Childstar director Don McKellar explores the lives of the rich and bratty
Director Don McKellar was worried he wouldn't find someone monstrous enough for the title character
TORONTO—Everyone who works in film knows there's one thing scarier than a child star: a stage mother. When Cancon icon Don McKellar (Last Night) was researching his new movie, Childstar (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [January 28]), he started looking for horror stories and had no trouble turning them up.
"I talked to a lot of people—child stars, ex-child stars, mothers, and especially production companies who had dealt with mothers of child stars—and there are lots and lots and lots of stories."
Sitting on a hotel patio full of stars just after his film's world premiere at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, McKellar said one of his favourite tales was about a mom of a famous young sitcom actor who demanded that the producers build a private playground for her little boy, "so that he could have a normal childhood experience....And one day, some grip sat on the teeter-totter and she flipped out and pulled the kid from the stage." That's the kind of "normal" childhood the director wanted to explore.
McKellar came up with the concept for Childstar when he was in Hollywood for the Oscar party for The Red Violin (which he cowrote) and ended up at a DreamWorks bash afterward, where he met the boy who saw dead people. McKellar was thrown by how adult little Haley Joel Osment seemed.
But he set the idea aside until he mentioned it to a student at the Canadian Film Centre, who was instantly excited. McKellar offered the student, Michael Goldbach, the chance to cowrite a script with him. The two crafted a story about Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall)—a 12-year-old on a quest to lose his virginity before his voice cracks along with his career--and a struggling, very Canadian experimental filmmaker (McKellar) who lands a job as an assistant to the high-maintenance boy and his higher-maintenance mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
McKellar said his biggest challenge on his most ambitious and expensive film to date was finding his title character. "I looked around America for a kid, and I did approach some American child stars, but I wasn't totally pleased. And there was no one obvious; there was no real star in that age group. As it happens, there's no 12-year-old star. I looked at the Culkins, and even Rory Culkin is a little too long in the tooth now."
McKellar auditioned then-15-year-old Rendall (Touching Wild Horses) and was impressed by his performance but also concerned that the Toronto actor was just too darn nice. "He was by far the best actor I auditioned, but I was worried he wasn't American enough and he couldn't be monstrous enough or bratty enough to play the part.
"I guess I was waiting for someone with that attitude that I would say, 'Here's my character.' But then I realized, 'What am I doing going out of my way looking for a brat? Go for the best actor and let him act bad.' And it quickly became apparent that he could do that."
So, after deciding not to pursue a real Culkin, McKellar chose an actor he describes as "very Culkin-esque. He's got a real classic child-star look. Sort of big eyes and fair-haired."
McKellar also hoped to have American actors play the American roles and Canadians take on the Canadian parts. That didn't quite happen, but, he explained, "A lot of parts are [played by] Canadians who Americans think are Americans." Most of his key American roles are filled by Canucks well-known stateside for their work on American TV. The Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley (NewsRadio) portrays the manic movie producer behind the cheesy action film about a U.S. president being rescued by his young son, Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal) is the boy's í¼ber-agent, Brendan Fehr (Roswell) is a former child star, and Alan Thicke (Growing Pains) plays Taylor's sitcom dad.
One part that was never up for grabs was the role of the Canadian filmmaker. "I felt it was so personal in a way that it would be weird if I didn't cast myself, that it would almost be dishonest or something," McKellar recalled. He laughed. "It's not that huge a stretch for me. It wasn't like I was playing Richard III or something."
Asked who was tougher to direct, his Culkin-like costar or himself, McKellar laughed again. "I'm pretty good. I'm not that challenging. I wasn't as professional as Mark was. I wasn't as prepared as Mark was, I didn't know my lines as well, so I took more patience."