Is your child an aspiring young actor trying to break into the field? Then they’d be smart listen to Jillian Lebling for advice.
The 11-year-old Maryland native has played Tom Hanks’ daughter in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” was in the hit Broadway musical “Once,” and has appeared in the television series “The Blacklist” with James Spader.
The bubbly tween who now lives in Selbyville, Delaware, advises those interested in acting to “have fun … and when you don’t get something you really want, just think there are a lot more auditions out there and keep on trying.”
Jillian’s was just one of the dazzling resumes on display during a panel discussion on child acting at the Annapolis Film Festival last spring.
Other panelists included Anthony Gonzales, 11, of Los Angeles, whose credits include the short 2016 film “Icebox” and the animated Pixar film “Coco,” due out later this year, and Max Page, 12, of Orange County, California, who has appeared in a handful of films, the classic television soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” and played the mini-Darth Vader on the ultra-popular Volkswagen commercial shown during last year’s Super Bowl.
The panel was moderated by 17-year-old Casey Baum, a junior at The Key School in Annapolis, who has been acting since second grade and was in two films shown at the festival.
All of the young actors insist they’re just ordinary kids who happen to do extraordinary things from time to time — like make a Super Bowl commercial that goes viral and shoot a movie with Tom Hanks. (“He was so nice,” says Jillian of Hanks, “always playing around when we weren’t working.”)
All four said they have a variety of interests outside of acting. Casey loves sports; he used to play soccer and basketball and still plays baseball. Max, the only one of the four who is home-schooled, is into baseball and golf and enjoys video games. Jillian’s other interests include geocaching, archery, fishing and playing the guitar. Anthony loves singing, dancing and taking part in community service.
But it’s acting that the four youngsters love the most, and it’s that love, coupled with talent, supportive parents and perhaps some luck, that has led to their early successes.
Max’s experience is typical.
As a toddler, “he was always putting on little skits for us,” recalls his mother, Jennifer Page. When he was 4, his parents enrolled him in a nearby children’s theater group, and he took to it immediately.
“Max was always comfortable, never shy,” Jennifer says. “He had clear language early and took direction well.”
Impressed, the theater director urged Max’s parents to get him an agent. They did, with unusually quick successes, and roles soon followed.
“He was blessed to get an agent easily, and he began booking TV and commercials right away,” his mother says.
Still, Jennifer noted that her son’s early stream of successes has not been an uninterrupted flow.
“He’s actually in a harder age group now,” she says. “You might get 1 percent of what you audition for because there’s tons of talent out there.”
Like Max, Jillian was an outgoing toddler who enjoyed putting on shows for her family, says her mother, Jessica Lebling.
“But acting was never something we thought about,” Jessica says. “We don’t have any family in the business.”
When Jillian was 6, a friend told Jessica that Jillian reminded her of her own daughter who was acting. She asked if the Leblings had any interest in meeting the older girl’s agent in New York. They did, and the agent liked Jillian from the start and soon started sending her on auditions, Jessica explains. Jillian got a callback after her very first movie audition, and while she didn’t get the role, even the callback “was a huge deal,” Jessica recalls. “She had what it took!”
Not long after that, Jillian earned a part on Broadway in “Once,” where she played the role of Ivanka, the young daughter of the female lead.
Jillian has a natural acting talent, her mother says, is patient and takes direction well. But even with those attributes, her daughter has had “tons of failures,” Jessica admits.
“She has gone on hundreds of auditions that never pan out to anything,” Jessica says. “But she enjoys every bit of it and doesn’t mind the disappointment. It just makes her want to work harder for the next part.”
The hard part
Besides the inevitable failures, acting has other downsides.
“Everything happens last-minute in this business, and you have to prepare to cancel other plans last minute for auditions, callbacks, bookings and so forth,” Jessica says. “That means missing out on birthday parties, sleepovers and other fun activities.”
And when you’re on a shoot during the school year, you need both understanding teachers willing to let you work on your own and the stamina to do that work after a long day on the set.
“It can be very difficult,” Anthony says. “A lot of days you have to stay up till, like, 1 in the morning, doing homework.”
