Hollywood Kids: How Do Young Actors Deal With Sexy, Violent Roles?
After watching his mother die on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Carl Grimes says his goodbyes and then shoots her in the head to ensure she won’t come back as a zombie. Actor Chandler Riggs was 12 at the time he played the role.
As entertainment continues to push the envelope, pundits debate how to protect the kids who watch. But what about the young actors involved in telling these increasingly extreme stories? How does the industry protect them when they are called upon to perform scenes that involve violence, sexuality and other mature content?
In the adult-oriented comicbook adaptation “Kick-Ass,” the film’s most foul-mouthed and ruthless character is a prepubescent crimefighter named Hit Girl, who delivers the line, “Okay, you c—s, let’s see what you can do now!” Chloe Grace Moretz was 11 when she shot the part, and 15 for the sequel, which opens next month.
This year’s Cannes film festival was full of international pics featuring young characters in edgy situations. In Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” teenage actress Adele Exarchopoulos plays a 15-year-old student who experiences her first lesbian sexual experiences with an older woman. And Mexican drug-war drama “Heli” stirred controversy over a scene that depicts kids participating in a horrific torture sequence that ends with a teen drug dealer’s private parts being lit on fire.
Onstage, 13-year-old Brighid Fleming played a provocative role in the Center Theater Group production of “The Nether,” which takes place in a virtual world where real adults manipulate a teenage girl avatar. The play implies that she is a sexual object for older men and features a scene in which she is murdered with an ax — an ordeal repeated night after night for the duration of the show’s run.
According to professionals, the first thing the public must understand is that the children are acting: What they experience on-set is far different from what their characters appear to go through onscreen, heightened for viewers’ sake by body doubles, editing and other filmmaking tricks.
“You either believe it or you don’t,” says Paul Petersen, the former “Donna Reed Show” regular who founded nonprofit org A Minor Consideration to help counsel young performers about the pitfalls of celebrity (which extend to objectification offscreen, he says). “I once played a young boy in the Ford (Television) Theater where I witnessed my father hanged by the neck until dead. The impact on me as a developing child … it affected me like it really happened.”
Others insist that whatever their age, actors understand how to separate make-believe from real life, arguing that it’s not the content of the performances but the context in which the actors are raised that matters, with parents being the most important factor. As one insider put it, “You have someone like Lindsay Lohan who made ‘The Parent Trap,’ and she ends up a messed-up drug addict. And you have someone like Jodie Foster, who played a drug addict and ends up just fine.”
Tough Enough to Take It
In the case of Moretz, who also plays the title role in Stephen King remake “Carrie” this fall, those who work with the actress describe her as being unusually comfortable around tough material. Moretz started acting in 2001 and shot “The Amityville Horror” at age 6. On set, she is supported by her mother, older brother Trevor (who exec produced “Kick-Ass 2” and doubles as her acting coach) and longtime teacher Sissie Torrance.