The Casting Crib

Michelle Levander is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

I’m pawing through a wardrobe of matching caps and booties, jumpers and nightshirts to find outfits that will make my 2-month-old twin boys look more, well, infantile. This on the advice of their Hollywood manager, who counsels me to lie about their weight and to dress them to look younger. Hollywood is famously cruel about age and beauty, but things reach a whole new level when you are heading off to a baby casting call. My conscience squawks, but I obediently trick out my sleeping talents in baby-blue ensembles so sweet it hurts my teeth to look at them.

The competition appears fierce at the audition. There’s a set of triplets in tiny pink outfits with matching lace socks and ankle bracelets. Another set of twin boys is tooled out in Baby Gap glory. My mother, who accompanies me, hisses, “Ours are the cutest!” I nod and hope for a small miracle: a winning smile or perhaps even a gurgle for the director.

A director explains to the packed room that the babies chosen to play a newborn will be swathed in cream cheese and jam to simulate a birth. Is everyone OK with this? A dozen eager parents nod.

I am one of them.


Two days later, I’m still waiting for the call from central casting. The phone never rings. Rejection stings, but that October 2002 audition for “Strong Medicine,” Lifetime’s medical drama, only whets my appetite for a personal Hollywood success story.

In succeeding months, we trudge through studio lots to try out for cameo appearances on NBC’s “Scrubs” and an ABC pilot called “Regular Joe.” We don’t truly arrive, though, until the twins, Daniel and Aaron, land a recurring role on the smash Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle.” From then on, I got quickly caught up in a strange Hollywood subculture in which infants have managers, top-billed babies occupy the most luxurious trailers, and parents compete in sometimes brutal casting calls. The rare baby star is cosseted in first-class hotels, shuttled to premieres in limousines, and primped by his own makeup artists and hairstylists.

About 4,500 infants and toddlers in the Los Angeles area between the ages of 15 days and 6 years have entertainment work permits, according to state labor statistics. Directors prefer to use twins and triplets to play a single baby because it gives them double or triple the time to film without violating strict labor laws that limit how long babies spend on camera. A mini-industry has sprung up to scout for and cast these tiny stars. Its tentacles reach into the outlying suburbs of Los Angeles, where most twins are recruited. Most mothers learn of opportunities through twins clubs formed by parents interested in swapping child-rearing tips, arranging play dates and, in Los Angeles, gossiping about Hollywood deals.

But the baby business also has its aggressive side. Some expectant mothers sign up with managers shortly after their twins are born, tracked down in maternity wards by recruiters known as “baby bird dogs.” Once they sign up, ambitious mothers from Orange and Riverside counties make long pilgrimages to the film sets of Studio City for the chance to have their children in pictures.


I, too, was seduced by this easy opportunity. The experience exposed a vein of raw ambition that might otherwise have lurked undetected until my twins were old enough for their first T-ball game.

How did I sink so low? In the last year, I have become one of the bottom feeders of Hollywood lore: a stage mother. I wince as I confess this, but my babies had work permits before they were 3 months old.

A Hollywood set can be a confusing place for an amateur. I was fortunate to have Diana Infante as a guide. Her 16-month-old twins, Rio and Zoe, were veteran actresses when we arrived on the “Malcolm” stage, and Infante, a former model, generously showed me the ropes.

A baby can legally launch his Hollywood career when he is 15 days old, assuming his pediatrician approves. But if he’s looking to play a newborn role, he may be washed up as soon as he reaches 2 months and weighs more than 10 pounds--unless he looks young for his age. My chubby babies were arguably past their prime when they auditioned at 2 months for a newborn role.

Twins are considered full term if they are born at 38 weeks, Infante explained to me. That’s how her twins ended up working their first gig one week after their due date, playing a drug baby on “ER.” In their first weeks on planet Earth, Zoe and Rio also played a newborn in four birth scenes: on “Malcolm in the Middle,” two episodes of “Strong Medicine” and on a now-canceled Fox space western called “Firefly.”

There may be a few surprises when you have your babies in pictures, Infante counseled. She told me about how an actor would place one of her daughters lovingly in a bassinet. Only when the program aired did she learn the entire plot line. Her twins’ roles have included playing a brain-dead baby, a baby with lung problems, a foundling and an addicted newborn. Soon, Infante told me, her mom stopped telling relatives to tune in.

Still, she fondly remembers the experiences. For the birth scenes, the babies were placed in a warmed area while the cream cheese and grape jam were heated. A nurse laid the baby down and very gently massaged in the condiments. When the scene was done--directors have 20 minutes on camera with such young infants--an assistant had a warm bath ready. The only downside, she jokes, was the lingering scent. “For a week they smelled like bagels.”

the most famous twins to hit hollywood are mary-kate and ashley Olsen, and their success ignited a city full of fantasies. Multimillionaires at 17, they got their start as just another set of anonymous baby extras on the sitcom “Full House.” But unlike most twins, who make brief appearances and disappear, the Olsens grew up with the show, learning to walk and ride a bicycle on the set and playing the part of Michelle Tanner until 1995. “They are a conglomerate,” says Robert Griffard, the executive producer of “Two of a Kind,” one of many television shows and videos built around the Olsen twins.


