How to Become a Child Actor

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Photo Source: Jasmin Garcia-Verdin

Is your child the class clown? Do they constantly perform for audiences of family members or stuffed animals? Are they the first to volunteer for a part in the school play? If so, you may be the proud parent of a future child star. But even with natural talent, becoming an actor isn’t easy—and it can be even more complicated when you’re a parent overseeing your kid’s burgeoning acting career. With the help of talent managers, casting directors, and other industry professionals who work closely with young performers, we created this in-depth guide to becoming a child actor. We’ll walk you through the basics, like how to find auditions for kids, as well as some of the thornier questions—including how to prepare your child for rejection and the ways in which this decision could affect your whole family.

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How can I tell if my child should be an actor?

It’s not uncommon for kids, at some point, to declare to their parents: “I want to be on TV!” But how can you tell if this is just a passing fancy—or something deeper? There are a few telltale signs that your child’s interest in acting is genuine, according to acting coach Denise Simon. “They’re regularly performing around the house, to real or imaginary audiences,” she says. “They’re talking about movies and plays and asking how they can star in them. When there is a play at school or in the community, they’re the first to volunteer for a ‘big part.’ They sparkle on stage or in front of a classroom, perhaps even getting into trouble for being the class clown. If there is a spotlight anywhere nearby, your child wants to be in it.”

A passion for acting is a key ingredient—but it’s not the only thing a child needs to be ready to act professionally. Here are four ways to tell if your child is ready for a career in Hollywood, according to Backstage Expert Mae Ross: 

  1. Your child is well-behaved. They must be able to act professionally on set alongside adults and other child actors.
  2. Your child is responsible. They’ll likely miss school sometimes for auditions and bookings, so it’s important that they can follow up on what they missed and stay on top of homework. 
  3. You have the time, patience, and energy to assist your child. If you’re successful, you’ll be the central contact person for booking and audition information—and it’s a lot to keep track of!
  4. You and your child are both ready for an adventure. A professional acting career is a journey, and it should be fun for both of you along the way!

At the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone. Do they usually follow through with other new interests or hobbies? How easily do they adapt to change? Can they thrive under pressure and in constantly changing circumstances, or is a regular schedule important to them? How has your child coped with hearing “no” in the past? Most importantly, has your child demonstrated their love for acting more than just about everything else? “Like any business, show business has its challenges and requires commitment and dedication,” says Ross. “If your child truly loves to act, then the amount of work that she needs to put into every audition and role won’t matter. She’ll be having fun!”

What is the best age to start an acting career?

There’s no “best” age for your child to start acting, but you can expect different casting opportunities depending on how old they are. Child actors between the ages of 8 and 11 are typically the most desirable for agents and managers, according to acting coach Denise Simon, since there are so many roles available for this age range—but here’s what you can anticipate with child actors of any age:

  • 0-4 years old: Your baby is adorable, of course. You get stopped on the street asking if you have ever considered putting them in the business. If your little one is personable, separates easily from you, and you are willing to do the schlepping, go for it. You don’t have to spend money on classes or professional photos; snapshots work fine at this age.
  • 5-7 years old: This age group is just grasping the concept of reading, so encourage your young actor to read out loud—but make sure they’re exploring their imagination and having fun, too. An improv class or game-inspired acting class is the way to go at this age, while being careful of over-coaching. 
  • 8-11 years old: Agents and managers love when I recommend an actor ages 8 to 11. His voice is unchanged, he’s disciplined enough for long work hours, he’s reading, he’s not old enough to have developed acne, and he’s still the height of a child. There are a plethora of roles for kids this age in all mediums, and agents are hungry to represent them—especially if they can act!
  • 12-15 years old: Puberty has struck, and your little girl is no longer a child. She may start doubting herself, lacking the easy confidence she had at a younger age. Now is a great time to take classes and master skills beyond her natural ability. Roles are no longer available in theater; she’s too tall to play a kid but not old enough to handle the maturity and skill some roles require. There is still plenty of work in commercials and TV and film. Get experience working in student films and start to build a demo reel.
  • 16-18 years old: Your teen doesn’t need someone to drive him to auditions anymore, but he still needs a tutor and there are working restrictions on set. There are plenty of 18-year-olds who can play younger, and it won’t cost the production company money for tutoring. If your teen wants to further his acting career, this is a great time to study and prepare for college theater auditions—getting into a good program is more competitive than ever.

