Move over Mad Men – now is the time for Small Stars

Major roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show in television’s biggest dramas

They’re no Jon Hamm or Sean Bean. In fact, in television hits such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones, they are, literally, the smallest stars. But it’s the children who are stealing the show, proving that size isn’t everything.

The award for Mad Men’s biggest personality has to go to Hamm’s on-screen daughter, Sally, played by Kiernan Shipka. Shipka has aged along with the show: she was six when first cast. “To play someone from the age of six, while also being six, and then growing into a teenager, is the wildest thing. To grow up with Sally, and be able to evolve as a character like that, is something you don’t get to do very often,” Shipka, 14, told Vanity Fair.

In Nashville, otherwise known as Dynasty with country music, Friday Night Lights actress Connie Britton and Heroes’s Hayden Panettiere may get the biggest billing, but viewers are really only waiting for a glimpse of the show’s youngest stars: the sister singers Lennon and Maisy Stella, who play Maddie and Daphne Conrad.

Nashville’s Maisy and Lennon Stella Nashville’s Maisy and Lennon Stella Lennon – who was named after John Lennon – has to deal with some of the programme’s biggest plotlines. But it’s the pair’s on-screen electricity and their exceptional singing voices that keep audiences hooked. The fans’ online comments bears testimony to their disappointment that the duo from Ontario, Canada, who are 14 and 10, are not performing in the Nashville concert tour, which starts this week in America.

Williams as Arya in the first season of Game of Thrones Williams as Arya in the first season of Game of Thrones Something similar has happened in Game of Thrones, HBO’s biggest series since The Sopranos. From the first series, which starred Bean as Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, it was the youngest member of the Stark clan, Arya, played by the then 12-year-old Maisie Williams, who wooed viewers. Even now, in series four, Bristol-born Williams still steals the show. Sansa Stark, Arya’s elder sister, played by Sophie Turner, born in Northampton, is similarly captivating. The Stark sisters have some of the strongest plot-lines, but their appeal goes beyond the action.

So what’s the secret? Casting director Lucy Bevan says the trick is to cast children to be themselves. “It’s a real challenge casting children, and you have to see lots of kids to find the right one. You need to find a child who is as close to the role as it’s written as possible to bring it to life truthfully and authentically.”

Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka at a recent press event Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka at a recent press event Jo Hawes, who has cast children in more than 70 stage productions, thinks shows are coming up with stronger parts for children. “People are recognising that children can deliver so there are some pretty difficult parts, which children are carrying off with aplomb.”

But it all hangs on the quality of the young stars themselves. Mark Puddle, who runs Westend Stage, a Europe-wide theatre school for children, says: “The main thing is that young people have got better. There are more avenues to train, plus people have learnt more about how to direct children.

“It also helps that entertainment is seen as a serious career now, compared with 20 years ago. There is more confidence in the arts.”

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