Child comes before actor

Normality enforced for the Boyd kids

July 01, 2005|By Rachel Abramowitz | Rachel Abramowitz,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - There are few words that strike more fear into the hearts of studio executives than "stage mother." Hollywood lore is filled with parents who have sent their children to work, with successful if heartbreaking results for everyone from Buster Keaton to Judy Garland to Macaulay Culkin, down to Lindsay Lohan.

Debbie Boyd, mother of child actors Jenna, 12, (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and Cayden, 11, (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D), wants it to be known that she's not one of those mothers. It's a Wednesday afternoon not long before the premiere of her children's films, and the Boyd along with her husband Michael, two Texans, and their mini-Jack Russell, Tippie, are hurtling along in an SUV on the way to pick up their children at their parochial school deep in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.

Debbie Boyd has the buoyant, friendly demeanor of a former flight attendant (which she was) and the determination of, well, a stage mom. The kids' acting careers are her gig - and Michael, a former Navy "Top Gun" aviator turned Delta pilot, indulges her, a little like how Ricky used to indulge Lucy on I Love Lucy.

"He steers clear of this whole Hollywood thing. It drives him completely crazy, so he pretty much lets me handle it," says Debbie. Except for the occasion when Dad has to play ringer for meetings. "I say, `Just take Cayden here, stand here, be nice, don't say anything. Sign him in, and wait until they call his name.'"

The Boyds pointedly don't manage their children's careers, and don't live off their earnings - two cardinal rules that, when broken, can wreak havoc on family dynamics. As Debbie says succinctly to anyone who ever asks, "You can't parent if you are financially reliant on anything they do at a given time." As the Boyds wait on the lawn of their children's school for the bell to ring, Debbie confesses that she's trying to keep it all normal, telling Jenna for instance, never to play the starlet at school, to be gracious but not to sign autographs, and "if anybody asks you a question about yourself, ask two about the other person."

When Jenna finally appears, she does seem like a regular 12-year-old, dressed albeit neatly in a striped top and knee-length white skirt. She's giggling with her friends, who giggle even more when they realize a photographer is there to take her picture. "Hey, Jenna, do you have your own photographer?" one asks. All the girls, save Jenna, get excited and vamp when they realize he might actually take their pictures too. They play patty-cake and clump together in a huddle to chat, until Cayden finally arrives.

If Jenna is spunky (but not in the annoying Disney Channel "s-p-u-n-k-y" way), Cayden appears vulnerable and dreamy, but not so much so you can't imagine him playing T-ball. (He plans on football for next year.) He played Tim Robbins' son in Mystic River, though his parents pointedly never showed him the whole movie. Today, he excitedly shows his dad a friend's photograph of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

"He's very naturalistic, a kind of quiet little boy in person," says Robert Rodriguez, who cast Cayden as the lead in Sharkboy and Lavagirl. "It's very much like the character. It's like how I like to cast, not the kind of kid who comes in and takes over the room with his boisterous personality. That's not how a real kid is. He seems well-trained too. He knew enough about acting to not act. It felt fresh each time."

Even though she has no professional acting experience, Debbie coaches her kids in part so directors won't get the same factory-induced reactions that happen when a drama coach has coached 20 children for the same part. Also, she thinks, who else understands her children's emotional psyche as well as she does?

For instance, when Jenna auditioned to play the youngest daughter in the family for the tough Ron Howard western The Missing, "I knew that no one could tap into [her emotions]. Nobody would spend the time. We went through this script talking about how this character must feel. This was something she's totally not able to relate to. Please. The worst day in this child's life was the day she found out there wasn't any Santa Claus, and I'm trying to explain to her `Now, your [character's] sister has been kidnapped, your family's been slaughtered.' There was probably 20 hours of talking before you even got to a line."

"She's really, really good. She understood and emotionally connected with that character in a really honest way. Talk about a family and a kid who's got her head screwed on straight," says Howard, himself a famous former child actor, who appears to have emerged unscathed. "She is very much a result of their influence."

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