Life as a child actor as demand grows for stage, TV and movies

Jaime Chew on the set of Netflix drama series Marco Polo with actress Joan Chen and as a child reporter (above) in Channel 5 variety series OK Chope!.
Jaime Chew on the set of Netflix drama series Marco Polo with actress Joan Chen and as a child reporter (above) in Channel 5 variety series OK Chope!.PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

As demand grows for child actors for stage, television and movie productions, there is room to develop the industry further

Child actors are a small but flourishing breed in Singapore.

While there are no hard figures available, the modest demand for younger actors seems to be growing, says Ms Alison Tompkins, who co-founded Centre Stage School of the Arts in 1999 with her husband, Mr Peter Hodgson. It offers drama, dance, jazz and other classes for children and youth.

The couple were actors in the United Kingdom and then trained to be teachers.

Mr Hodgson says global productions heading to Singapore that require home-grown child actors as well as a flourishing theatre scene here help keep the demand for child actors going.

He adds that Centre Stage fields two or three e-mail queries every week to place or recommend child actors for Singapore and foreign productions.

In the acting scene here, child talent is cast in various ways. A Mediacorp spokesman says some of the ways include scouting via Mediacorp's Singapore Media Academy's speech and drama classes and Channel 8's children's singing competitions; casting calls on social media; and word-of-mouth recommendations by directors and producers.

Netflix period drama series Marco Polo searched for talent by approaching acting teachers, drama schools and talent agencies, as well as regular schools, with teachers inviting parents to ask their children if they wanted to audition.

Ms Milica Stankovic, casting director for Marco Polo's second season, says: "You really have to search in every little pocket."

Singaporean film director Jack Neo, whose movies often feature child actors, says he prefers to work with kids aged eight and older, as younger ones may not be able to follow instructions as well.

While there may be some truth to the show business cliche regarding the difficulty of working with children and animals, child actors can be held to the same high standards as their adult counterparts.

Mr Hodgson says that just like adult professionals, child actors might get offered roles regularly not only because of their talent, but also because of their discipline. "How you behave, what you do during the audition and on the job counts - for example, learning your lines. Reputation is everything."

He suggests that the child actor scene could do with more professionalism. For example, he has seen child actors being paid "nothing, zero or their expenses".

Almost all the industry insiders interviewed decline to reveal the range of earnings of a child actor, but Mr Hodgson says Centre Stage recommends $400 for a day's work. This rate and other recommendations relating to hours worked and breaks will be considerations for a child actor agency that Centre Stage is hoping to launch.

Ms Tompkins says that children should be helped in areas that even adult professionals struggle with, for example, failing auditions.

"It's difficult for adults to face rejection," she says, adding that hundreds of child applicants can be rejected at the audition stage.

Centre Stage has organised auditions in Singapore for international productions that offered roles for Singapore child actors.

These include a West End production of The Sound Of Music in 2014, which attracted more than 400 children to audition, as well as the musical Annie, which runs from Wednesday. Six children from Singapore were picked to perform with Annie's United States cast, out of 170 children who auditioned.

"We tell the children, it's not that they weren't good, but maybe they weren't suited for the part, maybe they were simply the wrong height, for instance. It's not something personal," she says.

"This business is about picking yourself up. You may be suitable next time."

Shy when boys ask for her autograph

When Jaime Chew, 10, was practising her lines for the Netflix drama series Marco Polo, she asked the director: "What is a concubine?"

Jaime, a Primary 5 pupil at Damai Primary School, plays Princess Ling Ling, daughter of an imperial concubine, in the second season of Marco Polo, which premiered on streaming service Netflix on July 1.

Jaime Chew on the set of Netflix drama series Marco Polo with actress Joan Chen (both above) and as a child reporter in Channel 5 variety series OK Chope!. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LU-MIN CHEW

Director Daniel Minahan deflected her query to her mother, Mrs Lu-min Chew, 44, who chaperoned her daughter during her three-week shoot last year at Johor's Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios.

Mrs Chew, a freelance music teacher and musician, explained that kings might have had "many wives" to signal their power.

On her part, Jaime says the relationship between the king and his concubine involves "having a cuddle in bed together".

She has not seen the entirety of the show as "mummy fast-forwards all the yucky bits".

Marco Polo, which has scenes of nudity and violence, is inspired by the eponymous Venetian explorer, who travelled to China and spent about 20 years in service to Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.

The production, which has reportedly cost at least US$90 million (S$121 million) so far, features other actors from Singapore, such as Oon Shu An, Los Angeles-based Chin Han, as well as Primary 1 pupil Max Kellady.

Jaime worked with veteran actresses such as Joan Chen and Michelle Yeoh, who gave her a muesli bar after a tiring day of filming. She also learnt to ride a horse and play the Chinese musical instrument pipa.

Her younger brother, Connor, six, has a non-speaking role in his acting debut playing Kaidu, the cousin of Kublai Khan, as a child.

The siblings had private dressing rooms and chauffeurs drove them between Singapore and Malaysia.

Jaime had auditioned for the role through an open casting call in the newspapers and the Marco Polo team cast Connor when he was visiting the set.

Although you could call her a professional now, Jaime's first stab at acting did not pan out.

At age seven, she joined friends in auditioning for a part in the musical Annie. She received a bag of sweets after the audition, but cried when her mother told her it was because she did not get the role.

A fan of The Sound Of Music since she was a toddler, she auditioned two years ago to be in a West End stage production that included roles for Singapore talent.

She was picked and alternated playing the part of Gretl, the littlest von Trapp and her favourite character, with other child actors.

