Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fabrica de sueños

Este articulo, muy interesante (y largo), es del NY Times Magazine del domingo...

Hollywood Elementary

Nine-year-old Jaysha Patel doesn't cry easily, but on a recent morning, she was ready to weep. She took a chair facing her fellow actors in a bland conference room. The mothers, who sat in the back, seemed oblivious: one knitted; another placed stamps on a pile of picture postcards of her son, which would alert casting directors to the air date of his latest show. Meanwhile, Trisha Simmons, the children's very pretty teacher, offered her aspiring students a couple of tips: "Short breaths help you to cry. Tightening the throat helps." Simmons looked resplendent in a bright purple hooded jacket and a rhinestone belt, circulating among her charges, some as young as 5. "Take your finger out of your nose," she chided one, then stopped to squint at a boy. "What's that on your lips?" she asked.

"Powdered doughnut," he admitted.

The workshop, Crying on Cue, was taking place at the Oakwood Toluca Hills, a vast complex of temporary rental apartments in Los Angeles that caters to families actively pursuing a Hollywood career. In addition to housing, the Oakwood offers the Child Actor Program, which brings industry professionals, like Simmons, onto the premises and has made the Oakwood a much-sought-after residence for aspiring child actors. Simmons and others teach specialized, marketable skills: "If you're a kid, and you can cry, you're going to have a long road ahead of you — lots of work," Simmons says. She's a working actor whose résumé includes roles in "Desperate Housewives" and "Will and Grace."

On this Sunday morning, Jaysha was feeling pretty confident; the previous day she managed the tears all by herself, though it took preparation. First she tried imagining her dad dead. Then her mother. "She tried the dog," her father, Jay, told me. "That didn't work. It had to be the both of us." Jaysha pretended her parents had been stabbed.

Simmons kneeled in front of Jaysha and asked her to tell a sad story. Sitting on the chair, Jaysha pouted and began: she wanted a dog and her father said no because a dog meant responsibility. Then they got a dog. Her father, who owns a liquor store, named the puppy Smirnoff. "But he peed on the carpet, and bit my mom's toe," Jaysha continued, tucking her chin into her chest for effect. Then her father sold Smirnoff because he was too hard to train.

"How did it feel?" Simmons asked softly.

"Bad," Jaysha said, mumbling. The children watched her quietly. Jaysha's eyes welled with tears. Simmons clapped. The children clapped. Jaysha drew it out for a moment longer, then lifted her head and smiled.

"What an incredible accomplishment!" Simmons said, grinning. "No menthol, no eye drops, no onions! Just natural. That's beautiful." Authentic tears are always best, Simmons advises, but auditions sometimes require an aid. If they choose to use, say, a tissue with chopped onions, she reminds her students to be sure not to throw it away in the audition room.

While Jaysha listened to her classmates' sorry tales of road-killed squirrels and longed-for fathers, Jay waited in the busy lobby of the Oakwood's North Clubhouse, the hub of program activity. Stylish children talked on cellphones; others read on the couches in a waiting area across from the front desk, where well-trained Oakwood staff members provide residents with hotel-like amenities. The fitness room, where there is a personal trainer available, overlooks landscaped paths leading down to the resort-quality pool or up to the tennis courts.

Each year, between mid-January and May, when some 100-odd pilots are being cast, one-quarter of the Oakwood's 1,151 furnished units are filled by families of child actors. "Home to the Famous, and Almost Famous," a billboard at the front gate reads. Located near Burbank, it's conveniently close to most of the major studios. The Oakwood's orientation for "newbies," the first-timers who make up about 80 percent of the families staying there each year, is also a draw: lectures about the entertainment business; connections to people like Simmons, who give complimentary classes to enlist new students; a show-biz-kid expo that displays all the tertiary industries: diction tapes, head shot photography and packaging, marketing-strategy DVD's. On-site tutoring — unaccredited, held weekday mornings in the conference room — can be paid for weekly to allow children to come and go, given their unpredictable work schedules. Units at the Oakwood start at $2,000 a month for a studio with a Murphy bed.

Jennifer Love Hewitt lived in the Oakwood for several years. Frankie Muniz from "Malcolm in the Middle" lived there for about four pilot seasons. Many of the kids and parents at the Oakwood will tell you that Hilary Duff lived in an apartment for seven years (it was really about two and a half), which serves as an inspirational tale of an alum who stayed with it and succeeded. In the past, parents rarely came out for pilot season without a basic understanding of how the business worked. These days, casting directors and agents say, they are seeing increasing numbers of novice families who are committing to the four-month pilot season. Some industry people attribute the flood of green arrivals to their exposure to behind-the-scenes TV programs, star biopics, celebrity news shows and teenage entertainment magazines, which give the untutored a sense of confidence about the way show business works. "With 'American Idol' and the Internet, everyone thinks they are savvy about what's going on," one manager, Jillian Neal, told me. "There used to be a much bigger divide between the real world and Hollywood." Oakwood's well-promoted Child Actor Program implicitly encourages the assumption that there is a formula to making it big.

