April 20, 2000
by Rob Kendt
When growing up on-screen is your job, how do you grow up normally off-screen? Child star Frankie Muniz is finding out.
In most professions, the notion of employing children is unconscionable, evoking heartwrenching images of youngsters of single-digit age working their little fingers to the bone in paper mills and mines, as they did in the United States, despite rafts of state child labor laws, as recently as the late 1930s, when the federal Fair Labor Standards Act was passed.
Children plying the acting trade are a highly visible exception. Thousands of tykes of nearly all ages under the legal working age of 16 work in film, theatre, television, commercials, industrials, etc. (with proper legal dispensation, of course), and while, to those outside the business, acting may seem like fun and games, a natural extension of childlike imagination and play—and indeed it can be that—it is never just that. It is also a job, and for some fortunate few, a career. Not every young performer or parent who enters the field understands fully what it means for a growing child to have a full-time, high-stakes career in a profession that can wreak psychological havoc on the most well-adjusted adults—and that lack of understanding can lead to a lot of heartbreak and pain.
Indeed, the potential turmoil of working in a competitive, rejection-heavy business is what makes the choice to allow a child to pursue an acting career such a delicate one. It's a choice that is likely to have the best results when it is rooted in the child's genuine passion and instincts for performance.
Frankie Muniz, the title star of the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle and the lead in the hit film My Dog Skip, may have been born to act; there's almost no other way to explain how this diminutive 14-year-old has come by the formidable acting chops with which he handles the meaty leading roles in these, his first series and his first major feature film, respectively. Like most good child actors, Muniz has a natural, entirely unschooled talent for mimicry and performance, an infectious openness, and—this may be most crucial—an uncannily mature sense of focus.
He also happens to look like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, which made him the ideal choice for the sepia-toned nostalgia of My Dog Skip and which gives the aggressively irreverent Malcolm some salutary warmth and resonance.
His story, like that of a lot of successful child actors, has an unbelievable, fairy-tale quality, but it is nevertheless instructive for young actors and their parents at any stage of the game.
Some child actors are exposed to the performing arts by family members who work in the profession, but most catch the bug the way Frankie did. Performing was just one among the usual variety of childhood extracurricular activities.
"I like every sport," said Muniz, in person a lively but polite young man, in a recent interview at Jerry's Famous Deli. "When I was little, I played football, soccer, baseball, basketball, everything, going from this practice to another. . ."
"And then you'd be in a play," chimed in his mother, Denise, who came along for the interview. "You'd go from football practice—"
"To dance lessons," said Frankie.
"Then it started to be where he couldn't do anything but the acting," his mother recalled.
Indeed, this has been the Munizes' story for the last five years or so: a series of tough but inevitable decisions to follow Frankie's acting career, which has barreled forward nonstop practically since he first stepped onto a stage in Raleigh, North Carolina, as Tiny Tim in the local regional theatre's annual Christmas Carol, where a local agent spotted him. He'd moved to North Carolina at age four for his father's change of job; but after exhausting the region's acting opportunities, he and his mom returned to the family's native New Jersey to try Frankie's fortunes in the New York market. He never returned.
"We went up there for the summer to try it out," recalled Frankie. "But I just started getting all this stuff. I was going to go back to North Carolina for the school year, but we never got a chance, 'cause I was doing stuff. So we decided just to move back up there."
It was at that point, when Frankie was just 11, that Denise was faced with the first of many decisions. She had already been forced to juggle some of Frankie's outside activities, such as sports: "He started missing practices because he had an audition or he had to work; I would still sign him up and go, "Well, we might not be here all the time, is that OK?'" But once they were in New York, it was clear that Frankie could have a career in acting—and there were more than a few after-school activities at stake.
"He started booking one thing after another, and the agent there was like, "Can you maybe home-school him?'" said Denise. Then he booked a part in Anna Deavere Smith's docu-theatre play about U.S. Presidents, House Arrest, at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., which began rehearsals in the fall.
"I called up the school and said he got a job," said Denise.
"And they were like, "If he's not here in a week, we're kicking him out,'" said Frankie.
"And that's when I decided," said Denise, "if we're going to do this and stay here, then I have to home-school. We took it day by day. We just kept on doing what we were doing until it got impossible and we had to change. It wasn't like a thought-out thing, or like I took lessons or advice. Every experience—when it happens, I deal with it."
Likewise, last year's move to Los Angeles was only decided after Frankie booked the coveted lead in Fox's midseason replacement Malcolm in the Middle, about a reluctantly gifted kid with a comically dystopian family. It was a plum job that came despite the advice of a previous agent, who relentlessly advised the Munizes that they needed to be out West for Frankie to land a series regular role.
"I told her I didn't want to come out here unless we came out here for exactly what happened—he got a show," said Denise. Frankie booked it by reading on tape for Meg Simon, a Fox casting director in New York; tape was also the way he had booked My Dog Skip.