I can’t help wondering if my boys have a shot at similar success. They are debonair, handsome and, like the Olsen girls, have uncanny poise on camera. I call up the veteran producer and writer team of Steve Peterman and Gary Dontzig for ideas. Peterman was a story editor on “Full House” in the early days of the show. I demand: Just how talented were the Olsens?

Peterman remembers the twins as “a couple of little blobs in blankets” and gently reminds me that it may not be fair to judge anyone by a performance before their first birthday. But he adds that in their first role as a baby, the Olsens were “extremely credible.”

Peterman and Dontzig also launched the careers of perhaps the most controversial babies to hit network television. The two men were the executive producers of “Murphy Brown” when former Vice President Dan Quayle denounced the show’s tough-talking newswoman star for becoming a single mother. What happened to the twin babies who played the out-of-wedlock child? Surely they went on to even juicier roles?

“The baby generated an enormous amount of publicity,” Peterman told me, “but if you look at the time the real [babies were] on camera [in any single episode], it was maybe 20 seconds.”

Pretty words to hide a harsh reality, I mutter to myself: Those twins were chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine.

I call an executive at Disney with a long career in children’s television, hoping for a few words of reassurance. “With babies--this is not insulting--they are like warm props or set decoration,” he tells me.

Few twins reap a windfall from their Hollywood turn. Unable to read lines, most babies are cast as extras, falling under Screen Actors Guild rules that define background players as those who speak “five lines or under.” As extras, each of my twins can gross $200 a day, although they take home less than two-thirds of that amount after deductions. Of course, the few lucky twins who garner movie roles can make hundreds of thousands of dollars for a month or two of filming. And a principal contract role for a baby on a sitcom can bring at least $2,500 per weekly episode, according to Meredith Fine, who heads the youth division at Coast to Coast Talent Group. As for those little darlings featured in nationally televised diaper commercials, they can rake in tens of thousands of dollars in residuals during the lifespan of a commercial, all for a day’s work, says Angela Strange, head of children’s commercials at Osbrink Talent Agency in Universal City.

What types of roles do twin babies get? “Charmed,” an updated “Bewitched” aimed at the “tween” set, uses twins to play a baby who is half demon, half human. “ER” and “Strong Medicine” frequently cast twins to play babies in perilous medical traumas. And then there are the comedies, such as CBS’ “Yes, Dear,” that cast twins to play just another family member.


The more ambitious--or foolhardy--screenwriters dream up plots that involve babies who appear to pee, drool, crawl or talk to adults. But most films and television shows use babies in surprisingly similar ways: sitting in a high chair, laying in a bassinet or being cradled in someone’s arms. There’s a good reason for this. Even the cheesiest soap opera is a carefully orchestrated production that depends on rigid timetables, hierarchical work rules and strict budgets. Blowing past these limits can ruin careers. And babies have a way of straying from the script. Perhaps that’s because the usual threats and blandishments don’t faze them.

“You can’t say to a 3-year-old, ‘You know what? You are never going to work in this town again. I’ll make your name mud,’ ” jokes Jimmy Wagner, whose “baby wrangler” role on the set is to “direct” the baby, as well as to keep the hirelings happy and on cue. “They don’t care,” he adds. “They just want to go out and play.”

Ask any veteran producer or director about this, and the most tender-hearted begin to sound like W.C. Fields. “You can’t train a baby,” says Michael Saltzman, the executive producer of “Baby Bob.” “It’s not like having a dog on the set--you give him a treat and he jumps on the sofa. This is going to sound incredibly naive and stupid, but I was under the impression that [you could] get the babies to do what you needed them to do.”

Saltzman’s CBS comedy, which aired for a season and a half, featured a precocious talking baby. Before Saltzman knew it, the show was held hostage by the eating and sleeping habits of 6-month-old twins. Saltzman’s first miscalculation was trying to get babies to clap on cue during an early episode that featured a Mommy and Me class. His second miscalculation: to have a Mommy and Me episode at all.

“All right,” Saltzman says, "[imagine an] entire day of shooting with 12 babies on the set, and at any given moment one of them going off. It was a nightmare. Executives would come down to see how things were going and leave screaming.”

“Malcolm in the Middle” producer Jimmy Simons was quite familiar with these pitfalls. So when Linwood Boomer, the show’s creator, handed him a script that included a Daddy and Me class, Simons began to worry. The daring baby stunts would make Saltzman’s experience look like a stroll in the park. In the episode, Hal, the hapless dad, played by Bryan Cranston, persuades fathers in a touchy-feely Daddy and Me class to compete in a stroller race, a diaper-weighing contest and a drool competition, using a substance known in the trade as industrial slime. The coup de grace: trick shots that appear to show Hal’s baby son, Jamie, flying like a puck across a shuffleboard court.