Very few parents I met during the four weeks I lived at the Oakwood in January and February seemed motivated by the money that their children could earn (the rare $100,000 for a nationally broadcast commercial or, if a child landed a role on a pilot, anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the significance of the role, whether it was network or cable and the child's past credits). But plenty of them, much like overanxious parents who are determined to get their child into an Ivy League university, seem to believe that endless classes and coaching sessions will guarantee their children's success. Simmons, who worked with Hilary and Haylie Duff, says: "There are more parents coming today who say, 'Can I pay you to get my kid a part?' I tell them: 'That's not what I do. I coach, and he goes out and gets the part."'

Anne Henry, a co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides information to families of acting kids, says that the increasing numbers of families who uproot their lives to come to Los Angeles reflects societal pressure. "Parents think they owe their child the opportunity to pursue their dream." And for many parents, that means devoting themselves to turning their child's aspirations into an A-list Hollywood career.

Mothers tend to dominate among those who come with their children to the Oakwood. Jay Patel, who is 36, is the odd father among them, but like his female peers, he had no idea it could be so hard. His daughter, Jaysha, was special: she excelled at every opportunity he'd provided in the vicinity of their hometown, Bradenton, Fla. — Indian folk dancing, soccer, swimming, karate. The problem was, she loved it all. He wanted her to focus on one thing so that she could start the professional climb while she was young. An immigrant from Zambia, Jay had dropped out of school and had no backup plan when his promising cricket career didn't materialize, which was how he ended up running a liquor store with his wife. A believer in education with a purpose, he bought Jaysha an $8,900 lifetime membership to John Robert Powers, a modeling and talent school, which offered classes and placed Jaysha on a regional circuit, then a national one. Twice — at a total cost of more than $10,000 — father and daughter flew to California for talent conventions, including the International Modeling and Talent Association (I.M.T.A.) gathering, one of the biggest in the country.

Encouraged by their local talent schools, kids from all over come — and pay hefty registration fees — to participate in I.M.T.A. professional workshops and gain exposure to the industry. The I.M.T.A. also serves as a feeder for agents and managers, whose jobs are made easier by having so many talented kids assembled in one place. Many of the judges moonlight as teachers and private coaches. Jay was stunned by the number of gifted kids, but he says he believes that Jaysha, as an Indian, has the advantage of standing out.

At the I.M.T.A., Jaysha took workshops in modeling, acting, swimsuit competition and monologues. She enjoyed everything except modeling, because you have to be so skinny. "I gotta have food," she says. After another convention, Jay came home with a few business cards from managers who said they felt Jaysha showed promise.

People he spoke to advised him to move to Los Angeles for pilot season if he wanted to take her career to the next level. Soon after, Jay announced to his wife that he wanted to sell everything and go. "Ever since 9/11, I changed," he told me. "You've got to live." His wife said she thought he was nuts, but eventually they agreed that he and Jaysha could go to Hollywood for six months and that she would stay home and manage their store.

Marie Barnes, who is 14, was the one who persuaded her parents to take her to Hollywood. She was 10 when she begged her mother, Lori, to let her attend a local scouting competition advertised on the radio. About 400 kids taped a cold reading of a commercial, and Marie was 1 of 16 chosen to go on to a talent convention sponsored by the Millie Lewis Actors, Models and Talent Competition (A.M.T.C.) in Florida. There she got an agent who lived in Nashville and who told Lori that Marie needed to be taking professional acting classes there. Lori agreed to drive Marie three hours each way, sometimes twice a week if she had an audition, from their home in Evansville, Ind., occasionally taking along a friend to help keep her awake.

It paid off. At her next Millie Lewis A.M.T.C. in 2004, Marie won runner-up in the Best Child Actor category among about 800 contenders. Lori learned of the Oakwood at a seminar, and they stayed there last summer so that Marie could attend an acting camp and find a West Coast agent. They came again in January for their first pilot season.

Lori, an perky Midwestern woman, still seems a bit amazed that her mornings start in a small one-bedroom apartment instead of in her spacious house, where she has left behind her husband, Bob, and 16-year-old son. Although she and Bob are committed to supporting their hard-working daughter in whatever way they can, they're somewhat mystified at her direction. "Why she chose acting, I have no idea," says Marie's father, a family doctor. "It would not be her mother's goal for her or mine. Passion is an overused word, but it is a passion for her." Marie's responsibility was to keep up her grades. She had been told that she was a Disney type — she was fresh-faced and her acting was slightly over the top. Marie does miss her father and her dog, and sometimes she misses her brother, but she finds Hollywood thrilling and the company of other professional children a relief. She's not considered odd for analyzing commercials or noticing the gestures of physical comedy of supporting actors on Disney shows. At the Oakwood, everyone understands the difficulty of getting call backs from auditions, whereas at home, given her reputation as the local girl with big talent, the fact that she is not yet a movie star is hard to explain.