So what is it about Frankie? The makers of both Malcolm and My Dog Skip were seeking a pre-adolescent boy who would be the project's lead character and appear in nearly every scene, and each had an additional technical challenge: Skip required him to act with a dog, and Malcolm calls for him to address the camera directly in knowing asides. What did they see on those tapes that convinced them?
Jay Russell, director of My Dog Skip, recalled, "I was looking for a combination of a "period' face—I'm not sure what that is, but I knew it when I saw it—a sensitive face, but more importantly someone who could carry a movie, because he's in almost every scene and he goes through a wide range of emotions. I knew it wasn't going to be an easy task, and it wasn't."
Approaching the film's start date without the lead cast, Russell received a tape from the New York casting office with 20 kids on it, and he was fast—forwarding through it when "this little face with big eyes and big ears stopped me dead and I thought, OK, here's my period face," recalled Russell. "So I stopped the tape and prayed he was good." The cold reading revealed "a simplicity and honesty," and Russell felt "we'd finally found somebody different and special." Producer Mark Johnson agreed, and a screen test was arranged. "Then we saw what Frankie could do, and we were doing backflips, because we'd found him," said Russell.
On the set in Mississippi, Russell was further impressed with both his young lead's mature craft and his natural "kid" quality.
"The thing that's amazing about Frankie's performance is, not only was this his first lead role in anything, let alone a film, but that he gave that kind of performance in a film about an animal," said Russell. "What you don't hear on the film because of sound editing is the trainer offscreen giving commands to the dog. This was even occurring during some of the emotional scenes—and for Frankie to hold his emotional focus, even just his focus, is amazing."
Indeed, Frankie himself recalled the difficulty of a scene in which his character, Willy, bawls at his beloved pet's side, believing him dead.
"We had to do it so many times," recalled Frankie, "and at first I could do it by myself. But you know, the dog would get up and look around between takes, and he's supposed to be dead. So after, like, Take 15, I asked the director to yell at me, like, "You did this to your dog, you hit him and made him run away.' That really got me going again. It made it more real. It was easy at that point."
That recalls the old Hollywood story about a director lying to a young actress, saying her dog had just been hit by a truck, to get her to cry on camera. But apparently Frankie can do what real actors do: knowingly submit to imaginary circumstances.
"I never tried to pull any tricks with him," said Russell. "But we would agree going into some scenes to try certain things to make it work for him as an actor. It's an amazing instinct for a child actor: He knew he had to keep emotionally honest, and that if he ever fell into faking it, it just wouldn't come off right."
The makers of Malcolm had a similar epiphany based on a videotaped reading: "From the minute we saw him, we knew he was the one," recalled Mary Buck, who with Susan Edelman cast the pilot for Fox. "He's bright and funny and centered. We had seen youngsters who were very special, terrific actors, but there was something about Frankie—you knew this was a kid who could carry a TV show. I don't know what it is."
At the daunting series of network meetings, in which the finalists for a role must meet ever-higher echelons of creators and executives, Buck said Frankie continued to wow them: "He took direction instantly, and he played everything really real; he wasn't trying to act. Everything that Linwood [Boomer, exec. producer] or Todd [Holland, director] gave him, he was able to handle."
For his part, Frankie can't say how he does what he does. Like many child actors, he's never taken lessons—indeed, he resists coaching, even to the point of having a meeting with Malcolm's producers about his frustration with the on-set coach they'd hired.
"Acting is just easy for me, 'cause I make it like a sport, like golf," said Frankie—who, in another sign of precocious maturity, is a golf enthusiast. "I do it to have fun, and I love to do it. I don't know how I do it, I just do it. The weird thing is, when I'm acting, I sort of just like turn off my brain and do the scene, and then after the scene, I'm like, "Did I get everything right? Did I say my line?' 'Cause I don't even remember. It's so weird."
Of course, he's selling himself a little short: He may not know how he does it, but it's not as if he doesn't know what he's going for in a scene. Asked about having to enact situations and emotions he may not even have experienced yet in real life, he said, "Sometimes, it's like, "Oh yeah, I did that the other day,' and then other times, it's like, "I've never heard of that before—how am I supposed to do that?' I don't know; I just do it, and if the director wants me to do it a different way, he'll tell me, I'll listen, and I do it that way."
This combination of a playful, independent spirit and a respectful, collaborative geniality would seem to define the off-screen Frankie as well. One of the biggest edges that good child actors have on adult actors is that they're blessedly free of guile or indirection—they are naturally closer to the direct, unfettered expression of feeling, the emotional availability, that actors of all ages must have, but which is usually socialized out of us by the time we're all "respectable" grown-ups.
That also means that a child actor's true personality is more likely to come through his work, especially under the all-seeing eye of the camera. That's why at the root of Frankie's appeal is not his skill but his character. Said Russell, "That's what's special about him: He's a good kid, an honest kid, and that comes out in his performances."
