Child stars: Here's looking at you, kids

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A clutch of films featuring impossibly precocious young performers comes out this month. But how does it feel to hit the big time when you're only little? Former actor Hermione Eyre (retired aged 12) meets the child stars

Last month I received an email about the 13-year-old star of The Golden Compass, Dakota Blue Richards. "She went along to an open audition and beat 10,000 girls to the part of Lyra," wrote the PR. "She is a great little character. She's very ethical and doesn't even wear leather shoes. At the end of filming she gave 'ethical' presents to the cast and crew, donations to charities, etc etc." Images sprang to mind: Daniel Craig (who plays Lord Asriel) pocketing his certificate for a village goat with a wan smile; little Dakota Blue trotting off in her hemp shoes, distributing self-composting latrines among the sound technicians... Lord preserve us, I thought, from ethical child stars.

Noël Coward summed up what many of us feel about child actors when he gave his verdict on a West End production of Gone with the Wind. "Two things should have been cut," he said. "The second act and the child's throat." (The child in question? Bonnie Langford.) Coward was all the more merciless, perhaps, because, as a student of Italia Conti, he made his own West End debut in Where the Rainbow Ends, aged 11. Do put your son on the stage, Mrs Coward.

When child actors are bad, they are very very bad, but when they are good, they are heaven and we are currently seeing some brilliant ones on-screen. There are the children featured in these pages. And think of Abigail Breslin, Oscar-nominated for Little Miss Sunshine. Or Saoirse Ronan, who played Briony Tallis in Atonement. Or Ivana Baquero, Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth. I happened to bump into Baquero in LAX airport the day after the Oscars. She was sitting reading a schoolbook. She looked up, blankly tolerant, as her proud father told me and anyone who'd listen: "It's Ofelia, you know!"

Which leads us to ask, what is it with child stars? Are their parents always pushy? Is underage acting "character-forming"? Or life-wrecking? Does it foster a dependence on attention, or chauffeurs, or worse? How do these kids handle going from screen tests to sleepovers, from premires to school plays? When I interviewed four of the current cream of young actors, it brought memories flooding back for me. I was a child actor and I managed to stay, shall we say, just the right side of obnoxious.

Aged six I told my parents that when I grew up I wanted to be "a professional". They dutifully asked what sort of professional, but they already knew: an actress. My mother was an actress; her agent put me up for a part. Aged seven I started off in an episode of About Face, a series of sitcoms with Maureen Lipman; she played a bag lady and I remember being fascinated by her warts (made of Rice Krispies!). Next I romped around in an ill-fitting blonde wig, pretending to be the young Agatha Christie for the BBC. I got so into the part that I slept with her autobiography under my pillow; precocious, moi?

Next, aged nine, I was cast in a feature film called The Children. I arrived on set carrying a copy of Les Miserables about as big as my head. Are you reading that, asked Ben Kingsley. I truthfully told him: yes, for the second time. I was not alone in my freakish antics. A friend of mine who starred in Five Children and It used his earnings to subscribe to The New Yorker, which he read ostentatiously on set. He was 11.

Filming The Children was amazing. Once, we were shooting a scene in a chalet halfway up a mountain in Bavaria ' when we overran into the night. It was gone midnight but the bright lights made a counterfeit midday. Tired, I grew frustrated and nearly tearful over my lines, doing take after take. Kim Novak helped me "focus", in a manner probably wasted on a nine-year-old. She took my hands. "Look deep into my eyes, darling," she said in her breathy voice. "We're gonna play a staring game and see who can last longest without blinking."

There are laws against this sort of thing, of course (over-working children, not playing staring games with Kim Novak). Every would-be child performer needs a licence from their local authority, which specifies the number of hours and days they are allowed to work. A licensed chaperone could be their parent, could be a pro also needs to accompany them, to stipulate the hours they work and ensure their "kind treatment" (1968 Children's Performance Act). They also need to complete 15 hours of schoolwork per week, with a designated tutor. Taken all together these people seem disconcertingly like an entourage.

