Guest Post by Justin Radley- President of the Commercial Casting Directors Association (CCDA) and co-founder of Camera Left / Stage Right, which offers improv classes and commercial audition classes for kids and teens.
As someone who has been working in casting for more than 20 years, I thought I knew everything there is to know about the process. I had an eye-opening experience, however, when my 10-year-old son shot his first commercial. On the day of the shoot I had to work, but my wife was able to rearrange her work schedule in order to take him to set. My wife is not an actress. She had never been on a set before, so she was more nervous about the day than my son was. I did everything I could think of to calm her nerves. The day before the shoot I reassured her that everything would run smoothly, and I briefed both her and my son about what to expect on set. I put together a folder that had my son’s work permit and Coogan Account information. I included the map to the location and even highlighted important information on the call-sheet, like parking instructions and the production supervisor’s cell number. My son had a late morning call-time, so they wouldn’t have to get up too early or fight rush-hour traffic to make it to the location. I was confident that things would run as smoothly as I claimed they would. But then my phone buzzed. It was a text from my wife.
"He’s supposed to have a passport."
Passport? I double-checked the email from production. They had sent a reminder to bring the work permit and Coogan info, but there was no mention of a passport. I’ve been reminding kids’ agents and parents about Coogan Accounts and work permits for years, but I’ve never told anyone to bring a passport unless they were traveling out of the country. Last I checked you don’t need a passport to go to Eagle Rock.
"Do I need to bring it?"
"I can run it out there if needed."
"Nobody mentioned passport."
No response. I called Children in Film. They’re my go-to resource for any matters involving kids working in the entertainment industry. They backed me up on this one. No passport required. Ha! I knew it. I figured it was some P.A. who didn’t really know what he was doing.
"Passport is not necessary!"
"I had a student ID. That will work temporarily."
"Whoever is asking is wrong."
I sent that last text with confidence.
"Need his social for all this paperwork."
His social? It’s got to be in the folder of paperwork I gave her. I mean, it has his work permit and Coogan Account info, but, hmmm… I don’t recall anyone putting his social security number on any of those. Uh-oh.
"Where can I find it?"
"My binder on my desk"
I left work and raced home. Fortunately, the freeway was clear, so it only took me 15 minutes. I dug through her day-planner to find his social. No easy task. While I was there, I took a quick pic of his passport and sent it, even though I was sure they didn’t need it.
"Can’t read passport number."
"Didn’t think you needed it."
"Homeland Security Form."
Homeland Security Form? What the…
"Here’s the number."
Ah, it must be an I-9. So it’s not something specific to kids. It’s to verify eligibility to work in the U.S. Ok, so we didn’t necessarily need a passport, but I should have put my son’s birth certificate or social security card in the folder. Lesson learned.
The rest of the day was much less eventful. At least my son brought his schoolwork, which pleased the studio teacher. Hey, we got something right. The other two kids did not bring their schoolwork, and according to my wife, the studio teacher was not pleased. One of the kids said he was going to sleep until they were ready to shoot with him, but the teacher had a book for him to study. After school work was finished, my son learned how to hang out at the craft service table and snack on basically anything he wanted.
"He says he can get used to this."
"I bet he could."
But then the waiting continued. They waited… and waited… and waited. Welcome to Hollywood, kid. Turned out they didn’t get to the shot with the kids until the evening, so by the time they called my son for makeup- Oh right. I forgot to mention to him that they were going to put makeup on his face. Fortunately, this wasn’t a deal-breaker. At this point he just wanted to get through the day, but with 20/20 hindsight, I should’ve warned him about it. He is a 10-year-old boy after all.
When they finally called for the kids, things moved quickly because they had a limited amount of time left before losing daylight. That’s typical. Wait-wait-wait-hurry! By my wife’s account, everything went fine, but when my son got home, he seemed kind of irritated. I asked what was wrong, and he said he was positive he is going to be cut out of the spot because they moved a bunch of people in front of him, blocking him from the view of the camera. Seriously? I didn’t realize we had a budding Russell Crowe on our hands.
It turned out it wasn’t ego so much as innate business acumen. I had already explained to him that he would only receive the buyout if he makes it into the final edit, so at this point that translated into, “You can forget about all that cool stuff you were planning to buy with the buyout – Nerf guns, laptop, Fortnite Season 6 Battle Pass, green velvet blazer (no clue how this made the list), iPhone 12 (doesn't exist yet)… Nerf guns.” I didn’t bother getting into the fact that his mother and I had other ideas about the buyout (college fund). It’s important for any actor to remember the only money you are guaranteed is the session fee for the shoot day. Even the “hero” of the spot shouldn’t spend that buyout until the check arrives in the mail because the client could decide not to air the spot at all. While it’s easy for a casting director – and dad – to point this out to actors, it’s not so easy for an eager kid to absorb.
The more we talked about the shoot, the more my son let the financial element slide away, and he sounded really excited about how he and this other kid were allowed to make up a conversation about whatever they wanted. Sounds like that improv class he took paid off. Hey, maybe they did get a shot of him that he didn’t know. Guess we won’t know until the spot is finished.
Regardless of whether he makes the final edit, he gained valuable on-set experience working as an actor for the first time. Not only will he be more confident if he ever books another spot, but he also learned a real-life “Don’t count your chickens…” lesson. My son isn’t the only one who learned something important. Before the shoot, I was so sure I knew everything there was to know that I overlooked some simple measures to prepare my wife and son for the shoot. (Umm, to the person asking for the passport – sorry about that cocky text I sent my wife. Good thing you didn’t see it.) These are little details I will definitely pass along the next time my office books kids on a job. The Poor Richard’s lesson I learned was, “Humble pie isn’t nearly as tasty as snacks from the craft service table, but lessons learned will last a lifetime of casting commercials.” Ok, so maybe I’m no Ben Franklin. Here’s another one: “Bring a jacket in case it gets cold.”
CAMERA LEFT / STAGE RIGHT is a collective of industry professionals offering classes for all skill levels and across different media platforms. Classes are held at Southpaw Casting Studios in North Hollywood, and are conceptualized & administered by the casting directors at asg casting, inc.
CL/SR is a vendor for Inspire, Summit Academy, Ilead, and Epic Charter Schools.
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