Finding film and television work for newborn and prematurely born babies is big business. Project Casting, a popular casting website, put out a call for the CW’s The Originals, which was shooting in New Orleans. “Casting for Caucasian babies to play our lead character’s baby for our final season episode,” the April notice said. “Newborns or older that are the size of newborns. Babies that were premature are ideal!”
That same month, NCasting in North Carolina put out a call for CBS’ Under The Dome.“We need babies that are at least three weeks or older but still are very small and could look like a week-old infant,” the notice said, adding that “each baby that is selected will be paid $250 for the day plus an additional $64 for the parent/guardian.” Presumably, the guardian would be present in the event the 3-week-old’s mother or father couldn’t make it to the shoot.
“Newborns or older that are the size of newborns. Babies that were premature are ideal!” — Casting Notice
Show business is the only industry in America in which babies can legally work. Laws governing their employment vary widely from state to state and in general, they are astonishingly lax. California is one of the few to specifically prohibit the employment of prematurely born babies on film and TV productions. In 18 states, there is no regulation or protection at all.
So in New Orleans, for example, month-old babies can be employed six hours a day, six days a week. In New Jersey they can work five hours a day, five days a week.
Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, told Deadline that “no distinction is made” between how many hours a month-old baby can work and how many hours a 15-year-old child actor can work in that state, adding that “common sense has to come into play.”
Common sense often is the only thing protecting many infant film and TV “actors.” Making matters worse, there are no federal laws restricting the number of hours and days an infant can be employed on film and television productions.
“There should be a national law for the protection of babies and children working in the entertainment industry” — IATSE’s Linda Stone
“Minors employed as actors or performers in motion pictures or theatrical productions, or in radio or television productions, are exempt from Fair Labor Standards Act coverage,” the U.S. Department of Labor states on its website. “Therefore, FLSA rules regarding total allowable number of work hours in one day and allowable times of day to work do not apply.” The department insists that “many states regulate the employment of minors in the entertainment industry more strictly than does the Fair Labor Standards Act” — which establishes minimum wage and overtime pay and sets standards for youth employment outside the entertainment industry.
California has the strictest laws governing child actors, and Linda Stone, business rep for IATSE Studio Teachers Local 884, believes it should be the model for every state. “There should be a national law for the protection of babies and children working in the entertainment industry,” she says.
The state allows infants aged 15 days to 6 months to be in the place of employment for one period of two consecutive hours, which must occur between 9:30 AM and 11:30 AM or between 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM. “Actual work may not exceed 20 minutes under any circumstances,” the law states, and “infants may not be exposed to light exceeding 100 foot-candles for more than 30 seconds at a time.”
“Parents are so desperate to get that gig, and I was getting to be like that,” says Deb Longua-Zamera. “You get crazy.”
Yet even in California, enforcement can be inconsistent. Deb Longua-Zamero’s 6-year-old daughter has been acting since she was 4 months old, but she says she and her child have had it with Hollywood.
“The whole system is messed up, from the parents, to the casting people, to the wardrobe people, to anybody on the set,” Longua-Zamero told Deadline. “Children need to be protected. Parents are so desperate to get that gig, and I was getting to be like that. You get crazy. I swear to God, something happens to your brain. Everybody is so flippant about it because they want that gig.”
According to state law, the “parent or guardian of a minor under 16 years of age must be present with and accompany such minor on set or location” and “must be within sight or sound at all times.” This, however, doesn’t apply to casting directors, who are allowed to be alone with children during auditions. Moreover, they don’t have to be fingerprinted or pass a background check to weed out convicted sex offenders.
Three years ago, Longua-Zamero took her daughter to a commercial audition and was told to wait in the hallway while the male casting director auditioned the little girl behind closed doors. “She was 3 and they wouldn’t let me in the room. ‘You stay out here,’ ” the casting director told her. Longua-Zamero slid her iPhone under the door to record what was going on. Another casting director came along and asked what she was doing. When she explained that she was concerned about her daughter being alone with a man she didn’t know, he responded, “Oh honey — you’re in the wrong business.”
When she complained to her agent and asked, Why is this OK? he said, “Well, if she screamed loud enough you’d hear her.” “What the fuck?” she replied, incredulous. “I have to wait for my child to be screaming loud enough before I can go in and get her?”