But they are essential. I loved filming and would have worked all night had they asked me to. I practically had a sign round my neck saying "Exploit me, please!" Some parents can become complicit in this. A leading agent told me how bad it can get. "I remember once there was a case when the camera kept breaking down and it was getting later and later and the child had exceeded her working hours for that day. The authorities would have imposed heavy fines. So they ' locked away the child and her mother, who was also her official chaperone, in a room so no one would find them working so late." It's a truism in the industry that it's not the children but the parents who are brats. "I don't want to represent children any more," the agent told me. "I can't cope with the parents. In one family, if I want sense I ask to speak to the 10-year-old daughter."

Showbiz mums and dads tend to send their kids to full-time stage school, where they might get work doing adverts or starring in musicals or long-running soaps, but are less likely to win really big parts. "A lot of casting directors specify "no stage-school kids", says one agent. Instead, they tend to want "real" children, unschooled in the three T's (talent, teeth and, er, tap). Thus, ironically, the kids who are most prepared for and desirous of big parts seldom get them; the industry prefers unspoiled ingnue flesh.

"Can we have a cheeseburger on room service?" I am sitting in the anteroom of 15-year-old Freddie Highmore's suite at The Dorchester, listening to his PR ordering up his lunch. Is he doing many interviews today? "Not too many," she tells me. "You'll have him quite fresh." Ushered in, I see a very big suite and a very small boy. Treat him like an adult, I think. Tell him the truth. Your new film is a little bit sentimental. No, wait, you'd never say that to an adult. Oh God, what to say to Freddie Highmore...

"As long as you try your best you couldn't have done any better," he says, sagely, when I ask if he felt pressure from being in almost every scene of August Rush. He has a politician-like way of diffusing every question. It's natural tact, I think, honed over many interviews. "The only time I've been upset would be if I haven't worked as hard as I could have," he adds. Highmore has never taken acting lessons; he has learnt his trade while making 10 major movies.

"It's important turning up with your lines learnt and having thought about little things your character can do preparing the same way as people do with other jobs. As you would do for this interview, say. You need to stay focused on-set and you have to work and work and," he adds, sincere and very serious, "you need to have fun as well." When I ask him if he ever does school plays, he looks blank: "No."

Work brings maturity. Especially work on film sets, where time is money and the preoccupation with status rivals Versailles. I remember once being escorted off the set of Jeeves and Wooster by a runner. It was raining and the runner was carrying an umbrella over my head. When we got to my trailer, we found about five extras sheltering inside it. They were all adults; some of them were in late middle-age. "Out, out, out!" shouted the runner. "No background artists in here please." I felt deeply uncomfortable. Filming can be a fast track straight into the less pleasant aspects of the adult world.

Highmore's father sat with us in the interview, a friendly presence. None of the parents I met during my research seemed pushy; rather, they were wisely protective.

"We think carefully about which parts Lucy does, of course," said Adriaane, mother of Lucy Boynton, 13, who stars in Ballet Shoes. "She was asked to read for the new St. Trinian's film, but we couldn't believe the vulgarity of the script. It had the girls running a phone sex line and using really pornographic language. Who knows what's happened to the script now, but when we read it, it was disgraceful."

Lucy Boynton seems passionate about acting. She wants to do it forever; Freddie Highmore is less sure. "I keep going with my schoolwork it's important to keep options open. Directing might be fun," he told me.

Neither Boynton nor Highmore are very forthcoming on the process of acting itself. "For Lucy, it seems to be a private thing," says her mother. "I say, 'Why did you deliver the line like that?' And she says she doesn't want to talk about it. She can be frustratingly non-communicative!" Child actors are often prized for their instinctiveness. Some doubt if what they do can be classed as acting at all. Aren't they just cast to type and well-directed, their lines coaxed out of them?

Cynics who believe this should meet Ben Walker, who's 14 and stars in The Golden Compass. He's small for his age, and seems conscious of it. He stood up throughout our interview, even though I was sitting down. His attitude towards his work was touching and impressive. He had clearly thought about the film as a whole, rather than just his part in it. "It shouldn't be too long as it might lose people... I think it was good we filmed in Oxford, because the buildings are atmospheric." He also spoke to me about crying for the cameras.

