Meet 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's' young star, Bailee Madison
Perched on a couch with her legs tucked under her, 11-year-old Bailee Madison was excitedly recounting her time filming the new movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” when her mother leaned over a banister in their Toluca Woods home and shouted: “Can I interrupt?”
“Bai,” began Patricia Riley, halting her daughter's interview, “I think you should tell her about Alex's Lemonade. Because it's really cool how your little friends are helping with your charity.”
Bailee paused, seeming momentarily frustrated by the suggestion. But within seconds, a smile was back on her face and she started extolling the virtues of a charity focused on childhood cancer for which she is a national spokesperson.
“Something my mom and I have always said to each other is: ‘We’re not here for interviews. We’re not here to get your picture taken,’ ” the soon-to-be sixth-grader said. “ ‘We’re here to make a difference, and this is our opportunity to.’ ”
These days, though, Bailee is in fact sitting for plenty of interviews and photo shoots, and seems to have a preternatural poise that many industry veterans would envy. Then again, she’s already got more than a decade of experience in front of cameras — she appeared in her first commercial at only 2 weeks old and had a recurring role on Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place.”
On the big screen, she’s worked alongside some of the biggest celebrities in show business — Adam Sandler in “Just Go With It,” Natalie Portman in “Brothers” and now Katie Holmes in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” a horror film that opened Friday.
Endlessly perky, distractingly adorable, incredibly well-behaved and devoutly Christian, Bailee fields questions with an adult aplomb. Ask her whose career she hopes to emulate, and she responds:
With whom does she dream of costarring in a film?
“I would love to have the honor to get to work with Meryl Streep. I love her and I love her work.”
To whom does she credit her success?
“It’s all just been such a team effort. And I take all the credit to God and my family.”
Bailee and her mother — a former actress who appeared in over 300 commercials — do seem particularly close. Though her room has a bed overflowing with stuffed animals, Bailee still opts to sleep with her mother every night. And she says that when she wanted to film a testimonial video for the website I Am Second — meaning God is first — it was her mother who gave her the confidence to do so.
“It was just a video saying how I became close to the Lord, and when I did it, my mom said, ‘A lot of people might judge you.’ But we decided that this was my faith, and I knew I was ready to go out there and show it.”
Riley accompanies her daughter on every set — be it in Los Angeles or Australia, where “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was shot. Though Holmes lends the film its star power, it’s really Bailee who carries the movie. She plays Sally, a young girl who moves into an old mansion that her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Holmes) are renovating. Quickly after unpacking her bags, Sally begins to discover the house is haunted by monsters who stalk her every move. She tries to convince her family of the creatures’ existence, but to little avail.
The role required Bailee to act terrified in nearly every scene, working herself up into fits that involved screaming and crying. But that acting challenge didn’t seem to faze Bailee, said Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote and co-produced the film.
“Child actors always can come full of vices, with parents that constantly try to cattle prod them into being cute because that’s the way they got a yogurt commercial or a cereal commercial,” said the filmmaker. “Bailee is the best kind of actor. She doesn’t act. She’s in the moment. She came very highly recommended by Natalie Portman. … She said to me, ‘If you want an actress in that role who can give and take, this is the girl.’ She was 100% right.”
Bailee said she took a practical approach to preparing for the part. To ready herself for one scene in which Sally is harassed by the creepy spirits while taking a bath, she hopped into the tub in her hotel room and asked her mother to turn off the lights.
“My heart started beating. So I was like, ‘Just imagine that feeling with creatures coming after you,’” she recalled. “I remember them asking me if I wanted to use [artificial] tears, but I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna pass on that.’”
During production, Holmes took Bailee under her wing, often inviting the child actress to accompany her on outings with her husband, Tom Cruise, and young daughter, Suri. Holmes, 32, said she simply related to Bailee, then 9, as a fellow adult actor.
“She is very focused and she has clear ideas about how she wants a scene to go. It doesn’t feel like you’re working with someone” so young, said Holmes. “We definitely stay in touch and whenever she’s in L.A., we get together. I tell her about projects I’m going to do and she tells me about projects she’s going to do. It’s the same dialogue I have with any actor.”
Bailee admits that nearly everyone she encounters remarks that she seems like a grown-up trapped in a kid’s body. “I really don’t know why they say that, but I take it as a compliment, because as a 40-year-old you have experienced so many things in life and you’re so mature,” she said.
Bailee insists that she is still very much a child, referencing her “blankie,” swing set and affinity for cuddling while watching television as evidence. She is enrolled at a private Christian school affiliated with the United Methodist Church in Florida — where Riley is from and where her family keeps another home — though last year she was able to put in only six weeks of classroom time due to her schedule. (The rest of her schoolwork is completed on set with the assistance of tutors.)
As Bailee’s acting gains more notice, her family is helping sift through the scripts that have been pouring in. But Riley isn’t worried about her daughter’s ability to stay level-headed growing up in Hollywood.
“There’s never been a worry about Bailee. But I sometimes worry about the decisions I’m making. Like, ‘Do I take her home and have her play tennis?’” she admitted. “If I ever see her change, she knows we’re going home. But she’s kind. She’s polite. She’s sweet. And nothing, I think, has changed. But she knows if it does, there will be a U-Haul right outside, and we’re out of here.”
-- Amy Kaufman
Staff writer Gina McIntyre contributed to this report.
Photos: Bailee Madison at her home. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.