Lori finds Hollywood baffling. While she's now able to survive the freeways, she's still trying to navigate the etiquette of the place — businesspeople who hate small talk; phone calls that go unreturned; casting directors who refuse to shake children's hands because of germs. Then there are the cliques at the Oakwood, and the gossip, and the mothers who lie about their kids' representation and inflate the nature of their bookings, and the children who don't seem as if they even enjoy what they are there to do.

There are ethical considerations too. Recently Lori submitted Marie for an audition for a Church of Scientology public-service announcement that she found on Breakdown Services, a Web site listing casting calls. The Barnes are practicing Catholics, and when Marie was called in for the audition, Lori spent hours on the Internet trying to learn about the beliefs of Scientologists. She also had long conversations with her husband, who didn't want Marie involved. Once again, Marie lobbied for her cause: "I'm an actor, you have to do stuff you don't believe in," she said. Some kids would have turned up their noses at a P.S.A. — some refused to audition for any commercials — but Marie was open to everything. She craved experience.

Lori hated to disappoint her. Her daughter was thoroughly committed to her acting classes and kept up her grades in a program arranged through her middle school. They'd been spending most of their time waiting for her agent to call. Lori couldn't deny that it would be nice to have something to break the boredom.

Most of the time, Marie and Lori were under a kind of house arrest. Agent-submitted auditions could come suddenly and required preparation, so Marie and Lori usually didn't make plans. Many mornings, they would hike the Oakwood grounds for exercise. The dim traffic hum of the 101 trailed them — up the curving drives, speed bump after speed bump, past the indistinguishable alphabetized white buildings. Back at apartment

N-108, Marie would tackle her three hours of schoolwork, and then she and Lori would fill the remaining hours with scrap-booking, knitting and watching too much TV.

It got too quiet — no barking dogs, no brother playing his drums. They spent too much time together. The last time they stayed at the Oakwood, they were on the third floor and could escape to the small balcony that overlooked Burbank, but now there was no reprieve: they'd been assigned to a unit on the ground floor facing an interior walkway, which was next door to the collection point for the building's garbage chute. At night, if there was nothing appealing on TV, they went to sleep early to avoid eating junk food and listened to the bottles breaking as neighbors tossed down their trash. "You're lying in bed thinking, I didn't get calls," Lori says. "You know you shouldn't think that way, but you do."

Marie adds, "But when you wake up, tomorrow's a new day." She seems certain that her break will come. "We go walking, and my mom puts her arm around me."

Marie has received positive feedback each step of the way, which makes the question of her ultimate success seem less like an issue of talent than of persistence. And she has been recognized for her special skills — like her black belt in karate. In an audition, she demonstrated different karate positions while holding a huge Slurpee of Frawg energy drink.

When Marie hangs out with her friends and Lori has some solitude, she and Bob, who talk at least twice a day on the phone, speak more freely about the future. "We talk about if we can afford this or not," Lori says. "We're trying to make her dream come true, but it takes time."

Agents and managers I talked to say they prefer families with no financial limits as well as the commitment of one parent to treat the child's career as a full-time job. Good stage mothers need to follow through on instructions, be pleasant and professional and, despite the L.A. traffic, always, always, deliver the talent to wherever they need to be on time. (A veteran's car is stocked for the sudden audition or call back: snacks, water, head shots, demo reels, hair products and several sets of clothes.)

If the child's career begins gaining traction, it is ideal if the whole family can relocate to Los Angeles or if the absent parent can visit regularly to reduce the distractions of separation, which effectively means maintaining two homes and having a flexible job. An only child is preferable because the actor doesn't miss siblings and the mother isn't overstretched.

Rhondelle Liberato, a 49-year-old former real estate agent from Galveston, Tex., and her 10-year-old daughter, Liana, were a good match for those looking to take on new clients. And last year during her first pilot season, Liana had the kind of luck everyone told newbies never to expect: within days of arriving, the blond, blue-eyed Liana had her first audition. By the end of the season, she had landed four significant jobs in TV dramas, including "Cold Case" and "C.S.I.: Miami."

Liana has an instinct for acting and a face that gains resonance on film. "She's very still naturally," and stillness is an asset for film, says Simmons, who coaches her privately. And there's Liana's confidence: during an audition for a pilot as the actor Jane Leeves's daughter, the product of a sperm donor, Liana — unscripted — cleverly mimicked Leeves behind her back, making the director and producers laugh.

Rhondelle recalls that when she was pregnant with Liana, she'd go to the theater and watch movies back to back. She has always been curious about the making of films and the lives of movie stars. When Liana, at age 3, started doing community musical theater, a passion she shares with her father, George, Rhondelle marveled at her daughter's fearlessness onstage, as if she had sprung from somewhere else. She wanted Liana to sustain that boldness. "It's intimidating for me to see child actors," Rhondelle says. "How do they do that? It's not my nature. I didn't want to hold her back. I didn't want to be a mom with regrets."

