Skip to main content

In 1988, the director Terry Gilliam took a gamble on an unknown Toronto actress, a then-preteen named Sarah Polley, who played one of his leads, the sprite Sally Salt, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

The $40-million film, a bizarre intellectualized fantasy, was largely panned by the critics. But many reviewers took a shine to eight-year-old Polley, who was described glowingly by The Los Angeles Times as "a marvellously feisty, blessedly un-cute Canadian actress who seems to have been raised oblivious to any child-acting clichés."

Fast forward 17 years. And Gilliam's once again turned to Hollywood North for young talent to star in yet another of his quirky films, Tideland, which premiered last night at the Toronto International Film Festival. And this time, the ever-inventive Monty Python alumnus cast a 10-year-old from Vancouver, an up-and-comer Jodelle Ferland.

As before, early reviews are mixed on the film, which the director himself readily admits pushes "all the weird buttons." But Ferland's performance, alongside Jeff Bridges, is raising eyebrows. Last month, The New York Times -- which rarely gushes -- described the West Coast girl as "almost freakishly talented."

Ferland -- who started acting when she was less than 2 -- is flying into Toronto with her mother Valerie to attend the festival. But she won't be the only pre-pubescent Canadian starlet waving merrily to fans on the red carpet. At least three other aspiring homegrown child actresses -- all 10 years of age -- are either headlining, or have major starring roles, in films at this year's festival.

Clearly, as Gilliam put it recently, "there's just something about Canada and little girls."

Besides Ferland, Toronto native Samantha Weinstein is starring in Big Girl, a 14-minute short by Renuka Jeyapalan that explores family politics as nine-year-old Josephine (Weinstein) grapples with a new boyfriend in her single mom's life. Referred to by some as Canada's indie princess, this is Weinstein's second trip to TIFF. Last year, she was one of the stars of the David Weaver's black comedy, Siblings.

Richmond, B.C.-born Phoebe Kut has a starring role in Julia Kwan's Eve and the Fire Horse, where she plays an imaginative young chit (Eve) who is intrigued (and confused) by religion and concocts her own brand of spiritualism, a little Buddhism mixed with Catholicism.

And from Winnipeg is another budding actress, Brianna Williams, who co-stars in Sean Garrity's Lucid, playing a daughter of a tormented psychotherapist (Jonas Chernick) whose wife left him for another man.

Filmmakers like Gilliam keep coming to the Canadian talent trough for child actors because our kids, by all accounts, tend to be easy to direct, manage and mould. Chalk it up to our easygoing, accommodating national character.

Gilliam searched for months to find Tideland's Jeliza-Rose, a little girl who creates imaginary companions to escape the drudgery of life with her dope-addict dad (Bridges). Light entertainment, it's not. Tideland, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, is shades of Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho.

He worked with casting directors in every major city in North America -- and beyond -- auditioning more than 400 candidates. The film, he knew, would fly or flop depending on the child actor he picked. "The dangerous thing about making this film was the fact that a little girl, a very little girl about nine or 10 years old is in every scene," Gilliam, 64, said in The New York Times interview. "She is the movie."

He chose Ferland because of her camera presence, savvy and work ethic. "She can even do eye-acting," he bragged to the Times. "That's something you can't teach."

While Gilliam ( The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm) exults in Ferland, others in the industry have similar kind words for Weinstein, who was chosen as the lead in the Canadian Film Centre's production of Big Girl after its director saw her bewitch audiences in Siblings, a subversive tale of four kids who kill their evil stepparents, twice.

Weinstein's mother, Jojo, figures her daughter -- and the others -- are in demand by directors here and in Hollywood because they're amenable to direction. "There's a lot of American directors and producers who like to work with Canadian children because many of our kids have no formal training, so they're spontaneous.

"In the States, there's a lot of emphasis on train, train, train," Jojo Weinstein adds. "We seem to prescribe to a different philosophy that suggests if you study extensively in a formal, technical way, you run the risk of training their natural instincts right out of them."

Her daughter, a glossy redhead, is an eloquent, nice kid who says she gets a kick "out of being able to become different characters and have experiences I'd never have in my real life," says Samantha, whose acting idol is Jon Heder, the nerdy star of Napoleon Dynamite.