How do I get my child started in acting?

Every child actor needs four things to start their acting career: headshots, an acting résumé, a demo reel, and audition materials. These are essential parts of an actor’s toolkit at any age, but you’ll approach them differently for kids than you would for adults. 

Headshots: A headshot is an 8x10-inch color photo of your child actor that casting directors will use to decide if they’re right for the part. Especially if you’re just starting out, it’s not necessary to spend money on professional headshots. A high-quality iPhone portrait or candid photo is enough, assuming it was taken recently. “It doesn’t make sense to spend a fortune on kids’ headshots, since they’ll need to be updated frequently,” says Backstage Expert Mary Wheeler. “However, it’s crucial that they reflect how the child currently looks.” Once your child is more experienced, investing in a headshot session with a professional photographer is “essential,” says Backstage Expert Denise Simon. “A headshot is your child’s business card. It is a casting director’s first impression and a way for your performer to get his or her foot in the door.”

Acting résumé: Depending on your child’s age and how long they’ve been acting, their professional credits may be sparse—and that’s okay! Include any school or community theater productions, as well as classes that they’ve taken. The “special skills” section of an acting résumé takes on outsized importance for kids, says Mae Ross, who founded Los Angeles’ 3-2-1 Acting School. “For child actors who don’t have professional credits yet, casting directors and scouting talent agents pay special attention to this category as it gives them info on what the child’s personality is like and what talents they possess, so include a range of information that expresses the personality of your child.” Ross advises listing your child actor’s special skills in this order:

  1. Traditional performance skills: Dancing, singing, instruments, modeling
  2. Sports or physical activities: Soccer, volleyball, hula hooping, bicycling
  3. Hobbies: Camping, cooking, reading, playing with pets
  4. Service and charity: Scouts, mentoring, Sunday school
  5. Personality traits and strengths: Team player, outgoing, quick memorizer, outgoing

Demo reel: A demo reel is a short video compilation of 3-5 clips of your child’s best on-screen performances. Like a professional headshot, a reel isn’t necessary for most child actors in the beginning stages of their career. However, as they gain more on-camera experience, putting together a high-quality demo reel will only boost their chances of getting a part. “[W]hen it’s a larger role, the footage that we have is very important in swaying a director toward hiring the child,” explains T.J. Stein, president of talent management company Stein Entertainment Group. “Studios and networks really like footage.” When you and your child are ready, our in-depth guide will walk you through everything you need to know about demo reels.

Audition materials: Although auditions vary depending on the project, your child should always have two short monologues memorized and ready to perform (plus 16 bars of a song, if they sing). Choosing the right monologue can be daunting, but Ross has some pointers. Monologues should be one minute long, max; she suggests preparing both a comedic and a dramatic monologue to demonstrate range.

Can my child become an actor with no experience?

This is an easy one: yes, your child can definitely become an actor with no prior experience. In fact, it’s a lot easier for kids with short résumés to be cast than it is for adults. “There’s always room for a child actor to be discovered,” says TJ Stein, president of L.A. talent agency Stein Entertainment Group. “That’s why we love Hollywood. There’s a possibility of being cast in a lead role having never worked on a set when you’re a child actor, [which is] much less likely for the adults.” Of course, the more credits your child has under their belt, the better their chances of landing a major role. And while training is helpful for any actor, it’s particularly important for kids that are just getting started—you may want to consider enrolling them in a group class or a workshop (more on that below).

What training do child actors need?

There is no formal training or education required to become a child actor, but young performers have four main options when it comes to honing their craft: weekly group classes, workshops, private coaching, and summer programs. Which one is right for your child will depend on how much time they have each week to devote to training, whether they work best in an individual or group setting, and your family’s budget.

Weekly group classes: Consistency and repetition helps any actor grow, and weekly classes can help build a foundation that is essential for young actors as they work with others. Besides providing a fun space to make friends, group classes reinforce acting basics like listening and reacting, as well as tackling difficult material. “Any time parents ask me for advice, I always advise them to start with an ongoing, age appropriate class,” acting coach Denise Simon notes.