After Liana completed a professional, 26-show run in "Galveston, the Musical," when she was 7, her parents signed her up for a local acting camp. When it was canceled, Rhondelle found another one in Los Angeles. By the time she was 9, she and Rhondelle were living at the Oakwood. Because they made the leap, she wants Liana to give it 100 percent. "I'm not here to twiddle my thumbs," Rhondelle says. Liana's style is more laid-back; her competitiveness comes out only at auditions, and if she's stressed, she keeps it to herself. "My mom wants me to work really hard," Liana told me. "Sometimes, I'm in the mood to just hang out. I want to read the script one or two times. She wants me to read it five or six times." (Although Liana's usually happy to read it 10 times if it involves animals.) Liana says she wishes that her mother would stop worrying about everything and relax and have some fun, the way they do when her dad comes to visit and they do things like hike behind the Hollywood sign.

Shortly after Liana's promising start last year, her father, who'd had surgery for prostate cancer, discovered he needed radiation therapy, and Rhondelle and Liana returned to Galveston. After he completed his treatment, Liana's manager, Laura Walsh (who also represents Jaysha), urged them to come back, and they did. Rhondelle and Liana have been living in a two-bedroom apartment at the Oakwood since January.

Rhondelle keeps in close contact with Walsh, who has a master plan: "We're not going the Disney Nickelodeon route," she told me. "I want Liana to be able to transform into a strong adult actress. Dakota Fanning,

AnnaSophia Robb, when their rates climb too high, they'll be looking for the next one."

Despite Rhondelle's tireless effort — new head shots, hand-signed postcards with Liana's picture, researching scripts in development looking for potential roles, chauffeuring Liana to coaching and acting classes — it's been hard to retrieve the early momentum. Liana was still going up for roles — she had an important audition coming up for the lead in a movie called "Magic," about a dog who talks — but she hadn't yet gotten work. In the meantime, Rhondelle was spending a small fortune for the private coaching with Simmons, who says that Liana is already capable of acting with her as a peer.

In addition to training, Simmons encourages parents to work to boost their children's visibility. Simmons suggested that Liana take part in one of her marketing ploys — hand-delivering gift baskets to casting directors at the studios. Simmons prepares the baskets, sometimes with muffins and Starbucks coffee. Each displays the participating student's head shots and résumé, and her own. "If I brought it in, they'd say, 'O.K., just leave it there,"' she told me, "but this cute little blond, blue-eyed kid?"

On Valentine's Day, Liana was sitting in the back seat of her mother's car signing cards for basket deliveries. "From Liana?" Liana asked.

"How about Love?" Rhondelle suggested. "Lovely Liana." Rhondelle had spent $75 on extra chocolates to add to the baskets because she thought they looked skimpy. Liana misspelled Valentine and started again.

Rhondelle says she wishes that Liana's career were past the point of having to do things like gift baskets, and even though it's not, she's still uncomfortable with the whole gift-basket thing. But she heard that Jaysha got an audition for "Haversham Hall," a new Disney series in production, because of a basket.

In the back seat, Liana took the cellphone and left a message for her Oakwood friend, Hannah Marks: "I've been kidnapped. I'm being held hostage. It will cost $10 to get me back." Hannah returned the call, to alert Liana of a Valentine's Day dance at the North Clubhouse that night.

"Liana—" Rhondelle said impatiently. Rhondelle was tired; she had stayed up all night worrying and talking with her husband; she was particularly concerned about driving Liana too hard for the "Magic" audition, but if Liana got this lead, Rhondelle said she thought it would jump-start things and the pressure wouldn't be so intense. "There's no question that she wants it, but I want to go the extra little bit."

Liana told Hannah to listen to her message and call her back. Hannah called back. It seemed as if the kidnapping had been resolved, because Liana was now a princess breaking in and out of an invented language. Then she squealed: " 'C.S.I.'? Which one, Miami or New York? I hope you get it! I'll see you tonight. Cool."

At the first basket drop at a studio, the assistant at the desk smiled at Liana. She'd clearly seen the cute girls with baskets before. The casting director, however, came out and accepted it awkwardly. At the next stop, the secretary told Liana to place her basket beside the other gift baskets on the casting director's desk, including several still unopened that said, "Happy 2006!"

Back in the car, Rhondelle was exasperated to hear about the other baskets. "Did you see her or her assistant?" she asked. They then went to a huge, noisy casting room filled with types — bunches of dolled-up babies in overalls and prairie dresses, lots of red-headed toddlers, blondes in pigtails. Parents studied head shots. One staff member accepted résumés from a line of lanky black men. Liana found her way to her next stop, a production company.

"Why?" a pretty assistant asked her when Liana handed her the gift.