The four young actors all say they were aware of the downsides and disappointments. But they remain enamored with and serious about their craft. And they have some sizable goals.
Anthony wants to go to Hollywood and act “for the rest of my life” — both voice acting, as he did in “Coco,” and regular acting.
Jillian wants to continue acting, but also do some writing and directing. She wrote, produced and directed the short film “Sleeptalker,” which screened at the Annapolis Film Festival.
Max wants to explore “all aspects of Hollywood,” including acting, directing and producing.
Casey wants to major in film at college (he’s not yet sure where) to learn more about the craft and prepare himself for both acting and behind-the-scenes jobs. “Then I’ll move to New York or Los Angeles and just try to do the best I can,” he says.
Casey is convinced that whether behind the camera or in front of it, acting is his calling and his first love.
“If you’re going into acting just to become rich and famous, there’s really no reason to be doing it,” he says. “But if you really love the craft and are willing to work as hard at it as you need to, then nothing can really stop you, and once you find a way in, it’s going to be extremely rewarding.”
Tips for aspiring child actors
Wondering how to break into the field of acting? Here’s advice from Casey Baum, 17, Anthony Gonzalez, 11, Jillian Lebling, 11, and Max Page, 12, all panelists at last year’s Annapolis Film Festival (with some input from their mothers).
- Take acting classes and look for acting camps or local theaters to act in. Experience is essential for acting in television or film.
- Build a solid base of acting coaches — directors from community theaters, teachers, etc.
- Make sure you are in it for the right reasons. The four young people started acting for a variety of reasons — a family member or friend acted, or their parents worked in the theater — but all four said they pursue it not because their parents want them to and not to become rich and famous, but because they love it. “One of the things I’ve heard a lot is, ‘Don’t do it for the wrong reasons,’ ” Casey says.
- Figure out what you’re good at and enjoy most — whether it’s singing, dancing, pure acting, voice-overs, or something else — and pursue that. “Follow your talent where it leads you,” Anthony says. “You just have to find your little niche.”
- Don’t let botched or unsuccessful auditions get you down. Unless your name is Tom Cruise or Scarlett Johansson, disappointments happen, and often. So be patient, be persistent, and keep trying. “You just have to keep your hopes up. Know there’s going to be another day,” Max says. “And, you can pray, too.”
- Be prepared for the demands. You’re going to have to juggle schoolwork and time with friends with an often demanding and time-consuming hobby. Be ready for the occasional long days of shooting followed by long nights doing schoolwork.
Tips for parents of aspiring actors
Wondering how to support your child actor? Here’s advice from Marta Gonzalez, Jessica Lebling and Jennifer Page — the mothers of the three actors on a panel at the Annapolis Film Festival last spring.
- Keep your child well-rounded: Encourage music, sports, games, a social life — anything to insure your child’s life isn’t built solely around acting success. “Please try to keep up all those fun kid things when you have the time, and be sure to have other hobbies,” Lebling advised.
- Get an agent. Agents can be invaluable for setting up auditions, finding roles, and opening doors you did not know existed. You can find plenty of tips for getting an agent online or by talking to others in the business, but find one you and your child feel comfortable with.
- Be ready for the life of an actor. The process can be disruptive, costly and last-minute. If you get a call for an audition in New York tomorrow, you pretty much have to go, no matter what you or the child might miss. If you blow off auditions, you limit your child’s chances for success and will eventually lose your agent.
- Be prepared for the commitment. “This is a business, and you and your child will be expected to treat it as such,” Lebling says.
- Prepare for disappointment. Failure is inevitable, and child actors go through dry spells — teeth might be growing in crooked or a voice might change. “This whole business ebbs and flows,” Page says. “But it’s a marathon. They can act forever.”
- Check in regularly with your child. Make sure they are doing it for the right reasons. “Nothing is more important than having fun,” Gonzalez says.
- Keep your child, and your family, grounded so everyone can deal with both success and failure. “We don’t judge Max on what (roles) he does or doesn’t get,” Page says. “You just have to stay humble and super-grounded as a family, and then your child will emulate that.”
By Pete Pichaske