Program preps kid actors for real life

Looking Ahead teaches youth to act normal

You know all those cute, well-adjusted kids you see on TV? Don’t forget, they’re acting. When the cameras aren’t rolling, those seemingly perfect youngsters may actually be more susceptible to depression, anxiety, body image issues, the temptations of drugs and alcohol and so on — consider Lindsay Lohan or Jamie Lynn Spears. Growing up on set among adults, they don’t necessarily have access to the school dances, football games or everyday peer support groups that other kids take for granted.

“Working as a child can be a very isolating experience,” says Keith McNutt, who oversees the Actors Fund’s West Coast operations. “They often spend long hours commuting between auditions or jobs, and many are homeschooled and new to L.A., all of which can add to challenges of meeting friends and building a social network.”

Kids agent Judy Savage noticed it, too, which is why she got involved with the Actors Fund’s Looking Ahead program. (She’s no relation to Fred Savage, though the former child star chairs the same advisory board on which Judy serves.) Launched in 2003, Looking Ahead aims to give young performers some semblance of a normal childhood and ease their transition into adulthood.

“The general idea is, how do we help kids become responsible adults?” McNutt explains. “We teach them about giving back. We help them figure out where their own leadership qualities are. And we help them learn how to interact with each other in a positive way that’s not about competing for jobs.”

Group-oriented activities include everything from field trips and sporting events to community service and volunteer opportunities, all of which encourage young actors to focus beyond themselves and interact with other kids their age. One week, a group might go out to the Motion Picture Home for bingo and ice cream with retired performers; the next, they’re invited to come together for a Halloween costume party with their 18-and-under peers.

For someone like 17-year-old Philomena Bankston, who’d been acting in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina hit and who then relocated to L.A., Looking Ahead has been a life-changer. “This program sees so many kids through hard times,” she says. “It’s like being part of a huge family” — a supportive peer group nearly 300 members strong.

“I know that within this group I have a few people I can count on and really call my friends,” agrees 18-year-old Brittney Lee Harvey.

Membership is open to anyone in the union with an agent, as well as those who’ve earned money working in the industry for at least two years, though Looking Ahead also does outreach to parents and newcomers living in Oakwood short-term housing.

Even though its members all share an interest in performing, Looking Ahead encourages its young charges to leave showbiz at the door, instead giving them a chance to “just be kids,” McNutt says.

Career panels and mentorship sessions focus on other fields the kids might like to pursue down the road.

“We don’t do any professional training on acting,” he explains. “The educational piece of the program is all about planning for what you want to do as an adult. There’s a big emphasis on college.”