"From my acting coach," Liana said. "From me."

"Isn't that sweet!" said the assistant. "Nice of you to come all the way down here." The assistant asked Liana a few quick questions about her credits and where she was from and sent her on her way. Then back in the car. The gift baskets had not come with driving directions, and it turned out that the next stop was in a neighborhood they had already been to, and Rhondelle now had to loop back across town. When they finally arrived, Liana waited for 15 minutes until a harried casting director stepped out, and an assistant behind a desk raised her eyebrows and gestured to Liana with her chin.

"Do I know you?" asked the casting director.

"No. This is for you."

"Why is this for me?"

Liana, as if she were auditioning, switched her approach: "Hi, I'm Liana and this is from my agent. I mean my acting coach." She hesitated. "And this is for you."

"This is for everyone in the agency?"

"Yeah," Liana said, rolling her feet.

"Oh," said the woman, relenting a little. "That's very sweet."

Out by the elevator, Liana said: "I didn't like that woman. She was freaky."

Back in the car, Rhondelle was irritated. "I'll tell you what, we're not doing this next year," she said. They were late for Liana's 90-minute coaching session, and the "Magic" audition was just days away. Liana said her stomach hurt. She had a headache and she was hungry. She lay down in the back seat. "Everything's wrong with me. I'm tired."

"Don't be tired," Rhondelle said.

Liana first spotted Hannah in the Oakwood fitness room. Hannah was working out with her mom, Nova. A slip of a girl, Hannah, who is 13, got tossed off a treadmill after turning up the speed too fast. But Liana would have noticed her anyway: she's delicate and tiny and intense.

It turned out that Hannah was also an actor. The mothers and daughters, who lived in the same building, became friendly. The women have a good deal in common: Hannah's father also survived cancer, making the family separations especially fraught. The men each run their own businesses: Liana's dad is a real estate broker and Hannah's owns a software company. The men visit often — Liana's dad comes every two weeks, while Hannah's, who owns a plane, flies in on the alternate weekends that Hannah and Nova don't go home to San Luis Obispo. Both mothers left very comfortable lives back home and both have been criticized for allowing their daughters to do certain types of work — Nova for letting Hannah play the daughter of a drug addict in a TV show and Rhondelle for allowing Liana to take a role in which her character's mother used her picture on the Internet to attract men.

While Hannah's career was further along than Liana's — Hannah had three feature films under her belt — both girls were auditioning regularly and had attentive managers. ("We didn't give up all this stuff and leave our husbands to have mediocre representation," Nova says.) This meant the families could be freer with each other because of the shared level of success.

The kids at the Oakwood are not nearly as competitive as the adults, but the more substantive the roles become, the more the pool narrows, which makes it very clear who one's opponents are. (Whenever Hannah went for a second or third call back, or to audition before the producers, she regularly encountered the same half-dozen girls). It helped their relationship that Liana and Hannah were different types and wouldn't often compete for roles: Liana was blond, athletic and youthful; Hannah was dark-haired, serious and mature.

But both girls resent it when adults make assumptions that acting is ruining their childhoods. "Acting is my passion, and I think that's being a kid," Liana says.

"Ditto," Hannah adds.

Their Hollywood experiences weave easily in and out of their conversations. One night in February, Hannah was sleeping over at Liana's. The girls assessed Liana's new head shots as if they were picking out the cutest boy in a teen magazine. Then they moved on to a game of hide-and-seek, after which Hannah authoritatively set up a bed of pillows on the floor. "Watch this," she said, as she stood up straight, then fell backward.

"Cool!" Liana said.

"It was a stunt I had to do in 'Doll Graveyard,"' Hannah said, referring to her very first movie, a low-budget horror flick. In one scene, she had to drop back into her grave, which was softened with a cushion. "But," she explained, "from the outside it looked like dirt."

Hannah's mother, Nova, a 48-year-old Los Angeles native and former actor, says she believes that Hannah, who has always loved performing, is well suited to the profession that she herself didn't have the focus for. "It takes tunnel vision," says Nova, who had an agent by the time she was 6. "Hannah has more talent and confidence." Nova played the fresh-faced all-American girl on TV. Hannah prefers dramatic roles in serious films. "Nova's all light and sunshine," says Jillian Neal, Hannah's manager and one of Nova's old acting friends. "Hannah's attracted to the dark side."

When Hannah was 10, she told her mother, "I want to have the opportunities you had." She'd been performing in community theater for four years by then. While Nova wanted to support Hannah in every way she could, she was concerned that the pressures of Hollywood would heighten Hannah's tendency to become easily stressed. Hannah had always been high-strung; as a child, she had trouble sleeping. She connected most deeply to stories about people in distress, and the poetry she wrote was often agonized. They'd left Los Angeles for San Luis Obispo in large part so Hannah could be raised at a slower pace. "For a girl who has all these privileges, she carries a lot of emotional pain," Nova says.

