Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the actor’s terminology.
The interview hasn’t even begun with Mara Wilson, Child Star, and she’s complaining to her staff.
"Are you cold? Yes? We'll turn the air off," three women coo over the pouting girl, fresh into Toronto rain from California sun. "Thirsty? No? Yes? We have four freezing-cold Cokes in the next room. Just say the word."
The baggy-sweatered star of the newly released Thomas and the Magic Railroad crosses her arms over her chest. Now 13, the cutesy girl who played the lead in Matilda shakes her head. Resignedly, she slumps into the posh hotel chair and lifts her big grey eyes to give an even stare.
Her pale, pimple-free aristocratic face is slightly made up, with a dab of rose lipstick and shimmery taupe on her eyelids. There are strategically placed red highlights in her hair and bangs.
She looks as unhappy as she is pretty.
“Well, let’s think. Today’s my 13th birthday. I’m I-don’t-know-how-many miles away from home. Three thousand?” she said, apologizing for sounding, she says, like a spoiled brat. “You know, I’m working all day doing interviews, answering the same questions over and over and over again. All my friends and family are at home, and I’m probably not going to do more than, you know, go out and eat dinner. . . . Oh, I need caffeine.”
The age of 13 is commonly seen as something of a midlife crisis for child actors. It was the point at which Drew Barrymore was wasting away on cocaine and drink. It was also around that age that Home Alone megastar Macauley Culkin's career headed south.
But then there's Canada's own Sarah Polley, who graduated from being a teen star on Road to Avonlea to Vanity Fair-style celebrity as an adult. And Jodie Foster managed to survive her fame from Taxi Driver, as well as a stint at Yale.
"Most kids will tell you the truth, and they'll do it naively. Then when they become 14 to 18, the naiveté is not accepted any more," said Norbert Abrams of the Noble Caplan Agency, agent and manager to 74 Canadian actors under 22.
The career vicissitudes of child actors have almost become a Hollywood sub-genre. In the United States, entire Web sites are devoted to the subject. Check out, for example, Child Star Central, where the dirt on all six Brady Bunch kids can be found.
On the Web site whowouldyoukill.com , viewers click on a face to vote for the deaths of characters on various television shows. Cute child actors are particularly popular here.
Mara herself has had rumours of her demise circulated on the Internet. She laughs it off. Others can't take the pressure, one industry insider said.
"This is one of the few industries where you do get kids working side by side in what can be loosely termed as an adult work environment," said Alex Gill of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, or ACTRA.
The few children who can relate to the world of adults are the best ones to work with, he said. "It's hard enough for a fully developed adult with a reasonable sense of self, and a reasonable perspective on the entertainment industry, to go from not being a household name to being recognized on the street, and you can only imagine what kind of pressure that puts on a child."
Scripts are becoming increasingly youth-oriented, which means a greater demand for children who can function in that environment, Gill said. ACTRA pushes for special provisions for children in the entertainment business. In Toronto alone, Gill added, there are about 9,000 actors, and about one in eight are under the age of 18.
Child actors get subdivided into specific groupings. First come the "munchkins," who are around 5. Before you know it, they turn preteen, then teenager at 13. This is a big test, Abrams said.
"Then, you're a young adult. Is the hunk quotient there? Has this cute little preteen translated into an equally camera-friendly teenager?" said Abrams, who represents Canadian child actors such as 12-year-old Ryan Cooley, star of I Was A Sixth Grade Alien.
"There are all these things that the marketplace looks for. A girl who is 12 years old, they're looking for her to be physically underdeveloped, very innocent-looking, very, very, Ivory Snow girl. Similarly with the guys, they don't want the facial hairs, they don't want the break of voice, they don't want any of the alluring looks," he said. "But then all of a sudden, when they become a teenager, the opposite kicks in."
Once Cooley's voice breaks, there's no telling what could happen, Abrams said. But with supportive parents, he should be able to make the transition, he added.
Apart from looks, the acting ability must also change.
A lot of the shows for kids are "kiddie shows and kiddie acting," such as Sharon, Lois and Bram's Elephant Show, he said. Then, once kids hit their teens, translating that talent into, say, Dawson's Creek, isn't always easy.
Such is the case with Theresa Tova, a Canadian actor and singer whose two children both started acting at 7.
Her son, now 16, had enjoyed three years of popularity. When he hit puberty a few years back, she said he went two years with very few bookings.
Recently, her son wanted a new $2,000 mountain bike. Tova told him that if he wanted it, he would have to pay for it. But when his agent sent him down for an audition, he had a nasty shock.
"It was all little kids," said Tova, who stars in various Stratford plays and has been in acting since she was 17. "I don't think he's a real actor. He just had a look that was very fashionable. Now he's a big strapping 16-year-old. He's not that cute little kid any more."
Her son took the situation well, however. Tova said that she has always told her kids that acting is like an extracurricular activity, like baseball, and that the quality of their lives comes first. Being an actor like mom was not what she wanted her kids to think they had to do.
"The reason that some kids have problems, is that they're not real kids any more. That's why they stop working -- because they've had no lives," she said. "They can't do the transition because they don't know who they are."
So what do some children get from acting? "Rejection," she said. "Rejection, rejection, rejection."
Mara seems to know what's at stake with the changes that have come with her developing voice and recent growth spurt. She says she doesn't have her heart set on being an actress forever.
In the meantime, however, she's a bit bored with playing goody-two-shoes girls, and thinks it would be fun to play a brat.
She says she likes to swim, read newspapers, and shop. She donates to children’s charities. She isn’t boy-crazy, hates the music of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys -- “Oh, I can’t stand pop!” -- and thinks that most kids her age can’t recognize real talent. She wants to tell fans -- including her own sister -- to “wake up.”
"It kind of annoys me that people can just get there," she said, snapping her fingers for effect.
What if the acting parts dry up? If all else fails, she jokes, she’ll become “the new Latin pop sensation. It seems just about anyone can do that.”