Montana Hunter was 16 the first time a powerful adult called him a nerd. It wasn’t an insult. It was an opportunity. Hunter is an aspiring film actor and, to him, hearing a casting director flatly declare the kind of part he was most likely to get was a gift. And he took it as such.
“They called it a ”˜geeky nerd’ look,” the now-18-year-old UBC Arts One student recalled in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “It’s not the stereotypical geek look, though I have gone out for plenty of geeky roles.”¦It seems like a good way of billing myself. Was I insulted? Never. I enjoy doing it, and it’s not something I feel constrained by.”
Hunter, who was home-schooled until Grade 11, never had the opportunity to be a real nerd. In Grade 12, he attended Templeton Secondary where, he said, the age-old teen stereotypes are alive and well, but in a much more sedate form than what you see on the big screen.
Being able to play a recognized role, Hunter noted, is a solid calling card for young actors, especially with casting directors who are unfamiliar with their work. Plus, he’s comfortable as a nerd.
“I think everyone has an inner geek,” Hunter said. “That’s what makes these roles exciting. These are people who really care about something, and that stops them from being cool.” It’s an attitude that helped him win a role as a choirboy in the TV series Aliens in America, as well as appearances in numerous student films.
Hunter is one of Vancouver’s emerging teen character actors, a crew that focuses on acting rather than preening. Stars such as Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera and Michael Cera, the lanky It Boy who played the lead in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Paulie Bleeker in Juno lead this Hollywood trend and prove that a successful teen acting career need no longer rest on resembling Mark-Paul Gosselaar or Tiffani Thiessen. That’s in spite of the “marketable”, fresh-faced McKenzie Knapps winning the creepily candid VH1 reality show I Know My Kid’s a Star, over the less-regulation-looking Cheyenne Haynes.
In fact, not looking like Zac Efron is a plus, according to Michael Bean, the owner and head teacher at Vancouver’s Biz Studio, which offers acting classes for children and youth.
“There’s work for everybody,” Bean told the Straight in an interview at his studio. “And there’s lots and lots of competition already for the ingénue category. So if you have a very specific look that’s not ingénue, your odds of getting work are probably higher. Everybody wants to be one of the beautiful people. That’s what you see on prime-time TV. And there’s some very talented, very quirky people out there who are driving themselves crazy trying to be beautiful. Once you embrace your own image and you start to play with it, that’s when your career starts to take off.”
Bean is tall and thin, wears glasses, and has angular cheekbones and a strong chin. He’s a working actor who often plays dweeby doctors and businessmen. He has a distinct look, in other words, and uses it to get work. In an adult, that kind of self-acceptance is good business. But how is it for a young person, who may be struggling with stereotypes and identity issues at school.
“When it’s psychologically healthy, it’s a game, it’s fun,” Bean affirmed. “You’re playing with the idea of image, and once you’re in control of it, it’s the opposite of being victimized. ”˜Oh no! I’ll never get work because I don’t look like Angelina Jolie.’ It’s the opposite of that.”
But to Jill Blair, a registered clinical counsellor with Family Services of the North Shore, it’s a murky area. At 12 years old, she explained to the Straight by phone, young people enter their “identity phase”, when they separate from their parents. This is an exciting, terrifying, and sensitive time, Blair said. As a counsellor, she said, she is often asked to help teens who find themselves victimized by their peers based on how they present themselves.
“Teens are more happy to think of their friends as idiots, rather than, ”˜I acted this way, so I got treated this way,’ ” she said, noting that identity formation is a complex process that lasts years. “You need to get the teen to a place where they can say, ”˜Okay, I am a nerd. What would it take to not participate in this cycle?’”
Whether they’re working as actors or just living, she explained, one of the primary challenges of adolescence is figuring out how to be in control of how the world sees you and reacts to you. Blair added that, once in charge, a teen can have the power to play the “game” or reject it. So long as they’re in charge.
But what happens to that opportunity when your image includes elements you can’t control, like ethnicity?
Lynnéa Chan is a tiny, vivacious, nine-year-old Chinese Canadian actor who lives in Coquitlam. She thinks she’d be great at playing an “annoying little sister”, and ultimately, she told the Straight, she’d like to portray someone famous. Or be famous.
“Acting makes me feel funny and happy,” Chan said in a phone interview. So far, she has booked a modelling job for a clothing company, and is waiting to hear about a doll commercial. “I’m not good at simulating badness. I start laughing.”
Her mom, Alisande Chan, told the Straight she’s not sure that Lynnéa’s non-blond looks are an asset.
“I’m skeptical,” she said. “There’s not a lot of Asian parts.”¦though she looks like a typical Chinese girl with a certain demeanour, she’s not going to fit that. She’s kind of loud, but in a good way.”
Chan said that taking her daughter to auditions is a huge time commitment—pulling her out of school, waiting for the audition with all the other actors, witnessing Lynnéa’s excitement, waiting for a call back that may not come, and managing her disappointment. Though several stereotype-busting Asian actors are breaking new ground, such as The Suite Life of Zack and Cody’s Brenda Song, who is Thai-Hmong-American, Chan wonders when their success will translate into greater opportunity locally.
For young people such as Hunter and Lynnéa Chan, being a character actor instead of an ingénue adds another layer of self-discipline to an already pressure-filled venture. In local talent agent Fiona Jackson’s self-published book, Child Actors: A Parent’s Survival Guide, the author advises that parents should not let their children be actors unless the child really, really wants to do it. The potential costs, she writes, can be catastrophic.
“The history of children working in film is filled with tales of drug and alcohol abuse, tangles with the law, suicide, and the scourge of young women starving themselves to look better on camera,” Jackson, who is the mother of Dawson’s Creek star Joshua Jackson, writes in the introduction. She notes that Judy Garland, River Phoenix, Tatum O’Neal, Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Taylor, and Lindsay Lohan all suffered as child stars.
Alisande Chan worries about Lynnéa’s career opportunities as an actor. But she also believes that just the process of learning how to act has benefited her daughter’s confidence.
“I see how she reacts to bullies now, with the witty comebacks,” Chan said, “and she wouldn’t have done that before. I’m proud. And I don’t have to worry about her so much.”
As for acting, Bean thinks that whether a young person defines himself or herself as a character actor or an ingénue, he or she still must study their craft diligently and dare to take emotional risks.
“You still need to get into that space,” he said, “because that’s what’s exciting.”¦Being super-quirky helps you get work, because it’s distinctive-the same way that being super-beautiful is distinctive. But you still have to be a good actor. If you’re passionate about it, there’s work for every kind of look.”