But acting was also a way for Hannah to express herself. "Hannah was never a great fit anyway," Nova says. In school, she'd never been the popular girl. She is self-conscious about her tiny size, but in Hollywood it was an asset. (Hannah could play younger characters.) Nova also knew, from her own years in the business, that Hannah possessed that hunger that was essential to making it in Hollywood. In 2005, they came to the Oakwood, intending to stay for just eight weeks; they've been there for more than a year. But Nova wants something different for Hannah. She eschews the usual Oakwood offerings. She does most of the coaching for auditions and enlists another actor to cultivate Hannah's craft.

For Hannah, days begin watching "Live With Regis and Kelly," either in her bed or on their white leather couch. After that, she and her mother home-school. Nova replaced the Oakwood's standard-issue furniture and mass-produced prints with her own things and painted a wall in the living room blue. One night a week, Nova selects a film for directorial or acting analysis — "Paper Moon," "My Life as a Dog," "A Patch of Blue." They like to play Scene It, a movie trivia game. They laugh a lot. Hannah, a precise child, makes intricate collages about fashion and celebrities. She spent her allowance on Mike Wallace's memoir and got halfway through a book by the comedian Lewis Black. "I don't think it's appropriate for my age," she says, but she was curious to learn more about his life because they have a scene together in one of her coming films. She makes a point of learning as much as she can from everyone on a set — she once asked a producer to explain the way a budget worked. Hannah enjoys hanging out with Liana but can find it exhausting. Liana likes to run around the Oakwood; one day Hannah came home and said, amazed, "She made me climb a tree!" Nova says she hopes that Liana's playfulness will relax Hannah. When Hannah's anxieties overwhelm her, which is not infrequently, Nova says, "We need a Liana fix."

Aidan Mitchell, another friend of Hannah's, shares her obsessive intensity. In his old life, Aidan, who is 12, was ostracized for the qualities that serve him well in Hollywood: his almost tender physical beauty, his exacting and self-imposed standards and his willingness to take great emotional risks. It is clear, from talking with his mother, Connie, that his childhood was extremely unhappy. He has Developmental Coordination Disorder, which made him the object of ridicule and bullying when he was growing up in Ireland, where his family moved from the U.S. when he was 3. But he fit in among adult actors.

Aidan performed in local productions at Galway's Town Hall Theater. When they moved to San Diego when Aidan was 10, he found the classes disappointing. "They weren't very good," he says. "The kids were there to have fun. They weren't there to learn anything." His mother, wanting him to be seen by the industry, took him to Los Angeles for a week of intensive pilot-season-preparation classes, and Aidan was well received. Still, his mother had to push him to return for the pilot season; he was afraid he wouldn't succeed. He was recently cast in a pilot, "Low Life," as Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard's son. He has done two movies and will start work on a third, "Rodeo," a film in which he plays a child who is physically abused by his stepfather.

Connie says she finds managing her son's Hollywood business easy compared with the challenges of his earlier life. "At home, I spent my time banging my head against the school and the medical system," she says. "Now I'm able to spend my time in a positive way for him." Most stage mothers talk about trying to lower their children's optimism in order to protect them from inevitable rejection, but Connie is grateful that her son finally has hope. "Here, who he is is celebrated," she says. "In the past, mainstream society tried to change him into the child they thought he could be."

Aidan, Marie and Liana all take a popular improv class with the actors Glenn Withrow and his wife, Hallie Todd, who run In House Media, a full-service studio. In addition to offering a young actors' program, they also conduct screen tests and produce demo reels. (Todd, who played the mother of Hilary Duff in the hit Disney show "Lizzie McGuire," has recently finished a seven-book series called "Peace or War? A Primer for Stage Parents.")

One February afternoon, Glenn's energetic class cheered as he announced the setting for an acting exercise — a mental hospital. He whispered an affliction to each student: Marie suffered from a rhyming disorder, Liana a tic and Aidan an unquenchable need for love. Most of the kids interpreted their challenges predictably. Zombies shuffled, tongues lolled. Marie did her best to rhyme the gibberish her fellow patients were using. Liana, who was trying not to laugh at the antic madness that surrounded her, vigorously jerked her head to the left. Aidan banged into people with a desperate expression, like a boy who smacks the girl he likes.

"What's that?" a spiky-haired boy asked him.

"I haven't had gentle affection in a long time, and I need some," Aidan explained.

"What?" the boy asked.

Aidan repeated himself, mistakenly thinking that the boy didn't hear him, then realized the boy was still confused. "I want someone to be nice to me on a higher level than friends."

"Ewwww!" the boy said.

"I'm just doing Glenn's stupid objective," Aidan responded, placing the tips of his fingers in the pockets of his jeans.

"Would you do it naked?" another boy in an Evil Twin T-shirt asked.

"Well, yeah," Aidan said.

