Child's Play No More

With HBO's 'In Treatment,' a Baltimore County 12-year-old takes on a role that would challenge even a seasoned actor

March 29, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,david.zurawik@baltimoresun.com

Aaron Grady Shaw has been living two lives the last four months.

In one, he's just a 12-year-old kid trying to navigate his way through seventh grade at Perry Hall Middle School while dreaming of a big year as a third baseman in a county boys' baseball league this summer.

In his other life, though, he has already advanced far beyond the level of wishing and hoping. At 4 feet 11 inches, he has stood shoulder to shoulder on New York City sound stages with Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning veteran actors while speaking the words of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award writers - a featured performer in a prime-time series on HBO, television's most prestigious channel.

Not even Aaron's classmates know about the life that he has been living in three- and five-day hotel stays in Manhattan since December. But they - and millions of others - will, starting April 6 when the first episode featuring Aaron in the second season of HBO's critically acclaimed In Treatment makes its debut.

Aaron, who has been riding Amtrak trains and tour buses with his grandmother since age 5 to auditions in New York, delivers a breakout performance as a troubled 11-year-old patient of Dr. Paul Weston, the psychologist-therapist played by Gabriel Byrne. In the four episodes made available for preview, the adolescent performer, who has never had a formal acting lesson, more than holds his own with the Golden Globe-winning Byrne in scenes that essentially become two-person plays. It is quality, adult television at its literate best, and it's a revelation to see this little kid holding up his half of the dramatic load opposite such a large on-screen persona.

"When I started going to those New York auditions with my grandmother and grandfather, I was only 4 or 5 years old, and I didn't really understand a lot of what was happening. I had it in my mind that I wanted to be rich and famous - that was all I knew," Aaron said in an interview last week. "Now, after In Treatment, I think I still want to be famous, but I want to be a great actor, too, if I can. I learned so much, and now I want to try and go all the way with this acting thing."

What did he learn? How to cry, how to "cuss" at his parents and how to "go to a deep, dark scary place" inside himself and find such emotions on cue. He discovered a way to get inside his imagination and live there until the director says "cut."

He also learned that the "camera is a truth detector," that it "sees everything" and so you better be "totally in the moment" and true to what is happening onstage. In short, he went from being a child performer with lots of personality who was good enough to do commercials and a couple of independent films, to being an actor worthy of sharing a stage with the likes of Byrne. Talk about adolescence and coming of age.

"I am so proud of Aaron, because what he really became on the set of In Treatment is an actor," says Rosalyn Coleman, the Broadway actress, director and talent coach brought in by the producers to serve as a guide to Aaron during the filming of the series.

"When I saw the script for what they wanted Aaron to do on In Treatment, I thought, 'Are you kidding? You're going to find a kid that age who can do this?'" adds the veteran of such Broadway productions as August Wilson's Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars. "But he did it - and he had to become a real actor to get there. I think people are going to love the work he did when they see it."

For those not familiar with In Treatment, which was renewed by HBO after one season despite modest ratings, the series is built around two psychologists, Weston and the therapist he sees each week, Dr. Gina Toll. The character of Toll is played by Dianne Wiest, who won an Emmy last year as best supporting actress for her splendid work in the series.

Starting April 5, HBO will air five 30-minute episodes a week, with each of the first four featuring a session between Weston and one his patients. The fifth in each weekly cycle will feature Weston's weekly appointment with Toll. From the rhythm of their silences and speech, to the looks and body movements between them, what Wiest and Byrne produce is nothing short of poetry - and it sets a very high bar for the other performers.

Weston's third session each week is with Oliver, an 11-year-old who is tormented by eating and body image issues, as well as a bully at school. His parents are going through an angry divorce. It is a rich, but complicated and challenging, role.

And there is no place for an actor to hide on this series. Most of the episodes take place on one set - the office/living room of Weston. The world of In Treatment is often just two actors, a couch, a rug and the chair in which Weston sits.

All of which called for an accelerated education of Aaron Shaw once he was chosen to play Oliver.

The lessons began with the bodysuit the costumers put together so that Aaron would look 15 to 20 pounds heavier as Oliver.

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