IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was A Child Actress

My mom likes to point out how many of the girls I knew from auditioning have now made it -- Natalie Portman, Hayden Panettiere, Anna Paquin, Jena Malone, etc. -- but I always answer that that doesn’t mean I would have.
Publish date:
August 7, 2013
It Happened To Me, childhood, Annie, child actress

I walked into the Times Square headquarters of MTV in a numb, terrified daze. I sat in the meeting listening to three overly caffeinated albeit lovely producers pitching ideas about how to turn my blog into a TV show (“like The City and The Hills but...different!”). I could barely muster up one-word responses, unable to hide the sheer, unmitigated terror I associated with being on TV, especially as anyone other than myself.

Then it came up that I grew up acting. Everyone in the room looked at me like I was crazy. “So what, like, what happened?”

I know, guys. I ask myself the same thing everyday. How did I become this curmudgeonly writer when I grew up dreaming of billboard-covering, side-of-bus-plastering stardom?

It started with beauty pageants. I was six years old, it was 1992, and I wanted to wear my hair as big as the heavens would allow and prance around in pretty, poofy dresses. I sang for the talent section -– Judy Garland, natch -– and the owner of one of the pageant chains told my mom to talk to her friend, a talent manager.

Before I knew it, I was auditioning for young Cosette in the Broadway production of “Les Miserables.” I have a nagging feeling that the casting directors had a hard time envisioning my teased Whitesnake-esque bangs with the rags that I’d be wearing in the show as a poverty-stricken 19th-century French orphan.

But soon, my mom and I learned to leave the pageant biz behind for the world of show business.

The idea of “normal” morphed overnight. I was from Rockland County, about 45 minutes north of Manhattan. My grandparents would shuttle my mom and I into the city in the morning, leaving her and me to pound the pavement from singing lessons to voice-over recordings to auditions to rehearsals.

Before anyone in my family reads this and calls me in a state of aghast-ness, I DID always attend school in some manner. There were days I did go as normal, days I left early, and sometimes I just made up the work. My teachers were amazing. In fact, so were my classmates. I didn’t experience that phenomenon you hear other actors bemoan about the other kids at school ostracizing them.

It was mostly Nickelodeon commercials and Dunkin Donuts voice-overs and week-long, off-off-off-off-OFF-Broadway shows until I scored a role in the Broadway revival of “Annie.” If anyone remembers, these were the insane auditions that were actually on "20/20" because of said insanity.

And so began the real adventure. Because of the rehearsal and performance schedule, my mom and I usually stayed in the city, leaving me to do things totally normal for an 11-year-old, like go out for post-show drinks (Shirley Temples) with the cast.

I had my ego inflated by the nightly routine of exiting the stage door after shows to a crowd of screaming girls -– girls my own age –- asking us to autograph their Playbills. Soon I was made the understudy for the role of Annie.

On my big debut (Annie had laryngitis), everything was going swimmingly until the final moments of Act 2. I think Daddy Warbucks had just told me to go get “gussied” up for the big holiday party/adoption celebration. I ran up a grand staircase onstage, and had exactly 30 seconds to change into the famous red dress and curly wig. Except, no one ever gave me a chance to rehearse on stage with the sets Annie used.

Having never seen the grand staircase OFF stage, I made the seemingly logical assumption that the staircase went up on one side and down on the other. It did not. It was a ladder. And I ran straight off that shit like Wile E. Coyote. Two stories in the air, probably still running for a second of shock.

A sound guy calmly witnessed this error and stood under me, arms outstretched. He caught me and plopped me right into the red dress a visibly shaken wardrobe assistant was holding open for the quick change. A zip and a mic check, and I was running back onstage. Ah, live theater.

When the show closed on Broadway, we hit the road, and I lived a year of my life spending one-week intervals in cities across the country. So did my mom –- she gave up her life and the opportunity to see my dad and brother very often. It was so long ago now that sometimes I forget what an incredible and valuable experience it was.

My school principal waved off the worries about my maybe not getting to do homework every single day with the wise proclamation that this would be an amazing education –- I toured the missions of St. Augustine, Florida, experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans, walked the freedom trail in Boston, almost got chased out of the Liberty Bell because one of fellow castmates was trying to ring it, saw one of the first cars ever manufactured in Detroit, worked with a charity organization for teenage mothers in Dallas -– and yes, did non-educational stuff, too, like running from a historic jellyfish invasion on the beach in Miami and having the most fun slumber party ever with two of my fellow orphans at Sally Struthers’ Beverly Hills house -– a strange memory that now seems surreal.

After we left the tour, I spent the next few years doing theater projects. There was the show where I could talk to animals (animals played by adult humans), the show where I was the abused daughter of an Italian-American violin prodigy (I got to learn stage combat for a scene where I went ape-shit on a classmate and it was AWESOME), and a show called “Portofino” that I still believe in and wish would have made it. It starred Lea Michele of “Glee,” and she was the sweetest, most talented girl ever.

And then there was the off-Broadway show, “Abby’s Song,” which Paul Sorvino was in. He was “finding himself” via an experimental artist stage, and he made portraits of every cast member that were SUPER creepy. But a lovely man, all in all.

During my sophomore year of high school, I played Rusty in another school’s (an all boys’ school) production of “Footloose.” My manager came to see me in it and afterward told my mom she couldn’t really send me on auditions anymore because I’d gotten weird.

I had, y’all. I had NO eyebrows! Sad and embarrassing but true nonetheless. I was a major weirdo, who had felt the gravitational pull of high school friends and older boys and Hot Topic, and apparently, super skinny eyebrows. I was all but un-marketable in the entertainment industry. And at the time, I suddenly decided I didn’t care.

I began to miss it as the weirdness wore off. I realized I regretted not sticking with acting, and picked the only New York school I had applied to, Fordham, so I could be in the city and start acting again. It just never happened, though, and as I drifted further and further from that world, lost touch with all my actor friends, and started studying screenwriting, I had the epiphany that I physically, emotionally, and mentally needed to be in the entertainment industry -– more than a dream but a need in my very soul -– but just not as an actor.

I just think it’s bizarre that a younger me would have died before giving up acting and me now would die before doing it again. How can you change so much in one lifetime? I’m grateful for every second of my childhood -– I learned to embrace being a little freak, I learned confidence, I got to be friends with some of the most warm and vibrant people, I benefitted from being exposed to every single different kind of person there is from a young age -– but now the idea of hamming it up mortifies me so much that I don’t even tell people I used to act until I’ve known them for, like, a year.

So, here I am, working my nine-to-five and going home to stacks of half-finished screenplays. My mom likes to point out how many of the girls I knew from auditioning have now made it –- Natalie Portman, Hayden Panettiere, Anna Paquin, Jena Malone, etc. -– but I always answer that that doesn’t mean I would have.

And hopefully, someday I’ll write a movie and get to cast the girls I always liked and cruelly reject the mean ones I didn’t. And no, I’m not telling you which ones are which.