"Usually, they put this fake-tear stuff under your eyes, that's minty and kind of burns. One little bit makes you cry, which is really weird. I was using it on Sweeney Todd but then, on one take I thought, I'm gonna try and do it without. Then I got really emotional. I thought about the character, and what he would do in the situation. But I also thought about my great granddad. He was in the First and Second World Wars and that's a really good achievement, considering how many people got killed. You've got to feel for him because he's a really brave man, so I sort of use my granddad as a way to get upset, though I know he's still there for me even though he's dead now. When he passed away I didn't have as much of a career as I do now but I know he's still looking down on me and what I do. So I just want to carry on with it and try to make my family proud of me."

There is another sadness in Walker's life: his mother isn't well. "He got a part in Torchwood that was rather close to home," his father tells me. "He had to play a young boy with leukaemia. But he got through it, he got through it."

Filming can be a consolation, and a creative release. As Boynton's mother puts it: "I think it's lovely, because Lucy does seem quite good and it's great to have a talent that is given expression, 'cos there are lots of people with lots of talents who never ever get it noticed for the whole of their lives."

There are, besides, financial rewards. My earnings accrued interest through my teens and finally paid off my student loan. The children I spoke to will be earning anything from 50 a day at the BBC to a reported 100,000 for Dakota Blue Richards.

Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe's wealth is estimated at 17m (The Times Rich List). Most of the child stars I met have designated bank accounts for their earnings; Walker has a business, Ben Walker Entertainment Limited. "He takes money out for presents for friends and things," his father tells me. He's buying himself a jump-bike for Christmas." Ben is also hoping for an Xbox 360. How else is he going to play himself in The Golden Compass video game?

You can't be a child actor forever. There comes a point when you have to adapt or retire. My final role was "the Kid Clementina" in Jeeves and Wooster, and it was probably a good thing it was my last. I cringe to remember what I said when, between takes, Hugh Laurie kindly tried to keep me entertained. "Do you know how to play the castanets with spoons?" he asked. "No," I replied as he began to demonstrate, "but if you don't mind I'd rather... focus."

When I got back to school after three weeks' filming, bursting with stories, no one asked me where I had been. They knew, but they probably didn't particularly want to hear about it. So I kept pretty quiet. The 10-year-old St. Trinian's twins Holly and Cloe Mackie use the same strategy. "We only tell our closest friends," they say. "And then we don't go over the top."

I retired, aged 12, to spend more time with my hamster. Or rather, I got braces; with a smile like a train wreck, I stopped getting parts. In the nicest possible way, I was washed up aged 12. If the way I describe my childhood career seems practiced and flip, that's because it's been occasional comic patter for me ever since.

Being a child actor can be marvellous: you can learn a lot, grow more confident, have wonderful experiences. People don't really want to hear that, though. They want to hear stories about what a brat you were. And voilà, that's what most childhood acting eventually becomes: an anecdote. Unless you are very successful at it indeed, in which case it becomes something much more dangerous.

What does the future hold for these brilliant children? Should we be concerned they will become the Jack Wilds and Lena Zavaronis of tomorrow, I asked Dr Glenn Wilson, psychologist at King's College London and author of Psychology for Performing Artists.

"They need to keep strong links with their friends from childhood, their home town and their schools," he said. "But most of them will be fine, I'd say, because they have achieved artistically rather than becoming celebrities."

The biggest risk, perhaps, is simply becoming jaded. The ennui of the fading child star can be bleak. Take Tatum O'Neal, who won an Oscar for Paper Moon aged 10. Four years later she was hanging out at a glittering Hollywood party when the critic Kenneth Tynan tried to talk to her:

Tynan: (Breaking the ice) "Good evening, Tatum."

O'Neal: "Mnnh."

Tynan: "I suppose you know everyone in this room."

O'Neal: "Yrnnh."

