MONTREAL — He was the scrawny kid aspiring to a boxing career in the Best Picture Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby. He starred alongside Nicolas Cage in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and had the lead role in the acclaimed Canadian movie The Trotsky.
Montreal actor Jay Baruchel, 29, credits his mother, Robyne, for much of the success he has enjoyed in film and television since his first job at age 12.
To date, he has had roles in more than 25 movies and a dozen TV shows in Canada and the United States.
Baruchel and his younger sister, Taylor, who has also acted since she was a child, were beside their mom when she launched her book The Stage Parent Survival Guide: Second Edition at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.
Published by ACTRA, the union representing performers in English-language media, the guide is intended as a resource for parents of under-age children in the Canadian film and TV industry or those thinking of putting their kids in the business. The book has been updated from the first edition 10 years ago.
The event was chaired by singer and actor Theresa Tova, national child advocate for ACTRA, which has bargained for and enforces rules that protect the interests of child actors.
“Stage mother” is not a pejorative term to this group. Listening to the Baruchel family, the impression left is that parents should tread very carefully before getting their son or daughter into professional acting and, once into it, any parent who is not hands-on is simply not doing his or her job.
It is not exploitation by overzealous parents that is the concern of ACTRA, but directors and producers who push kids beyond what is stipulated in their contract. It’s not uncommon, Tova said, for children to be pressured to work longer hours than agreed upon, which jeopardizes the balance that should be kept between performing and their family, school and social lives.
Robyne Baruchel’s first piece of advice is to get a “reputable” agent for your child, even before they set foot on a set. When a contract is signed, read and understand the fine print, she says.
The book explains in everyday language typical clauses and conditions.
She also cautioned against the come-ons by dubious outfits that claim they can get kids into pictures – as long as they see money up-front.
Actor Ellen David, who led an onstage conversation with the Baruchel family at the launch, described Jay and Taylor as examples of child actors who grew up to be sane, likable adults, in no small measure due to their mother’s supervision.
Robyne Baruchel advises a parent to always stay within sight or, at least, earshot when their child in working on set, “without being obstrusive.”
Jay was good in school, and slightly “nerdy,” so his parents were surprised when he wanted to act, she recalled. They enrolled him in the children’s troupe Geordie Productions, regarding it as a once-a-week extracurricular activity.
He soon got his first professional part in a local children’s TV show.
“We always told him to do it only as long as it was fun. Auditions were outings. We never thought of it as a mission or a career,” she said.
“I dug doing it,” Jay remembered. “I was not into sports. It’s what I did on weekends. It was just playing cops and robbers, only with cameras.”
There were times when he felt overwhelmed and miserable, but his mom always looked out for him and he appreciated it.
“There’s a Wild West mentality – they try to get away with stuff [in Canada] that they couldn’t in L.A. or New York. I could see they hated my mother, but she couldn’t care less.”
Taylor likewise appreciates her mother’s advocacy. Six years younger than her brother, she has decided on a career in academia rather than acting. She is pursuing a PhD at Concordia University, and was recently named an “Academic All-Canadian,” an honour for students who excel in both their studies and sports. (She plays varsity rugby.)
Her acting, however, has stood her in good stead, giving her communication skills, poise and a work ethic that is serving her well, Taylor said.
The Baruchels insisted that their children keep their grades up, and that’s where Jay found it tough. “I’d be working eight to 10 hours a day, and then have to spend two hours with a tutor. I would miss about half of the school year.
“I’m not going to lie. At times it was a bit much, but I kept at it because I loved what I was doing.”
Taylor viewed the crammed schedule more positively. “I saw it as being able to do a week’s school work in a couple of hours when I was with a tutor. When I was in a class, I found it slow…
“I never fit in 100 per cent with my peer group, except other child actors. I was more comfortable with adults and older kids. But I would not change anything.”
With all its tribulations, Jay says he loves acting so much “that I would do it for free. That I can make a living at it amazes me.”
Their mother has also had a lot of fun. “If you avoid the pitfalls at the beginning, you can have a blast. It’s been a wonderful experience,” she said.
But stage parents must not neglect their own lives, she added. “Parents must remember this is a temporary gig. Once your kids are 18, you are out of a job.”