Nepotism is nothing new in Hollywood. For decades, the major studios were run by one of several members of an extended family, another waiting in the wings to take over should the first group of relatives fail or fall out. They didn’t call it Warner “Brothers” for nothing. So it should come as no surprise that actors and directors often employ their own siblings and offspring in the movies they make.
Most of the times, it’s behind the scenes - part of the craftsmen or crew helping make the movie work. But in those rare instances when the individual steps before the lens it provides an interesting dilemma. For the sharp eyed viewer, aware of the connection, it provides fodder for determining whether talent, or plain favoritism, spawned said casting.
Luckily, no such concerns come with the choice of having Ray Romano and John Leguizamo’s young children play voice roles in the latest Ice Age installment, Dawn of the Dinosaurs (coming to DVD and Blu-ray on 27 October). Along with a scene stealing performance by Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg as a one-eyed weasel stoked for adventure, the vocal performances in this series are one of its better qualities.
So allowing the stars the luxury, and considered comfort, of working with their kids is clearly a perk of continued cartoon series success. Indeed, the entire franchise often feels like a labor of maternal/paternal love by the people working the various technical and creative ends. In this specific case, however, Joe Romano and his underage costars Lucas and Allegra Leguizamo do little of the heavy lifting. There are ancillary characters, small fry members of the prehistoric pack, not major parts of the film’s narrative concern. This stands in mark contrast with some of today’s biggest cinematic names.
Indeed, producer/director Judd Apatow has used his own daughters Maude and Iris for very important parts in two of his recent “hits”. In Knocked Up, they played the curious cutie pies of onscreen marrieds Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real wife) and Paul Rudd. Similarly, they were the sounding board sweeties who challenge Adam Sandler in the less successful Funny People (again, with Mann as mom).
Aside from the aforementioned ease of interaction, family members also bring a level of authenticity that’s hard to deny. When Mann interacts with Maude and Iris, when she watches the former sing a stirring rendition of Cats’ “Memory”, we see the literal love on her tear-streaked face. Apatow is also aware of how far to push these inadvertent child stars. He can control the content, what comes out of their mouth, and how they are used in the storyline itself.
While it may seem like the most extreme example of stage parenting possible, it’s really the opposite. Maude and Iris aren’t being pimped out to any project that will have them. The Apatows’ clearly feel like including the girls in their creative circle and so far they’ve more than held up their end of the bargain.
It’s a similar stance taken by Will Smith. When The Pursuit of Happyness needed a young boy to play the son of the superstar’s struggling stockbroker to be, his cherubic son Jaden (with current wife Jada Pinkett) was picked for the part. The filmmakers understood that the bond between father and child had to be strong in this often heartbreaking drama, and by giving the Smiths an established personal foundation to start from, the performances would benefit (and they were right).
Oddly enough, Jaden has gone on to be cast in a few films outside of Dad’s domain, indicating a perception that he can hold the screen sans his celebrity costar. Something similar happened during I Am Legend. In that film, daughter Willow played the daughter of Smith’s Dr. Robert Neville, the military scientist facing off against a world populated by light hating horrors. She too has gone on to work without her famous father.
Now don’t get the impression that this is something new within the Tinseltown talent pool. Alfred Hitchcock gave his daughter Pat roles in such classics as Strangers on a Train and Psycho, while Francis Ford Coppola overloaded all three of his Godfather films with as many family members as possible (including the incredible misstep of having daughter Sophia play one of the leads in Part 3).
During his rise to elder statesman status in the ‘80s, Clint Eastwood used both son Kyle (Honkytonk Man) and daughter Allison (Bronco Billy, Tightrope, Absolute Power) as obvious, effective costars, while King of the Blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, has given step-daughter Jessica Capshaw (Minority Report) and biological progeny Sasha (The Terminal, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) bit parts in his efforts. Even iconic outsider Terry Gilliam showcased his incorrigible child Holly in the “let’s see your willy” scene from his landmark Brazil.
While it’s fare more routine for a Rumer Willis to show up in a movie without her famous Ma (Demi Moore) and Pa (Die Hard‘s Bruce), most Hollywood heavy-hitters are more than happy to have their children off to the side away from the glare of the limelight (Ms. Willis has indeed appeared with her parents in Then and Now, Striptease, and The Whole Nine Yards). Still, for someone like Ray Romano and John Leguizamo, the inclusion of their kids in the Ice Age trequel is win/win. They get to work with the ones they love and yet guarantee the children a sense of anonymity should they decide that acting is not their true future calling.
It’s a situation that neither the Smiths nor Apatows currently enjoy, and under the wrong circumstances, an adolescent’s reputation and self-esteem can take quite a beating (right Sophia?). Still, in an industry that’s seen more than its fair share of said re-purposed partiality, this kind of nepotism in nothing new. And as long as it works as well as it does in Dawn of the Dinosaurs, it won’t be ending any time soon.