Workshops: There are a variety of workshops available for child actors, including auditions instensives, musical theater bootcamps, and one-day on-camera classes. Workshops are typically expert-led and focus on helping performers elevate a certain area of performance. “What I find most valuable about workshops is the environment pushes a performer to bring their A-game to a group of strangers,” Simon says.

Private coaching: The benefit of private coaching is undivided attention, and the ability to focus on developing specific skills that might otherwise be overlooked in a group class. “One-on-one coaching offers a personalized environment in which a young performer can feel safe and free to express themselves while being propelled to reach personal heights,” Simon says, noting that coaching is particularly important for kids who audition frequently.

Summer programs: Summer is a fantastic time for your child actor to get down to work while their schedule has been freed up. Unfortunately, not all summer programs are right for children working to develop a professional acting career. Jessica R. Grosman, the founder and artistic director of an acting studio for kids and teens, offers a few key indicators of a high-quality summer program:

  • They can provide an hourly breakdown of the day’s schedule; there’s not much down time or time spent on other, more traditional summer camp activities
  • The classes are small and split up by age group
  • The instructors are working actors with past credits

How do I find auditions and casting calls for kids?

The best place to find auditions and casting calls for kids is through an online casting platform like Backstage, at least at first. Once a child actor has secured representation, their agent will have direct connections to casting directors and can submit them for bigger roles with major networks and studios. 

Backstage has been around for more than 60 years and is home to thousands of vetted casting opportunities that are updated daily. These range from smaller projects like student shorts, web series, and regional theater productions to larger Hollywood features and productions on the Broadway stage. These roles are key for child actors to gain experience and acting credits—and eventually land an agent.

Backstage has several subscription options available, although our most popular is the annual web-only subscription. Once you’ve figured out which one best suits your child’s needs, here’s how to use Backstage to find auditions and casting calls for young performers:

  1. Create a personalized talent profile for your child. You can include their acting credits, skills, training, photos, videos, and audio clips. Once your child has a profile, they can be discovered by casting directors, directors, and others searching Backstage’s Talent Database.
  2. Submit to casting calls. It’s easy to find the roles your child might be right for using our customized search. Punch in the age range, location, and the production type you’re looking for, and watch the casting calls appear.
  3. Schedule auditions. Once your child has sent in a submission, you can communicate directly with casting directors and filmmakers through Backstage. Schedule auditions, ask questions, and book the job with our dedicated messaging system.
  4. Choose your child’s audition materials. Backstage’s monologue database, the Monologuer, will become an audition must-have before you know it. Set your filters (including genre, age range, and gender), and you’ll be presented with a number of options that your child can start working on today.
  5. Research agents and managers. Use Backstage’s Call Sheet to find contact info for managers and agents who represent children, as well as acting schools and coaches for kids, and more.

How do I prepare my child for an acting audition?

How you and your child prepare for an audition will depend on the type of project. For theater auditions, there are usually several rounds that involve singing, dancing, and reading lines; for film and TV, your child will be required to memorize a few pages of the script. Here’s what you can expect from three main types of auditions:

  • Theater: There are two types of auditions held in theater: agent appointments and open calls. For an agent appointment, the child will usually receive audition material ahead of time and only has to make an appearance for their specified time slot. For an open call, performers audition on a first-come, first-serve basis without an appointment. Theater auditions have several rounds of auditions, especially for musicals. The first will include singing a 16-32 bar cut of a song and sometimes a dance component. If a child or teen gets a callback, they will perform for a group of people from the production team.
  • Film and television: Open calls are less common for on-screen projects than theater. The bigger projects with major networks and studios require an agent or manager to secure an audition. In advance of a film or TV audition, your child will be given “sides,” or pages from the script. Memorizing them is essential, since the audition will be on-tape. (“If they have their eyes glued to a page, the only thing anyone will be able to see is the top of their heads!” Denise Simon says.)
  • Commercials: Be careful of over-preparing your child, especially for a commercial audition. “I think the biggest mistake most parents make—understandably so—is they try to help too much,” Kim Swanson, a casting director for brands like McDonald’s and Disney, says. “They over-rehearse and direct the kids before arriving, and then we don’t get a genuine kid in the room. It makes it nearly impossible to redirect them.”