“All of us thought Linwood was crazy,” recalls Simons. “It’s very disconcerting when you are sliding the babies across the floor.”

The show hired 27 babies for the scene--13 sets of twins and one singleton--and used a stunt coordinator to make sure that filming went safely. A steely director kept the set from descending into bedlam, barking out “Next baby, next baby!” whenever one of the little extras started to yelp.

The episode wrapped without a hitch. Still, it made me catch my breath to watch. For the shuffleboard scene, the show combined special effects with ambitious action shots. The TV viewer sees supine babies wildly tobogganing across the court. In reality, each baby is pulled along on a pad made of a visual-effects material known as a “green screen” that is invisible on film. As one of the gaggle of stage mothers that day, I didn’t have a script for what came next. But as my boys sailed along, it occurred to me that they looked like helpless insects, tiny limbs akimbo, bodies scrunched flat against the mat. Looking back, I wonder: What I was thinking when I put my little treasures to work?

My sons began their stint on “Malcolm” as the ittiest of these bit players. Housed in a distant room with the words “ND Babies” taped on the door--in television shorthand ND means nondescript--they played an anonymous baby in the last row of the Daddy and Me class. And, to my chagrin, my rough-and-tumble boys would be cast as girls and outfitted in flowery pink.

Only in Hollywood could my boys catapult, by lunchtime, from this minor part to the role of baby Jamie. Seemingly on a whim, the director told me and another mother to hold our babies side by side. “Turn your babies,” he said with an appraising stare. After the viewing, I was handed a Jamie costume. The twin girls who had played the part for the last few months disappeared the next day. In succeeding weeks, my boys’ fortunes would rise and fall just as precipitously. One week they played lead baby. The next week, they were third string.

The “Malcolm” producers usually keep three sets of twins ready to play a single baby. Wardrobe has six identical costumes on hand to clothe them. Our manager, Kimberly O’Toole, warns me that our boys may be history once they start to toddle around too much. She counsels me not to get too emotionally involved. O’Toole, a cheery, minivan-driving Simi Valley mother of triplets, has recast herself successfully as a professional talent manager. She boasts a stable of Hollywood babies that includes 200 sets of twins. When my twins outgrow the role of Jamie, O’Toole probably will find their replacements.

I try to heed O’Toole’s advice, but it’s hard to remain detached. Forget about parents slugging it out over the outcome of a soccer match. It’s even easier to get caught up in Hollywood beauty contests. Celebrity is the juice that lubricates this town, and it’s easy to confuse it with actual achievement.

My personal low point occurred one day when a director on “Malcolm” told the stage mothers that he needed a sleeping baby for the next scene. While the director and the assistant director and the assistant to the assistant director gathered in front of the studio stage to watch, all the mothers got to work, frantically pushing their double strollers to encourage drowsiness. I was determined to have my babies drift off first so they would be chosen for the cameo. I strolled with the zeal I usually reserve for the blood sport of parking in West Los Angeles. It wasn’t about the money--all the babies on “Malcolm” get paid whether or not they are on camera. It was about winning.

My technique paid off. I neatly executed a three-point turn with the stroller so the directors could see the fluttering eyelids of one of my twins. “I think one of my boys may be asleep,” I simpered, avoiding the temptation to shoot a glance at my rivals. The group of directors burst into applause. As I basked in the warm glow, the assistant to the assistant to the director barked excitedly into her walkie-talkie. “Baby asleep. Baby on his way to the set.”

So is all this just a bit of harmless fun for me? Days on the set can be confining and tedious. Last-minute changes in call times can wreak havoc on our lives. And the $200 or so each twin can gross each workday--during a stint that may last 30 or 40 days--isn’t going to buy them a Bel-Air mansion or a college education. (After 20 days on the show, my boys each had $2,250 in their savings accounts.)

So why do I do it?

I guess it’s because there’s something irresistible about the whole scene. I take pleasure in knowing little details about the stars’ lives, like the fact that Frankie Muniz, the Emmy Award-nominated actor who plays Malcolm, gave himself a Pontiac GTO muscle car for his 18th birthday. And then there’s all the unusual footage of my boys.

I found myself reflecting on all this as Diana Infante began to pack up her trailer after a long day with her twin girls on the set. It would be Rio’s and Zoe’s last day on “Malcolm in the Middle,” and Infante made sure to take plenty of pictures for their scrapbook. The show had decided that their acting was too mature for the part of Jamie, a baby who is supposed to be half their age. Infante confides that she is relieved that her girls’ career as extras appears to be coming to a close.

“My husband tells me, ‘The girls have had enough of nine-hour days in the trailer. What about play dates? What about trips to the park?’ ” She shuts the door of her Volvo SUV and readies for the long drive home to Long Beach. “If we go out for any more auditions,” she calls over her shoulder, “it will be for commercials. That’s where you can make the really big bucks.”