Said his mom, Denise, as we watched him bowl after lunch, "What people like about Frankie is that he's not 14 going on 30—he's 14 going on 14 and a half. I don't want that to change."
One way for that not to change, for the time being, is in the kinds of roles he seeks. On the one hand, his New York agent, Ellen Gilbert of Abrams Artists, said, "We're not necessarily looking for kids' films, just for good roles. We want him to work with quality people. It's about quality, not quantity."
But, his mom admitted, she likes the "sweet, heartwarming stories" he's done—including the TV movie What the Deaf Man Heard and the Disney Channel's upcoming Miracle in Lane 2, in which he plays a wheelchair-confined boy with spinal bifida. "To me, he's 14, and he did grow and mature a lot in the last six months, but I still like that he can go for younger. I know I have to get in reality, and say, "Well, he is 14—get with it, Mom.' But I still want to have his image a little nicer yet."
Frankie himself—who isn't supposed to see R-rated films and doesn't seem much interested in them anyway—more or less agrees. Recalling a script his agents sent over that was rife with four-letter obscenities, smoking, and teen sex, he said, pragmatically, "I read the first two pages, and I was like, No no no. I don't want to get that image yet. Maybe when I'm 16 and I want to change, and not be Malcolm anymore—then, maybe."
Denise admitted that even Malcolm, with its toilet humor and deadpan cynicism about family life, "is probably as far as I want him to go right now. He's a little bratty—"You suck,' and words like that, which he was never even allowed to say in real life."
But Denise is no stage mom, nor does she dominate Frankie. As much as a mother can, she seems like a genuine pal to her son—laughing with him even when she doesn't always get the joke, indulging his love for L.A.'s misbegotten basketball team, the Clippers ("People say to him, "You're their No. 1 fan—and their only fan'"), and most of all trying to strike a balance for him that seems "normal." She's no longer home-schooling him: He's part of an independent-study school with grades and regular curriculum, just not class meetings.
"I always, on his days off, make sure he's doing something he wants to do, that he enjoys," she said. Her balancing act has become tougher now that both Malcolm and My Dog Skip are bona fide hits. "People said, "Your life will change,' and I said, "Oh, no.' Well, now I think we're still the same—only busier, crazier."
In other words, she fields a lot of calls ("one hundred million every day," said Frankie) and talks to his agents about what to do next, trying to squeeze in a family vacation and a film shoot (he'll next do a part in Deuce's Wild, a new period gangster film from director Scott Kalvert) before Malcolm's next season starts shooting in June.
But she and Frankie's agents aren't puppetmasters; Frankie still has to want to do the work. A recent example illuminates just how much Frankie remains a kid rather than a calculating showbiz player: Last week, he co-hosted Nickelodeon's Kids Choice Awards with Rosie O'Donnell, a gig to which he eagerly committed—and stuck to even after the producers of Saturday Night Live reportedly offered him a hosting slot the following night.
"That's what makes Frankie Frankie," said his mom, with a shrug that seemed both wistful and indulgent. As much as she seems to be bracing herself for the industry's relentless expectations of her son, Denise Muniz also seems to trust her son's instincts and her own. It's still a day-by-day strategy, but she has long-term hopes now.
"What I hope for is that as long he wants to keep doing it and enjoys it, that he has the longevity," she said. "I hope it's not just: He's a child star right now, and in a few years, it's, "Whatever happened to that kid?' I hope for longevity, like Ricky Schroder or Ron Howard. I'm trying with all my power to make that happen—and I think part of it is just to keep it fun. That's a job in itself!"
His agent, Ellen Gilbert, pointed out that the stereotype of the child star grown up and gone to seed is no longer fair, and that more youngsters are making the transition from cute early teen to awkward adolescent to young adult: "Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Anna Paquin, Christina Ricci," she listed off the top of her head. "I think kids are very smart today, very on top of things. A lot more healthy, normal child actors are making the transition."
Frankie will most likely go through his adolescence in front of a national television audience, and though he thinks he'd like to continue acting indefinitely, he does have some backup plans.
"I don't expect to be acting when I'm older—I want to, but you never know," he said. "So I have a couple of backup plans: to own the Clippers, to be in the PGA tour, to be in the Blue Man Group in New York, or to be a geographer."
Indeed, the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is necessarily a complicated one for child actors, those miniature working men and women. But as Frankie and his mom seem to realize, dealing with the complications of the business is above all a matter of maintaining perspective—of keeping a real life going outside the work of making fantasy for a living.
"Most of my friends here are actors, which sometimes is sorta cool, because they know what I'm doing and they understand it," said Frankie. "But then, it's like that's all they care about—acting this, acting that—and I just want to get away from it. I wanna be a normal kid—I am a normal kid, just acting."