What do casting directors look for in child actors?

Whether or not your child actor books the job often depends on the casting director. But what exactly are CDs looking for when it comes to young performers? According to acting coach Denise Simon, there are five main things casting directors are looking when auditioning child actors: 

  1. Naturalness: Acting may be pretend and make-believe, but that does not mean your child should seem fake. In show business, it is important to not be “showbizzy.”
  2. Personality: Acting natural does not mean your child should tone down their personality. In fact, it’s what casting directors are most eager to see! Is your child funny, thoughtful, interesting, quirky? These are all-important pieces of your child that can help a casting director place them in their head as the character for which they are casting.
  3. Professionalism: Acting is fun, but it is also a job. Casting directors want to see that a child they hire will be easy to work with and will bring positive things to a set.
  4. Well-rounded: If your child has skills in other areas, it is to their advantage to continue with them. More importantly, it is another way for casting directors to see all the wonderful parts that make up your child.
  5. Training: A young performer may have a winning look and a great personality, but those will fall short in an audition without proper training. Whether it is through group classes or private coaching, it is essential that young actors build a foundation in the theater arts.

And don’t forget—you’re part of the audition, too. “Many of us who work with children have also worked with ‘parents from hell,’ well-meaning people who are pushy, demanding, or unrealistic about their child’s skills or fit for certain parts,” says New York-based theater director Matt Lenz. “It is a difficult situation for everyone. Be aware that creative teams evaluate parents during auditions as well as the youth. If you are difficult, you may very well cost your child the part he or she so desperately wants.” 

How can I help my child deal with rejection?

If your child is serious about acting, they’ll audition for countless jobs—and be rejected from many of them. As their parent, it will be your job to help them process those feelings in a productive way. Backstage Expert Jessica R. Grosman has a five-point plan for softening the blow of getting turned down for a role:

  1. Explain the odds. The statistics are staggering! It’s been said that it takes 99 commercial auditions to book one job. An actor may hear “no” 98 times before booking that highly coveted commercial role. These are tough odds to deal with, even for the most seasoned actor.
  2. Tell your children the truth about casting. The truth is, being cast in a role may have less to do with an actor’s performance during an audition and more to do with their type, height, hair color, ethnicity, and age. These are all factors beyond an actor’s control. Quite simply, an actor can’t change his or her ethnicity or height. No, not even standing on tippy-toes will land a job that they’re too short for!
  3. Be relatable. Remember the time you were rejected from a club, team, or even college? Sharing your own personal story about rejection can help your child put his or her own disappointment into perspective. Just don’t forget to explain the positive way you were able to get over your rejection!
  4. Ensure your child has varied interests. Variety is the spice of life, right? Take an active role in spicing up your child’s interests by getting them involved in as many different activities as possible. If acting is the only interest your child has, chances are the inevitable rejection your child faces in the acting business will be much more difficult for them to deal with than for a child with numerous interests.
  5. Never criticize your child after an audition. Instead of criticism, ask your child what went well in the audition room and focus on the positive! If you see or hear that your child is not having a great audition, the last thing you want to do is be critical. It is important that your child sees auditioning as an experience that is fun.

Does my child need an acting agent or manager?

Many parents worry that their child won’t work without an agent or manager—but that’s not true, says acting coach Denise Simon. “They will have more auditions available to them with representation, but the most important thing is to not search for an agent or manager until your child is ready,” she explains. “Casting directors really aren’t that interested in if your child has an agent or manager; they’re only interested in whether your child can do the job.”

Also, keep in mind that agents and managers play different roles in an actor’s career. Managers usually have a hand in shaping your child’s career trajectory and looking at the big picture, whereas agents typically submit clients on jobs and secure audition opportunities—handling the more contractual, business aspects of your child’s career. “I usually recommend a manager when a young performer is just starting out or has a career that needs to be managed,” says Simon. “As your child enters the business you will have a lot of questions and concerns. A manager offers support and guidance in the beginning of a professional career. A good manager will communicate with you effectively, help you find reputable photographers, teachers, and coaches, review your photo proofs, push for auditions, and introduce you to potential agents to round out the team.” Sometimes, parents decide to serve as their child’s manager themselves—you can learn more about what that entails in our in-depth guide to managing a child actor

But when is it time to look for an agent? “If your child has been working and getting some good feedback, getting callbacks, getting a job, you’re hearing from industry professionals that your child is marketable and competitive and ready, it’s time to seek out representation,” Simon says. 

