Growing up in character

Top franchises demand big commitment from kid casts

From “The Chronicles of Narnia” to “Twilight” and “Hannah Montana” to “Drake & Josh,” youth entertainment seems to depend less on one-offs than massive multiyear properties. That in turn can put an enormous burden on the cast, who must commit the better part of their childhoods to playing characters indelibly identified with the franchise brand. In some cases, they are the brand on whom the whole enterprise depends. (The Harry Potter series was able to replace its Dumbledore after the death of actor Richard Harris, but could it survive the loss of its star, Daniel Radcliffe?)

On the television front, the two kidvid heavyweights, Nickelodeon and Disney, follow production schedules geared toward minimizing work stress.

“We respect the balance between work life and personal life,” says Paula Kaplan, Nickelodeon’s executive VP for talent. “In our adult world, nobody accommodates us for down time. But in a child’s life on a set, we do take that seriously. At our studios on Sunset Boulevard, where we shoot ‘iCarly’ and ‘Victorious,’ the greenrooms are filled with games and Rock Band. We create an environment where they can have fun with their colleagues and take it easy.”

Labors laws restrict kids’ workdays, mandate that relaxation periods and breaks be built into the schedule, and require a certain amount of time pass between dismissal and callback. “On top of that, schooling has to take place during the week,” Kaplan says.

It wasn’t always this way. Angela Cartwright, who starred in the classic series “Lost in Space” as a teenager, says she and Bill Mumy were not given breaks: “None of that poufy stuff for us — we were in show business! We shot straight through, and we shot a lot more episodes, so there were only a couple months off.”

Even during hiatus, Cartwright was tutored on the lot. “I only went to regular school the last quarter of my senior year, and you can imagine how easy that was trying to fit in,” she remembers.

By contrast, when “Two and a Half Men” is on hiatus, star Angus T. Jones attends regular high school and assumes the life of a typical teenager — even though the series has made him a millionaire at the age of 16. Similarly, 15-year-old Dakota Fanning attends high school between films and is a cheerleader.

“Balance is the answer to success everywhere,” says Disney Channel Worldwide entertainment prexy Gary Marsh, recently appointed chief creative officer. “On an adult series, a young actor will be surrounded by adults. The circle of people around these kids on our series during their workday is their friends. On Disney Channel, the set is their playground.”

“Here, you get to act like you’re just a normal kid. We’re all just kids going through the same stuff, and we can be in it together,” says “Hannah Montana” star Miley Cyrus, crediting Disney with minimizing the boring, “work”-like aspect of the job. “We all have fun. You get to do stuff that you’d never get to do on a normal day.”

Franchise stars also bear the added pressure of being responsible for the livelihoods of castmates and crew. While “Roseanne” may have been able to replace Alicia Goranson with Sarah Chalke and not miss a beat, the entire “Hannah Montana” operation depends on Cyrus. Same goes for Jamie Lynn Spears, whose pregnancy forced “Zoey 101” to end production.

Knowing that restless actors can be franchise busters, Disney encourages and facilitates its talent to pursue other creative avenues, such as Hilary Duff’s music career (courtesy of Hollywood Records) and Raven Simone’s clothing line, developed in conjunction with Disney Consumer Products.

The key is giving them the opportunity to build as big a career platform as possible, says Marsh, citing former Disney Channel star Shia LaBeouf (“Even Stevens”). “He stayed on the series and built a fanbase. Then he did an original Disney Channel movie called ‘Tru Confessions’ where he played a developmentally disabled twin. It was an unbelievable acting performance that to this day I believe gave him the leverage and credibility to get a lot of other roles.”

By contrast with Duff, whom Marsh feels left the Disney fold too early, LaBeouf bided his time in features, taking small roles in big movies like “Charlie’s Angels” and “I, Robot.” “He kept building his audience further to dimensionalize his appeal, so when he got ‘Transformers’ and ‘Indiana Jones,’ he brought along a built-in audience who will pay money to see him.”

Young actors known for their film franchises, such as Zac Efron and Radcliffe, need to have similar strategies, says Marsh, noting, “If they are smart, they will be conscious about building their own brand at the same they are building the film franchise brand. It means they have to be smart about the other roles they do, whether it’s a play (such as Radcliffe’s turn in “Equus”) or another movie or even how they conduct themselves in public.”

Kaplan and Marsh agree that today’s franchise stars are cognizant that what they do offscreen can affect their onscreen careers. “This generation is very serious about their work,” Kaplan observes, “and they know professionalism can lead to success.”