Tynan: "Is there anyone in the world that you don't know who you'd like to meet?"

O'Neal: "Nah."

Tynan: "Maybe Laurence Olivier?"

O'Neal: (Ponders deeply for a moment. Long pause. Then shakes her head) "Nah."

Freddie Highmore, 15

Freddie Highmore may be diminutive but his CV is enormous. He has played Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Peter Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland. He has been directed by Tim Burton and Luc Besson and starred opposite Mia Farrow and Dustin Hoffman.

Oh, and he has also had on-set larks with Johnny Depp, who once hid a whoopee cushion under Julie Christie's seat, just to entertain him. That was during the filming of Finding Neverland, Highmore explains. "Because JM Barrie was always trying to make the boys laugh."

He started acting professionally aged six; his mother, Sue Latimer, is a theatrical agent and his father, Edward Highmore, is an actor who once starred in Howard's Way. The family live in Highgate, north London. When not filming, Highmore watches Arsenal, learns the guitar and re-reads The Catcher in the Rye (five times so far).

"Most of my main friends are from before I started filming. When you leave the set you go back to being a normal person you don't stand out, you're just another person and that's good."

'August Rush' is in cinemas now

Holly and Cloe Mackie, 10

The Mackie twins spent their 10th birthday on the set of St. Trinian's, cuddling Russell Brand ("He's so funny") and arm-wrestling Rupert Everett ("He won").

Their characters, Tara and Tanya, are "very naughty and not like us in real life". Indeed, the twins seem a commendably professional team. "We give each other advice and courage and help each other learn our lines." (Their favourite line was a killer. Holly explodes a shed while Cloe tells her: "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.")

Their parents are both insiders mum is a make-up artist, dad is an art director and they have also appeared (as Psychic Twins One and Two) in the forthcoming thriller Death Defying Acts with Catherine Zeta Jones. "I'd like to be like her when I grow up," says Cloe.

The twins go to "normal school" in north-east London and attend Sylvia Young on Saturdays. "We always wanted to act and we have a dressing-up box at home so we can be different characters." They are already signed up for their next roles. "We're going to be in a horror film," pipes Cloe. "But we won't be able to see it when it's finished."

'St. Trinian's' opens on 21 December

Ben Walker, 14

"I've been acting for so long now," says Walker, "that I really hope this does make me." "This" is The Golden Compass, in which he plays Roger, best friend of Lyra, the protagonist. Walker has signed up for the whole trilogy and, as with the Harry Potter children, he will get to know all about merchandising. "I hear there's going to be toys in McDonald's it'll be funny seeing kids playing with a mini-me."

Based in Essex, Walker goes to Colin's Performing Arts on Saturdays. He started there aged five, singing and dancing before discovering acting. He played a sewer child in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End, then won a role in Sweeney Todd on the BBC, playing it so well that he reportedly made Ray Winstone cry on-set.

Walker lives to act, though it can have its tribulations. For The Golden Compass, he had to imagine the daemon creatures which were generated by CGI in post-production. "It was quite hard. Some of them were stuffed animals I know, it sounds horrible but they're animals that have been dead and then stuffed which were put on four wheels and then operated by remote control. It was hard not to burst out laughing sometimes."

'The Golden Compass' is in cinemas now

Lucy Boynton, 13

Lucy Boynton had "the best summer imaginable". She was playing Posy Fossil in the BBC's Ballet Shoes and as well as sharing scenes with Emma Watson, Victoria Wood and Richard Griffiths she had to work with a leg double ("I was speechless watching her") and become red-headed ("A vegetable dye," specifies her mother.)

How did Boynton come to be living the young thespian's dream? The reason probably lies with her school drama teacher and her love of Pamela Brown's The Swish of the Curtain (pictured).

Next, a casting director came to call at Boynton's Dulwich girls' school and she was invited to audition for Miss Potter. Next year, she will appear in the BBC's Sense and Sensibility; in the meantime, she says, with the suggestion of a sigh, "School has to be my priority".

'Ballet Shoes' is on the BBC over Christmas

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