Thursday, February 21, 2008

Casting Part VI: The Kid

Hello, LCLs. While I'm stuck in an ice-storm at the St. Louis airport, thought I'd continue our ongoing casting series. Today's edition? The Kid.

To say that Darren and I were freaked out about directing a child actor is an understatement. Many months before we started casting, we began rain dances and set up a copious amount of candles in an effort to appease the filmmaking gods. Little humans are not our forte. Darren and I get uncomfortable when we meet extremely short adults. Children are even littler than little, tiny adults. At least that’s what we’ve read.

Plus, casting a child role in Hollywood is a strange experience. There are a bunch of sad little kids out there who have been pushed into movies by their parents who, upset at their own lot in life, hope desperately to achieve the success they never had through that of their kids. It’s sad to see.

But even weirder is the prospect of telling a little kid of 8 or 9 years old that she is not good enough. No one wants to hear that, but an 8 or 9 year old especially. She can’t understand that being rejected is not a condemnation of who she is, only a recognition that she is not right for the part. It’s a distinction that children can’t really get. Come to think of it, most of the adult actors I know can’t really get that distinction either.

Our other consideration was age. The older a kid is, the longer work day they are legally allowed to have. So, for example, a six year old might only be allowed to work 4 hours a day while a nine year old might be able to work 8. That difference might not sound like much but for those of you who are filmmakers, you know it’s a lifetime. Still, our goal was to cast the best actress for the job regardless of age constraints.

And we had a doozy of a role to cast. The part of “Charity” is complex. She’s a young girl but perhaps the wisest character in the entire film. The role requires a young actress of intelligence and openness.

And so the parade of little girls came into our casting room one by one. Some were scared witless, unable to really speak at all. Our intention was to throw away the script when they came in the room and spend our audition time improvising. We figured, if a kid could be herself and improvise, that’s all we’d need. Some kids were pretty good at the dialogue but once we started improvising, they’d clam up. Others seemed so intent on impressing us that it was hard to get a sense of who they really were. One little five year old came bursting through the doors and exclaimed triumphantly, “I’m your Dakota Fanning!” It was super weird, and slightly creepy.

And then there was Madison Davenport. She came into the audition room like she owned it. She nailed the dialogue and then we started improvising. When a nine year old girl can improvise lines ten times better than what we wrote it usually means one of two things: 1. We must be terrible writers, or 2. The girl is a genius. In our case, both are correct. There was no decision to be made, Madison Davenport is Charity. And I have no problem making this declaration – she’s better than most of the adult actors I’ve ever met. This girl has got it. Whatever that is, she’s got it.

Still Darren and I were nervous. We met with her before we started shooting and, believing that we needed to keep a watch over her preparation, gave Maddy a notebook to keep as a journal for her character. She smiled knowingly and accepted our gift. Though I don’t think she ever filled it out. In hindsight, we had underestimated her, mostly out of our own fear. Maddy has her own process. I don’t know what that process is but I do know that when she gets on set, the girl is prepared. She knows her lines and she’s got suggestions for a million more. Further, she’s one of those actors who can’t help but be honest in front of the camera. Though we had Emmy winners and Oscar nominees in our cast, Madison required the least amount of direction of anyone. It was a breeze.

Apparently our prayers to the filmmaking gods paid off.



Chris said...

Very insightful. I think I might have to mention this on Chris World.

Danny Daneau said...

Thanks for the post! I have shared your experience with Davenport on my blog. She is starring in my first feature film, A MONSTER IN THE ATTIC.