How do I find an agent for my child actor?

There are many different paths to find an agent as a child actor—but one of the most common ways to secure representation in a major market is through a showcase. Avoid huge events (sometimes referred to as “talent conventions”) that provide thin training at high prices; the most highly-regarded showcases are hosted by well-respected acting schools and are the culmination of a series of classes. 

Landing an agent is also a matter of research and understanding the rules of the game. For instance, agents in New York City and Los Angeles almost always specialize. Your child needs a youth theatrical agent for TV and film opportunities, and a youth commercial agent if they’re interested in commercial and print. “It’s much easier to sign with a commercial agent, as they will often take anyone with a good look regardless of training or experience,” says Backstage Expert Bonnie J. Wallace. “Theatrical agents have to be choosier. They typically have fewer clients than commercial agents and if they send out actors to audition for casting directors, those actors are expected to be ready to compete professionally.” It will also be close to impossible for your child to sign at one of the major agencies like WME or CAA right off the bat—instead, consider our lists of the best agencies for kids in Los Angeles and New York City.

If you’re in a smaller market outside of New York and Los Angeles, it’s less common for agents to specialize in kids versus adults, or theatrical versus commercial. Also, you may be able to simply send in your child’s materials (headshots, résumé, and a cover letter) to local agents who will be willing to “take a meeting”—that is, see your child audition and consider representing them—rather than going the showcase route. You can use Backstage’s Call Sheet to research agents in your area, in combination with IMDbPro and a good, old-fashioned Google search.

What role should parents play in their child’s acting career?

There are a fair number of parents who end up managing their child’s acting career, at least in the beginning. But that’s far from the only role you’ll play in their career. “As the parent of a professional child actor, you will be taking on new responsibilities,” explains Backstage Expert Mae Ross. “You must make sure that you have the time and willingness to take your child to and from auditions and bookings, and to communicate with professionals in the industry. Also, of course, it’s important that you be your child’s cheerleader every step of the way! She will likely eventually have an entire professional team—agent, manager, publicist, lawyer—and you will be the central contact person for all booking and audition notifications.”

If your child has a 6 a.m. call time to set, guess who also has a 6 a.m. call time to set? It’s not just your kid’s social and personal life that will be impacted by each new project—it’s yours, as well. It’s vital to pay attention to your own well-being so you can continue to be the best version of yourself for your child. “You make sure your kids are staying active. Give yourself the same gift,” says acting coach Denise Simon. “If you don’t have time for a gym membership, carve out time to walk, take an exercise class, dance or practice yoga.”

In keeping with self-care, if you’re feeling isolated or overwhelmed, remember that you are not in this by yourself. Asking for help is only going to benefit you, your child, and your child’s career. “Being the parent of a child actor is challenging. But you don’t have to go it alone,” Simon adds. “Talk to a life coach, therapist, or gather together with other parents who can offer support. When you find yourself feeling anxious, unable to sleep, exhausted or cranky, it’s time to reach out and talk to someone who understands.”

How much does it cost to be a child actor?

We won’t sugarcoat it: It costs a lot to be a professional child actor. On average, parents are spending anywhere from $25,000-36,000 per year to keep their children competitive in the business. “Is it the only way to break into the industry? Not necessarily,” says acting coach Denise Simon. “I have clients on all ends of the financial spectrum.” Here is her breakdown of the typical costs associated with a child actor’s career

Training: Private coaching, group classes, and workshop intensives run between $4,000 and $8,000 per year for a professional child actor. Vocal lessons average $5,000 per year for children who sing. Most child actors also have dance on their résumés, and dance lessons and recital costs can exceed $3,000 per year.

Portfolio: Professional headshots average about $375 per shoot and must be updated every six to 12 months. One family Simon works with spends about $2,200 per year on self-taping for remote auditions—they average four tapes per month, and four per week during pilot season. These costs can be reduced if you handle the headshots and self-tapes on your own, although a professional touch can be a helpful boost to your child’s submission.

Transportation and living expenses: One of her out-of-town clients spent approximately $3,500 per month on a one-bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan while her child was in a Broadway show. Another chose to commute to the city—the combined cost of parking, E-ZPass fees, tickets/towing, gas, and car maintenance came out to $10,000. Transportation and living expenses can be the biggest drain on a family with a child actor.

Childcare: Assuming your aspiring actor isn’t an only child, you’ll need to factor in the cost of childcare for your other kids. This can range from hourly babysitting costs to a full-time nanny’s salary. 

Schooling: If your child auditions regularly and works often, public school may not be the best option—teachers can bristle at excessive absences, and it can be difficult to keep up with coursework. If you need alternative education for your child, fees can range from $4,000 per year for online home-schooling to $35,000 per year for private school.

Business fees: If your child is in the union, they will pay a $3,000 initiation fee; the average dues for SAG-AFTRA and AEA are about $150 each. The unions also take a percentage of total yearly earnings, 1.575 percent and 2.25 percent, respectively. Agents take a 10 percent commission on all jobs booked through their services, and managers generally take 15 percent. And don’t forget the accounting and legal fees you may incur, which vary from state to state.

What are the best schooling options for child actors?

For working child actors, public school isn’t always the best option. It can be difficult to keep up with coursework if they often miss class for auditions, particularly if they don’t have a sympathetic teacher or principal. But there are a number of alternative schooling methods available for kids pursuing acting, including accredited online programs, homeschooling, professional children’s school, and on-set tutoring.  

  • Online programs and homeschooling: There are several online homeschool programs that satisfy state and district requirements, including Calvert Education and Connections Academy. The pros are that you and your child can do school on your own schedule; one drawback is that your kids must be disciplined and self-motivated for homeschooling to be most effective.  
  • Professional children’s school: This category is divided into two types of schools. On the one hand there are professional children's schools that teach the core subjects like English, math, and history—but also focus heavily on the arts, including dance, acting, musical theater, and singing. These schools are amazing, but many of them have “no audition” policies, meaning that their students are prohibited from auditioning for professional projects during the school year. The second type is a school for professional children. These programs focus on children with professional careers (actors, dancers, athletes) who miss a lot of school due to other commitments.
  • On-set tutoring: If your child has a consistent gig, acting coach Denise Simon notes that on-set tutoring is another option. According to SAG-AFTRA, if a minor is guaranteed three or more consecutive days of employment, the production company is responsible for providing the young performer with a tutor.

What are the upsides (and downsides) of being a child actor?

Acting can have a lasting impact on your child, whether or not they remain in the industry. “Kids in the business learn ownership and responsibility at a much younger age than people who enter the workforce in their late teens,” explains Jackie Reid, a Backstage Expert and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited talent management company. In addition to a strengthened work ethic, an acting career will also instill a penchant for adaptability. “Any kid who has been in the business knows that things can change by the minute,” she adds. “One minute you can be in school and the next you might be pulled out to get to an audition.…There are endless examples that I give to show that these kids are not thrown off by changes, but rather they embrace them and go with the flow. As an adult, this is such a valuable resource to have within you—to be unflappable.”

But don’t forget that this will change your entire family’s life, not just your child who is pursuing a career. “Be aware that when your child or teen is cast in a production, it requires a commitment from the entire family,” acting coach and Backstage Expert Denise Simon warns. “There are long hours of rehearsals, travel, and coordination with school and other activities. Your child may need to give up sports or time with friends to honor their commitment to the production.”

Establishing a sense of normalcy is key to maintaining a healthy environment at home. Remember that acting isn’t everything; devote family time specifically to non-acting activities. “The neat thing in all of this is how acting is just part of the daily routine, and the sweet parental awareness of the delicate balancing act it is,” Reid says. “It is easy to get totally immersed in the daily acting activities, but make sure you help them to take time out and include family things in your weekly rhythms. Don’t forget the family vacation away from acting. You and your kids have earned the break!”

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
See full bio and articles here!

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