The phenoms from this year’s nominated films open up about how they were discovered (Garth Davis scoured 2,000 audition tapes before finding 8-year-old Sunny Pawar) and meeting stars like Denzel Washington: “My mom didn’t want to wash her hand after she shook his hand.”
On a late January afternoon at Sunset Tower Hotel, one of the stars of Captain Fantastic — 9-year-old Charlie Shotwell — sits down at a baby grand piano and casually begins tickling the ivories with an original classical composition (he’s been taking lessons for a year and a half). After a few minutes, he gets up, and 10-year-old Saniyya Sidney, who appears in both Fences and Hidden Figures, takes his place. She bangs out the first few stanzas of John Legend’s “All of Me,” then turns the stool over to 11-year-old Shree Crooks, one of Shotwell’s Captain Fantastic co-stars, who plays the theme music from Halloween. “That’s the only song I know,” she says after she finishes her short performance.
When one brings together six of the year’s most celebrated 13-and-under actors for a photo shoot and there happens to be a piano in the room, that’s what happens — an impromptu recital.
There usually are one or two standout performances by a child every couple of years — Jacob Tremblay in 2015’s Room, Quvenzhane Wallis in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, the kids from 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire — but 2016 brought a bumper crop. While none of these six has been nominated for an Oscar, they’re all either appearing in Oscar-nominated films or in some other way basking in reflected awards glory (like Shotwell, whose onscreen dad in Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen, is up for best actor for his portrayal of a hippie raising his family in the woods). If nothing else, they’re each a walking argument for why the Academy should bring back the long-retired Juvenile Award.
Of course, it’s hard enough to find grown-ups who can act, let alone preteens, and these youngsters were all discovered after extensive talent hunts. Lion director Garth Davis (and his casting director Kirsty McGregor) scouted for months throughout India, watching more than 2,000 taped auditions before finally finding 8-year-old Sunny Pawar, who stars as young Saroo in The Weinstein Co.’s drama about a lost Indian boy (up for six Oscars, including best picture). To find a child actor to play his daughter in Fences, Denzel Washington also reviewed scads of video auditions — then flew Sidney to the set in Pittsburgh for a meeting. “I was nervous and excited to meet him,” she says. “I’d heard about him plenty of times from my mother and grandmother, and I had seen a couple of his films. He was sweet.”
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins found 12-year-old Alex Hibbert and 13-year-old Jaden Piner — who respectively play the youngest versions of Chiron and his classmate Kevin in A24’s coming-of-age drama (nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture) — at their middle school in Miami. They didn’t know each other well at the time, but they’re best friends now. And neither had any acting experience outside their school’s drama program (their drama teacher, Tanisha Cidel, has a cameo in Moonlight as the boys’ principal).
“Between takes, Alex was dancing and moving around, and then Barry would call ‘action,’ and he would drop right in,” says Mahershala Ali, who plays a morally questionable father figure in Moonlight, of working with Hibbert. “He’s such a pure spirit and a light that it was actually kind of easy because you could just feed off that.”
The constant whirl of awards season can be challenging for adults, but these kids seem to be thriving on it. As the face of Lion‘s award-season campaign, Pawar — who doesn’t speak English; he learned his lines in the film phonetically — has spent the past three months flying back and forth between Bombay and L.A. (presumably first class) with his father and his translator. Hibbert, meanwhile, got to meet one of his idols — that’d be Sidney’s director, Washington — at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. “He said he wants to work with me!” he recalls of their conversation. “My mom didn’t want to wash her hand after she shook his hand.”
Crooks, a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, got to shake hands with Orlando Bloom when Captain Fantastic screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “I told him I dressed up as him for Halloween,” she says. Shotwell also is a huge LOTR fan, so working with Mortensen was the ultimate thrill. On the first day on the set, he passed his Captain Fantastic dad a note. “I drew a picture of him as Aragorn by the white tree of Gondor,” he says. “And I’d written on it, ‘I know who you are.’ “
All the kids except Pawar now have representation (Hibbert and Piner got managers after Moonlight came out), but they remain in school while pursuing other work through taped auditions.
Underneath the tiny tuxedos and gowns, though, these are just kids who are happy to be playing on soundstages and scarfing down craft service snacks, even the healthy ones (Hibbert and Piner had a contest on the Moonlight set to see who could eat the most oranges, while Shotwell and Crooks stayed in their Captain Fantastic characters and ate huckleberries and blackberries in the woods — although a certain unnamed castmate did once sneak doughnuts to the set).
But they do have some sage advice for other children aiming for the spotlight. Offers Piner, “Stay humble and don’t get bored.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.