The Evil Twin whistled his disgust.

"It's acting," Aidan said, less confident. "You do what the scene requires."

For Jaysha, the auditions have slowly rolled in. She takes them in stride as she seems to take everything else: she rehearses, she tries, she fails, she moves along. She goes to Bollywood movies with her father. She eats ice cream at the Olive Garden, where the two have become regulars.

Jay, however, was a wreck. He'd begun to get migraines. He'd gained weight. He was drinking too much. His wife, whom he met through an arranged marriage, had become much more independent, and when she visited, she wasn't eager to reassume her traditional role. The early challenge of mastering the entertainment business had become tedious. He was also noting the behavior of the parents around him — some in their second or third pilot seasons — the desperate bribing of their kids to audition; the angry bad-mouthing of the teachers. ("Parents are willing to spend the money," Jay says, "but they want results.") Jay decided early on not to live at the Oakwood and to send Jaysha to a conventional Catholic school to try to maintain some semblance of an ordinary childhood. But he still sent her to all the available classes: a five-week course with a casting director ($390); eight sessions on cold reading ($365); and a six-hour intensive on the same ($150). For the second time, she was taking the cold-reading classes with Joey Paul Jensen, who casts for Disney. Jay likes Jensen because she's no-nonsense and says that Jaysha is constantly improving. Jay says he hopes that she'll keep Jaysha in mind for a coming role.

But Jensen says the numbers are against most kids. For minor or supporting roles on pilots, Jensen can easily audition 500 to 600 children — seeing one kid every two to five minutes. "You put out a casting call, you need a 7-year-old with red hair, one blue eye and one brown eye, and there are hundreds of kids in the waiting room in 10 minutes," says Marc Warren, Jensen's colleague, who wrote for the Disney TV show "That's So Raven."

Jensen does agree, however, with Jay's original hunch: the time is ripe for ethnic types. And although Jaysha's Indian, she can cross over to Hispanic, and there's always a dearth of 10- to 12-year-old Latina girls.

So far, Jay's sure bet has turned out to be a gamble; he's spent $50,000 and can't seem to stop. "June 1, I can say I tried everything," he says. "We tried everything." Then he is planning to take a break. But he expects to return later in the summer. "When I see the directors really like Jaysha, I feel like I can stick it out." (In fact, at the end of May, Jaysha would get her first major role in a film called "Quest of Alchemy," in which she plays the daughter of a Hindu mother and American father.) He's toying with the idea of relocating to Los Angeles, but he's more tentative about his decisions. While Hollywood may be ruining his health and his financial security, he knows one thing: it has profoundly changed his ideas about being a parent. He used to be self-absorbed, spending his money on expensive MartinLogan speakers and wasting his free time golfing and partying with friends. Now his attention goes to Jaysha, who is becoming more independent and even more relaxed.

One afternoon, Jay dropped off some new head shots of Jaysha to her commercial agent, who encouraged Jay to take some of his own. "I can see him on an elephant," the agent later told me. "He's not Americanized. He's not L.A." Why not? Jay remembers thinking; he was bored. He also invented a résumé, listing credits from fabricated Indian TV shows — "The Hidden Temple" and "The Follower" — in which he claimed to have had guest-starring roles. He landed two auditions in two weeks. Recently, he and Jaysha auditioned for a father-daughter commercial, which renewed his respect for her accomplishments. Jaysha can memorize four pages of dialogue in less than an hour. But Jay, although he had just two lines, blanked when he stepped into the audition room. "It's all right," Jaysha whispered reassuringly.

"You can tell today's a good day!" Marie said as she snapped in her seat belt one Saturday morning while her mother waited to be freed by the Oakwood's security gate.

They were headed to the audition for the Church of Scientology public service announcement. Marie was dressed in high-up pigtails and thick eyeglass frames for effect. In the last year, more than 1,300 children auditioned for 24 P.S.A.'s produced by the Church of Scientology, and roughly 60 got the roles.

At the Celebrity Center, Lori followed Marie past displays charting the accomplishments of L. Ron Hubbard. As Lori signed a release form stating she was not in any way associated with the psychiatric profession and that neither she nor Marie took certain medications (Scientologists believe that "psychiatric drugs destroy individuality"), Marie watched a male Scientologist administering the E-Meter to a young woman at the other end of the ornate room. The device is supposed to help locate spiritual trauma experienced in the person's past.

"Button your Izod," Lori said.

Marie did, then pulled the script from her mother's bag. Lori tried to relax her. "Pick your nose, scratch your butt—"

"Mom," Marie said, "I have to read this." Lori shrugged. Set in a "bustling lunchroom" filled with "a mix of Asian, Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian kids," Marie is a nerdy student smitten by Nick, the "hot dude everybody likes."

A friend of Marie's arrived for the same audition, not nerdily dressed at all: she wore a polka-dot party dress, her costume for a pageant she had to go to immediately afterward.

