Talent agent gives tips on how to turn your kid into a movie star

Finding that amazing child actor star is incredibly rare.

Jayson Marshall, a talent agent based in southern Alberta, has had some luck. Each week, he sees 20 pitches from parents — all of whom hope their kid will be the next Dakota Fanning.

He encourages families to think about acting as an option for precocious, fun-loving kids who thrived in the school play. But be warned: breaking into the film and TV industry means a lot of work, including for talent agents trying to spot the next big kid star.

"It takes a lot. They're a diamond in the rough. I mean, there's one in thousands to make it," Marshall told the Calgary Eyeopener. "You might find one every 10 years."

Marshall works in Calgary and Vancouver with the Characters Talent Agency. He's found a few special child actors in his 25-year career, including Maddie-Dixon Poirier, 13. Born in Vancouver, she now stars in Hit the Road, a comedic TV series. She also appeared in the first season of Fargo, shot in and around Calgary.

Marshall is speaking on a film fest panel Tuesday about how to kick-start your kid's dream of working in film.

The discussion, Kids Up Front: Child Actors on Screen, is part of the Calgary International Film Festival. Admission is free and it starts at 5:30 p.m. at the Eau Claire Market Cinemas.

Marshall, who is based in Strathmore, will walk you through how to find opportunities and an agent, how casting works and even how to record an audition at home. He'll be joined by child actors Aidan Fink of Supergirl and Lennox Beganovic, who recently joined Heartland.

Ahead of the presentation, Marshall gave a few tips to Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray. Here's a condensed version of their conversation about what it take to be a star-worthy child actor.

Q: How do you know when you found one?

A: There's something about them that just sparks. I mean, it's talent in front of you. It's raw talent that you just automatically … hair stands up on the back of your neck and you just like, wow.

Q: You can see that in a 10-year-old?

A: Hard to explain unless you see it first-hand. But yeah, I mean, there's something special about a couple kids that I found and it's something worth continuing. It's not for everybody.

Q: Is it natural talent at that age or is it training or is it a combination?

A: I think it's a combination of both. I mean, it depends on what parents get their kids into as far as dance, singing, so forth. But really, there's a natural ability that comes through some kids that, just no matter how much training you have, it just doesn't come through in others.

Q: Does every kid need acting lessons if they want to pursue this career?

A: Eventually, yeah.

Q: Because we should point out, it's not just sparkle and smile. There's work involved in this, right?

A: There's a lot of work. Once you've surpassed and made it to that point where you're actually on set, that's when the work begins. And if you're under 12, you're there for under eight hours. That's it, that's all they can keep you there. If you're 12, they can keep you there about 10 hours, and once you're 18, they can keep you there as long as they want.

Q: What are you doing in all those hours? What does the work component consist of?

A: I can compare it a little to the military because I've been in both. It's hurry up and wait to get everything set up. It's much like production in film, radio, TV, everything else. There's a lot of set up behind the scenes, a lot of money involved, so when they're ready to say action, you have to be prepared to deliver.

We got lights set up, cameras set up, money going out. You know, it's costing a lot of money to produce these shows.

Q: So what's an audition like?

A: It's nerve wracking. I've been doing this for over 25 years and I started off as an actor. You walk into the room, you're totally prepared, you've got your lines down, you're standing there in front of the casting director and the camera and a reader, and you're ready to deliver your lines.

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And then all of a sudden, you're breaking out into a sweat and you forget everything that you learned going in.

It can be really nerve wracking but that's why once you've got that special person that it just kind of starts to flow and they get it and the camera doesn't mean anything to them.

Q: How clear is the ask? If a job comes up, is it very clear we want 10-year-old girl with blond hair, green eyes or whatever the case may be?

A: A lot of times for kids, they're trying to match families and siblings, so it's really a lot of, "Are you the same height as this family? Can we match an eight, 12, 14-year-old teen family kind of thing."

Q: From a parent's point of view, you can understand the reluctance at times. Some parents obviously, "Whoa, we really want our son to be our star, or daughter." But it sounds like you're training your child for years of crushing disappointment. Is that really what you want to be doing?

A: There's truth to that. There's a lot of no, no, no, before you actually hear the first yes. So if you're the type of person that can't handle rejection, don't go into this business. It's very disheartening in some cases.

Q: How tangible are the benefits?

A: Very. I mean, if it's a studio network show, like CBS, ABC, NBC, you know, and you've never had a job before, it's your first job, you don't have any quotes prior to this, I mean you could be looking at a $20,000 an episode US. An episode takes less than a week to film.

Q: Realistically, how many child actors go on to make a career of it?

A: Oh boy. I mean, look at Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster. They're not like a dime a dozen. They're few and far between, but I say, there's some really great child actors that went on to become big actors.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.