s social media pages. And more than all of that, it means monitoring your child’s wellbeing – when is it too much? When is it time to stop? When should you pass up an opportunity?
It all sounds very glamorous to have a child actor in the family. But in fact, the parental input required can be quite significant. And then we need to ask the question – who wants this? Is it the child? Is it the parent?
Ultimately, the child needs to enjoy acting. It is a job, after all.

When it comes down to it, it may be that your child is happier participating in their local drama class for now.

Or it may be that a professional acting career can wait till they’re older. In this case they should do actor training like our Certificate or Advanced Diploma – some students can begin while still at school, whether through our Young Professionals Program or simply by studying part-time in the evenings, while other students jump in head-first after finishing Year 12, with a full-time course.

Whichever path you and your child take, just make sure it's one you can both commit to.

About the Author

Elizabeth Avery Scott is the co-founder and CEO of Perform Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Mass Communications) from Macquarie University, a Master of Arts Practice (Scriptwriting) from Charles Sturt University, a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, and a Graduate Diploma of Relationships Counselling among other qualifications.