"Have you gotten anything?" she asked Marie.

"I've been going to auditions," Marie said, exaggerating her busyness. She self-consciously held her elbow across her midriff.

The casting director came for Marie and returned her five minutes later. Her friend wanted to know about this audition — who was in the room, what they wanted, how the space was arranged. Marie answered, and then her friend was called in. Lori was ready to go, but Marie dragged. Her friend wasn't out yet. "Was I that long?" Marie asked.

"No," said her mother, "but it doesn't matter."

"I know."

"I love ya," Lori said. Marie looked worried. "Maybe they are taking a break," Lori added. Marie wasn't listening. "Maybe the lady has diarrhea," Lori offered. Her daughter didn't smile. Marie wanted to see if her friend was given a pre-employment form, which signals a stronger possibility of a call back.

Lori gave Marie a few more moments and said softly, "Marie, I would say that she probably got a form." Marie asked to wait a bit longer in the car. She eyed the people coming and going like a desultory undercover cop. Lori said, "Oh, Marie," then turned the ignition.

Marie confessed that she didn't tell her friend that the casting director had asked for an improvisation because she didn't want to give her the extra five minutes to think of something to say.

Despite her disappointments, Marie had already begun to talk to her mother about coming back to L.A. again this summer. Lori was considering it, though she was counting the days until they returned to Indiana. There was the ongoing separation of their family. Lori knew her husband was O.K. — he was even learning to cook and do the housework — but she missed her son, and she felt bad that she couldn't help her mother-in-law, who just had a stroke. But she was torn. "Marie wants it so bad," Lori told me. "Some kids, they don't really care. But that's not Marie — I don't know if she'll ever be O.K. if she doesn't get what she wants."

One evening, midway through pilot season, Liana and Hannah jumped in the Oakwood's North Clubhouse pool after soaking in the hot tub. The pool lights made the water glimmer beneath the palm trees. The girls did handstands and swam races. Liana did her impression of Jaws. Hannah pretended to drown, frighteningly convincingly. Liana told her how she froze when she was told to do the "Haversham Hall" audition without props. "You know the fun thing about crying on cue?" she asked. "You think about something and then you cry." Hannah didn't like to cry on cue, she said, because it limited her emotional experience.

At 9:30, Hannah's father, Robin, appeared poolside, a fit man with towels in each strong hand. "Time," he said.

"No," said Hannah, going under.

"Time," he said again when she came back up.

"Dad!" Hannah replied, continuing to plead her case as she climbed out. "Can we stay together? Can I go to Liana's?" He wrapped her up, and Hannah scampered beside him on the walkway, Liana sauntering behind.

"You'll see her tomorrow," Robin said.

"It's a long time for a kid," Hannah said. "Normal kids see each other in school every day. How about if she comes to our house? Just for an hour? If we go right to bed?" Robin didn't budge. "It's not fair without a reason," Hannah said. Robin reminded her about her audition at the end of the week. Liana's "Magic" audition was also coming up.

Robin and the girls stopped at Liana's, where Hannah had left her clothes. While the girls took forever changing out of their swimsuits, Rhondelle and Robin's conversation returned to the question that all stage parents ask: How long do you stick it out? Do you keep renting a place at the Oakwood? Buy a condo? In fact, Hannah and Liana would go on to have a good spring: although Liana wouldn't get the part in "Magic," in May she would end up getting the lead as a Welsh girl in a movie; Hannah would be cast as the daughter of a Saudi terrorist in a TV show, "Criminal Minds." But anything less than spectacular success meant that the question would crop up again and again.

Rhondelle had been grappling with this predicament. She had recently been to Ikea and bought a chair and couch covers to make the apartment more cozy and had been talking to George about staying through the summer. But he missed them. "He's trying to wrap up some business so he can spend more time in L.A, but there's the meantime."

Hannah darted out of the bedroom. Robin snatched her up under one arm. Robin moved backward toward the door, which he opened with his free hand. Like a grande dame, Hannah bestowed her parting kisses and graciously bowed goodbye.

The door slammed shut. Rhondelle told Liana to take a shower. Liana wanted to take it tomorrow. Rhondelle told her to get ready for bed. "Can I sleep late?" Liana asked.

As Rhondelle returned to correcting Liana's home-school worksheets, she fretted out loud. Liana dropped onto the couch in her wet bathing suit and pulled a throw over her knees. She updated Rhondelle about Hannah's latest news: she was in the final rounds for a role in a movie with Nicole Kidman. As always, Rhondelle had lots of questions — about that audition, about whether or not Hannah had heard back from the "E.R." casting director who sees only a few girls at a time. But by this point, Liana had learned to both reassure her mother and comfort herself, without bad-mouthing her friend. Teasing out the strands of her blond hair, she said, "They wanted someone who didn't look like Nicole Kidman, so it couldn't be me."

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is the author of "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx." She is at work on a book about comedians.


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