How Atlanta child actor Owen Vaccaro became a Hollywood star—and how your kids could, too

Tips for kids from Owen, his mother, and casting director Chad Darnell on how to break into Georgia’s movie scene

Owen VaccaroHe’s only 10, but Atlanta actor Owen Vaccaro has already mastered the art of making a good first impression. Last year, when Owen got a callback audition for director Garry Marshall’s Atlanta-filmed ensemble comedy, Mother’s Day, not only had he memorized all the other kid roles in the script, he was ready when the casting director asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to show us?” Owen promptly belted out a rendition of “Naughty” from the hit Broadway musical Matilda. A few weeks later, he was playing Charlie, the adopted son of Sarah Chalke and Cameron Esposito.

Reflecting on his creative impulse over a Sprite and a chocolate chip cookie at Zoë’s Kitchen in Buckhead with his mom Allison, Owen shrugs his tiny shoulders inside a navy blazer, peers through his horn-rimmed glasses and says: “Matilda is like the best musical on earth. I was hoping to do something that would make me stand out.”

So far, his strategy is working. Last Christmas, the Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School student appeared as Will Ferrell’s stepson in the comedy Daddy’s Home, costarring Mark Wahlberg. With Georgia’s growing reputation for film and TV production, Atlanta has become a petri dish of prospective ingenues. But Allison Vaccaro says parents should carefully consider the realities of cultivating a kid actor.

“It’s a lot of work, not just for him but for everyone in the family,” she says. “If you’re in the audition waiting room and your kid is asking, ‘How much longer, mom?’—re-evaluate. For Daddy’s Home, we were in Louisiana for three months. That’s a long time to be away from the rest of your life.”

Stuck in rush hour traffic in Los Angeles, 2,000 miles away, casting director Chad Darnell echoes Allison’s words of caution. The Norcross High graduate, who started out as a kid acting at the Doraville Arts Theatre, helped to cast children in Selma (in Atlanta) and Magic Mike XXL (in Savannah). Darnell has a well-earned reputation for scolding star-struck parents.

“The first thing I’ll ask a kid when they walk into the audition is, ‘Is this fun for you?’ If they tell me ‘No,’ I take them by the hand, walk them back out to the waiting room, and tell the parent, ‘Your child doesn’t want to do this. Don’t waste his time or mine.’ There’s no reason for any kid to be put under that kind of stress unless they love to act.”

But Darnell says when he finds exactly the right child actor for a part, casting can be a magical experience. He got to witness that magic first-hand in 2014 when Trinity Simone, Mikeria Howard, Jordan Rice and Ebony Billups came in for a final audition with Selma director Ava DuVernay. The four little girls ended up portraying the children murdered inside Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church when a bomb detonated on September 15, 1963.

“It was a challenge because the girls had to have a period look,” Darnell recalls. “On location, you have next to no time for casting. But as soon as I saw Ava in there playing with [the girls], we all knew they were the ones. Ava also made sure they knew the importance of the roles they were taking on. It’s one of those scenes I get chills just thinking about now.”

Inevitably, with Georgia’s burgeoning film industry comes an uptick in cons. Darnell suggests that parents use the Atlanta Coalition of Talent Agents website for a list of legitimate agents. “Real agents take commissions,” Darnell explains. “They don’t charge sign-up fees. Anyone who asks you for $2,000 up front, run screaming in the opposite direction.”

Back on the set of Mother’s Day, Owen got schooled on another age-old reality of Hollywood—nepotism. Shooting a birthday party scene, he was waiting for Garry Marshall to yell “Action!” when another little kid suddenly scampered up the ladder and into the shot.

“I asked, ‘Did Mr. Marshall say it was okay for you to jump down the water slide?’” recalls Owen. “That’s when the kid told me, ‘He’s my grandpa.’” Owen buries his face in his hands doing his best Macaulay Culkin Home Alone impression, then grins and says, “I should have known!”

That’s show biz, kids.

Hollywood 101
Tips from child actor Owen Vaccaro, mom Allison Vaccaro, and casting director Chad Darnell

Owen says:

  • You’re not going to book everything you audition for. Get accustomed to hearing “no,” and just keep going.
  • Dress professionally. It’s job interview after all.
  • Remember, it’s less about what you say and more about how you say it—and how you react.

Allison says:

  • Hollywood doesn’t work on your schedule. Keep in mind you have to be available at a moment’s notice.
  • Acting requires a serious financial and time commitment, from paying for headshots to driving to film auditions. And that’s all before you see a paycheck.
  • Be an advocate for your child on set. They care about getting in that last shot—not your child’s homework or how many hours he’s worked that day.

Chad says:

  • Start out by working as an extra. That will tell you if you enjoy the “hurry up and wait” nature of filmmaking.
  • Walk into an audition like there’s a party being thrown for you. Own it. Be prepared to think on your feet.
  • Acting classes (see below) will teach you how to interpret a script and the basics of on-camera performing.

3 places to Earn Your Acting Chops
Alliance Theatre
For performers in grades K-12, classes range from musical theater to playwriting to improv comedy.

Atlanta Workshop Players
Learn on-camera acting, sketch comedy—even how to make your own films.

The Atlanta Children’s Theatre Company
This company hosts classes at several Atlanta-area schools and on weekends at the Horizon Theatre.

Kids in the ATL: “For kid actors, the big screen awaits” is reason 10 of our 25 Reasons it’s Great to be a Kid in Atlanta. To read the full list, grab a copy of our May 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

A version of this article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.

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