" Big Girl's such a great story because it's about a girl named Josephine who comes to accept and really like the new man in her mother's life. It's a story of acceptance and letting people in," explains this young old soul. "I love the wonderful message of the film," adds Weinstein, who has just wrapped another short film, Megan Martin's Ninth Street Chronicles ("I'm kind of hoping for a hat trick, and that I'll be back at TIFF next year," giggles the child). She's also now shooting Ken Finkleman's new six-part TV miniseries, Hotel Metropolitan.

Parents of child actors clearly play a pivotal role nurturing the talents of their kids. In Ferland's case, she's home-schooled and rhymes off her favourite subjects: opera, geometry and square roots. Her mother, Valerie, insists Jodelle's life is normal and balanced. And she knows this rising talent can handle the spotlight, and stress.

"I think Terry Gilliam has been one of the greatest directors she's ever worked with," she says. "It was also a fantastic role for showing range and ability. It's the best role she's had to date."

Did her daughter have trouble with the sexual content or the character's roving mental state?

Not a whit, said Valerie Ferland, whose offspring is now only auditioning for feature-film roles. "It might be difficult for a normal child but it didn't faze her at all. It's all very natural to her. She just reads a script . . . and she knows what she wants to do for the movie. So it's only a matter of communicating with the director, and seeing if he likes her ideas too."

Ferland's child chums are also mainly actors, her mom notes, including a young boy -- neighbour in Vancouver, Cameron Bright, who is in Thank You for Smoking, also premiering at TIFF.

"North Dakota Fanning, they call her," Valerie Ferland says proudly. "In reference to the amount of work she's done. They [directors and producers]don't consider her to be a child actor when they're working with her. She works like an adult. She has the understanding of an adult where acting is concerned, and she's able to do roles that require very adult thinking."

The younger Ferland agrees the only real challenges on the Tideland shoot were pesky bugs and cold weather. "I got to do a Texan accent, which I liked, and Terry gave me lots of room," enthused the actress, who claims to have more TV/film credits to her name (25 in total) than Gilliam has films. "He's a really good drawer, and he'd some times make me pictures. Strange things, just for fun."

All four girls say their favourite thing about acting -- besides the full-on attention they get on set -- is Kraft services. In other words, the great spreads laid out for meals. "I really like being able to become someone else, and work with different actors," says Kut, who had never acted before landing the part of Eve.

"I really love it all. But the best thing is definitely the food. It's so yummy."

Williams says she dreams of ending up in Hollywood, and through her mom/agent, is steadily lining up more work out west. "I like being in front of the camera. I like all the people and how they treat me and stuff. It's really fun for me." Recently, she auditioned for the new Brad Pitt film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, now shooting in Alberta. "I haven't heard back from them yet," this 10-year-old explains. "I'd like to be in a film with Pitt. And my mom really likes him."

Ferland's rosy experience working with Gilliam is in sharp contrast, though, to Polley's, who has referred to her Baron Munchausen time as 'a nightmare." "I think Terry Gilliam's a genius," she said once. "But he shouldn't work with kids. He's a lot more concerned about his film.

"I think being a child actor is a terrible thing," Polley went on. "When I was doing Baron Munchausen, I had hypothermia from being in a water tank for hours on end, then explosives went off by my head and I couldn't hear for a couple of days."

Last year, Polley again shared those views with Jojo Weinstein whose daughter was on set in Toronto shooting Siblings with the more veteran child star.

"I think Samantha reminded her a lot of herself as a child," muses mother Weinstein. "And she's very adamant that parents of child actors don't become more involved personally with going on, for their own selfish reasons. Not making it about them as opposed to being about the child.

"It's an easy thing to fall into," admits Weinstein, whose daughter started acting after attending a drama camp when she was 6. "Just because you want the best for your child. But we make sure that Sammy continues to have normal childhood experiences that will help her stay real."

As for Ferland, acting is all she wants to do. And while she has her home studies and her friends, acting is her life.

"I don't really even remember when I got into acting," she says. "My mom put me in because my brother and sister were in it. They were doing monologues and I copied them. One day, it was just me and my mom at home. And she heard me talking [mimicking the monologues]and she thought it was really weird. Then she put me into acting. I was still in diapers."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe