Finding right child at right time takes persistence

Casting, difficult under any circumstance, is that much harder when a youngster must fill a major role. And the stakes are even higher when a film’s success pivots on such a part — as is the case with several big pics this year.

For starters, child actors don’t always offer much of a history to assist in assessing their talents. So decisions are often made based on rapport and gut instinct on the part of filmmakers.

Take Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lovely Bones,” which stars the young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan in the central role.

“Saoirse didn’t have a body of work we could look at then,” says Philippa Boyens, the pic’s co-writer and co-producer, noting that Ronan’s breakthrough film, “Atonement,” was not yet finished when “Bones” was in pre-production. “So you really need to meet with them and gauge their emotional maturity.”

In this case, the audition process proved unusually rigorous. “We had Saoirse do four different pieces,” Boyens notes. “We needed someone who could convey fear and bravery and anger but also be funny and goofy. Steven Spielberg said we needed someone good at voiceover, so we wrote an audition piece just for voice, and Saoirse nailed that as well.”

But auditions can be easy compared with the hunt for the right child actor to begin with. That was true for Spike Jones’ “Where the Wild Things Are,” whose central role, Max, was ultimately awarded to Max Records of Portland, Ore.

“We started preliminary casting early because we knew it would take a long time,” says Vince Landay, one of the film’s producers. “We were looking for the character as written: a sensitive, thoughtful kid who could convey those internal feelings but also express the character’s wild, unhinged, gleeful side. And we knew it would be a challenge finding those elements in one kid who could also act on camera.”

Casting was at first confined to L.A., but “though we saw tons of kids, we found very few possible Maxes,” Landay says. “Then we tried casting directors in other cities, eventually expanding our search to the U.K., Ireland and Australia. We also reached out to fellow filmmakers who lived in communities like Silver Lake in L.A. and Athens, Ga. One of those was Lance Bangs, who lives in Portland and happened to know Max Records. So he put him on tape and sent it to us.

“Max was about 9 then, but there was such maturity to him, and photogenically he was great. We were already in Australia prepping, but Catherine Keener, who plays Max’s mom, was filming ‘Into the Wild’ near Portland, so she went to meet him and was really impressed. Then Spike returned to the States and tested him and was convinced.”

Time is another factor. With adult actors, delays of a year or two rarely matter, but with young thesps, a similar postponement can alter plans.

When Henry Selick was first prepping his animated film “Coraline,” he met with Dakota Fanning, then 9. “Coraline” was to be a live-action pic then, and though Fanning was desirable in many respects, “she was a little too young,” recalls Selick, noting that the title character is supposed to be 11 or 12. Eventually, the film reverted to Selick’s original, animated conception, and the problem was solved, though it would have been anyway with time passing.

Before “Coraline’s” release, though, a new problem arose. “By the time we got around to the film’s final recording sessions, Dakota’s voice had changed,” Selick says. “I wasn’t sure she could match her previous work, so we were prepared to have her sister, Elle, stand in for her. But Dakota was able to do it.”

That kind of resilience is what marks a young actor with a future. And like their elder colleagues, these thesps have their own methods for achieving success, the common denominator being total commitment — all the more impressive for how effortless it all seems. And yet these actors may work just as hard as their senior colleagues in nailing a character.

“Well, it’s all pretty hard,” acknowledges 13-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee, co-star with Viggo Mortensen of “The Road,” John Hillcoat’s harrowing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel. “So I write down stuff I know about the character, stuff that comes into my head. I think writing it down gets it into you more. Then when I go on set, I go off and do my own thing.”

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