The show ran for four weeks at Marina Bay Sands' MasterCard Theatres.

With this stage experience under her belt, she took another shot at Annie, the latest staging of which opens on Wednesday at Marina Bay Sands.

Jaime, who takes musical theatre and piano classes, is one of six children from Singapore playing orphans in the show.

She says a lot of opportunities have come her way after The Sound Of Music, such as roles in Mediacorp productions.

She is now better at handling rejection. "A few days after an audition, I'd think, what should I do to improve?" says Jaime, who will appear as a child reporter in Channel 5 variety series OK Chope!, which premieres in October.

Being a child actor means she has to manage her time efficiently, especially when missing school.

Instead of exploring the Marco Polo set depicting 13th-century China, she did homework in her hotel room during breaks.

During the run of The Sound Of Music, she attended school intermittently, in between rehearsals and performances. She often slept at close to midnight, compared with her usual bedtime of 9.30pm, and was allowed to go to school later the following day.

"Acting is fun, I want to do more of it. But I wish I could have more hours in a day," she says.

Mrs Chew says she and her 49- year-old husband, who works in banking, support their daughter's interest in part because she is able to juggle acting with her studies.

She adds: "We find these artistic avenues help balance the academic pressure of school."

While acting has made Jaime more confident, she is less than enthused about being recognised.

"I'm more of a quiet person," she says, hiding her face in her hands as she recounts how friends on the school bus once mentioned they had seen her in a print advertisement.

Boys have asked for her autograph and one even requested her phone number. She told him she does not have a mobile phone.

Acting during the school holidays

Vasantham child actress Sanchala and her mother, Ms Jaya Chitra Ramakrishnan. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

When Sanchala started acting in shows on Vasantham channel at the age of five, her mother had to read her lines aloud for her to memorise, as she could not read Tamil yet. Make-up artist Jaya Chitra Ramakrishnan, 36, initially felt that her daughter was too young to act when a screenwriter friend was looking for a child actor.

She eventually decided to let her elder child try something new.

Sanchala's debut in the family drama Nijangal (Truth) won her the Best Child Artiste award at Pradhana Vizha, a biennial awards show that honours talent in the home- grown Indian entertainment scene.

Now 10 and a Primary 4 pupil at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Primary School, Sanchala has been nominated in the same category for the upcoming Pradhana Vizha, which will be held at The Theatre at Mediacorp on Sept 17.

In the drama, Janani d/o Madhavan, she plays a girl who likes baking cupcakes and is being raised by her widowed father.

Being a child actor has made Sanchala independent. When she was six, Ms Chitra, who is married to a safety officer in the construction industry, gave birth to her son, Raghav. Her mother was too busy caring for her newborn brother to accompany her on her filming shoots.

Instead, assistant producers from Vasantham ferried Sanchala to and from home, and ensured she had her meals and rest breaks. This has been the practice ever since.

Sanchala's fans range from young children to older women. They hug and kiss her, or ask to take photos.

There are challenges to her acting vocation. The family do not take long holidays, preferring short trips to Bintan or Langkawi, as filming takes place during the school holidays and sometimes on weekends.

Despite having to "sacrifice play" for her acting, Sanchala says: "There are no complaints because acting is my passion."

'Acting more exciting than what kids normally do'

Ivan Lo Kai Jun likes acting as it allows him to portray different roles.
Ivan Lo Kai Jun likes acting as it allows him to portray different roles. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Ivan Lo Kai Jun, 12, stumbled upon acting and now wants to be a professional actor when he grows up.

When he was five, his mother, housewife Jessica Goh, took his elder sister, Alicia, now 15, to an audition.

Ms Goh, 49, says her daughter was a little shy at the time and she wanted to expose her to acting to boost her confidence.

Ivan tagged along for the audition and was spotted by a talent scout, who offered him a role in a Channel 8 drama, Bao Mu Xiao Jie Jie (Nanny Big Sister). Alicia did not get the part she auditioned for.

The siblings have since chalked up experience in television and commercials and sometimes share acting pointers with each other, though Ivan has the thicker resume.

Besides starring in television series with Singapore actors such as Paige Chua and Chen Liping, he has also appeared in home-grown movies, such as film-maker Jack Neo's We Not Naughty (2012), in which he plays a troubled teen's brother, and My Dog Dou Dou (2012), in which he portrays a schoolboy who takes home a stray dog which can predict winning 4-D lottery numbers.

Ivan, a Secondary 1 student at Edgefield Secondary School, was seen on TV earlier this year in an okto show called Ponteng School (playing truant).

He says: "I like to portray different roles. I set aside time for acting so that during the holidays, I can do something I like."

While he often spends school holidays on his acting projects, he does his homework during breaks in shooting.

Besides taking advice from directors and actors, Ivan researches his roles like a professional. For example, for a Channel 8 production last year in which he plays someone with epilepsy, he watched YouTube videos of people with the condition.

His mother supervises his schoolwork and discusses acting offers with him, ensuring that the projects do not clash with examinations or school hours.

Ms Goh, whose husband, 51, is a production manager in the chemical manufacturing industry, says that, over the years, Ivan gets fewer roles through open casting calls and auditions. Instead, most offers come via recommendations by directors or producers.

Ivan says he gains new skills and experiences through acting. During filming of My Dog Dou Dou when he was about nine years old, he learnt to cycle and, in one scene, was hoisted by a wire and launched into the air.

"I find acting more exciting than what kids normally do," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Life as a child actor'. Print Edition | Subscribe