Is getting to the A-list the same as it’s always been? Would Jennifer Lawrence have skyrocketed to the top of Hollywood in the same way if she’d started out 20 years ago?
J.Law? Please. She would’ve conquered the biz in any era. She could’ve shown up in the 3rd century BC proto-Hollywood, driving a herd of Hannibal-style war elephants, and the people living here would probably have invented Beverly Hills, Dior, and cameras just for her.
All that said, the olden days of studio-made stars discovered at soda fountains — if such legends ever really existed — are definitely gone. In fact, after interviewing scads of casting directors, agents, publicists, entertainment attorneys, and actors, my conclusion is painfully clear: In 2014, it’s harder than ever to become a star — that is, if you’ve haven’t been in the acting game since you were a fetus.
Today, managers tell me, the folks with the best shot at the A-list start off young. Younger than the traditional legions of 20somethings who show up in Los Angeles hoping to wait tables and get discovered. Perhaps even younger than, say, Julia Roberts was when she landed her first roles, at age 20, or Brad Pitt or Clint Eastwood, both of whom got their first solid gigs at age 24. In fact, nowadays, when it comes to becoming the next J.Law or Mila Kunis or Kristen Stewart, we’re usually talking about people who have played the showbiz game for a good decade before they were even able to legally drive.
Jennifer Lawrence? She was shopping for agents by the time she was 14 and was a pro by 17.
Mila Kunis? Landed That '70s Show while she was in high school.
And Kristen Stewart? Put it this way. She’s been a bona-fide megastar for seven years. And she’s currently 24. Do the math.
Sure, showbiz has always had child stars who have made successful transitions — Ron Howard, Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, Liz Taylor. And for every dozen child stars-turned-A-listers, there's a 31-year-old Lupita Nyong'o, who worked as a production assistant before getting her pivotal 12 Years a Slave role; she was pursuing a master's degree at Yale at the time.
But the sheer number of current A-listers who started as kids marks a big change from just a few decades ago, says agent Susie Mains, who has discovered and nurtured the careers of Tobey Maguire, Seth Green, Adam Brody, and Brian Austin Green.
"Once, people would have been willing to take a chance on someone starting out older — 18, 19, 20, if they thought they had star quality,” Mains tells me. "But now there are just so many actors out there, it's difficult when people come to me older than that.
"I have had four kid actors to come back to me after taking a break to do things — college, creating that traditional backup plan. But by then, there's nothing you can do for them."
Let's not exaggerate the phenomenon, here. Plenty of 21st-century actors find fulfilling work in adulthood. Los Angeles actress Sean Serino, who declined to state her age, is, nonetheless, not her teens or even her 20s, and yet still regularly auditions for major pilots while nabbing commercial work and — yes — making extra money as a bartender or waitress. She says the big hurdle for her peers isn't age, necessarily, but rather marketability.
"I've been told that one of the Big 3 agencies won't even represent you if you don't have branding potential," she says. "It's not good enough to have had the lead in a big-budget movie if you can't cross over into other markets, like music or sports."
Former arena football athlete Adam Byrd says he's only been trying his hand at actor for three years, but during that time has gotten 13 commercial jobs. "I've given it all I've got because I'm very hungry," he tells me. "But I know I've been very blessed."
And, of course, we always hear stories about folks like Phyllis Smith, who, in middle age, was working as a casting associate when she herself got a custom-built role in the NBC sitcom The Office.
"Jonah Hill he got started not as a child star, but was writing and performing plays in New York when he got seen by Dustin Hoffman," says casting director Lisa London, author of the book From Start to Stardom. "That led to Hill getting cast in I Heart Huckabees. I don't have the point of view that you're not going to make it unless you start as a child."
But even as we hear these stories, it's clear that the world is changing for actors, especially those hoping to shoot to the very top — walk an Oscars red carpet, land a luxury beauty endorsement, command $10 million a film.
For one, film financing has shrunk, leaving moviemakers leery of taking a chance on an unknown.
Entertainment attorney Dan Grigsby puts it this way: "More and more and more studios are reducing their risks and financing only a few films a year" — tentpoles that require marquis names above the title, not promising nobodies.
Meanwhile, heavyweights ranging from Matthew McConaughey to Kevin Spacey have migrated to television, a realm that, a generation or two ago, was considered the exclusive nursery of budding or B-list actors.
"The people doing those TV roles are not the bread and butter actors anymore," Mains tells me.
And, as the cost of living in Los Angeles has increased, pay for certain acting jobs has actually decreased. And it just so happens that those jobs are the ones crucial for actors on the cusp — indie films with very low budgets. Think of the work that Brad Pitt did before being discovered in Thelma and Louise.
"He paid his dues in stuff that people didn't really see before Thelma and Louise," entertainment attorney Irwin Feinberg points out.
But in 2014, future Brad Pitts seeking those dues-paying roles had better have a deep savings account, says manager Kate Romero of Stellar Angel Talent.
"The pay for those types of films used to be around $800 a day to start," Romero tells me. Then, after 9/11 and the economic downturn, the Screen Actors Guild authorized a new pay scale for ultra-low-budget films: $100 a day, unless the film gets distribution.
"The young budding actors still have to do these roles," Romero says. But plenty of them can’t afford to work at such a low rate. So actors who would have remained in the industry drop out. Or, with luck, find a parent to support them until they get that first Oscar nomination.
And so the road to the A-list becomes just a little bit rougher.
All this said, industry insiders insist that budding actors can be plenty successful — if not A-listers — if they’re willing to adapt.
Casting director Bonnie Gillespie says that the future belongs to actors who build their own brands instead of relying on a CAA or William Morris Endeavor agency to do it for them.
"With online services like Actors Access, actors can submit themselves directly for roles without the agent," she notes. "And they are. They're also creating their own content online, using that to build a fan base.
"But actors hoping they can just sign with the power agent are finding it frustrating, because nowadays, they have to get out create content to show the buyers what they can do."
Of course, it also doesn't hurt to be a kid… or a 20-year-old who already has millions of fans thanks to starting off as a kid.
"These days, you almost have to age backwards just to get into the pool of actors able to get onto a short list" for a major role, Mains tells me. "The show Friends would never get made now — because they were all unknowns."
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Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.
Check out this video where Kirsten Dunst talks about transitioning from child star to adult star: