A Star Is Born

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David Alvarez, 15; Trent Kowalik, 14; Kiril Kulish, 15
Collectively they're known as "the Billys," but individually one of them spends three hours on the stage each night dancing his heart out as the little Geordie who could in Broadway's "Billy Elliot: The Musical." (In February the musical added Tommy Batchelor, making a fourth, but only Alvarez, Kulish, and Kowalik were eligible to make history by jointly earning a Tony for their role—which they did this year.) They're three remarkable boys, dedicated to dance since they could practically walk (Canadian Alvarez has already danced at the Kennedy Center and Metropolitan Opera House; Kulish is a Latin Ballroom National Champion; Kowalik is an Irish Dancing World Champion) and all are only good in their parts until their hormones kick in and voices crack (the character of Billy is 11), after which they'll be replaced. "It's hard putting everything together—the singing, the dancing, the acting, the acrobatics and talking with a Geordie accent on top of that," Kulish says. "It's quite difficult to get through the show if you don't have enough stamina." They've become good friends, says Alvarez, whose family relocated to New Jersey a few years before he started playing Billy: "We go to the park and play around. We just want to have fun normally," he says. As for the future, all three have been bit by the acting bug—but don't expect them to hang up their dancing shoes, ever. "I want to continue to do everything I do," Kowalik says. "You have to never give up and just do what you love to do."

Asa Butterfield, 12
Making a splash in Hollywood from a distance of 5,400 miles away takes some doing, but the British-born Butterfield did just that with his performance as the lead in 2008's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." "It was really hard," Butterfield recalls of the nine-hour days he spent shooting, but adds brightly, "our hotel was very nice." And he got excellent tips on the set from fellow actors, such as: "Don't stand up if you can sit down, and don't sit down if you can lie down." Good training for the rigors of acting, which Butterfield has been doing since he was 7. Recently he's landed plum roles opposite vets like Anthony Hopkins (Universal's "The Wolfman") and Emma Thompson (Universal's "Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang"). And he has his own words of wisdom to offer to young thesps with aspirations of being in the business: "Work hard, just do your best."

Danielle Campbell, 14
If her handlers have any say in the matter, Campbell is the next Miley Cyrus. Grains of salt taken, the actress does have a Disney development deal and will star in the Mouse House's original TV film "Starstruck." That'll be a change from her multiple "Prison Break" appearances (the show was her first TV role), though Campbell does enjoy films where stuff just blows up: "I love 'Transformers' movies, because they're funny and have action," she says. "I'd love to be a Megan Fox." Campbell was discovered in classic Hollywood fashion: While getting her hair cut in Chicago. "You need to make characters your own," she says. "You want to be the character. And keep following your dream. I know that's a cheesy line…but it's so true."

Jake Cherry, 13
There's no big deal to having recently turned 13, according to Cherry—except that now "I actually get to go to PG-13 movies without mom," he says, which means he should be able to attend his own flicks—which most significantly include 2006's "Night at the Museum" and its 2009 sequel. Cherry followed in the family footsteps at the age of 2 (his older brother was an actor; today, his younger brother Andrew is following right behind him, and the two worked together on the Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle "The Rebound," coming out next year). "Sometimes I help [Andrew] with sides," says Cherry, then laughs, "and sometimes I'll help him for five bucks." He credits his first-grade teacher with sharing the wisdom that helps him land parts in films like next year's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice": "She taught me to read with enthusiasm and vigor, and become a character while I read. Reading helps you become a better actor."

Lucas Cruikshank, 16
Cruikshank isn't your typical Hollywood child star. He never had a pushy parent, has just one TV appearance (on Nickelodeon's "iCarly") and two films that aren't even out to his credit. What he does have is his own YouTube channel with millions of fans, thanks to the original Web series "Fred" he created, in which he portrays a hyper 6-year-old dealing with somewhat grown-up problems. It got him noticed in Hollywood, where a film about Fred is being made; the Nebraskan will also star in 2010's "Emo Boy." "It's really changed my life," he says. "I'm able to do things I've only dreamed of doing." That said, Cruikshank admits, playing a 6-year-old gets vaguely creepy the older he gets: "I definitely don't want to be Fred forever — people aren't going to want to see me at 20 doing Fred."

Hutch Dano, 17
Dano may not be related to fellow thesps Paul or Linda Dano, but he does have acting in his blood (his grandparents and father). The genetic acting bug bit when he was young, but Dano didn't make the big-time jump until landing a co-starring role on Disney XD's summer skateboarding debut, "Zeke and Luther." He'll also portray the classic character Henry Huggins in next year's "Ramona and Beezus." "Playing someone else is like a vacation for me," he says. "When they say 'action,' I'm no longer me — 'action' is like a trigger word." Dano says he solicits advice from actors, and then asks them to write their thoughts in a book he carries; Josh Brolin wrote simply: "Persistence." Dano agrees: "Hollywood is a moving train, and you have to keep running after it."

Jodelle Ferland, 15
With credits like 2004's "Kingdom Hospital," 2006's "Silent Hill" and the forthcoming "The Cabin in the Woods," Ferland seems attracted to the dark side. She's not like that…mostly: "I'm not that scary, but I can be if I want to," she promises, recalling how she made people scream in a haunted house with a fake knife protruding from her back. "Apparently I'm good at it," she adds. That's probably what attracted casting directors, who hired her to play Bree in 2010's "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse." Although "Twilight" is a personal coup, the Canadian actress, who got started at age 2, says she'd "love to be in one of the 'Harry Potter' movies." But, she admits, the business "is not as easy as it looks. Some people can't look past the glamour." Not when it comes with a knife in the back, anyway.

Keir Gilchrist, 17
Getting under the skin of a character is a challenge no matter what age, but for Gilchrist, he's had to dig a little deeper, playing the son of the titular character on Showtime's "The United States of Tara." "I'm really glad I can play an openly gay character," he says, "because it probably feels lonely to watch TV every day and never see anyone like you." He's passionate about his work and is aware that after the teen years, real skill is needed: "After a while you're not cute anymore, and if all you've ever done is play a cute little kid, there's no work for you." Upcoming projects include "George Ryga's Hungry Hills," an indie film Gilchrist recalls best for it being so remote—"no phone service, no Internet, and it was snowing and raining every day." Should make the day job a breeze.

Mark Indelicato, 15 (pictured above)
The show he's on is called "Ugly Betty" (ABC) but there's no question that Indelicato's role as Betty's flamboyant young nephew has been a major contributor to the show's tone and appeal. Having just a few theater credits and other small roles before landing "Betty" at 11, Indelicato has grown up on the show. "It's been a crazy few years," admits the Pennsylvania native, who liked that he could have a career at such a young age: "You can't be a police officer when you're 7, but you can be an actor," he says. Earlier this year Indelicato realized at least part of a dream—performing on Broadway, though these were just benefit performances. He's hoping to land a full-time role in the future. "I have time to grow," he says, "and it's great that I'm getting to do this at 15. I hope it lasts forever—but if it doesn't, I had a great time while it lasted."

Joey King, 10
No one is more enthusiastic than King, who just got her ears pierced for her 10th birthday: "That is absolutely right," she'll say firmly, instead of just "yes." Button-cute, it's hard to imagine her as the scrappy Ramona Quimby of kids' books—but that's exactly who she'll play in the 2010 adaptation of "Ramona and Beezus." "Ramona is messy, but messy cute," King says. "And I actually wear outfits like she does." Working since she was 5, King has appeared on CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and HBO's "Entourage"; in addition to "Ramona" next year she'll also appear in the shoot 'em up "Battlefield: Los Angeles." Her elder sisters Kelli and Haley also act, but she swears there's no competition: "They're so supportive if I get a job. They say, 'This is awesome!' " says King, who would love to work with Queen Latifah or Drew Barrymore. "You can't ever have a bad audition," says the young philosopher. "There's always another job waiting for you."

Nathan Kress, 17
"iCarly" is slowly winding down, and for co-star Kress, it comes at an opportune time: "We've definitely grown up since it started," he says. "I've grown about 7 inches and my voice has gone down an octave and a half." Working on a show since 2005 that can rack up more than 40 episodes in a single season means Kress hasn't had much time for non-Nick projects, though. He started in print and voiceovers as a toddler but took a break and returned to the industry in fifth grade. Since then, he's racked up an impressive number of credits, and over the years "learned to have a thick skin," which he says anyone wanting entrée to the biz should develop. As for post-"iCarly," Kress isn't sure what he'll do next professionally, though his personal life should improve: "Being a teenager, I've had to make some sacrifices when it comes to having a social life."

Bailee Madison, 10
She's jetlagged from a long jaunt Down Under, shooting Guillermo del Toro's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" with Katie Holmes, but Madison is cheerful. "Guillermo is such a sweet guy," she recalls, adding that Holmes "was like a second mother." She appeared with her actual mother in commercials as a toddler, and by 6 knew this was the life for her: "It's challenging to have to put your feet in somebody else's shoes," she says. A break came with 2007's "Bridge to Terabithia," and she'll also appear in the upcoming Lionsgate picture "Brothers." But given a choice, she'd have played the role of Taylor Swift Fan No. 1, defending her idol's honor at the recent VMAs. "I have her posters all over my room," she says. "If I had a chance to meet her, I would drop over dead."

Hailey McCann, 13; Tatum McCann, 10
Working since they were toddlers, sister act Hailey and Tatum McCann hit big this year with a shared role: As Alba, the titular character's daughter, in New Line's "The Time Traveler's Wife." "It was cool getting to hang with (Tatum) on set, to see how she takes direction, and how I take direction," recalls Hailey, who inadvertently propelled her younger sister into the biz — a commercial she was in caught the then-4-year-old Tatum's eye, and she found her calling in life. Since then they've had guest appearances on TV series, and Tatum had a recurring role in CBS' short-lived "Smith." Ideal jobs include a stint on "iCarly" for Tatum, and "a crazy murderer" role for Hailey, "just to see if I could pull it off." Both agree that newcomers need to stick with it, and be happy: "It takes a lot of hard work and dedication," Tatum advises. "And being able to memorize a lot of lines."

Jennette McCurdy, 17
There's almost too much talent going for one person in McCurdy, who not only appears on "iCarly," but also signed with Capitol Records Nashville in June. "It's kind of mind-blowing," she admits. McCurdy got into the business at age 9, but when success didn't happen overnight, at 11 she used Google and found a manager. Singing was just something she did to pass the time on long car rides from Orange County to L.A. for "iCarly," but one day she recalls saying to her mother, "Wouldn't it be funny if the whole reason I started acting was so I could sing, too?" And so, Chapter 2 began. "iCarly" may be ending in the near future, but McCurdy is already set for her album, and tour, hopefully in 2010. But don't ask her to choose between her passions. "It's like having two kids," she says. "I like both equally. I hope to be an entertainer in general."

Bridgit Mendler, 16
"Being on a Disney show is pretty much every girl's dream," gushes Mendler, who has grabbed that very brass ring. She's actually had it for a while, guesting on "Wizards of Waverly Place," but now she'll take center stage as the star of the upcoming original series "Good Luck Charlie." Mendler first got starry-eyed at 8, when her family moved from outside Washington to California, and began working in plays. An early role on "General Hospital" had her leapfrogging around from show to show until she found her prince at Disney — and now she's even sung with the Jonas Brothers on an episode of "Jonas." "I was pretty star struck, I'm not going to lie!" Mendler says. But that appearance also opened another door — now she plays guitar and writes songs. "I hope I can do something musically that's true to myself," she says.

Daryl Sabara, 17
He's been Murphy Brown's baby (shared with his twin brother) and he's been a ballet dancer, but Sabara is most recognizable from his "Spy Kid" days. Since that film trilogy ended in 2003, Sabara has grown up and will appear in features this year as disparate as Disney's "A Christmas Carol," Universal's "It's Complicated" and 2010's "Machete." His twin Evan, however, left the biz. "He said, 'I'm good, I'm ready to be normal.' Which I appreciate, because it's my job, but I don't want to eat, sleep, breathe industry. I really enjoy being a regular kid," Sabara says. As for his dream roles, Sabara says he'd love to play Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit" or Moritz in "Spring Awakening." "I do this because I really want to be an actor," he says. "You have to follow your heart and make sure you're doing it for the right reasons."

Yara Shahidi, 9
Family is everything in Shahidi's world: Over the years she's worked alongside her mother and brother, and in 2010 she and her sibling will appear as Samuel L. Jackson's children in Senator Distribution's "Unthinkable." But she had her solo breakout this year, as the lively star of Eddie Murphy's "Imagine That," and she'll do the same next year in the Angelina Jolie vehicle "Salt," for Columbia. The Iranian-African-American actress hails from Minnesota (she left at 4 but still misses the snow), but happily goes back every year. There's "no part" of acting she doesn't like, and says she's learned a lot from watching her mother, with a few tips from Murphy thrown in. Her philosophy on making it in the business is "just be yourself. Don't have two different people in one body, just be yourself!"

Kiernan Shipka, 9
While many actresses her age are juggling scripts about boys and bands, Shipka is dealing with real-life problems, 1960s style, as the Drapers' daughter on the very adult, Emmy-winning AMC drama "Mad Men." The ability to hold her own amid grown-ups has served her well in her career, which began with commercials at age 6, followed by guest roles on USA Network's "Monk" and NBC's "Heroes," among others. She's clear on the stars she'd like to act opposite: Meryl Streep, Drew Barrymore and Tom Hanks. "Some people are better at comedic acting because they have a great sense of humor, and some people have a deep soul so they're good drama actors," she says. Upcoming she'll be drawing on that sense of humor more, with the releases of Echelon Entertainment's "House Broken" and Warner Bros.' "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore."

Bobb'e J. Thompson, 13
Getting called a "smart aleck" by the national press doesn't faze Thompson, who has more than enough composure to go around. Besides, the star of his own show (Cartoon Network's first live-action reality series, "Bobb'e Says"), which is No. 1 in its target demo of boys 6-11 — and who will potentially have a primetime comedy series developed around him via Sony, knows better: "I'm just a sweet little kid," he says. This year his credits included features ("Imagine That," "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"), television (ABC's "In the Motherhood") and music (he sings and dances on the video "JammX Kids: Can't Dance Don't Want To"). He's taken advice from Tracy Morgan "about my comedic timing, and how not to overdo a joke," and praise from hero Denzel Washington, but Thompson has his own advice for those coming up in the business: "Stay humble. Be a great role model."

Ariel Winter, 12
Despite her tender years, Winter has already amassed an impressive list of credits, including her regular role on ABC's new "Modern Family" and features like 2008's "Speed Racer." At age 4 she was literally banging her head on the TV set to get in with "Dora the Explorer"; mom found a less painful outlet. "It's awesome that you don't have to wait for Halloween to get to be someone other than you," Winter gushes. Other projects upcoming include the 2011 Eddie Murphy-led "A Thousand Words" and this year's "Duress." "You need to make sure you love this and don't just do it for fame or money," she says. But casting directors note — she's out for blood — of a certain kind, and even wrote a song about vampires. "I would love to be a young vampire," she says. "Random people tell me I resemble ('Twilight's') Robert Pattinson."

This story originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.

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