In her heyday, Shirley Temple’s popularity would be equivalent to a child star today outselling the movies of Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. But America in the ’30s was arguably a less jaded period for moviegoers, when cinema was still in its relative infancy, and singing and dancing were not limited to Broadway musicals. Would Temple be considered an anachronism in the age of CGI, TiVo and iPods? If she came skipping into an agency or casting office today, what would the reaction be?
Meredith Fine of the Coast to Coast Agency has represented Haley Joel Osment since his roles in “The Sixth Sense” and “A.I.” “I think she’d be a breath of fresh air in the industry,” Fine says. “There would definitely be a market for her. You’d just have to think creatively to determine what sort of project would be best for her.”
Fine points out that with child actors, timing is everything. “If Haley hadn’t been his age at the time that ‘The Sixth Sense’ was made, he wouldn’t have made ‘The Sixth Sense.’ Movies don’t wait for kids. Then once you master a role like Haley did, studios that weren’t thinking about making a certain movie because they didn’t think they had the right kid for it, might all of a sudden be sparked to make that movie.”
Cindy Osprink of the Osprink Agency is Dakota Fanning’s agent. “Shirley would be great in commercials these days,” Osprink says. “For the most part back in those days the kids were cute and happy and polite. Now kids are more mature and sophisticated, and it’s amazing some of the roles we get for 10-year-olds — they’re already using (questionable) language — it’s the shock value is what it is.”
Judy Savage, owner and head agent for the Savage Agency, has helped hundreds of young actors move toward stardom, including a young Hilary Swank. “I saw a film that Shirley Temple did in Kansas before she came to Hollywood when she was 18 months old that just blew me away,” says Savage. “She was playing a vamp and it ended with her shaking her pearls at a little boy, and she said, ‘to get these, honey, you gotta be bad.’ It was the cutest thing, they all had diapers on.”
Savage points out that Temple’s acting would be too over-the-top today, and points to Freddie Highmore as a prime example of what producers are looking for. But despite Temple’s vaudevillian style, Savage sees her as having enough talent to adapt to any style. “She could have been trained to do anything, because she had everything.”
Sharon Liebein, VP of casting at Nickelodeon, sees room for a Temple-esque talent on Nickelodeon, and thinks that given her comic ability, she’d probably be starring on a sitcom. “She worked at a time when people didn’t think of kids as actors,” says Liebein. “If you look at the ‘Our Gang’ kids, you don’t even think of them as actors, they’re more like kids being themselves. But she was amazing. She could carry the show.”
Beverly Strong, talent manager at Anonymous Content, has handled countless child actors, including Renee Olstead, who has racked up numerous film and TV appearances, and displayed her singing talents at Live 8. “If Shirley Temple was around today she’d probably be involved with the American Girl phenomenon,” Strong says, speaking of the enormously popular series of dolls and TV movies.
Joey Paul Jensen was herself a child performer, singing and dancing her way up to performances with Pavarotti. Now an independent casting director who works on several Disney Channel shows, she points to Raven-Symone as a child star with similarities to Temple. “Raven was on ‘The Cosby Show’ when she was 3, she had her first record deal and musicvideo when she was 5, and she had what I can only imagine as the same dynamic Shirley Temple must have had: being so in the moment and agile with the ability to speak and grab adult concepts and mingle in that world with such ease.”
Veteran acting teacher Diane Hardin has taught kids for years, including Leonardo DiCaprio during his early role on “Growing Pains.”
“Shirley Temple carried the load of an adult in all her movies,” Hardin says. “You could see her turning on for the camera. She was such an entertainer. But nowadays kids are asked to say the lines the way you would say them in life — don’t act the part, be it.”