Jeffrey P. Bennett, SAG-AFTRA Chief Deputy General Counsel, nevertheless argues that California’s laws do protect these most vulnerable actors. “California’s regulations are justifiably a model for other states,” said Bennett, who handles government affairs and public policy for the union. “SAG-AFTRA worked very closely with the New York State Department of Labor to enact regulations in 2013 that limit the number of hours infants can be on set and that require the presence of a nurse whenever an infant is on set.”
Filming infants and small children outside California is another matter. In Kentucky, “children employed in the entertainment industry are exempt from child labor requirements,” according to the DOL, while in Oklahoma, “Minors who entertain are exempt from all laws because they are considered independent employees with agents.” (Most baby actors do not have agents.) In Montana, the DOL says, “All minors, regardless of age, may be employed as an actor, model or performer,” while in West Virginia, “Minors of any age may be legally employed without a permit or certificate in acting or performing in motion pictures, theatrical, radio or television productions.” In Wyoming, “Minors of any age may perform in radio, TV, movie or theatrical productions,” while in Colorado, “Any minor employed as an actor, model or performer is exempt from the law.”
California still allows newborns to be exposed to the risks associated with filmmaking — as long as a doctor signs off on it.
California prohibits the employment of premature babies younger than a month old. Before the practice was outlawed, preemies were often used in filming because by the time most full-term babies are 15 days old, they are too big to pass as newborns. In all but a handful of states, it’s still legal to employ newborn premature babies on film and TV productions.
And even with its strict rules, California still allows newborns to be exposed to the risks associated with filmmaking — as long as a doctor signs off on it. According to California law, infants can’t be employed on any motion picture set or location unless a certified pediatrician provides written assurance that the child is at least 15 days old, was carried to full term, and appears “physically capable of handling the stress of filmmaking” given “the potential risks.”
Those risks can include working with wild animals. Under Missouri law, “No child shall be required to work with an animal which a reasonable person would regard as dangerous in the same circumstances, unless an animal trainer or handler qualified by training and experience is present.”
SAG-AFTRA’s national contract covers the employment of minors including children hired in California and taken to work out of state. But the union has a considerably weaker standard for babies and children hired outside California. Outside the state, the union allows babies to work six days a week, six hours a day — just like the hours and days allowed under Louisiana’s lax child labor laws.
The Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee has guidelines specific to the employment of infant actors aged 15 days to 1 month, but like the SAG-AFTRA contract, those guidelines also distinguish between babies working in California and those working in other states.
In California, responsibility for caring and attending to the infant’s safety belongs to the studio teacher and the production company’s nurse, according to the guidelines. Everywhere else “an appropriate person should be designated responsible for that infant’s health and safety.”
Babies have been smeared with all kinds of products for live birth scenes, including cream cheese and jelly.
The guidelines address all manner of dangers to babies on set, from special-effects smoke and lighting effects to jellies and cosmetics applied to babies for the realistic depiction of birthing scenes. Babies have been smeared with all kinds of products for live birth scenes, including cream cheese and jelly. The guidelines, however, state that “foods which commonly cause allergic reactions should not be used to alter the appearance of the infant’s skin, unless their use is specifically approved by a medical doctor. These foods include, but are not limited to: raspberry and strawberry jams, jellies and preserves. Consumer products including glycerin, lubricating jellies and cosmetics should not be used to alter an infant’s appearance. Permission should be obtained from the parent or guardian prior to applying any substance to the infant’s skin.”
The guidelines, which are only recommendations, also suggest that “when substances are used for altering an infant’s appearance, provisions should be made for bathing the infant.”
There’s no mention of using premature babies for birth scenes, or about sedating babies to make them appear anesthetized on an operating table, as a production coordinator on an episode of CBS’ Chicago Hope wanted to do in 1994. After being alerted by the show’s production workers, 2oth Century Fox’s medical department put a stop to that bad idea.
“We strongly urge anyone who sees a casting notice asking for premature infants to notify the union immediately so that we can proactively work to ensure the safety of all involved,” said Olga Rodriguez-Aguirre, SAG-AFTRA’s National Director of Theatrical. “Our staff frequently suggests safety-oriented changes to schedules, environment, and other factors.”
“Producers, parents and other involved parties must be proactive in ensuring all possible efforts to protect younger performers when they are being employed on theatrical motion pictures,” said Terri Terri Becherer, SAG-AFTRA National Director Specialty Performers covering background actors, stunt performers, singers, dancers and safety matters for the union.
In the meantime, common sense will have to substitute for sensible laws in most states.
“Why should the welfare of a child working in California be more important than the welfare of a kid working in Louisiana?” Stone asked. “It makes no sense. There is no reason for it, other than that it’s profitable.”